Dry Rub vs. Marinade: What's the Best for Dry Aged Beef?
by Evan DeMarco on Aug 23, 2022
If you’ve got a tempting hunk of dry-aged beef just waiting for the grill, you’ll want to make the most of it. While some cooks swear by simple salt and pepper seasoning, others want to maximize flavor.
Dry rubs and marinades are both time-honored ways to add flavor to meat and fish. But which is better? Do either of them have the potential to ruin beef? Here’s what you need to know before you slap that steak on the grill.
Marinades consist of spices, seasonings and some type of liquid—usually an acid. The inclusion of acid helps tenderize meat. That’s why Samin Nosrat’s buttermilk-brined chicken is one of the juiciest, most flavorful roast chickens you’ll ever have. Citrus, vinegar and Worcestershire sauce are common marinade acids, but buttermilk, wine and other liquids can be used to great effect. The acid denatures some of the protein in the meat, creating the tenderizing effect.
Because the marinade ingredients don’t follow the beef to the grill, you can use strongly-flavored components (garlic cloves), or ingredients that would burn at high heat (rosemary and other herbs). Never use marinades to glaze or baste meat: discard the marinade as soon as you remove the meat, since it’s been in contact with raw protein.
When using marinades, pick tougher cuts that need to break down a bit before they’re tender and juicy. Skirt steaks, for example, are prime candidates for a marinade. They’re not as tender as other beef cuts, and are typically cooked for short periods over high heat.
Marinades allow flavor to penetrate deeply into the meat’s cell structure. However, they do not
There are two drawbacks to marinades, however. First, delicate meat like shrimp and fish—and an already-tender steak—can break down too much and become gummy. Second, marinades are anathema to that perfect crust on your steak. (This is created by the Maillard reaction.)
Second, marinades add more moisture to meat. That might sound like a net positive, but it has the opposite effect. Bon Appetit notes, “Whenever you apply heat to chicken thighs, pork chops, or any other piece of protein, the moisture on the surface needs to evaporate before a sear can start to develop, so dousing them in liquid beforehand doesn't make a whole lot of sense.”
Bottom line: marinades serve a purpose, but not for your dry aged beef.
Dry rubs, on the other hand, are perfect for your dry aged beef. Dry rubs consist of dry seasonings (salt, pepper, brown sugar, spices, herbs) applied to meat right before cooking. This is unlike a dry brine, which stays on meat for an extended period of time.
The key to a great dry rub is maintaining a balance between sweet, salty, heat and other flavor profiles. While there are dozens of elaborate recipes online, salt, pepper and brown sugar alone add significant flavor to meats.
Besides flavor, the main appeal of a dry rub is how easy it is to get that crackling, caramelized, seared crust on the outside of your steak. Because there’s no extra moisture on your meat (and you did remember to pay it dry, didn’t you?) you won’t waste precious minutes waiting for marinade liquid to evaporate. The end result is a crispier crust, without the danger of overcooking a quality piece of steak.
In other words, if you don’t need to tenderize your protein, skip the marinade. Dry rubs create superior flavor and texture, especially when you’re working with high-quality dry aged beef.
Tips and tricks
According to Bon Appetit, just because you opt for a dry rub doesn’t mean that you can’t use wet ingredients later in the cooking process. Brushing your steak with a glaze after searing is one way to add another layer of flavor, while finishing with a sauce—chimichurri, bearnaise and other favorites—offer additional texture and more intense flavor.
When you’re first experimenting with dry rubs, start simple. You’ll quickly learn how differently marinated beef and dry-aged beef “behave” during cooking. Then you can feel free to move on to high quality cuts and interesting ingredients. Toasted fennel or cumin seeds, dried thyme and rosemary and more can add fantastic depth of flavor to your food.
Eating quality food is just half the battle. Learning the optimal cooking methods will ensure that your dry aged beef is always rich, flavorful and satisfying. Go on, give that steak a massage.