Rubs, Marinades And Sauces: What’s The Difference?

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Everyone knows rubs, marinades and sauces help make delicious vegetables, meat and fish taste even better, but do you really know why to choose one over another? Find out what makes each of these preparations unique and how they are best put to use.

What Is A Marinade?

Marinades have a special role in recipes. Unlike sauces or rubs, foods soak in marinades before you cook them. Because they're intended to soak into foods over a period of time, marinades are generally more concentrated in flavor than sauces.

In addition to adding flavor, marinades also tenderize foods and maintain their moisture during cooking. This is especially helpful when you're working with tougher meats. Here are a few marinade basics:

  • Marinades are a mixture of spices, herbs and an acid. The acid component can be a citrus fruit, some type of vinegar or an alcohol.
  • The acid in your marinade is what works to break down the connective tissue in your meat, chicken or fish and make it tender.
  • Oils and other liquids in marinate are what help keep food moist during cooking.
  • You'll need about ¼ cup of marinade for each pound of meat you're working with.
  • If you're preparing a tough cut of meat, marinate it in the refrigerator for at least four hours or even overnight.
  • Tender proteins such as chicken breasts or fish fillets should marinate no longer than two hours.
  • No matter how delicious your marinade is, don't give in to the temptation to use it as a sauce to pour on foods later. Whatever bacteria or parasites were in your raw meat have contaminated the marinade and soaked in.
  • If you really want another use for your leftover marinade, try it as a basting when you grill your meat. Just never use it uncooked.
  • You can marinate food in a ceramic dish covered with plastic wrap or just use a re-sealable plastic bag for easy clean up.


What Are Rubs?

Rubs contain a mixture of herbs, spices and sometimes sugar. They're similar to marinades in that you use them before you cook your food, adding extra flavor and spice to meat, poultry and fish. This is where the similarity ends. Unlike marinades, rubs don't tenderize food at all. You apply them to food rather than soaking, by rubbing them onto surfaces as their name implies. Rubs are applied to foods a few hours before cooking to give flavors a chance to penetrate.

  • Dry rubs: These are made with only dry seasonings and spices. In addition to adding a nice flavor, they also form a crusted layer around foods that locks flavorful juices inside. Dry rubs do double duty as a seasoning for sprinkling on vegetables right before you cook them. Feel free to make a recipe in bulk because you can safely store dry rubs in an airtight container for a long time.
  • Wet rubs: This rub variation starts off with dry spices and seasonings, and then introduces a liquid component. This liquid might be some type of oil, liquor, honey, mustard, citrus juice, mustard or a combination of these. The liquid ingredients transform the rub into a paste, sealing in flavor of meats and fish as well as adding moisture. When working with wet rubs, watch meat carefully and turn often to prevent charring. Additionally, be aware that sugar and oil-based rubs may catch fire if your heat is too high. Wet rubs are great for slow-cooking meats at lower temperatures.

Defining A Sauce

When it comes to sauce, things can get a little confusing. Sauce is a very broad term that includes any type of liquid or semi-liquid served on or with your food. It also includes liquids used to prepare your food, such as cooking sauces. Sauces range from the most fancy, delicate preparations to some of the most everyday condiments. You'll find an extensive variety of sauces to compliment your foods. These sauces are just some of the many options that fall into this wide-ranging category:

  • Veloute: This stock based sauce is usually made from fish, chicken or veal stock. Veloute sauce may also contain cream and egg yolks.
  • Béchamel: This classic white sauce is made from milk, butter and flour.
  • Hollandaise and mayonnaise: These sauces are made from an emulsion of fat and egg yolks.
  • Vinaigrette: Made from oil, vinegar and seasonings, vinaigrette can also function as a marinade.
  • Ketchup and mustard: These kitchen staples are technically considered sauces.
  • Barbeque sauce: Ribs wouldn't be the same without this flavorful sauce.
  • Tomato sauce: A huge category in itself, this versatile type of sauce is delicious on pizza and pasta. Some common varieties include marinara, tomato-basil and fra-diavolo sauce.

Rubs, marinades and sauces are often the touches that turn ordinary food into something really special and flavorful. Now that the mystery is cleared up, why not try one of these additions with your next meal?

Last Updated: August 12, 2012
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About Roberta Pescow Roberta Pescow holds a bachelor's degree in communications from City University of New York, Queens College and is a freelance writer and editor in the NJ area. The author of "A Life In The Service" and "A Monster's Tears," she enjoys writing informative articles, personal essays, fiction and music.  Roberta is a proud mother of two. Her other interests include fitness, photography, sculpture and meditation. She is a voracious reader and holds a 2nd degree black belt in Tae Kwan Do. Roberta enjoys decorating her hectic, but happy home and garden in original and affordable ways.  

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