Rubbing the Light Fantastic

I wanted to create a zesty rub, combining Caribbean, Mediterranean, and Asian elements. I also wanted to exclude some common elements: Garlic and Paprika. And, I wanted to explore why recipe measurements for rubs and spice mixes always appear so random and confusing. Why are they calculated the way they are? ARE they calculated? Is there some sort of scientific model behind it? Or is it purely inspirational and artistic? Trial and error? That seems impossibly time consuming.

Many people make their own rubs, which they then closely guard. There’s usually a few exhibitionists who can’t resist touting their amazing powderness.

Without attempting to end the debate, let’s consider a few basic assumptions.

Give Me a Thirst to Quench.

Salt typically occupies a certain high percentage of the rub formulae. There are salt free rubs available, of course. Most of them get sodiumized by the jonesing consumer, thereby ending up with MORE salt than their already oversalted counterparts. Gots to have the salt. After salt, comes pepper.

When combining salt and pepper as an all purpose mix, most chefs use somewhere between 8/1 and 10/1 by VOLUME of the salt to pepper. This achieves a sort of generic balance that most diners find unobtrusive, at least. Salt and pepper still dominate the ingredients lists of rubs, if for no reason other than familiarity to our taste buds. They’re cheap, too, by the way.

Paprika usually comes next, because its neutral flavor is augmented by the brilliant red/brown/browner/black color it brings. Neither salt nor pepper will do this. Add sugar, and you actually have a workable rub. The manufacturers of rubs know this.

I want my Umami.

This fifth flavor (after salty, sweet, sour, and bitter) is finally working its way into the mind of the general public. Without glutamate, umami would be but an illusion. Glutamate is almost always in rubs. But glutamate is the longest of four letter words. The companies that make rubs go to great lengths to avoid uttering it. And there’s a reason. And it’s not because it’s bad for you. Sometimes I wonder, what ISN’T bad for you? Glutamate gets singled out for the same reason that microwave ovens and sous vide itself get the “talk to the hand” treatment. It’s NEW. Not really THAT new, but not as old as salt and pepper.

Glutamate can be toxic in high amounts. Of course, so can salt, and concentrated acidity, and alkali, and even hot pepper, for that matter. But those four flavors have been around so long, they’re like aspirin. The FDA would not approve aspirin for over the counter today, because there are too many health risks associated with it. But the public would never allow it to be banned at this point.

Picture if you will, salt and pepper hitting the market now, for the first time. There would be health scare headlines complete with a shrill rallying cry to ban them because of the danger. Clinics devoted to beating the newfound addiction to sodium and spice would pop up all over. People’s lives would be ruined because of their inability to curtail the use of these highly toxic substances. Parents would wring their hands in anguish as they watched their teenage offspring abuse potato chips and popcorn. But I digress.

Words like maltose, maltodextrin, hydrolysed vegetable protein, yeast extract, all refer to substances that contain glutamate. Glutamate is an ester or salt of glutamic acid, so, yes, it does deliver sodium into your bloodstream as a result of its ingestion. It is similar enough to salt to be substituted for it, to a certain degree. You don’t have to buy it pure to have it in your food. It’s in lots of things other than Chinese food. Even Worcestershire sauce has glutamate in it, as a by product of the fermentation process. Bouillon, miso, fish sauce, hundashi, it’s in all these things. There, I said it.

Which is heavier–feathers or lead?

Volume vs weight. This debate will never end. While many countries have addressed labeling and other issues by using the metric system, volume and weight still create some confusion. There’s an old expression, “A pint’s a pound, the world around.” Of course, that only applies to water, vinegar, and wine, for the most part. The fact that we use the word “ounce” to refer to both weight AND volume should have sunk the empire already. Just how random can it get?

If you see a recipe for a rub or spice mix broken down by weight, it’s going to look incongruous. It’s time. Let me show you.

Rub This

I created this rub. Not just based on what I had around, I ordered a bunch of stuff on line, and I didn’t even pay attention to price. The price can be very deceiving too. A gram of oregano is a lot bigger than a gram of allspice. But let’s not digress. Here’s the thing, by metric WEIGHT:

  • Kosher salt, 65g.
  • Red Boat salt, 70g.
  • Ground black pepper, 31g.
  • Sugar, 57g.
  • Ground allspice, 31g.
  • Ground anise, 17g.
  • Fennel seed, 23g.
  • Oregano, 7 g.
  • Chervil, 7g.
  • Dried parsley, 16g.

The Kicker

Okay, here’s all those things listed by VOLUME.

  • Kosher salt, 1/4 cup.
  • Red Boat salt, 1/4 cup.
  • Ground black pepper, 1/4 cup.
  • Sugar, 1/4 cup.
  • Ground allspice, 1/4 cup.
  • Ground anise, 1/4 cup.
  • Fennel seed, 1/4 cup.
  • Oregano, 1/4 cup.
  • Chervil, 1/4 cup.
  • Dried parsley, 1 cup.

It’s delicious on meat, fish, vegetables, even in pasta!

Note: Like I said, there is no garlic in this rub. There is no paprika in this rub. That’s what makes it cool.