Rubs are spice mixes that you can apply to raw food before cooking and there are scores of commercial blends on the market. But there's no need to buy a rub when you can make your own and customize it to your taste. And they're easy to make!
Here's my recipe for a great all purpose rub. It's my go-to for pork, and I have used it with success on chicken, turkey, salmon, stuffed celery, on the rim of Bloody Mary's, and even popcorn. It is carefully formulated to flavor, color, and form the proper crust. People tell me I really ought to bottle and sell it. Nah. You can have it for free. It's all here, nothing held back.
Since I originally designed this for ribs, let's talk about how to use it on this succulent bit of pig candy. Many purists in that barbecue mecca named Memphis lay a dry rub on their ribs before and after cooking, and then they eat their slabs crunchy, sans sauce. There are even restaurants that only serve "dry" ribs. No sauce in the joint.
Even if you like your pork "wet" (with sauce) a good rub can add flavor, texture, and color, and you need one if only so, when you are asked "What's your secret?", you can answer as the pros do, by saying "It's my rub, man."
Some pros leave their rub on overnight, sort of a dry marinade, that can work like a brine or a curing process. There is a reaction between the rub and the surface that helps form a nice crust, called bark, if the rub is on for at least two hours in the fridge.
Some put it right on the meat and then massage it in. Others lay down a mustard base first to act like glue, others make a wet rub by mixing it with oil or booze because the spices dissolve in lipids or alcohol, not water. I like to put a thin layer of vegetable oil on the meat and then sprinkle the rub on top.
Briners beware of double salt jeopardy
Memphis Dust Recipe
3/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup paprika
1/4 cup kosher salt
4 tablespoons garlic powder
2 tablespoons ground black pepper
2 tablespoons ground ginger powder
2 tablespoons onion powder
2 tablespoons dried rosemary, ground to a powder
Optional. Add up to 2 tablespoons crushed dried chipotle, cayenne, chili powder, or other hot pepper. Be careful with this ingredient. Not everybody likes it as hot as you do! You can leave it out if you are serving to a large crowd that is bound to contain a few wimps, and serve pepper flakes on the side. Try substituting some smoked paprika for regular paprika. Beware, it is usually a bit hot. Read more about in my article The Zen of Chiles.
About the sugar and salt. I encourage readers to experiment with recipes and "no rules in the kitchen or bedroom" is my motto, but I have gotten two emails from people that require a comment. One said he loved this recipe but left out the salt. Another left out the white sugar. I appreciate the need to reduce sugar and salt in our diets, but they are in the recipe for more than flavor enhancement, they help form the crust (a.k.a. "the bark"), an important part of the texture of the surface of ribs and slow smoke roasted pork. The salt pulls some moisture to the surface to form a "pellicle" and the sugar mixes with the moisture, caramelizes, and also contributes to the formation of a crust, called bark by the pros. There's only about two tablespoons of rub to a large slab. Of that about 1 tablespoon is sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. If you eat half a slab, you're not eating much sugar and salt. I recommend you leave them in. And for those of you who object to white sugar for non-dietary reasons, and use brown sugar instead, you need to know brown sugar is just white sugar with molasses added. It is not unrefined sugar.
About the rosemary. If you can only find whole dried rosemary leaves, you can grind them in a mortar and pestle, or in a coffee grinder.
About the ginger. I think it is a very important ingredient. If you don't have any, get some.
1) Mix the ingredients thoroughly in a bowl. If the sugar is lumpy, crumble the lumps by hand or on the side of the bowl with a fork. If you store the rub in a tight jar, you can keep it for months. If it clumps just chop it up, or if you wish, spread it on a baking sheet and put it in a 250F oven for 15 minutes to drive off moisture. No hotter or the sugar can burn.
2) For most meats, sprinkle just enough on to color it. Not too thick, about 2 tablespoons per side of a large slab of St. Louis Cut ribs. For Memphis style ribs without a sauce, apply the rub thick enough to make a crunchy crust, about 3-4 tablespoons per side (remember to Skin 'n' Trim the back side). To prevent contaminating your rub with uncooked meat juices, spoon out the proper amount before you start and seal the bottle for future use.
3) Wrap ribs it in plastic wrap, and refrigerate them overnight before cooking.
Keep your powder dry. To prevent cross-contamination, one hand sprinkles on the rub and the other hand does the rubbing. Don't put the hand that is rubbing into the powder.