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.
You'll only get to enjoy the fruits – well, meats – of your rub-making labor if the spices actually stay on the flank or fish. The best way to ensure adhesion, according to Mays, is to walk away, leaving the meat to cook all on its own. "You don't want to agitate the meat with the rub on it," Mays says. "Cross-hatch maybe, but if you move it too much, you'll start to pull the rub off." After you're done being careful, be un-careful and dig in. The only way to know if your rub was a success is to eat the hell out of it.
Because most rub-makers won't meet with amazing success right from the get go, Mays recommends creating variations on rub recipes that definitely work. Here are some of Mays' favorites. Mess with them or don't; they'll make your meat better.
Credit: Robin O'Neill Photography