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Dry Rub or Marinade: Which Is Better for Grilling Meat?

Dry Rub or Marinade: Which Is Better for Grilling Meat?

Words Jennifer Billock

Food from the grill benefits from a little seasoning beforehand. Learn which technique works best for which types of meat and try an easy recipe for each.

If you’re looking to up the flavor when you’re cooking on the grill, dry rubs and marinades have you covered. Dry rubs create a light crust around the meat, locking in juiciness, while marinades use an acidic base to tenderize the meat as it soaks. Both impart equal flavor, so how do you know which one to use with which type of food? And how do you create the perfect dry rub, anyway? Also, what’s the best way to marinate a protein? Check out this guide for answers to your dry rub and marinade questions.

steak on a grill

What Is a Dry Rub?

A dry rub refers to a powdery blend of spices and herbs that you spread over meat to season it before grilling. Often, sugar of some sort is added to the dry rub to form a caramelized crust on the meat as it cooks. Meats seasoned with a dry rub can be cooked shortly after the herbs are applied, but allowing the seasoning to soak into the flesh for anywhere between 30 minutes to 3 hours first will increase the flavor.

You can use a dry rub on almost any type of meat, but it works best on cuts that are naturally juicy and retain their tenderness with grilling—steaks and ribs are great options. Dry rubs can be stored for up to six months in an adjustable shaker so they are fresh and ready to go the next time you want to use them. One to try:

dry rubbed chicken

Spicy Sweet Garlic Rub


  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup onion powder
  • 1/4 cup garlic powder
  • 3 tablespoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons pepper
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper


  1. Whisk all ingredients together in a small bowl. Adjust seasonings to taste.
  2. Rub mixture on all sides of the steak, using a tablespoon of dry rub per pound of meat, or until meat is covered. (You can sprinkle the seasoning over the meat with a spoon or your fingers, then use a basting brush to spread it evenly across the surface.)
  3. Put steaks on a plate and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  4. Grill the meat, turning as necessary for even cooking. Note: When you cook the steaks on a grill, make sure they’re not directly over the flame. Direct flame will cause the sugar in the rub to burn instead of caramelizing.
marinade brush

When Should You Use a Marinade?

A marinade is like a wet version of a dry rub. Placing meats in a marinade before grilling can help to both tenderize and flavor them. Marinades usually contain acidic components, which allow the liquid to penetrate the flesh easier. You can also use a marinade to baste your food on the grill as it cooks. Chicken, seafood and pork—which can dry out easily—are good candidates for a marinade. You can make one at home (see below) or use store-bought varieties: Hawaiian is great for chicken, teriyaki and barbecue-based marinades work well for chicken or steak, and an herb-and-garlic variety works well with fish.

Keep in mind, though, that seafood should be timed to marinate for 30 minutes or less, or else it can become tough. Chicken can go a few hours, and pork can marinate overnight. If you make your marinade in a big batch, it can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge—handy if you plan to use it again within a few days. Give this one a try:

marinade brush

Rosemary Lemon Pepper Marinade


  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • Juice and zest from 1 lemon
  • 1 tablespoon chopped rosemary
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  1. Add all ingredients to a large mixing bowl and mix until well-blended. Taste and add more rosemary, salt and pepper if desired.
  2. Place one to two pounds of chicken pieces in the bowl (skin on or off), a toss gently in the marinade, using tongs to turn each piece and thoroughly coat all sides.
  3. Cover the bowl and place in the fridge. Marinate for 2-4 hours.
  4. Place over medium heat on the grill.
  5. To add additional flavor as you grill, pour remaining marinade into a basting pot, dip the brush into the sauce, then cover the chicken pieces in long, even strokes.
ribs on the grill

Once you get the hang of dry rubs and marinades, it’s an easy way to bring more flavor to everything you grill. Streamline the process of putting together a dry rub by keeping your spices organized in the pantry.

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By Jennifer Billock

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