That’s a good question, so allow me to begin by defining both terms. A rub is a blend of herbs and spices mixed with salt that’s used for seasoning meat, poultry, fish and seafood before placing it on the barbie. A marinade, as the word suggests (prefix “mar” = the sea) is a fluid paste or a very liquid blend of spices, salt, oil and usually another liquid that’s acidic, tannic or cultured. Marinades and rubs are abundant and diverse the world over. From subtle to piquant, they can be found in all corners of the globe and just to demonstrate their versatility, I’m going to explain how to use each method to prepare the same type of dish using the same spices while using Jamaican Jerk as my example.
So what is the fundamental difference between the two? A very good question, indeed!
Traditionally, a marinade is prepared and mixed together with what is to be barbecued for several hours before cooking. In fact, the longer meats and poultry are left to sit in the marinade, refrigerated, the better (up to 24 hours for meat and poultry and no longer than 2 hours for fish and seafood). The concept behind marinating is of course to impart flavours into the foods you are cooking however, the reasoning behind it doesn’t only lie in flavour. Depending on the ingredients in your marinade and if it contains an acid such as lemon or vinegar, a tannin source such as green tea or wine or even a culture such as yoghurt or kefir, different things will happen over a period of time besides the addition of flavours. Marinades are inherently anti-microbial in nature, especially those with the addition of salt, an acid, alcohol or garlic, thus helping to kill any unwanted germs on the surface (don’t however, overlook the fact that everything should be cooked fully even if marinated). Aside from that, marinades act as tenderisers making meat and poultry less chewy and more palatable, especially tough cuts of meat as protein strings are broken down during the marinating process. It’s important to note however, that fish and seafood will toughen if left too long to marinate in an acidic or tannic mixture.
A rub on the other hand is a blend of herbs, spices and salt that may contain an acid in powder form, such as mango, a natural tenderiser. The difference however, between the two, is that a rub should only be applied a maximum of a couple of hours prior to cooking and then kept refrigerated. The naturally higher undissolved salt content found in a rub leads to the natural juices in the meat or poultry to be leached out if left too long, leaving you with “leather”!
Two common things we hear of when it comes to rubs are “dry-rubs” and “wet-rubs”. A dry-rub is what I just explained however, a wet-rub is when a dry-rub is combined with moisture, be it oil, water, vinegar, soya sauce, wine, etc.. A dry-rub should be used when the food is going to be cooked quickly on the barbecue; fish and bone-out chicken breast are great candidates for a dry-rub. A wet-rub on the other hand is best for cuts that take longer to cook and that will absorb moisture from the rub while cooking, allowing the spices on the outside to caramelise. Perfect examples for when to use a wet-rub are during the preparation and cooking of bone-in chicken legs or pork chops.
The spices and food of Jamaica resemble that of many Caribbean countries however, Jamaica stands out for me as the country with the most diverse and colourful cuisine. From the wicked Scotch Bonnet pepper in the Jerk seasoning to the soothing coconuty red “peas” and rice always served alongside, Jamaica boasts a wealth of amazing dishes that are perfect for the grill. Having spent about 9 years in Jamaica during my youth I have very fond memories of the food, the culture and the people. Quite frankly, Jamaican Jerk has always been a huge favourite in my family and we are still making it today, 30 years later!
Enjoy and Happy Grilling!