One of the quickest, easiest ways I know to add flavor to a piece of meat is to make a fresh herb rub. All I have to do is chop up some thyme, rosemary, or oregano, add some garlic and spices, and bind them together with olive oil. In just a few minutes, I’ve made a flavorful mixture that will add something new and interesting to a steak dinner or a roasted chicken.
While I make my rubs with the herbs from my garden, I also recommend this technique to customers who buy meat from me at the farmers’ market, because everything they need is right nearby. All they have to do is walk down the row to one of the neighboring stalls and pick out the herbs they like best.
There are a number of benefits to making a rub with fresh herbs: I love the bright flavors that fresh herbs add to meat; unlike dried herbs, they aren’t likely to overwhelm the flavor of the meat itself, no matter how much I use. By making my own spice mix, I can tailor the flavors to my family’s preferences while avoiding the additives that you find in some packaged mixes. And using fresh herbs also lets me bring some of my garden’s seasonal flavors to my table in a different, unique way.
This kind of rub works well on all kinds of meat—chicken, lamb, and a variety of beef cuts, from steaks to short ribs to chuck roasts. You’ll just want to vary the components to suit the flavor of the protein. Here are some tips for making your own rub:
Start with herbs you like the flavor of, and smell them together if you want to combine a couple different ingredients.
Some herbs, like sage and rosemary, can become overwhelming in a mix, so make sure to start with a small amount; you can always add more as you go.
Some herbs are often paired with certain meats, and with good reason. Rosemary pairs really well with the rich, slightly gamey flavor of lamb, and also works well with chicken, while things with a little bit of a kick, like thyme, work really well with beef.
I like to add fresh garlic and some dried spices to my herbs, to round out the flavor. Cumin seeds, coriander seeds, and fennel seeds work well, as do black peppercorns, which break into larger pieces in a mortar and pestle than they do in a grinder. (Sometimes I’ll even add a little bit of dried oregano.)
Taste your rub as you go! The best part of these rubs is that you can really tailor them to your own preferences, so don’t be afraid to take a little scoop with your finger and see how the flavors are developing. (Just be careful not to get too big of a piece of pepper!)
Once you’ve made your rub, you’ll want to apply it to the meat right away. The longer you let it sit on the meat, the more the flavors will blend together. I always try to prepare my meats the night or the morning before I’m going to cook them, so that they can have a lot of time in the refrigerator. But if you’re short on time and can only let the meat and herbs sit for a few minutes, the mixture will still add some nice flavor to your meal. Just make sure to take your meat out of the refrigerator an hour of so head of time so that it can come to room temperature before you cook it.
The mixture below is one I made last week, to season some New York strip steaks. It has a wonderful combination of thyme leaves and fennel seeds, with some sage and pepper to round out the flavor. It’s really yummy as is, but you should also feel free to use this recipe as a jumping off point and an inspiration for your own creations!
Fresh Herb Rub for Steaks
(Makes enough for 2 steaks )
Total time: Varies, depending on how long you rest your meat
Active time: 15 minutes (for making the rub)
- 7–10 sprigs of thyme
- 5 small sage leaves (or 2-3 larger leaves) roughly chopped
- 3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
- ½ teaspoon whole fennel seeds
- ½ tsp whole black peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Use your fingers to strip the leaves off of the thyme’s woody stems, then put the leaves in a mortar with the sage, garlic, fennel seeds, and peppercorns. Crush everything together with a pestle until the mixture begins to feel like a paste. Make sure that you’re crushing the fennel and black peppercorns well—you should hear the peppercorns pop. Add the salt, and mash everything together until you have a thick paste and you can smell the crushed thyme and fennel seeds. Add the olive oil and continue mashing everything until it comes together. Taste the mixture and adjust the flavors, if you like. (The pepper might be strong.)
To use the rub, spread it onto two steaks with the back of the spoon (or your fingers!), pressing it gently into the meat and making sure to cover as much surface area as possible. (When you start working with the rub, you might think that there’s not enough of the paste to cover two steaks, but remember, this is a rub, not a sauce, so a little goes a long way.) Wrap the steaks in plastic wrap to hold the seasonings on the meat, then put them on a plate in the refrigerator until about an hour before you plan to start cooking. When you’re ready, cook the steaks like you normally would, on the grill or in a pan with a bit of olive oil.
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Photos by Elizabeth Poett