Back To Top
Life&Style

Playing with fire

Rubs, brines, marinades make thrills for the grill


WALNUT CREEK, California ― We may grill all year round, but summer traditionally signals the start to barbecue season. And something about that barbecue grill, says Food Network star Guy Fieri, conjures up all the best parts of summer.
Summer traditionally signals the start to the barbecue season. (Contra Costa Times/MCT)
Summer traditionally signals the start to the barbecue season. (Contra Costa Times/MCT)

“I think we all have an addiction to grilling,” the Santa Rosa, California, chef says by phone, halfway through a national tour that is equal parts raucous rock concert and cooking show. “I was explaining this to one of my compadres on the tour: If you think about when you grill, you grill at happy times ― during the summer, at camp, the beach, with families and kids around. Whatever we’re cooking outdoors evokes positive memories.”

The aroma and sizzle of barbecued chicken and grilled steaks excite not only the senses, but the emotions as well, he adds. But it takes more than meat and heat to please the palate. Fieri and his colleagues have plenty of suggestions for amping up flavor via dry rubs, brines, slathers and sauces.

For San Francisco chef Jan Birnbaum, rubs are the perfect way to add flavor and complexity to grilled meats. He has several in his arsenal, including a coffee rub for steaks and the rub his staff at Epic Roasthouse affectionately calls “Jan’s Generic.” This all-purpose rub is such a utility player, it pops up on all kinds of grilled protein, even, occasionally, in Bloody Marys.

“I have probably six others we use,” Birnbaum says. “In a little package, it’s a real opportunity to put some interesting character into meat, fish, poultry.”

At first glance, coffee may be an unusual ingredient to pair with meat, but both Birnbaum and grilling expert Andrew Schloss say that’s only because we think of ingredients such as coffee, chocolate and sugar by themselves. Coffee and chocolate are roasted, fermented products, Schloss says, that “transmit the roasty flavor of browned deliciousness.”

For New Orleans native Birnbaum, coffee ― and cracked peppercorns, salt and coriander ― is a perfect match for steak.

“I’m kind of a freak for coffee,” Birnbaum says. “In New Orleans, it’s used for a lot of things. It’s got an obvious something that lends itself to the richness of the flavors of beef, venison or game. Coriander adds a higher note, a cleaner citrusy thing going on, and black peppercorns ― together these three work really well on beef.”

Schloss and David Joachim, co-authors of the just-published “Fire It Up” (Chronicle Books, 416 pp., $24.95), use coffee in a variety of ways ― as a rub, a brine, in an espresso grilling sauce and paired with cherry preserves for grilled duck.

“Rubs are our favorite flavoring method of all,” Joachim says. “They’re the most effective because you’re actually eating the seasoning. People marinate too much. But a rub with a really well-balanced blend of flavors ― salt, sugar and some kind of chile, even if it’s mild, like paprika ― the sky’s the limit after that.”

The added bonus is that a rub breaks down the surface proteins on a steak, for example. Once it hits the heat, those flavorings become a part of the seared crust.

“It’s not just a crust of granules,” Schloss says. “It’s a literal lacquer.”

And sugar doesn’t just have sweet flavors. As it caramelizes, its flavors turn savory.

But don’t stop with a mere rub.

“One thing we like to do is layer flavors in different methods,” Joachim says. “You can get a double hit of Thai flavor if you brine pork tenderloin in coconut water, lemon grass, tamarind and lime, then rub it with other Thai flavors ― star anise, brown sugar and salt.”

Fieri believes in layering, too. His latest cookbook, “Guy Fieri Food: Cookin’ It, Livin’ It, Lovin’ It” (Harper Collins, 408 pp., $29.99), includes one of his favorite recipes, gaucho-style skirt steak, whose flavors stem from both a marinade and sauce. The steak spends an hour or two in a marinade of garlic, cilantro, tequila and lime before it’s grilled and served with a four-herb chimichurri. It’s all about the layering, he says.

“I’m not just playing one song,” Fieri says. “We’re going to play the whole album. We’re going to brine it, rub it and low-and-slow it six ways to Sunday.”

By Jackie Burrell

(Contra Costa Times)

(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)
MOST POPULAR