Like tainting a great single malt by mixing it with Coke, cooking a high-grade slab of lamb or beef with a haphazard sprinkle of spice is disrespectful to the central ingredient. A handful of Old Bay might work for your basic burger or store-bought trout, but ranch-raised beef, fresh game meat, and Gulf Snapper deserve a better rub down. That's why we asked Chef Edison Mays Jr., a farm-raised rub master, how best to put spices to work.
"Steak is steak; it needs more than salt and pepper," says Mays, who has created dozens of savory rubs – including the "Lemon Buddha," "Edison's Medicine," "Herbal Ember," and "Devil's Tail" – for Four Seasons Resort restaurants. "It's got to have some flavor. I grew up on a farm and – as far as I know – a cow doesn't come salted or spiced." That's why Mays' kitchen boasts some 40 mason jars of spices and why he encourages young cooks to experiment. A great rub, he points out, is "unique to each person."
Achieving that singularity can be complicated process, but Mays is quick to point out that the ingredients needed for rubs – unlike sauces or glazes – are easy to find. He estimates that 90 percent of the spices he uses can be found in either a grocery store or the average man's cupboard. The key is combining them the right way. Here is his process and some recipes rub rookies can use as a jumping off point.
Beginner Recipe: Poultry
One of Mays' best known rubs will give you an excuse to use that backyard smoker. The Herbal Ember works as well on quail and duck as it does on chicken, offering a complex taste that lends poultry a light, but substantive savory kick.
Herbal Ember Rub
- 1/2 cup kosher salt, smoked
- 4 oz dried thyme, smoked
- 16 oz Italian leaf parsley (leaves only), smoked
- 4 oz oregano (leaves only), smoked
- 3 sprigs rosemary, smoked
- 1 1/2 cups dried oregano, smoked
- 1/4 cup paprika
- 1/2 cup granulated onion
- 2 tsp of a blend: 1/4 cup fenugreek and 1/4 cup cumin, toasted and blended
Credit: Robin O'Neill Photography
Throw the salt, thyme, parsley, rosemary, and oregano (leaves and dried) in a large bowl. Mix them up well and evenly distribute across several trays. Then place in a smoker set at 160 degrees and allow them to smoke for two hours. Once all the ingredients are well smoked, place the mix in a blender 1 1/2 cups at a time and pulse on high speed 4-6 times, for four seconds each. Pour the blended mix into a clean, large bowl, where you add the paprika, granulated onion, and fenugreek/cumin blend.