Is a Rub or a Marinade Better for Flavorful Grilling?

Marinades and rubs go hand in hand with grilling. Both methods are used to add more flavor to your meal. But what, exactly, is the difference, and how do you know when to do what?

how to make a marinade grilled chicken
Marinated grilled chicken

How to make a marinade 

Marinades are a liquid solution spiked with spices. To marinate a protein, you immerse it in the liquid, and leave it to sit in the refrigerator for an hour or more. The flavors can vary based on your personal preference and the types of herbs, spices or liquids you’re adding to the mix. Marinades typically have an acidic component, like lemon juice or vinegar, that is said to help break down protein molecules and tenderize your meat. However, even with long soaking times, marinades primarily flavor the surface of meat, poultry or seafood. The liquid won’t actually penetrate all the way through. That makes this technique best suited for thin cuts of meat, like skirt steak. 

When marinating, make sure that you have enough liquid to coat your protein, but keep in mind that you can’t use the liquid as a sauce once it has touched raw meat. If you’re hoping to use your marinade on the finished meal, set some aside before using the rest to coat the raw meat. After your protein is done refrigerating, let any extra marinade drip off before placing on the grill. Excess oil and fat can lead to flare ups and uneven temperatures when grilling. 

How to make a rub

A rub is composed of salt, pepper, herbs, and spices. Sometimes sugar enters the mix, but there is not usually a liquid component. Similar to marinades, rubs season the surface of the food, but won’t penetrate all the way through. Unlike marinades, however, rubs don’t require an extended period of resting time to pick up the flavor. Once the rub is on, you’re all set to grill. Rubs make it easier to achieve a nice sear because of their dry nature. In order to sear a marinated piece of meat, you’d have to wait for moisture to completely evaporate. If your rub includes sugar, the caramelization will make achieving a nice crust even easier. Just be sure to keep a close eye on the grill; sugar can go from caramelized to burnt pretty quickly.

Start exploring the world of rubs and marinades with the recipes below. Adding flavor doesn’t have to stop here. After your protein comes off of the grill, adding a sauce can introduce new flavors to the dish. Bright and herbal sauces like chimichurri or salsa verde are a perfect complement to grilled steak and chicken. For a super easy flavor boost, keep it simple and brush store bought barbecue sauce on your cooked meat.

Lemony Tangy Grilled Chicken 

  • 1 Cup Greek yogurt
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • Zest of 1 lemon 
  • ¼ Cup olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped 
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp paprika 
  • 1/2 tsp coriander
  • 1 Tbsp fresh mint, roughly chopped 
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1 lb boneless skinless chicken breast or thighs 
  1. To make the marinade, combine all ingredients except the chicken in a large bowl. Whisk to thoroughly combine. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels. Season with salt and pepper on both sides, and add the seasoned chicken to the bowl of marinade. Turn to coat. Allow to marinate in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours. 
  1. Preheat your grill to maintain a temperature of 450-500°F. Oil the grill grates. Grill chicken for 7-8 minutes per side, or until browned and cooked through. 

Grilled Chicken with All-Purpose Dry Rub

  • 2 tsp paprika 
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • 1 tsp cumin 
  • 1 tsp thyme 
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder 
  • 1 tsp brown sugar 
  • 1lb boneless-skinless chicken breast or thighs 

1. To make the dry rub combine all of the ingredients except chicken in a large bowl,. Mix to thoroughly combine. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels. Season with salt, pepper, and enough dry rub to coat both sides.

2. Preheat your grill to maintain a temperature of 450-500°F. Oil the grill grates. Grill the chicken for 7-8 minutes per side, or until browned and cooked through. This rub would also work well on beef, pork, or even shrimp.

Find even more grilling tips in the Blue Apron guide to grilling