Food & Dining

Here's the rub: Grilled food depends on proper seasoning

Barbecue beer-can chicken comes out as moist as anything.
Barbecue beer-can chicken comes out as moist as anything. Tribune News Service

Holidays are all about tradition. So it's little surprise that July 4 remains the most popular day of the year for grilling.

Close to 70 percent of us will be cooking our beloved beef, chicken and fish over gas, charcoal or an open fire on Independence Day, cementing the cookout's reputation as America's favorite way to celebrate the Fourth.

Where backyard chefs differ is in how they choose to season the proteins they're about to throw on the grill.

Some let the meat speak for itself, with little more than a sprinkling of salt. But if you really want to transform chicken, beef or fish from something ordinary into a dish that sings, consider a tasty marinade or sauce.

Marinating before grilling infuses meat with flavor while basting it with a complementary sauce while cooking -- typically during the last few minutes of grilling or after slicing -- gives it sheen and helps build the crust that makes your tastebuds shout "Wow!"

It's also good to have a really great spice rub in your grilling arsenal, especially if you want delish, tender meat on a budget -- rubs permeate tough cuts, creating complex layers of flavor.

"They help meat taste and look delicious and they're crucial to the formation of a tasty, crusty bark," write Texas pitmaster Aaron Franklin and co-author Jordan Mackay in "Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto" (Ten Speed, $30).

What sets a great rub apart from a lesser competitor depends on the whims of the cook. Standard rubs include salt, pepper, granulated garlic and onion and often paprika or dried chilies for a bit of heat. The goal, notes the authors, is to "complement a nice piece of meat, not to obscure a crappy piece of meat. All spices should react well with one another. No one spice should stand out or be too recognizable."

Restraint and balance also are the name of the game when stirring together sauces and marinades. You want to dress up the meat or fish, not drown it.

Some tips before cooking:

  • Always apply a rub to meat about one hour before cooking, letting it come to room temperature before placing on the grill. This allows the seasoning to sweat into the meat, Franklin explains. Also, try to get an even coat of rub over the surface of the meat to allow for even cooking.

  • Pay careful attention to marinating times; leave it on too long, and it can turn the surface mushy. Poultry takes 30 minutes to three hours; delicate fish and seafood shouldn't swim more than 30 minutes in a marinade.

  • Never reuse marinade used on raw meat or poultry unless you boil it first to destroy harmful bacteria.

  • Sauces should be brushed on the last five to 15 minutes of cooking. Keep a careful eye on the fire -- most barbecue sauces have sugar in them and you don't want it to burn.
Pickled jalapeno
  • Half a cup creme fraiche.

  • Half a cup plain Greek yogurt.

  • Two tablespoons mayonnaise.

  • One tablespoon lime juice.

  • Two pickled jalapenos, seeded and chopped, or one heaping teaspoon pickled jalapeño slices, chopped.

  • One to two tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, optional.

Stir together all ingredients in small bowl. Serve right away or refrigerate for up to an hour for flavors to meld. Spoon onto fish or shrimp tacos before serving or pass the sauce at table. Makes about one and a quater cups.

Source: "The Barbecue Lover's Big Book of BBQ Sauces" by Cheryl and Bill Jamison (Harvard Common Press, $18.95).

Bone dust BBQ rub

  • Half a cup paprika.

  • Quarter cup chili powder.

  • Three tablespoons salt.

  • Two tablespoons ground coriander.

  • Two tablespoons garlic powder.

  • Two tablespoons white sugar.

  • Two tablespoons curry powder.

  • Two tablespoons dry hot mustard.

  • One tablespoon fresh ground black pepper.

  • One tablespoon ground basil.

  • One tablespoon ground thyme.

  • One tablespoon ground cumin.

  • One tablespoon cayenne.

Mix all ingredients together and store in a jar until ready to use. Rub on chicken, beef or pork before barbecuing.

Source: "Gastro Grilling" by Ted Reader (Penguin, $29).

Beer-can chicken

  • Four pound chicken.
  • One tablespoon vegetable oil.
  • One and a half tablespoons BBQ chicken rub (see recipe).
  • One and a half teaspoons kosher salt.
  • 12-ounce can pilsner or other light lager beer.

Remove neck and giblets from chicken and reserve for another use. Rinse chicken and pat dry with paper towels. Brush cavity and skin with vegetable oil. Stir together BBQ rub and salt; sprinkle mixture inside cavity and on outside of chicken. Chill chicken 30 minutes to 12 hours.

Let chicken stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Light one side of the grill, heating to 350 to 400 degrees (medium-high). Leave other side unlit. Open beer. Place chicken upright onto beer can, fitting can into cavity. Pull legs forward to form a tripod, so chicken stands upright.

Place chicken on unlit side of grill. Grill, covered with grill lid, one to one and a half hours or until golden and instant-read thermometer inserted into thickest part of thigh registers 165 degrees. Carefully remove chicken from can. Cover chicken loosely with aluminum foil and let stand 10 minutes before serving. Serves four.

Source: "Southern Living Ultimate Book of BBQ" (Oxmoor House, $24.95).

BBQ chicken rub

  • Two tablespoons kosher salt.

  • One tablespoon smoked paprika.

  • One tablespoon onion powder.

  • One and a half teaspoons ground red pepper.

  • One and a half teaspoons cumin.

  • One teaspoon garlic powder.

  • One teaspoon ground thyme.

  • One teaspoon ground oregano.

  • One teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Stir together salt and remaining ingredients. Store in an airtight container for up to months months.

Source: "Southern Living Ultimate Book of BBQ" (Oxmoor House, $24.95).

Grilled salmon

  • Six six-ounce) salmon filets.

  • Half a cup vegetable oil.

  • Quater cup soy sauce.

  • Quarter cup balsamic vinegar.

  • One tablespoon honey.

  • Two teaspoons finely chopped garlic.

  • Two teaspoons dried crushed red pepper.

  • One and a half teaspoons ground ginger.

  • One teaspoon sesame oil.

  • Half a teaspoon salt.

  • Quarter teaspoon onion powder

  • Vegetable cooking spray.

Place salmon fillets in large zip-top plastic freezer bag. Whisk together vegetable oil and next 9 ingredients. Pour over salmon, reserving 1/4 cup mixture. Seal and chill 30 minutes.

Coat cold cooking grate of grill with cooking spray, and place on grill. Preheat grill to 350 to 400 degrees (medium-high). Remove salmon from marinade, discard marinade. Grill salmon without grill lid four to five minutes or until fish flakes with a fork, turning occasionally and basting with reserved marinade. Remove and discard skin. Serve immediately. Serves six.

Source: "Southern Living Ultimate Book of BBQ" (Oxmoor House, $24.95).