It’s All in the Meat – And How It’s Seasoned
Modern humans have unprecedented access to all types of food, regardless of their bank account or social status. But back in the old days, only the very wealthy had access to certain foods like meat, salt and spices.
While getting your hands on some meat, salt and spices these days is not a problem, knowing exactly what to do with these ingredients once in your possession leaves many people confused. And hungry.
This blog post aims to alleviate this modern-day problem.
The Meat Seasoning Guide: What Spices Go with What?
Before we get into the specifics of how to season different kinds and cuts of meat and how to make and use a dry rub (oh yeah, we’re going all in on this seasoning thing), let’s get a handle on the basics of meat seasoning.
Basic meat seasoning consists of using just salt and pepper to bring out the natural flavor of meat. That’s the easy part. The challenge is knowing which side of the meat seasoning argument to believe:
- The side that says you should season your meat right before cooking it…
- Or the side that says you should season it hours, if not days, before cooking it.
- Then there’s the side that believes you should season your meat after cooking it…but that’s ludicrous so it doesn’t count.
Now, we know what you’re thinking, “If you season meat hours or days before you cook it, wouldn’t that somehow draw out the juices and create a dry, tough and unpalatable piece of meat?”
That’s what a lot of people have thought over the years. But is this thinking correct or is it a myth?
The only thing that can answer this age-old question is cold-hard science. After many experiments, the verdict is out: Seasoning hours or even days before cooking results in a more tender piece of meat. This is thanks to the salt penetrating cells and breaking down protein. And, while salt does initially draw out moisture from the meat’s cells, given enough time, those cells will reabsorb that moisture via reverse osmosis.
The bottom line on the basics of meat seasoning? Go ahead and season it as far in advance as you can. You will end up with a tastier, juicier, more tender piece of meat.
What is a Dry Rub?
Most people are familiar with marinating meat in a liquid that will not only include salt and spices but also some form of acid through citrus fruit juices or vinegar to help tenderize the meat. While liquid marinades can definitely impart flavor to your meat, a dry rub has some definite advantages.
First, what is a dry rub? It’s simply a mixture of dried spices that will also use salt and sometimes sugar. The mixture is then rubbed directly into the meat – hence the name “dry rub”.
So why does a dry rub work better than a liquid marinade? When you marinade meat in a bowl or Ziplock bag, only certain pieces of meat will be touching the marinade at once, so you constantly have to mix and swoosh the meat around making sure all pieces and sides get their fair share of marinating time.
But with a dry rub, you rub and coat every inch of meat and just let it sit without the need of constant mixing. Also, dry rubs seem to permeate meat faster than liquid marinades.
Now, at this point you’re probably wondering how to create a good dry rub. Ask any BBQ grill master and they’ll tell you a great rub must find a balance between savory, sweet, spicy and smoky. Most of these BBQ guys spent years perfecting just the right dry rub for their ribs, steaks, chicken and brisket – and they’ll sell their firstborn before they share that rub recipe with you.
So, to help you out, here’s an excellent all-purpose meat dry rub recipe to get you started. And if you’re all about the steak, here’s an overview of the best cuts. and here are some tips for how to cook the perfect steak plus 4 ways to cook it.
How to Season Different Types of Meat
Now, once you get the hang of basic seasoning and using a dry rub, you’ll probably want to get a bit more creative and come up with your own seasoning mixes for your dishes. If you’re unfamiliar with the basic elements of cooking, like how to flavor profile and how salt, fat, acid, and heat all work together to complete a dish, then check out our guide here.
Now let’s get into seasoning the meats! Here’s an overview of what herbs and spices pair well with each type of meat.
How to Season Poultry
Chicken is definitely the blank slate of the meat world as it’s naturally mild in flavor. You have the option of going savory or sweet with chicken. Here are some herbs and spices that pair very well with the the different cuts of the bird:
- Citrus (lemon, lime and orange)
How to Season Pork
Pork is a meat of intrigue. Is it a red meat or a white meat? It’s technically a white meat, but it has much more flavor than chicken, so not quite the blank slate.
Here are some flavors that pair nicely with the different cuts of pork:
- Juniper berries
How to Season Lamb
Lamb, or mutton, which is just an older sheep, is a rich-tasting meat used in a lot of dishes in Greece and India, so a Greek or Indian flavor profile works well. Consider using:
How to Season Beef
Beef. It’s the king of meat with a bold flavor, so you’ve got to use herbs and spices that can hold their own in the pot or pan. Beef also comes in a variety of cuts, each having its own flavor profile. The spice and herb mix you like with one cut you may not like with another, so do some experimenting.
Here are some flavors that pair really well with beef:
- Chile powder
- Cocoa powder
- Yellow mustard
When it comes to seasoning taco meat, you have two choices: Buy a packet of taco seasoning at the grocery store, essentially phoning it in, OR create your own taco meat seasoning blend. Okay, or just steal someone else’s recipe.
How to Season Seafood
Seafood is a fairly vague and broad category that includes “regular” fish such as salmon and Tilapia as well as shellfish such as clams and shrimp – and different cuisines have different seasoning techniques. For example, Greek seafood ranges from fresh anchovies “cooked” in lemon juice, olive oil and fresh herbs to octopus baked on a bed of herbs.
Having said this, there are some flavors that pair well with the whole kit-and-kaboodle:
The Right Tools for the Job
Now that you're officially a meat (and fish) seasoning expert, go forth and dry rub with confidence! And don't forget the tools for slicing through those meats, like a sharp chef's knife and a boning knife (or all of the essential kitchen knives), plus the best steak knives for slicing through the finished product!