In some places, like Kansas City and North Carolina, when you ask for barbecue, you’re asking for sauce. The sauces may be quite different, with the traditional Kansas City sauce usually being somewhat thick and tangy, while the standard North Carolina sauce is water thin and tart. The sauce is as important to patrons in these areas as anything else, and they will tell you that without the sauce, you can’t really call a meal “Barbeque”
But there are many BBQ lovers who would beg to differ. For them, the true taste of barbeque comes not from the sauce, but rather the meat itself and what sort of spices are applied to it before the fire is ever even lit. These spice mixtures are often called “dry rubs” and with the right rub, using even the best sauce constitutes a crime against taste.
While there are as many different recipes for spice rubs as there are styles of sauces, most rubs have a few key ingredients in common. Aside from the obvious foundational seasonings like salt and pepper, one spice that has a place in more than a few of the most popular BBQ rubs is paprika. The well known spice has a red tint, a somewhat pungent odor, and is a great way to add a little extra depth to the overall flavor of the rub without being so hot that some diners will be unhappy with their meal.
Another common ingredient in several beloved spice rubs is sugar. The key to using sugar in any rub is to be certain you are using the proper amount; just enough to taste, but not enough to turn the entire rub into brown sugar. And speaking of brown sugar, this is also another common ingredient used in BBQ sauces that is also used in many BBQ rubs as well.
Dry mustard is yet another spice found in several BBQ sauces that is also a wonderful addition to almost any BBQ spice rub recipe. This spice is, of course, yellow, semi-thick in texture, and can easily overwhelm the other spices being used in the rub if too much is mixed in.
Like most things, rubs are called by different names depending on what part of the country you may be in. What may be called “Cold Harbor Rub” in North Carolina could be known as “Memphis Slim Rub” in the deeper parts of the southeast, and by an entirely different name somewhere else. But with just a few basic spices and a little patience, anyone with a passion for BBQ can learn to mix up a mouth watering batch of their very own BBQ spice rub.
Some folks love to smother their BBQ in sauce; spice rubs can be used in much the same way, depending on individual taste. Keep in mind that when the meat hits the grill, you will lose a portion of your spice rub during the cooking process, so learning to gauge how much rub will be left after the meat is fully cooked is as important as learning what the right amounts of each individual spice you use in your rub mixture are.
Perhaps the greatest attribute a well prepared plate of dry rub BBQ has to offer barbeque lovers is, of course, the taste. Some call it “clean”, while others use words like “natural” to describe the combination of flavors that can be created by using the right rub and proper cooking method.
So, the next time you have friends or family over for a relaxing evening by the grill, hide the sauce and try out your very own dry spice rub. You’re bound to raise a few eyebrows when you tell your guests that there will be no BBQ sauce available, but don’t worry; if you’ve done your homework, you should be able to put your money where your mouth is and walk away a winner.