How to Use Dry Rubs. Applying Herbs & Spices to Meat.

Last Updated August 20, 2020
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I think we can all agree that the top reason to cook outside is the amazing flavor of grilled and smoked food. But there is more to making fantastic BBQ than just managing your fuel and equipment.

Seasoning your meat properly is a crucial trick to master if you want to take your barbecue to the next level. Your method of seasoning can make the difference between a decent meal and an outstanding one.

One of the best ways to season meat is to slather on a layer of herbs and spices before tossing it onto the grill. These dry rubs pack a lot of punch and help your meat develop that distinctive BBQ flavor. Here is everything you need to know about how to use a dry rub for your grilled and smoked meats!

How to Use Dry Rubs

How to Use Dry Rubs

To my mind, there’s nothing tastier than a serving of slow-cooked pork shoulder or a beautifully seared ribeye. The contrast between the dry, slightly charred seasoned exterior and the juicy interior is what barbecue is all about!

If you want your BBQ to sing with flavor, you have to season your meat with more than just a basic salt and pepper mix. Those are a good place to start, but for great barbecue, you need something more.

The easiest and fastest way to season your meat to perfection is to use a dry rub!

With a dry rub, you can customize the flavor profile of your BBQ by adjusting the seasonings and heat level to your personal tastes. You can also pick the flavor mix that best compliments your BBQ sauce or other side dishes.

Whether you buy a commercial product or make your own, using a dry rub is both an art and a science. While there are few hard and fast rules, here are some tips to getting the most out of your dry rub without overwhelming the flavor of your meat.

What is a Dry Rub?

A dry rub is simply a combination of dried herbs and spices mixed together and applied to the surface of a piece of meat.

Dry rubs add both flavor and texture to your barbecue. As it cooks, the dry rub will develop into a tasty crust along the surface of your meat. The fat and meat juices meld with the spices into a layer of pure flavor.

A dry rub may be coarse or fine depending on how it’s been processed, and many rubs contain a mixture of textures. For instance, a rub may have coarsely cracked black pepper and dried rosemary leaves along with finely ground garlic and onion powder.

The combination of course and finely-ground herbs and spices in a dry rub add crunch to the exterior of your meat while also contributing to the underlying flavor and aroma.

What herbs and spices might make up a dry rub? It varies considerably and there are an endless number of possibilities.

A typical dry rub may contain herbs like oregano, marjoram and sage and spices such as paprika, chili peppers, cumin, and black pepper. Garlic, onion and other aromatics like lemon or orange peel are often found in dry rubs.

Some dry rubs also have sugar in them, although these are less than ideal for high-heat grilling since the sugar begins to burn at 275°F. They are a great option for use in a meat smoker, however, and can really accentuate the flavor of a BBQ sauce.

There’s really no limit to what you might add to your dry rub, with one exception.

Hold the Salt!

While you can add most any dried herb or spice to a dry rub to complement the flavor of your meat, you should avoid products or recipes that contain salt.

This may seem counterintuitive, so let me explain.

Salting your meat is a very important step if you want the best flavor and texture. When you salt your meat before you grill it, the salt draws the protein-rich juices from the interior. As your meat cooks, these juices evaporate and help develop the tasty crust on the outside of your cut.

The problem with using a salty dry rub is you have no control over how much salt ends up on your meat. Personally, I would rather add salt separately from the rub to ensure I use the proper amount. I’ve definitely had BBQ fails when a salted dry rub resulted in food that was over or under-seasoned.

Using a dry rub that is salt-free makes it very easy to adjust your salt levels to your cut and cooking style. Sure, it does add an extra step, since you’ll have to measure and massage the salt into the meat separately from the dry rub. But it’s worth the hassle to have perfectly seasoned meat every time!

So skip the salt when you are making or purchasing a dry rub, and adjust the amount of salt you use on your meat to suit your cut, cooking method and personal tastes.

When to Use a Dry Rub

When should you opt for a dry rub over other methods of seasoning like using a wet rub or marinade?

There’s no real consensus on when you should use a dry rub. Some say dry rubs are best for fast-cooking grilled meats while others prefer to use them for their low-and-slow smoked meats.

In my experience, dry rubs are great for both grilling and meat smoking applications as long as you adjust the amount of rub to suit your cut of meat. Dry rubs typically pack a lot of flavors and can overwhelm the taste of your meal if they are used too heavily.

If you add liquid, such as oil, juice or beer to your dry rub you can make it into a paste. This wet rub can be easily applied to a big piece of beef or pork, and the extra moisture can help it stick to smoother cuts such as chicken or fish. A wet rub is similar to a really chunky marinade and can be applied a few hours in advance or allowed to “soak in” overnight.

My general rule of thumb is to use a dry rub for my smoked meats and for grilling thick steaks, chops, whole chickens and bone-in chicken pieces. There’s enough meat on these items to prevent the rub from dominating the flavor entirely. The dry rub should easily stick to the surface of these meats and stay on while cooking.

I prefer wet rubs for more delicate items like fish and seafood, and for adding flavor to veggies. Dry rubs don’t stick well to veggies but the additional moisture in the wet rub solves the problem. Wet rubs are also a good choice for boneless and skinless chicken pieces or kabob meat, since a dry rub may fall off these smoother pieces.

The only time I marinate meat for outdoor cooking is when I’m grilling kabobs or fish. Marinades don’t really penetrate very far into your meat, so marinating a brisket or other big cut won’t add much flavor and is a waste of your time.

Use marinades for thin pieces of meat or delicate items like fish or seafood, and stick to the dry or wet rubs for the rest of your BBQ.

How to Correctly Apply a Dry Rub

There’s no wrong way to apply a dry rub to your meat, as long as you’re not getting the raw meat juices all over your kitchen. But there are a few tricks to getting an even coating and making the rub stick to your meat.

First, you’ll want to dry your meat off with a paper towel before applying the rub to the surface. If your meat is wet when you apply it, it will be harder to spread the dry rub into an even layer. The rub may turn into a paste, and then steam and fall off inside your grill or smoker.

Some people like to spritz their meat with a little cooking oil to help the rub stick. I find this is usually not necessary for beef or pork cuts but helps the rub adhere to the smoother chicken meat and skin.

How Much Dry Rub Do You Use?

The general rule is to use approximately 1 tablespoon of dry rub per pound of meat.

I never follow this rule myself. The right amount to use just depends on the dry rub and what I’m cooking. You’ll have to play around with this until you hit upon a ratio that tastes good to you. I rarely measure my dry rubs and usually just eyeball the amounts.

A thick layer of rub may taste great on a thin slice of smoked brisket but be too much for boneless skinless chicken thighs. Consider how you’ll be serving your meat as you slather on the dry rub. Use more dry rub on big cuts of meat you’ll be slicing or pulling and less for thin steaks, chops or smaller pieces of meat.

You can definitely go overboard with a dry rub and use more than your meat can handle. I remember the time a friend grilled up a batch of his “famous” crispy chicken. The rub was a very strong mix of turmeric, cumin and chili powder and he absolutely smothered the boneless breasts in it before he cooked them.

The second that first bite hit my tongue the turmeric sucked all the moisture out of my mouth. I have no idea what the chicken tasted like; the only thing I could identify was the thick crust of turmeric with the heat from the chili powder. It probably would have tasted great if he had used about a quarter of the rub instead.

Consider the balance of flavors, and use enough rub to boost the flavor of your meat without letting it take over completely.

Massage or Sprinkle?

How should you apply your dry rub to the surface of your meat?

Well, it’s called a rub for a reason! While you can start with a sprinkle, you should totally get your hands in there and work the rub into your meat.

Sprinkle or spread some rub on the surface and massage it into all the nooks and crannies. If your meat has any skin attached to it, get your hand under the skin and massage the rub into the meat there as well. Press the rub into the fat along the edges of your meat.

Your goal is to apply enough rub so that your meat is evenly coated on all sides and along the edges. Don’t forget to rub in a nice amount of salt too!

Wet Hand Dry Hand Method

Food safety is always a concern when you’re handling raw meat. The challenge with a dry rub is you have to get your hands dirty to massage it into your meat. How can you do this safely, without the risk of cross-contamination?

The wet hand dry hand method is a great way to apply a rub (or other coatings) to raw meat while keeping one hand clean. It works like this:

  • Set up your prep station with your meat, dry rub/seasonings, and a handy cutting board.
  • Designate one hand to be the “wet” or dirty hand, and one to be the “dry” or clean hand.
  • Take the meat in your wet hand and place it on your cutting board.
  • Using your dry hand, sprinkle the meat with your dry rub while massaging it in with the wet hand. Keep the dry hand clear, so it doesn’t touch your meat or contaminated cutting board.
  • Using your wet hand, flip the meat over. Continue sprinkling the dry rub with your dry hand as you massage it in with your wet hand until the meat is evenly coated.

This way your container of dry rub stays free of nasty bacteria, and you’ll have a hand that isn’t covered in meat juice if you suddenly need it.

Two Handed Method

Of course, you can always dive right into the process with both hands if you don’t mind the mess. You’ll just have to take a few other precautions to avoid spreading germs around your kitchen.

If you’re not going to have a designated clean hand, then you’ll need to prep your dry rub before you get to work. Otherwise, you may contaminate the entire batch with your dirty hands.

Guesstimate the amount of dry rub you’ll need (with a bit of extra) and pour it into a prep bowl. Get your meat out and place it on a cutting board. Now you can use your hands to take some of the rub from the bowl and massage it into your meat.

There are a couple of disadvantages to this method but they’re not big ones.

You’ll have to toss any leftover dry rub in the bowl that you don’t use because your hands will have contaminated it. You can always use the extra in a sauce or to season some veggies as long as the rub gets cooked, though.

The bigger challenge is if you run out of your prepped dry rub mid-massage. You’ll have to stop and wash your hands before you can add more to your prep bowl. This is annoying but hardly a deal-breaker.

Whether you go for the wet hand dry hand method or prefer to double-hand your dry rub, your meat will be a tasty treat once the rub has worked it’s magic!


Dry rubs are a great way to add a punch of flavor to nearly any type of meat. When you massage a dry rub into your beef, pork or chicken it forms a tasty crust on the surface as it cooks. Once you’ve grilled or smoked your meat, this crust delivers a burst of flavor with every bite!

Dry rubs are one of the easiest ways to add flavor to your BBQ. You can find hundreds of options in the grocery store or online, and it’s easy to make custom mixes for all your barbecue favorites. If you haven’t been using dry rubs, this is the season to start!

About Brian Hamilton

Brian Hamilton is a BBQ grilling enthusiast and has the expertise and knowledge to have created Brian specializes in all methods of grilling and bbq equipment and is a self-proclaimed backyard Pitmaster. Qualified at degree level he gained a BEng Degree in Engineering in the United Kingdom. Brian is a well-traveled and cultured individual and has lived and worked in several countries in Europe and has gained quite a reputation amongst peers for his skills and commitment on the grilling circuit.

How to Use Dry Rubs. Applying Herbs & Spices to Meat.

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