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.
Select the Spices
Mays tells inexperienced rub-makers to choose three spices with which they're familiar and one they're not used to using. "The sophistication of rubs is in figuring it out," he says. "The simplicity is actually in making them." Spices fall into several families. You have your herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage), your capsaicin carriers (chili, paprika, cumin), your barks (cinnamon, sassafras, bay), and your savory seeds (mustard, cardamom, long pepper). You'll lean heavily on certain categories depending on your preference – savory or spicy – but you'll want at least one ingredient from each category in every rub.
When choosing which ones you want to use, you should consider both the flavor profile you're pursuing and the protein in front of you. Remember that capsaicin is going to overwhelm other first tastes, but that aftertastes can emerge from beneath the heat. It can be tempting to skip the herbs, which have familiar and less immediate tastes, but it's a bad idea. Rubs should be creative, but they should also be anchored by familiar flavors. Your steak should taste like your rub, but it should also taste like a steak.
Credit: Robin O'Neill Photography