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4th of July cooking — here’s the rub

By Gretchen McKay

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Holidays are all about tradition. so little surprise that July Fourth remains the most popular day of the year for grilling. Close to 70 percent of us will be cooking our beloved beef, chicken and fish over gas, charcoal or an open fire on Independence Day, cementing the cookout’s reputation as America’s favorite — and perhaps only — way to celebrate the Fourth.

Where backyard chefs differ is in how they choose to season the proteins they’re about to throw on the grill.

Some let the meat speak for itself with little more than a sprinkling of salt, but if you really want to transform chicken, beef or fish from something ordinary into a dish that sings, consider a tasty marinade or sauce.

Marinating before grilling infuses meat with flavor while basting it with a complementary sauce while cooking — typically during the last few minutes of grilling or after slicing — gives it sheen and helps build the crust that makes your tastebuds shout “Wow!”

It’s also good to have a really great spice rub in your grilling arsenal, especially if you want delish, tender meat on a budget — rubs permeate tough cuts, creating complex layers of flavor.

“They help meat taste and look delicious and they’re crucial to the formation of a tasty, crusty bark,” writes Texas pitmaster Aaron Franklin and co-author Jordan Mackay in “Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto (Ten Speed, April 2015, $29.99).

What sets a great rub apart from a lesser competitor depends on the whims of the cook. Standard rubs include salt, pepper, granulated garlic and onion and often paprika or dried chilies for a bit of heat; the goal, notes the authors, is to “complement a nice piece of meat, not to obscure a crappy piece of meat. All spices should react well with one another. No one spice should stand out or be too recognizable.”

Restraint, along with balance, also is the name of the game when stirring together sauces and marinades. You want to dress up the meat or fish, not drown it.

Some tips before cooking:

• Always apply a rub to meat about 1 hour before cooking, letting it come to room temperature before placing on the grill. This allows the seasoning to “sweat” into the meat, Mr. Franklin explains. Also, try to get an even coat of rub over the surface of the meat to allow for even cooking.

• Pay careful attention to marinating times; leave it on too long, and it can turn the surface mushy. Poultry takes anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours; delicate fish and seafood shouldn’t swim more than 30 minutes in a marinade.

• Never reuse marinade used on raw meat or poultry unless you boil it first to destroy harmful bacteria.

• Sauces should be brushed on the last 5 to 15 minutes of cooking. Keep a careful eye on the fire — most barbecue sauces have sugar in them and you don’t want it to burn.

BBQ CHICKEN RUB

This chicken rub has incredible depth and flavor, and works just as well on beef and pork as it does poultry. We used it to season the Beer-Can Chicken featured below.

2 tablespoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon smoked paprika

1 tablespoon onion powder

1 1/2 teaspoons ground red pepper

1 1/2 teaspoons cumin

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon ground thyme

1 teaspoon ground oregano

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Stir together salt and remaining ingredients. Store in an airtight container for up to 6 months.

— “Southern Living Ultimate Book of BBQ” (Oxmoor House, April 2015, $24.95)

BEER CAN BBQ CHICKEN

Talk about presentation! And so easy — just place the bird on the grill, and let the beer escaping the can keep it moist while cooking.

4-pound chicken

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 1/2 tablespoons BBQ Chicken Rub

1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

12-ounce can beer

Remove neck and giblets from chicken, and reserve for another use. Rinse chicken and pat dry with paper towels. Brush cavity and skin with vegetable oil. Stir together BBQ rub and salt; sprinkle mixture inside cavity and on outside of chicken. Chill chicken 30 minutes to 12 hours.

Let chicken stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Light 1 side of grill, heating to 350 to 400 degrees (medium-high). Leave other side unlit. Open beer. Place chicken upright onto beer can, fitting can into cavity. Pull legs forward to form a tripod, so chicken stands upright.

Place chicken on unlit side of grill. Grill, covered with grill lid, 1 to 1 1/2 hours or until golden and instant-read thermometer inserted into thickest part of thigh registers 165 degrees. Carefully remove chicken from can. Cover chicken loosely with aluminum foil and let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Serves 4.

BONE DUST BBQ RUB

PG tested

1/2 cup paprika

1/4 cup chili powder

3 tablespoons salt

2 tablespoons ground coriander

2 tablespoons garlic powder

2 tablespoons white sugar

2 tablespoons curry powder

2 tablespoons dry hot mustard

1 tablespoon fresh ground black pepper

1 tablespoon ground basil

1 tablespoon ground thyme

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon cayenne

Mix all ingredients together and store in a jar until ready to use.

Rub on chicken, beef, or pork before barbecuing.

— “Gastro Grilling” by Ted Reader (Penguin, $29)

PROVENCAL HERB RUB

PG tested

3 tablespoons dried thyme

3 tablespoon dried rosemary

2 dried bay leaves

2 tablespoons dried basil

2 tablespoons dried marjoram

1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds

1 teaspoon dried summer savory

1 teaspoon dried lavender buds

Combine ingredients, leaving bay leaves whole. Prepare at least 1 hour before using so the bay leaves have time to infuse the mixture with their flavor. Store in dark cupboard in a glass jar with tight-fitting lid for up to 6 months. Remove bay leaves before using.

Makes 2/3 cup.

— “BBQ Bistro” by Karen Adler and Judith Fertig (Running Press, April 2015, $20)

CURRIED COCONUT MILK MARINAD

Perfect for chicken breast or satay.

15-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk

2 tablespoons chopped lemongrass, bruised with the side of a chef’s knife to release flavor

2 tablespoons palm sugar

2 shallots, minced

2 teaspoons curry powder

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

Mix all the ingredients in bowl or large zip-close plastic bag. Use within a few hours for best flavor.

Pour marinade over poultry, massaging it over and under the skin. Allow seasoned poultry to sit for at least 30 minutes at room temperature, or up to a few hours covered in fridge.

— “The Barbecue Lover’s Big Book of BBQ Sauces” by Cheryl & Bill Jamison (Harvard Common Press, April 2015, $18.95)

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