Have you ever wondered how to use chicken rub, how to dry rub steak, or even how to apply a rub to meat without making a total mess?! We have all those answers and more so you’re fully prepared to fire up the grill and add massive amounts of flavor to your meat.

By Karla Walsh
Updated April 07, 2020
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The key elements to the most flavorful meals are salt, fat, acid, and heat (there's a reason that's the name of one of our favorite Netflix binges and a popular cookbook). For BBQ fare, the grill brings the heat and the meat offers the fat naturally. So all you have to do is invite salt and acid (and maybe some sweet) to the party and you’re sure to win a BBQ blue ribbon from your friends and family. Enter: BBQ rubs. (For an even bigger advantage, study up on these 19 grilling tips from the pros.) Here you've got a complete guide on how to make BBQ rub, how to use BBQ rubs, and the real difference between wet and dry rubs.

Blaine Moats

What Is a BBQ Rub?

A BBQ rub is a mixture of herbs, spices, and seasonings liberally applied to coat the outside of meat, poultry, or fish. Salt is always a great starting place for a rub. It helps the rub penetrate, and it rounds out and brings together the flavors of the ingredients. Consider:

  • Table salt: Very fine grains
  • Kosher salt: Coarse grains
  • Sea salt: Evaporated from seawater, can be fine grains or larger flakes
  • Seasoned salt: Table salt + other spices (you know the flavor, and might own a jar already, as this is often used to flavor party mix)
Get the Smoky Rub Recipe

To balance out the salt, most BBQ rub recipes include sugar. Popular BBQ rub recipe sweeteners include:

  • White sugar
  • Brown sugar
  • Honey
  • Maple syrup

Aim for more salt and spice than sugar, as sugars can caramelize and potentially burn when exposed to high heat. If you’re using seeds, nuts, dried herbs, or spices in your BBQ rub, crush them first to release all their flavor. (Something like this Cole & Mason Mortar and Pestle, $16.99, Target will do the job nicely.)

The biggest rule about how to make BBQ rub? There essentially are no rules and no right or wrong mixture. It's all a matter of personal preference.

How to Make BBQ Rubs

To begin your search for the perfect rub, determine if you want a wet rub or a dry rub.

Dry Rubs

Just like it sounds, dry rubs contain only nonliquid ingredients. A dry rub is all about achieving that perfect crust that boosts flavor (not the moisture content) of the meat. The mix of dried herbs and spices, plus salt and sugar, adheres to the natural moisture of the meat, poultry, or fish. If you’re wondering how long to leave dry rub on steak or chicken, that’s up to you: The longer you allow it to sink in, the deeper the flavor will be. Our suggestion is 15 minutes or more prior to tossing the meat on the grill or in the smoker. (Psst...here’s how to turn your grill into a DIY smoker.)

Test Kitchen Tip: Store all raw meat in the fridge before or after it’s rubbed to avoid any food safety risks.

Wet Rubs

On the flip side, wet rubs have a moist ingredient added to the spices and herbs. The resulting texture is similar to a paste. Common liquid wet rub ingredients include mustard, finely chopped garlic, oil, horseradish, and yogurt. They adhere to food more easily than dry rubs, and you’ll achieve maximum moistness and flavor if you allow them to marinate the meat for at least an hour prior to cooking (in the refrigerator, of course).

How Do You Apply a Rub to Meat?

For the best results, a rub needs time to work its flavor magic. So how long do you leave dry rub on steak, chicken, turkey, or pork? Allow the BBQ rub to rest on the food 15 minutes to 2 hours (and up to several hours if you've got time) before cooking. It depends on the density of what you are applying it to and the strength of the flavors in your BBQ rub recipe. Since wet rubs are ideal for adding moisture, they're often used on tougher cuts like flank steak and skirt steak, which could use more time soaking up the wet rub. As a general rule, apply wet rubs 2 to 6 hours before cooking. And it bears repeating: Keep rubbed food in the fridge, for safety's sake.

Test Kitchen Tip: To use chicken rub if the skin is still on, use your fingers to gently separate the skin from the meat, then add the rub under the skin. 

Storing BBQ Rubs

If you’re searching for how to make BBQ rubs in advance, you’re in luck: Dry rubs will keep in tightly closed containers up to 6 months. Wet rubs will generally keep for a few weeks under refrigeration.

For the longest shelf life and best results, use recently purchased dried herbs and spices. Most lose their flavor after the bottle has been open for 9 months to a year.

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