It's hard to fathom why so many barbecue discussions start with the question: "What's the best sauce?" Sauce should be the last thing applied to your smoked meat. A better first question is: "What's the rub?"
In the world of true Q—smoking meat for hours over low heat—front-loading with sauce is a major mistake. The sugars in the sauce will eventually caramelize and then burn, creating a hard crust around the meat, which is effectively a barrier to the very smoke your trying to blow on it. The best way to freight meat with flavor before you cook it is with dry rubs, which are sultry spice combinations that will survive the long cooking process and make it to your mouth. And these are the flavors that count. Sauces are all well and good, but shouldn't be depended on to save barbecue that is poorly prepared in the first place. (Some BBQ contests, particularly in Texas, don't even allow sauces.)
The condiment industry has finally sussed to that and there are now more rubs designed for barbecue on the supermarket shelves. But the good news about most rubs is that anyone with a bowl and a mixing spoon can make them in a matter of minutes with ingredients found in their kitchens. And they keep forever in tins, once you make them.
Typical rubs contain things like paprika, onion powder, ground cumin, chili powder, cayenne pepper, sage, thyme, cinnamon, black, white or red peppers, white or brown sugar, garlic powder, ground basil and dry mustard. They vary in ingredients and ratios, but you get the idea: it's about herbs and spices, balanced with some sweetness.
I especially like a dose of brown sugar when cooking brisket. The rubs I concoct for chicken tend to be herb heavy—parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, as the song goes. Lemon pepper is good with fish. If you can find hickory salt, it's just the thing for pork in its many BBQ incarnations: ribs, shoulders, whole hog, etc.
The trick is to make enough. Measure in cupfuls, not tablespoons, and you'll need to rub it into every nook and cranny of your flesh, fowl or fish—hence the term.
Here's a good all purpose rub: 1 cup brown sugar, 1/2 cup hickory salt, 1/2 cup celery salt, 1/2 cup paprika, 1/2 cup ground black pepper, 1 tablespoon onion powder, 1 tablespoon garlic powder, and 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper. Mix. Now go experiment with your taste buds as a guide. And don't get lost in the sauce.
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