Marinades are messy. Sauces burn on the grill. And naked protein is, unfortunately, just that: naked.
If you're looking for big, complex flavor, the simplest option is a great dry rub, made with a combination of spices, herbs, salt, sugar and other ingredients. Massaged onto the surface of vegetables or protein shortly before grilling, the rub forms a tasty crust that caramelizes and seals in juices.
The fun thing about rubs is that they bring personality to the plate. Some are a blast of fresh chili peppers. Others are laced with citrus, coffee, fennel or even seaweed.
Some dry rubs are made for specific proteins; others can be sprinkled on anything. What's key is a flavor balance that complements the food, without overpowering it -- but it only takes a glance at the supermarket aisle to realize the category is dauntingly vast. So we set out to find some great go-to rubs by tasting our way through a sampling.
Tom Douglas' Rub With Love Spicy Tokyo Rub
This exotic umami explosion is made with sesame seeds, chilis, orange peel and seaweed. It smells benign in the jar, but grilled, it delivers a complex flavor kick that's bold and mildly hot but not overpowering. A 3.5-ounce jar is $7.39 at Whole Foods. (4 stars)
A jar of this and a hunk of protein is all you need to guarantee a great meal. It's a perfect blend of herbs and earthy spices that gives food a gentle, lingering heat. It also has a touch of cornstarch that helps seal the protein, making for a more juicy bite. An 11-ounce jar is $8.99 at Mollie Stone's. (4 stars)
Ferolito's Chicken Rub
Made by a small startup in American Canyon, this rub doesn't smell very promising, and it doesn't come in a sexy package. But the smoky paprika, mustard, basil and lemon transform meat into an incredibly tasty, sweet-hot bite. A 2.4-ounce jar is $2.90 at www.ferolitos.com. (4 stars)
Sauce Goddess Original Super Chunk Spice Rub
The unusual combination of fennel, coriander, mustard seed and thyme is a fun, unexpected flavor twist that totally works, especially on chicken or fish. A 1.75-ounce tin is $5.99 at Mollie Stone's. (3 ½ stars)
Ain't Cho Rub
If you love the Tex-Mex flavor of sweet, smoky chilis, this freshly made mix is a solid choice. The rub, packaged in a canning jar, boasts medium heat, with a pinch of cumin and oregano to round out the flavors. An 8-ounce jar is $5. (3 stars)
Black Dog Belly Rub
Made with lots of black pepper, green peppercorns and thyme, this herby, salt-free mix is a bit understated, but it provides a bright flavor boost without being too hot. A 4-ounce jar is $6.99 at Whole Foods. (2 ½ stars)
Char Crust Sun-Dried Tomato & Garlic
This disappointing rub smells good, but the flavor of sun-dried tomatoes is completely lost in a decidedly boring mix of chili powder, garlic and herbs. It comes in a papery pouch that will not store well once opened. A 4-ounce box is $6.79 at Mollie Stone's. (2 stars)
Just Cook Herbed Coffee Rub
As much as I wanted to love this peppery, coffee-oregano blend, it fell flat. The savory components are good, but it begs for a sweet element to complement the heavy spices. A 3.2-ounce tin is $7.99 at Whole Foods. (1 ½ stars)
Salt Sisters Porcini Poultry Rub
Unfortunately, the powdered herbs in this promising rub overpower the flavor of porcini, resulting in an unpleasant bitterness. It might fare better if used sparingly, as a dust instead of a rub. A 4-ounce packet is $6.25 at www.saltsistersonline.com. (1 star)
Stubb's Beef Steak Rub
Despite its interesting ingredients, which include molasses, coffee and tomato puree, this spicy rub tastes one-dimensional, and it's ridiculously salty. A 2-ounce jar is $5.49 at Mollie Stone's. (½ a star)
Emeril's All Natural Spice Rub
He may be an icon in the world of spicy food, but this rub is way off the mark. It lacks any detectable aroma and flavor beyond salt. A 3.88-ounce bottle is $4.99 at Mollie Stone's. (No stars)