In May, when the ramps were just beginning to make an appearance and shorts season was still a ways away, our food director Chris Morocco approached me with a top secret mission: Could I make a rub that’s great for a summer cookout but can swing into the seasons beyond? Could I ever! And now that the rub is out in the wild, I’m sharing a behind-the-scenes peek of how it all went down.
The Dream Team
We teamed up with Burlap & Barrel, a small NYC-based spice company that partners with farmers in 23 countries across the world, from Afghanistan to Zanzibar. The focus is on transparent and equitable sourcing, sustainable agriculture, and prices set by the farmers based on their costs. No middlemen and a shorter supply chain equal vibrant spices.
The Spicy & Smoky Grilling Rub pays homage to very specific pastrami (from Frankel’s Deli in Greenpoint, Brooklyn), weekly doses of which were a saving grace during quarantine.
The bold, brawny rub of my dreams begins with a strong vein of spice. Zanzibar peppercorns pack a wallop of heat with a faint lemony zing, while crushed chipotle flakes punch through with haunting smoke and intense spice. But why stop at two? The Urfa chili from Burlap & Barrel has a touch of sunflower oil and salt making it supple and shiny, like a buttery leather bag. Yes, it has a whisper of spice, but what I really wanted was its sultry, dark chocolate undertone, offsetting the blatant heat of the black pepper and chipotle flakes just so.
All those intense spices needed a foil, a punctuation of sweetly scented ingredients to offer balance. B&B’s Lucknow fennel is sourced from India, the world’s largest producer of fennel seeds. It’s special—sweeter than average, and slightly menthol-y while the Red River coriander is fresh and citrusy, pinging off the lemon vibe of the black pepper. Together these two power players tame the others just enough, making the whole affair like a lion wearing a bow tie—poised on top but fierce underneath.
How the Genie Was Bottled
It took three trials, 100 emails, three prototypes, and 20 pounds of ribs to get to the final blend. Once I had a version we all liked in the test kitchen, it had to be converted to grams for exacting accuracy. Burlap & Barrel retested a small batch on its end to double-check for its parameters (taste, shelf life, scalability). Next, a slightly bigger batch was mixed up, bottled, and shipped back to us. The grind size wasn’t quite right: too coarse (it would fall right off the meat). The next one was too fine (might burn as it cooked). And on the third try—just perfect. There were labels to be made (thanks to Hazel Zavala Tinoco, our art director), and back-of-the-bottle blurbs to consider. Finally, three months later, the Spicy & Smoky Grilling Rub was born.
What to Do With It
Mixed with nothing more than salt, the Spicy & Smoky Grilling Rub is an excellent dry brine (try it on your Thanksgiving turkey). Turn it into a wet rub with a glug of olive oil (great on a steak). As in this recipe—the progenitor for the bottled version—I highly recommend a dab of sugar (granulated or light or dark brown) mixed in with the rub. A ratio of 1 tsp. sugar to 1 Tbsp. rub is just the right amount—melting and mingling with the spices to form a caramelly crust that never skews sweet.
Yes, the rub is great on meat—beef or pork ribs, chicken wings, steak, and turkey—but it’s versatile enough to go beyond. Here are three of my favorite ways to use it:
As a Dressing
Heated with olive oil and thinly sliced garlic until the spices are fragrant and the garlic is golden, the rub becomes a sort of chili crisp, absolutely smashing poured over a plate of sliced tomatoes with a scattering of herbs on top.
Ground into a fine powder in a mortar and pestle, a fat pinch of it enlivens the flour and panko mixtures for anything you might bread—cutlets, eggplant fries, shrimp, or arancini.
Wherever Black Pepper Goes
Add it to scrambled eggs and frittatas, tofu, crispy smashed mushrooms, or matzo brei.
Where to Get It
You could certainly mix up a batch yourself, but I did the math for you: Buying all the spices will run you quite a bit more than just buying the rub. And with so many ways to use the rub (watch me make giant red-eye ribs with it here), you’re sure to use a whole jar—or more. Buy it already.