Spice Blending for A Spring Snow Day!

by | Monday, March 21, 2016 | 0 comment(s)

I originally wrote this post a couple of years ago. I was going to leave it unedited, but I’ve pretty much rewritten it—oh well! My thoughts are pretty much the same. I’d like to emphasize the importance of texture and how that can affect the overall flavor of the blend. I tend to grind my blends coarsely so people will get chunks of flavor which develop into a FULL mouth flavor. If a spice blend is not well balanced you run the risk of creating a rub that blankets the food and doesn’t enhance it—this can be especially true of finely ground blends.

Here are some of my thoughts based on 18 years of blending experience:

Spice-Rub blending 101

1. Keep your blend as simple as possible.You never want the blend to muddy the flavor of what you’re putting it on. It can be a simple at salt, pepper, and sugar; and this trinity is a good place to start.
2. A good blend hits the front, middle, and back of the mouth. (Jalapeno-Lime Salt has three ingredients and flavor develops in three stages, in order: salty, sour, spicy.)
3. Start with one overall flavor that you’d like to work with—for example, when I created Orange Sesame Five Spice, my goal was to create a Five Spice Powder based spice blend. Five Spice Powder can be a little intimidating to regular cooks, it is expensive to make and it’s a dense blend of powerful spices not typical for our Western understanding of “savory.” I thought if I could design a user friendly rub I could turn people on to the awesomeness that is Five Spice Powder.

Once I decide on my overall flavor I begin to look at many, many recipes and think about how I like use whatever flavor I’m trying to develop.

4. Then I typically decide whether I want broad sweet tones (Chinese tends toward sweet hot) or high sour tones (Tex-Mex tends toward sour hot). Once you make this choice you really narrow the blend. For instance, chipotle can go either sweet or sour. When I created Sweet Smoky Fire I wanted it sweet enough to caramelize on a steak so I used maple sugar in combination with turbinado sugar for a rich mellow sweetness. On the other hand, when I was developing my Chipotle Dip, I went sour. I was looking for a condiment to be served with tortilla chips or burritos, so for this blend I used lemon to accent the chipotle. For my Five Spice blend I went with the sweetness of orange.

I think for beginners it’s important not to crisscross the sour-sweet line--refer to rule 1. (Though, in my Seafood and Chowder blend I use a little tart (lemon) with a little sweet (thyme and fennel). )

5. Now fill the blend out.

  • For chili based blends: How hot do you want it? If you want a very hot rub, do be careful not to make it too thin and watery tasting. Very hot chilies always seem thin to me, so I like to blend chilies. A nice basic combination to start with is a 50-50 mix of ancho and arbol. You can then accent it with more heat (Habanero, or Pequin, or even Cayenne) or with smokiness (Chipotle) or rich nuttiness (Cascabel). You can choose peppers that catch you in the lips (Hababero) and place them in combination with peppers that catch you in the back of the throat (all types of Jalapeno). It’s also nice to play chilies in concert with black or white pepper (in my Coffee Rub I have healthy amounts of both chili and black pepper).
  • How fat do you want it? As I mentioned above, sometimes chilies can have a bit of a thin or watery mouth feel to me, so I start by balancing the chilies.Then, I continue the process.In herb and savory blends it’s easy for delicate flavors to get lost, so it’s important to create a backdrop of flavor set-off more subtle flavors. Some spices definitely round out flavors and add “meatiness” to a blend. Cumin is the first I think of—when I was creating Mediterranean Seasoning (which began as a spice rub for lamb) I had a nice combination of herbs and a little sour, but it needed something to tie it all together—and cumin was it! In my Five Spice rub, it was sesame seeds—nutty, and velvety. Other nice fat, rounded spices/ingredients to play with are: garlic (minced or granulated), onion, thyme (sweet and rich), marjoram (seems to express the term “herby” like no other single herb), cocoa and coffee (for chili blends can really fill out the mouth feel without being obvious).


  • Texture; how do you want to deliver the flavors? Do you want a smooth single flavor? Do you want little bits of different flavors? A combination of the two?As I mentioned earlier, for me, chunky coarsely ground spice blends are the best! For my sister, not so much and certainly not if it’s going to get stuck in her teeth. And who can blame her? Yuk! For herby and savory-rich blends do you have enough “POW!”? Adding garlic, chili, black, or white pepper can really wake-up mellow blends. Don’t be shy, use strong flavors! Cracked mustard, pepper, coriander, fennel and minced garlic, citrus zest, are all things I love to use to add a nice chewy element to a blend. Coarse sugars and salts are easy ways to add texture to your spice rub. Fun and different types of sugar can do this too—date sugar, coconut sugar, maple sugar can all add dimension to your rub. Don’t be afraid to use fresh ingredients in your rub. Add fresh lemon, lime, orange, or grapefruit zest to your blend for a lot of flavor pop (and texture). How about adding freshly grated creamed coconut.
  • Accents! Or Secret Ingredients.These little babies can really put your blend over the top! Sweet spices like cinnamon, clove, anise, allspice—can enhance and complete your blend.Strong herbs like ground bay or ground rosemary can fill herby gaps.
  • Salt. Always be careful not to over-salt a blend (remember salt draws moisture out of meat while it’s being cooked). Many of the cheaper commercial blends are primarily salt (because it’s cheap), and it ruins the food. Use a high quality flaked Kosher salt, Maine Sea Salt, Maldon Salt, etc. I’ve recently fallen in love with a lovely medium coarse Celtic sea salt. Raw salts (like Maine Sea Salt or a grey French/Celtic salt) are fantastic to use; adding richness in flavor that’s hard to find elsewhere. You can even skip the salt in the blend and add it when you’re serving.

Be generous when you put a spice rub on meat (you want to cover the meat but not too thickly).

Before you grill, sauté, broil, etc. let the spices rest on the meat until they look wet.

Try this simple spice rub--don’t be afraid to play around with it.

(At Portland Spice Company we called it Gale’s Texas Rub named for a friend who donated a version of the recipe to PSC):

  • 1 part chili powder (what you use in chili or a combination of ground chili peppers)
  • 1 part garlic granules (or powdered)
  • 1 part ground cumin
  • 1 part turbinado sugar
  • ½ part flaked kosher salt

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