For a long time I've thought the absence of a post on how to make a barbecue rub here was a hole needing the be filled. The problem was, while I've made countless rubs in my life, there's been little method to my madness, making the process difficult to articulate.
This all changed last week for me when champion pitmaster Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q outlined his formula for rub development while teaching the in-and-outs of competition to our blogger-filled Kingsford "Pig and the Pen" competition team at Riverfest in Decatur, Alabama.
A barbecue rub is simply a spice mixture applied to meat before it's grilled or smoked (although it can find many more uses as well, barbecue popcorn anyone?). Each meat is deserving of its own unique rub, but building a rub can follow a standard process that can be broken down into the following categories:
Salt and Sugar
Salts and sugar form the base of each rub, and the ratio of each should vary based on the meat. For example, pork loves sugar, so you can start out with a 50/50 mixture, or tip the balance to a heavier sweetness. In contrast, a beef brisket may need no sugar at all, so you can go all in with salt alone. Both salts and sugars are also not limited to common white granules—a brown sugar brings with it a molasses flavor, while seasoned salts, like garlic salt or celery salt, adds flavor along with the salt.
Just about all rubs will have some type of pepper, which is the second stop on the rub train. Here, there's a lot to play with. Cayenne is a common choice, but something like chipotle powder will deliver a smokiness with its heat, or ancho chile powder will add an earthiness without a lot of heat. Black and/or white pepper are also common in most rubs. Mixing it up with multiple peppers is a good thing.
Chris Lilly described this category of spice as things that will blend together the salts, sugars, and peppers. It's a bit open to interpretation, but this is where you can add nice color and overall underlying tones, which can include things like garlic powder, onion powder, cumin, mustard powder, paprika, chili powder, and curry powder.
The signature is the part of the rub you can't divulge without the threat of murder. One teammate tried out cinnamon to mixed reactions. Another added thyme, which worked quite nicely. I've personally always been a big fan of celery seed in my rubs, which adds a unique flavor that can be hard to put your finger.
Put all of these categories together, and you're sure to have the complex, layered rub along the lines of what barbecue champions are creating. The recipe I've included here is actually close to what I'm using for my ribs in competition—which got a 4th place out of 50 teams this summer—with some extra input from my teammates and barbecue pros to make it even better—gunning for that first place next year.