The distinction between brines, marinades, and rubs can come down to a few simple ingredients. For the barbecue aficionado, what to use when is second nature. But each has its own history, its own flavor possibilities, its own chemistry, and its own place in the barbecue world.
Brining meats dates back to ancient communities. Salt was a precious commodity, and its ability to preserve food (even for an extra couple hours) created a high demand. Landlocked areas with larger cities received salt from caravans traveling across Salt Roads. Brine is a saltwater mixture that adds extra moisture and flavor to the meat while it’s soaking, and helps meat preserve its moisture during the cooking process. Meat already has its own natural salts intact, but adding a higher concentration of salt outside of the meat allows the flavors and spices to be absorbed into the meat through diffusion. This chemistry process involves changing protein bonds in meat to where they allow extra water to get trapped inside, resulting in flavor and moisture in the finished product.
Marinades date back to the Renaissance in western culture. Acting like brine, marinating meat was a preservation technique used before refrigeration was available. The word marinade originates from the Latin mare, meaning “the sea,” and was only intended for fish. Now marinades can be used on all types of foods, helping to break down the tissues in meat to create a tender texture. Soaking meats in a marinade before the cooking process adds flavor and tenderizes the meat before it even goes in the smoker or on the grill. Depending upon whatever meat is cooked, the marinating process can last several hours to multiple days. The main ingredient in a marinade consists of an acid, which is critical for the breakdown of the muscle tissues. Acids typically consist of vinegars or citrus fruit juices. Oils and seasonings are also important ingredients, and all create a delicate balance for the meat to retain its moisture and flavor through the cooking process.
A final version of treating meat for a barbecue is a rub. This method of seasoning was most popular with cowboys in the west, and thus has a solid foothold in BBQ culture. The salt in a barbecue rub can work as a preservative, making sense during western times and across the world before refrigeration. Barbecue rubs, with their blends of seasonings and spices, also act similar to brines or marinades by providing flavor. But while flavor is similar, the chemistry is not. The salt in a rub will actually pull moisture out of meat. This is one of the preservative qualities because bacteria can’t survive where there is no moisture. In today’s barbecue world, dry rubs can be used to pull out moisture in order to create an outside crust on a meat like brisket, also known as bark. It can also be used to deliver a drier, crispy chicken skin while leaving the inside juicy!
So now you know a little more about brines, marinades, and rubs. Use them wisely, no matter what flavors you want to impart, to make sure that your meat is amazing at your next barbecue!
Jay D. Ducote was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, grew up in Southeast Texas, and now is back in Louisiana where he makes a living eating and drinking, then writing and talking about it. He enjoys cooking a little bit too! Jay competes and judges in both Cajun cooking and professional barbecue tournaments, appeared as a contestant in Season 2 of MasterChef on FOX, hosts two radio shows in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and is currently working on his first book, the "Bite and Booze Cookbook," which will be published by the LSU Press. You can find Jay on his blog, Bite and Booze, on Facebook, or Twitter. You can also contact him via email at [email protected]