What's the Difference Between a Rub and a Seasoning?
Are you relatively new to cooking and get a bit confused with all the different terms thrown around? We receive a lot of questions asking us to clarify many of these, with some of the most common being – What’s the difference between smoking, grilling and barbecuing? And another one being – Are Mexican and Mediterranean Oregano the same? Today you’ll learn the difference between a rub and a seasoning.
First things first.
What’s a Rub?Generally, a rub is used with dry heat or smoke and not used with the presence of liquids (like in broths, chili, soups or stews). Meats most frequently used with rubs are chicken and pork, but they can also be used on seafood (typically bolder fishes like tuna or swordfish) and less frequently with beef. While rubs can be applied to some steaks, they can be a bit over powering with this type of meat.
The most common type of cooking methods used with rubs are grilling and smoking, but also occasionally roasting.
Rubs typically follow a formula with salt, sugar and paprika being the foundation of the blend, and then just about any variety of spices and herbs can be added (depending on flavor preferences). Salt used may be fine, coarse or kosher, while the sugar may be brown, demerara, turbinado or muscavad. We’ve also had success with granulated molasses and granulated honey. Paprika is used for coloring and not for flavoring, so a general paprika is fine. Rarely will you see a rub from an experienced pitmaster using smoked paprika (it’s just more expensive).
Rubs are also generally applied more liberally than seasonings, and we tend to recommend 1 tablespoon of rub per pound of meat (about half that amount if used with fish or seafood). A rub is most often applied to meat where the spices, herbs and chile flavoring is going to marry with the meat for 2-24 hours before cooking (for seafood we tend to let the rub marry with the meat for no more than 30 minutes).
What’s a Seasoning?Seasoning is a term that is widely used in cooking, but we’ve found that many cooks don’t really know exactly what it means. You’ll often find recipes that say season to taste. Well what exactly does that mean?
The explanation that I’ve found that describes it best is that a seasoning is anything used to flavor an ingredient or dish. Now, to some this just means adding salt and pepper. To others, it’s adding some salt and an acidic of some sort (lemon juice, vinegar, etc.). To us, it usually involves adding a variety of spices and herbs.
It might be better to think about it this way. Say you’ve made a soup or stew, adding some seasonings along the way and it’s almost done. You taste it and the flavor is pretty good, but it isn’t quite amazing yet. Add a little bit more seasoning, stir it in and taste again. If you’ve under seasoned your dish you’ll notice a lift in the flavor with the additional seasoning.
The key to achieving the perfect seasoning is that you want to get your dish right to the edge where it is seasoned enough, but not too much. The perfect amount of seasoning enhances all the flavors in a dish without the seasoning dominating the dish.
Seasonings are really more individualized, and you truly are seasoning to taste. To a new cook this can be quite intimidating, and just like Goldilocks you have to experiment (not too much, not too little). We always recommend starting out with less seasoning, as it’s easier to add more. If you’ve gone with too much seasoning early in the process you’re stuck. Worse yet, you might feel less confident in future experiments.
There’s no easy thumbnail reference to seasoning, as there is with a rub, as it depends on how many servings you’re making. But, if push comes to shove, we like to say 1-2 total teaspoons of seasonings per serving is a good place to start (again, use less to start). This is probably easier to follow when using a spice blend than with individual spices, herbs and chiles.
Bottom LineUsing rubs and seasonings adds tremendous flavor to you food and man has been seasoning food for family and friends with spices, chiles and herbs for thousands of years. Don’t be afraid to experiment now that you know the difference between a rub and a seasoning.
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