The Art of the Rub: How to Season Smoked Meat

raw piece of smoked meat on rack seasoned with different spices

If you have spent much time barbecuing, you probably already know how important a good rub or marinade is to getting great results from smoked meat.

Our meat smoking guide contains lots of tips on how to find the right smoker and how to prep your meat, and if you are looking for more information about which smoker will deliver the best results, you can check out our electric smoker reviews if you click here — or you can browse our product guides to learn more about the relative strengths and weaknesses of electric smokers, charcoal smokers, wood pellet smokers, and gas smokers.

But the variation between a North Carolina-style barbecued pork shoulder and St. Louis-style ribs is about more than just the cuts of meat: it’s also about how the meat is prepared, and which spices are used to season it.

If you want to get to the next level in your barbecuing, knowing which spices to use on your food and how to apply them is absolutely essential.

To that end, we’ve put together some useful pointers to help you improve your dry rubs and marinades, and some sample spice mixes that let you try these smoked meat recipes on your own.

paprika and other spices in small glass bowls for smoked meat

Inside the Dry Rub

When it comes right down to it, a dry rub is a mix of spices that are applied directly to a cut of meat before grilling or smoking.

Dry rubs are deceptively simple, and while a simple dry rub might consist of nothing more than salt and pepper, they can also get pretty specialized and elaborate.

If you want a good, reliable base rub you can add things to as you become more comfortable, try mixing up the following for smoke pork recipe:

  • Brown sugar
  • Smoked paprika
  • Chilli powder
  • Black pepper
  • Kosher salt

This will give you a nice mix of sweet and heat, but it is going to be important to keep an eye on the heat to make sure the sugar doesn’t burn.

At temperatures above 350 degrees, this will be a danger, and it can give the meat an unpleasantly bitter flavour. One of the benefits of using this kind of dry rub for smoking, however, is that the optimal temperature for smoking is between 225 and 250 degrees, so burnt sugar shouldn’t be a danger.

lemon cut in half on a lemon juicer

The Secret to a Good Marinade

The key thing that makes a marinade different from a dry rub is that it contains some kind of acid to tenderize the meat before cooking.

This typically comes in the form of citrus, alcohol, or vinegar, and is often used to prepare the meat several hours in advance so it can take on more flavour and soften tough cuts of meat.

Marinades are especially important in North Carolina-style barbecue, where vinegar barbecue sauce can be used to break down the pork before smoking. If you try these smoked meat recipes from North Carolina, you’ll probably note how different this is from the typical Texas dry-rub used on a brisket.

When deciding what kind of marinade to use, the key lies in matching the acid with the other spices, and in not over- or under-marinating meat. Poultry is usually already quite tender compared to a brisket, so if left in a strong marinade too long, it will get mushy.

A good marinade to try with a smoked brisket recipe might involve the following ingredients:

  • Red wine
  • Olive oil
  • Mustard
  • Lemon juice
  • Wine vinegar
  • Horseradish
  • Salt
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Onion powder
  • Garlic powder

One potential downside of a marinade compared to a dry rub is that the marinade can be a little messier, so if you’re planning on doing a marinade, check out our smoker maintenance guide for more info about how you can clean your smoker up afterward.

smoked meat spices in mason jar on shelf

Always Mix Your Own Spices

If you check out the grilling or seasoning section of your supermarket, you’ll probably find dozens of pre-packaged barbecue spice recipes promising to deliver specific regional flavours, like Texas barbecue or North Carolina barbecue.

But if you are looking for awesome gifts for the BBQ enthusiast there is good reason to focus on the grills and smokers themselves and utensils that will help you get the most out of them rather than relying on a pre-packaged rub.

There are several reasons why:

  • Pre-packaged rubs tend to be heavy in cheap spices and light on premium ones: Since spices are sold by weight, manufacturers have a vested interest in adding cheaper and heavier ingredients like salt over tastier, lighter, and more expensive ingredients like smoked paprika.
  • Pre-packaged rubs often contain undesirable preservatives: Preservatives are not necessarily bad for you, but if you are trying to eat a more natural diet, processed rubs are probably not the best way to go.
  • You don’t actually know what you’re getting: Ever read the side of a spice mix and wonder what you’re actually looking at? You’re not alone. Contents information is notoriously opaque, and if you buy a pre-packaged rub, it’s going to be hard to know exactly what the mix is.
  • If it doesn’t taste good, you’re stuck with it: One of the beautiful things about mixing your own spices is that if you don’t like a certain mix, you can just adjust the recipe for next time. But if you buy a pre-packaged rub that seems a little unbalanced, you can’t just rearrange it next time.

If you’re serious enough about barbecue and have bought your own smoker to experiment in how to cook big cuts of meat like pork butt or brisket, you should be serious enough to mix your own spices for your favourite smoked meat recipes!

One of the reasons why we love barbecuing so much is because the flavour options are almost limitless.

Depending on the kind of smoker you use, the kind of wood you smoke, how long you smoke for, what meat you cook, how you prepare that meat, and how you season it, there are so many different flavours you can create.

But at the heart of all good smoked meat recipes is a great rub or marinade. Start experimenting with different approaches today to find your own signature spice combination!

About the Author William Clay

William Clay is a BBQ enthusiast dedicated to sharing his grilling (and overall cooking) expertise with FireFoodChef's readers.