Marinades, brines, sauces and rubs are some of the easiest and usually least expensive methods for adding tons of flavour to your meals.
But, you may be asking, what’s the difference between them? Are they interchangeable? Is there ever a time where I *shouldn’t* use one over the other? The answers to the above questions are: a lot; sometimes; and yes, absolutely. Let’s quickly go over what each term means. Thanks in advance to amazing website The Cookful, which has a very informative series of articles explaining this very thing. I will short-form the information here, but if you want more info, please check out What’s the Difference between a Marinade, Brine, Rub, and Sauce, How do Marinades Work, Common Marinade Mistakes, and Flavor Combinations for Fantastic Marinades.
Marinades are most often a mixture of an acid (such as citrus or vinegar), salt, fruit (like pineapple or kiwi, which are highly acidic) or vegetables, herbs, spices, and sometimes alcohols that is used on meat, fish and sometimes other foods. Marinades are meant to soak in to the surface of the food to add flavour and soften textures; they don’t penetrate the entire cut of meat or whatever it is you’re marinating.
So how does it work? Put simply, the acid in the marinade breaks down the proteins on the surface of the meat, which tenderizes it and makes it easier for the flavour to penetrate (though it doesn’t go far).
Marinades are best used on smaller cuts like steaks, poultry parts, pork chops and (very) small roasts. However, their weak penetrating power still results in some nice tenderizing and flavour enhancement. Using marinades on larger cuts of meat often leads to it being overly effective on the outside, rendering the outside of your meat being mushy or tough, while the inside is largely unaffected.
Lastly, you can use meat marinades as a pan sauce ONLY if you very thoroughly cook the marinade afterwards (a minimum of 10 minutes at a rolling boil). But please don’t frugally “save” marinades from long-ago meat preparations; just buy a gravy packet or something. Food borne bacteria is no joke.
Brines are used to add moisture to meats. The act of oven cooking dries out meat, which, for example, can turn a succulent turkey into tasting like cardboard. Brines help meats with less natural fat (fat=moisture) to stay moist by breaking down the meat’s surface and retaining water for longer as it roasts, resulting in juicier meat.
Brines are as un-complex as it gets; the most basic of all brines is simply salt and water. Other ingredients such as an acid, herbs and spices can be optionally added for flavor, but it’s not required. As mentioned above, the brine’s job is to bring moisture to lean meats, and as such are usually used on lean proteins such as turkey and chicken. Always discard the brine before cooking your bird; it’s done its job and has nothing more to offer. Never try to use a brine as a sauce, as it will be far too salty.
Sauces add flavour and moisture to your food, and unless they are marketed as “bbq sauce” or “cooking sauces”, are meant to be enjoyed while you’re eating it, not when you’re cooking it. Why’s that? Well, many sauces have a high sugar content, and as such are not ideal for extensive cooking as they burn very quickly.
In addition, table sauces such as A1, ketchup, HP sauce and the like, are highly concentrated and not meant to be cooked with; a little goes a long way. If you’re cooking with these types of sauces you will either need to a) thin them out so much they lose their flavour punch, b) use too much, thereby wasting product unnecessarily, or c) not use enough, thereby making the whole effort fruitless. Cooking sauces, on the other hand, are thinned out extensively and flavour-balanced to take into account the amount of time your meat or vegetables will be cooking in them.
You can use a sauce as a marinade, but follow the instructions above under “Marinades” if you want to use the former-sauce-now-marinade as a pan sauce. For health and safety reasons, it would be better to just have some extra unused sauce to serve with your meal.
Rubs, or dry rubs, are just as they sound; with little to no liquid involved (though there may be a little fat like oil to help it adhere, but is not necessary), rubs are mainly used to add flavour to the surface of the meat. Most dry rubs contain salt, which can help to melt fat as the meat cooks, which in turn makes the meat juicier. Salt rubs are especially useful on larger cuts of meat; it will flavour the outside of your meat but also penetrate and melt fats inside to make every slice tender, juicy and delicious.
Creating a rub is as simple as deciding which herbs and spices you like the sound of together; mix up a quantity of each, depending on the size of the cut of meat you’re using, then rub it directly onto the cut of meat. You can either refrigerate the rubbed meat until you’re until you’re ready to start cooking, or start cooking immediately.
Check out Taste of Home‘s compilation of 17 Dry Rub Recipes That Will Up Your Grilling Game,
While you’re at it, here’s a link to my post on DIY Spice Mixes, with some simple recipes I developed for some delicious marinades, brines, sauces and rubs. Happy cooking!