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BBQ Seasoning Showdown: Dry Rub vs. Sauce

Every pitmaster knows that great BBQ flavor starts with wood smoke. However, wood smoke alone doesn’t give you the classic taste of Texas brisket or Carolina pulled pork. For that finishing touch, pitmasters turn to two classic methods of BBQ seasoning: dry rubs and BBQ sauces. The key to using rubs and sauce well is to realize that each has its own place and time! Using rubs and sauce at the right point in your cooking process will give you the flavor results you’re looking for, so let’s take at the question of dry rubs vs. sauce and when to use each.

a cut of beef on a cutting board with beef rub and gold n bold marinade

The Basics of Dry Rub

A BBQ dry rub is a blend of spices and herbs that you apply to meat before cooking it. As the meat cooks, the juices in the meat absorb the spices and circulate them throughout the meat, ensuring the whole cut gets the same delectable flavor. Dry rubs can include all kinds of tasty seasonings, but they’ll often have some combination of the following:

  • Kosher salt
  • Black pepper
  • Brown sugar
  • Garlic powder
  • Chili powder
  • Paprika

Applying a dry rub isn’t hard. Start by patting the meat dry with a paper towel to remove excess water. Then, sprinkle a generous helping of the spice mix all over the meat and rub it in with your hands. Some people like to add a thin coat of olive oil to the meat first to help the rub stick better. Once it’s rubbed in thoroughly, you’re ready to make the magic happen.

The Basics of BBQ Sauce

Sauce has been a fundamental part of good BBQ since, well, forever. Whether it’s a thick and sweet Memphis-style, a bold and zesty golden BBQ sauce or a tangy Carolina-style sauce, BBQ sauce plays a big role in determining how the final product tastes. Typically, BBQ sauce is the last thing to go on the meat before it’s served. That’s because many BBQ sauces are on the sweet side, and sugar can burn or turn gummy if it’s left on the meat during the cooking process. Thus, most pitmasters don’t add the final sauce until the meat is almost or completely done cooking. When serving the meat, it’s common to put the sauce on the side so that guests can choose how much or which sauce they want.  

Every pitmaster should also know about mop sauce, a special type of sauce that pitmasters apply to low-and-slow cuts like pork butt or ribs during cooking. Mop sauces are typically thinner and much less sweet than BBQ sauces, and their name comes from how they’re “mopped” onto the meat using a brush. Their recipes are often quite simple and use a wide variety of bases, from apple cider vinegar to beer.

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a bottle of grilla grills beef rub on a plate of bacon

Which Type of Seasoning Should You Use?

This question is less about choosing one side and more about timing. Specifically, you should know when each type of seasoning is appropriate to use on your BBQ! Here’s our basic guide to help you figure it out: 

  • Before Cooking: Dry Rub (or Marinade)
    • A dry rub is the perfect way to prep your meat for successful smoking and grilling. This allows the flavors from the spices to work their way into the meat. Many pitmasters also swear by injecting meat with a marinade using a meat injector before cooking. 
  • During Cooking: Mop Sauce
    • Mop sauce is the secret to keeping your meat moist and tasty as it cooks. It’s a key part of many low-and-slow smoker recipes, and one that helps pitmasters get the melt-in-your-mouth taste and texture that sets championship BBQ apart. Different recipes recommend applying mop sauce at different times, but it’s typically applied a few hours into the cooking process, often more than once. 
  • At the End: BBQ Sauce
    • Apply your BBQ sauce of choice during the endgame of the cooking process. When exactly to add it is a matter of preference, depending on personal taste and what you’re cooking. Some pitmasters prefer to sauce the meat 10 to 20 minutes before the end to allow it to caramelize slightly, especially when cooking ribs. Others don’t add it until they’re resting the meat before serving. Experiment and find out which one works for you!

a plate of bbq ribs

Every pitmaster needs a go-to arsenal of seasonings, and that’s exactly why we put together the Grilla Grills sauces and rubs collection! Check out our whole selection of delectable sauces and rubs, or browse all of our WiFi pellet grills to learn about the state-of-the-art grilling tech that Grilla Grills can bring to your patio.

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