As with many things, it is more a question of which to use when, rather than declaring an out and out winner.
But, what is a marinade?
A marinade is a flavour enhancer based around acidic liquid in which meat, or other ingredient, is steeped prior to cooking. As well as tenderising, by breaking down the meat fibres, it adds flavour too.
And, what is a dry rub?
A dry rub is simply a blend of spices that is rubbed over the surface of meat prior to cooking. It does not tenderise, at least not theoretically, but adds flavour.
So, why not just use a marinade?
If a marinade has the added benefit of tenderising, then why not always use a marinade? Well, therein lies the rub (ahem). A true marinade covers the ingredients, with the main intention of tenderising tougher cuts of meat. An older rabbit, or boiling chicken, would be marinated in wine, vinegar or lemon overnight to render the flesh soft. We have become so used to dealing with only prime cuts, which do not need tenderising, that we forget such methods even existed.
A chicken breast, or prime rib steak, just does not need tenderising. Immersed in a marinade for 24 hours, it would probably disintegrate. Try to cook it and it will be like chopped liver. Not only that, but it will be wet. Even dried with kitchen paper, the inside will still be soggy, and create steam when it hits the heat, rather than a lovely browned surface (see our post on cooking rib steaks for more on this…)
Right. So dry rub wins?
Not necessarily. Made mostly of spices, or perhaps dried herbs, a dry rub will be a strongly flavoured affair. Designed to penetrate the top layer with an intense hot of flavour, and to gradually permeate its way through, a dry rub will be way too much for many meats destined for the grill. That said, a light rub of fajita spice over a chicken breast or a mixture of coarsely ground peppercorns over a steak can be a truly lovely thing.
Marinades and dry rubs are just the two extremes, each designed for very different purposes. But there are happy mediums for both, and for your lean cuts of meat destined for the BBQ, grill, pan fry, of even stir fry, these are where you should be headed.
Spice pastes and wet rubs
A spice paste is simply a dry rub with added liquid to create a paste. The amount of moist ingredient can be altered to change its intensity, and its tenderising properties. Think tikka paste, which when bought ready-made will already have lemon juice or vinegar inside. Used straight from the jar, it is thick and strong; a tablespoon rubbed into a chicken breast will give a strongly flavoured crust and very little tenderising properties. Add a small tub of yoghurt and it becomes looser, with less strength. Use to marinate chicken thighs for an hour or so and it will flavour as well as tenderise.
Loosen a jerk paste with the juice of a few limes and it will again serve as a marinade. Use with chicken breast and even after 20 minutes it will have added flavour. Use with chicken thighs and leave for longer to tenderise the tougher flesh. The chicken can go straight to the grill as a whole breast, but thinly sliced before marinating it can easily be used for a stir fry dish.
We like to call a really quick marinade for grilled meats, a wet rub. For instance, the butterfly lamb dish that we did for the BBQ at the weekend called for a little tenderising and the subtle flavours of lemon, garlic, and Greek hillside type herbs. A classic marinade would be too wet, but a spice paste or dry rub was not suitable either. Instead, we squeezed over the juice of one lemon, added dry garlic powder (fresh garlic is apt to burn on the grill), and some fresh herbs from the garden. A small spoon of olive oil was added, just enough to lubricate, but not so much to drip onto the grill and cause flames to flare up. The whole lot was then massaged in the lamb and was left for a few hours; it would have happily sat for a day in the fridge though.
This wet rub treatment has to be our favourite for just adding a few subtle hints that bring the meat alive. Often a touch of lemon, oil, garlic and herbs is all any meat, poultry, or even fish for that matter, needs. The natural flavour of good quality meat, and the smoky heat of the fire, will do the rest. What’s more, the entire procedure becomes effortless. And we all need a bit of that in our lives…