How to Season Your Meat for Grilling or Smoking

How to Season Your Meat for Grilling or Smoking

Jun 23, 2023Bearded Butcher Blend Seasoning Co.

The difference between a good meal and perfection often comes down to the seasonings used to flavor the cut of meat. One of the main reasons that we developed our own line of seasonings is because so many products out there simply weren't very good or contained ingredients we didn't want to add to our food. 

The Bearded Butcher Blend Seasonings make it easy for you to get phenomenal flavor and tenderness without a bunch of fuss. Have you ever wondered how to use your favorite seasonings to get the most flavor from grilling or smoking? Then you are in the right place.

Today, we will break down how to properly season your meat for grilling or smoking so you can get professional results right at home.

What is the Proper Way to Season Meat?

There are several ways that you can season meat and get good results. Deciding the proper way to season the meat depends on a couple of factors. 

The most important factor is the type of protein you are cooking. The size will also make a difference, as will the way you plan to serve the meat after you have cooked it. There will also be factors to consider based on how you are going to cook the meat. 

But if we're going to generalize, there are two ways to season meat – a marinade or rub.

What is a Marinade?

A marinade refers to a liquid that the meat is immersed in that adds flavor and increases tenderness. Marinades work through either acidic or enzymatic reactions depending on the ingredients. 

Most marinades use olive oil, salt, and sugar along with a variety of herbs and spices to add flavor. Marinades using vinegar or lemon juice are acidic, while marinades that use yogurt or papaya are enzymatic.

Acidic marinades break down the molecular bonds in proteins and tenderize tough cuts of meat and raw beef fat. Acids can cause thin cuts of meat to become tough when the marinade is left on for too long.

Enzymatic marinades speed up the process of cellular reactions by breaking the natural bonds between muscle proteins. Enzymatic marinades can turn meat mushy when left on for too long.

What is a Dry Rub?

A dry rub is just what it sounds like – seasonings and spices that are rubbed onto the surface of the meat before the cooking process. Dry rubs can be made from a fascinating variety of spices, but typically include salt and pepper, garlic powder, and onion powder as the basic flavorings.

A dry rub works in two ways. First, the salt draws moisture from the surface of the meat which allows the flavor to penetrate. Second, the rub creates a crisp and flavorful crust on the meat when it is grilled or smoked.

When to Use a Marinade or a Dry Rub

A marinade is typically beneficial when you are planning to cook a cut of meat that has a tendency to become tough and dry when cooked. This can include cuts like brisket and tri-tip but also applies to pork loin and other similar cuts. 

Marinades are not a good idea for cuts like filet mignon or fish since the texture can quickly break down leaving you with an undesirable texture.

A dry rub is the most appropriate way to season meat that is fatty and tender already. You want to use a dry rub for a delicious steak, tender chicken breast, and of course, fish. 

A dry rub that is heavy on salt can work well to tenderize. This method is called dry brining and it will significantly enhance the texture. Since the flavor is on only the outside, a dry marinade won't penetrate deep into the meat unless the cut is very thin.

One trick we often do when cooking tough cuts of meat is to use a marinade to help tenderize the meat, then we will use a dry rub before cooking to enhance the smoke flavor. 

Our brisket recipe is a great example of the seasoning process.

We also have one more trick to share with you to enhance the flavor of your meat – a wet rub. A wet rub simply combines the benefits of a marinade with the ingredients of a dry rub to create a wet rub that can be applied before cooking. A wet rub can offer the best flavor.

When Should You Season Meat Before Grilling or Smoking?

The biggest disadvantage to using a marinade is that you have to plan ahead. The meat will need to stay submerged in the brine for several hours at a minimum, so this isn't a process that works for last-minute meals. 

In general, we recommend using a marinade for six to eight hours and never longer than 24 hours. Thinner, fattier cuts should be marinaded for shorter periods of time.

A dry rub doesn't require a long time to add flavor. The rub can be put on the meat right before it goes on the grill or in the smoker, so there is no waiting. This makes it perfect for quick meals when you want to add a sweet or savory flavor. 

Smoking meat that has a dry rub with brown sugar and other spices is the secret to creating a crispy bark.

Which One Gives a Stronger Flavor

A marinade tends to offer a more mild flavor. The reason is that the marinade does not penetrate deep into the meat, instead just flavoring the outside. Since the ingredients are diluted, the flavor is also more subtle than using a dry rub. 

If getting the most flavor possible is the goal, using a dry rub and adding spices will give you more flavor.

How to Season Your Meat to Perfection

The trick to seasoning a perfect cut of meat is to use high-quality ingredients. That's why we like to use our Bearded Butcher Blend seasonings. They are all-natural flavors, have no unnecessary ingredients, and will transform raw meat into a delicious feast.

For dry rubs: One of our current favorites is our Hollywood blend, the pure cane sugar and molasses create a combination of sweet and sultry features that also results in a nice bark effect in the smoker.

For marinades: We've experimented with using different types of oil in marinades and found that almost any oil will work. Vegetable oil is easily available and common, while olive oil or coconut oil will add different flavors to your meat. When you combine these marinades with other seasonings, the meat will be tender, delicious, and will cook up nice and moist.

What is the Best Choice for Smoking Meat

We tend to think that a dry rub is a superior choice for smoking meat. Marinades tend to increase the moisture level considerably which then must evaporate before the meat can begin to cook. In the smoker, this can lead to a longer than desired smoking session and could dry the meat out. 

A dry rub provides the proper seasoning for most cuts of meat that are going into the smoker. The smoking process will transform the salts and other ingredients into a tasty steak seasoning without having to wait all night for it to finish cooking.

What is the Best Choice for Grilling

Both dry rubs and marinades work well for seasoning meat for the grill. We usually will use a marinade on cuts that are going to be on the grill for a little while to enhance the flavor and provide a little protection from the heat. With quicker cooking food items, we stick with a dry rub.

How to Make Sure Your Dry Rub or Marinade Gives You Great Flavor

Most smokers are sold with a protective coating of light oil wiped down on the cooking chamber as part of the manufacturing process. If you don't periodically season your smoker, the smoker will begin to add flavors from previous smoking sessions – not something you always want. Giving your smoker a thorough cleaning periodically and seasoning the metal will prevent off flavors. Never use paint inside a smoker or barbecue. A properly seasoned smoker offers rust prevention and a clean flavor. You can use cooking spray to season the smoker or any high-temp cooking oil wiped down with a soft cloth.

Smoked meat can also take on flavors from the water pan, so don't forget to clean it. One neat hack that we have tried replaces the water in the pan with apple juice. As the smoker gets to a high temperature, the apple juice evaporates, coating the meat in a slightly sweet fog that improves the flavor of the smoke. We really like to use this hack when we make spatchcock chicken in the smoker.

When in Doubt, Use a Heavy Hand

What we have found over the many years that we have experimented with different flavors of seasonings is that there is no wrong way to go (unless you simply don't use enough flavor). A too-thin layer of seasoning on a big cut of meat won't add enough flavor to make you happy. 

If you watch our YouTube videos, you'll see that we often use an entire bottle of seasoning when we are cooking and we vigorously rub the seasoning into the meat. This makes sure that it sticks and that there is plenty of flavor.

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