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.
Pick Your Protein
Start by selecting a canvas for your masterpiece. Mays suggests working with whatever you're most comfortable cooking, but says a rib eye is probably the most forgiving cut. "A prime rib eye is going to have better marbleizing and fat, and fat is flavor," he explains. High fat content also makes it harder to dry out the cut, turning its outside to spice-covered sandpaper. For rub makers, that means having the ability to experiment in a way that you won't be able to when searing a fish, roasting a chicken, or cooking a leaner piece of meat.
As for which dish to try first, Mays has a suggestion. "I'm a fan of drunken ribs," he says. "Take a short rib, brush it down with olive oil, apply the rub, and sear it. Then just put the ribs in a roasting pan, dump in some wine, carrots, onions, and herbs, and cover it with foil." Stick the whole thing in the oven for four hours at 285 degrees and you've made your first rub-centric dish.
Credit: Getty Images