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Cooking Essentials: Marinades, Rubs & Sauces

ribs and asparagus
Our essential guide to marinades, rubs and sauces will give you the tools you need to add variety and deeper flavour to grilled foods all year long.

Grilling is a year-round pleasure for Canadians. Of course we do it at the height of summer, when our backyards are filled with family and friends, but we're also out there on the coldest winter days, when we need a little taste of sunshine on our plates. The greatest thing about grilling – other than keeping the heat out of the kitchen! – is that you can do it night after night, and you'll never run out of possibilities for new and delicious meals. One secret: You can switch things up with a variety of marinades, rubs and sauces.

The Basics

Marinades are seasoned liquids, typically made with a blend of fat such as olive oil and acidic ingredients like citrus juice or vinegar. Used to impart flavours through steeping to meat, seafood, meat alternatives such as tofu, veggies and even some fruits, marinades made with an acidic element can also help tenderize flesh.

Rubs, which can be dry or wet (with a paste-like consistency), are versatile blends of spices rubbed into vegetables, raw meat or fish before cooking. They intensify the flavours of these foods and create a tasty crust.

Sauces are condiments generally applied to food after it is cooked, to add extra flavour and moisture. They can also be brushed on before or during cooking to add delicious caramelized notes. Grilling sauces that contain a large amount of sugar are ideal for creating a sticky glaze.

The Marinade

Where It Shines: Marinades work on meat, fish, shellfish, firm tofu, halloumi cheese and vegetables. Those with more acidity are best applied to tougher cuts of meat, as their tenderizing effect breaks down chewy fibres and lets the great flavour of these cuts shine through. Foods with more subtle notes, such as tofu, chicken breasts and pork chops, benefit from the moisture- and taste-boosting effects of a marinade. Root vegetables and potatoes also get a lift from herbal or spicy marinades.

Make It: The basic marinade is a combination of acid, oil, seasonings and salt — although you can omit the acid if tenderizing isn't the goal. While the proportions are flexible, the basic formula includes one part oil, one part acid, one to two parts seasoning, and salt and pepper to taste. Adjust the ratio of acid to oil depending on how much you want it to break down any toughness in the main ingredient.

Typical acidic ingredients to consider are citrus juice, vinegar, wine, beer, buttermilk and yogourt. Pineapple and papaya juice also contain enzymes that break down protein fibres, increasing tenderness. You can use olive, canola or vegetable oil — any of them will help keep lean meats nice and moist during searing. For seasoning, think fresh or dried herbs, spices, garlic, chilies, salt and pepper or soy sauce.

Some marinades also contain a little sugar, honey or maple syrup to aid browning, but don’t overdo the sweet stuff or you'll risk excessive charring. A touch of salt (or soy sauce) helps seal in moisture in foods, and it opens up your taste buds to all the wonderful elements in the marinade.

Use It: Large, tough cuts of meat such as beef (not ground) or game can soak in a marinade for up to 24 hours in the fridge. So can bone-in chicken pieces; extended marinating keeps them extra juicy during grilling. Small cuts of meat and boneless poultry need just an hour or two, and little chunks of meat, vegetables, firm tofu and tender fish only require up to 30 minutes. Shellfish such as shrimp should not be marinated for more than 30 minutes; any longer than that, and you risk making them tough. For all fish and seafood, keep in mind that extended exposure to a powerful acid, such as lemon juice, can “cook” (or cure) the flesh, changing the texture – a technique used intentionally in some seafood dishes, such as ceviche.

The most convenient way to marinate food is to immerse it in the marinating liquid in a resealable plastic bag; just make sure to distribute the liquid evenly before popping it in the fridge. You can also marinate in a shallow nonaluminum dish or container, turning the ingredient occasionally, to ensure even coverage. Before cooking, gently remove excess marinade with a paper towel. Bonus: Some marinades can be divided and then double as a pour-over sauce after cooking (see below for a safety tip).

Keep It: Refrigerate marinades in airtight (or plastic-wrap-covered) earthenware, plastic or glass containers. Aluminum bowls or dishes can distort flavours, so avoid using them for storage or preparation. Discard any marinade that has been in contact with raw meat — it could become a breeding ground for bacteria. If you plan to use some of your marinade for basting, or as a pour-over or dipping sauce, separate the batches early on and clearly label them to avoid confusion.

Try It: These hearty tandoori cauliflower steaks get their Indian flavours from a simple marinade of  yogourt and tandoori spices. 

The Rub

Where It Shines: Spice rubs add an intensely flavourful coating to meat, fish or poultry and can tenderize flesh. Those that contain sugar enhance meats and root vegetables through caramelization. Dry rubs rely on the natural moisture on the surface of an ingredient to adhere, so they’re great on meat or fish, whereas wet rubs get a helping hand from a liquid — just enough to form a paste — so they work on meat, fish and vegetables. Dry rubs are best for cooking at high temperatures and for creating a crust on already moist ingredients that will contrast with the natural flavour on the inside. Wet rubs are ideal for cooking low and slow, and for when you want their flavour to permeate right through the main ingredient.

Make It: Dry rubs are a mix of coarsely ground salt and dried herbs or spices. For the most concentrated flavours, use a mortar and pestle to grind your spices. Common ingredients include heat makers such as paprika, chilies, mustard powder and cayenne; robust herbs that stand up to the heat of the grill, like rosemary, sage and thyme; and flavour enhancers such as lemon zest and lemon pepper. Pepper is usually in the mix to amp up the flavour, and brown sugar is frequently added to encourage caramelization. To transform a dry rub into a wet one, just add liquid (think wine, oil, beer, yogourt or water) so you have a rough paste or a slightly wetter, saucier consistency, depending on how strong you want the flavours to be.

Use It: To apply a rub, massage it into the food with your hands until it's evenly distributed. To let the flavours go deeper, you can do this up to one hour before cooking — just keep rubbed foods refrigerated while the flavours sink in. Bone-in meats, such as ribs or whole chicken, can benefit from up to a day bathed in a wet rub. Some cooks also lightly score their meat or fish (cutting a shallow criss-cross pattern into the surface) or, in the case of poultry, push the rub under the skin, to allow it to penetrate just a little deeper.

Keep It: Dry rubs keep best in an airtight container, such as a canning jar. Store them for up to six months in the pantry. Keep wet rubs in a glass or plastic (not aluminum) container for a few weeks in the fridge, unless they contain dairy, in which case it's best to use them within 24 hours.

Try It: An Italian herb seasoning paste lends pungent, fresh flavour to this herb-rubbed steak with pepper arugula relish. The simple wet rub applied to this ultimate prime rib gets its moisture from mustard. And a spicy dry rub brings the heat to this paprika flattened chicken.

The Sauce

Where It Shines: A good barbecue sauce is the grace note to anything savoury and grilled. It’s as delicious slathered over ribs to create a glaze at the end of cooking as it is poured onto a burger as a condiment.

Make It: Regional variations abound, but the basic North American barbecue sauce brings together vinegar, spices, mustard, sugar and a tomato ketchup base. Some versions are fruitier — pineapple juice is a popular ingredient — and some are on the hot side, with an extra dose of chili pepper. To round out the flavours, barbecue sauces often incorporate molasses or Worcestershire sauce.

Use It: The simplest way to use barbecue sauce is as a condiment, poured over grilled meat, fish or vegetables. Save the hotter, spicier and thicker versions for richer red meat, and lean toward fruity and runnier ones for white meat and fish. Barbecue sauce makes a great dip for grilled veggies and can also be used for basting meats — just lower the grill temperature if your sauce is high in sugar to avoid burning, and apply it with a basting brush only toward the end of cooking.

Keep It: Store homemade barbecue sauce in a glass jar, and keep it in the fridge. Ready-made sauces can be stocked in the pantry and then transferred to the fridge once they’re in use. The store-bought type can last for months unopened — just pay attention to the best-before date.

Try It: The sauce in our maple BBQ pork ribs is sweetened with maple syrup, while our homemade basic barbecue sauce gets its sweetness from molasses and brown sugar. 

Tools of the Trade

These gadgets make life easy when you’re whipping up rubs, sauces and marinades.

The Daily Grind: Spices are at their most pungent and tasty when they're freshly crushed or ground. For homemade spice blends, an electric grinder is a handy investment. You may be tempted to use your regular coffee grinder, but it's best to have a separate one to avoid muddling flavours. A traditional mortar and pestle is as useful for grinding dry spices as it is for blending wet rubs. 

The Brush-off: For basting, buy a barbecue mop to hold on to thinner sauces. Thicker one can be applied evenly with a barbecue brush: Go for silicone for easy cleaning or bristles for uniform coverage.

No Reaction: To make and store marinades, use glass bowls and containers, such as canning jars. Plastic is OK, too, but more prone to being stained by the spices. If you prefer to marinate in a covered shallow dish or container, you’ll find a slotted spoon handy for turning the ingredient to ensure even steeping.

Bag It: Resealable freezer bags are super convenient for marinating. Double-bag the items you're marinating, and make sure you seal them tightly to prevent odours from escaping (or entering). To keep drips at bay, place the bag on a tray or in a bowl in the fridge