Mops and rubs give flavor to barbecued meat before or during cooking, and seasonings and sauces give flavor during cooking or after. Each region will have its own favorite flavors and sauces.
Mop sauces are thin and acidic and are used to baste meats during cooking, especially pork, as it slow cooks. Since most mops have little or no sugar, they can baste all throughout the cooking time without fear it will burn. Mops are typically applied with a miniature version of a cotton mop since it soaks up the thinner sauces better than a standard bristle or silicone brush. The vinegary flavor helps to cut the fat flavor in the finished product.
A typical recipe for a mop sauce can be as simple as vinegar (white or cider vinegar), chili pepper flakes, and salt and pepper. Spiced up versions contain spices or herbs, lemon peel, a little sweetness to cut down the vinegar (like a bit of white or brown sugar, maple syrup or honey), and melted butter or beef stock for richness and flavor. If you want to use the same mop sauce recipe for basting as serving at the table, make sure you keep the sauce for mop basting separate as this will inevitably have raw meat juices in it picked up during the mopping process and you don’t want to cross contaminate.
There are two kinds of rubs: dry rubs and wet rubs. Dry rubs are simply a mixture of dry ingredients rubbed on meats before cooking. Wet rubs are dry rubs with a bit of moisture to make them spreadable or workable. This could be anything from vegetable oil, beer, melted butter, mustard, whisky, or even molasses.
What’s in a rub? Just about any combination of spices you can think of. It is used to flavor meats, so almost anything goes here and the sky’s the limit. There is a basic combination though, and the Texas Barbecue website from Texas A&M takes the 4-S approach to rubs – salt, sweet, spicy, savory. Just mix something from each of these four categories for a classic barbecue rub that even a beginner can put together.
- Salt – your choice, from regular table salt, sea salt, Kosher (coarse grained salt), or even a seasoned salt as the base.
- Sweet – white or brown sugar.
- Spicy – any kind of pepper here works, such as black, cayenne, or white pepper, or even ground up chile peppers.
- Savory – something to give the rub some flavor, such as different spices or dried herbs. Onion and garlic powder are classic choices, as are cumin, coriander, mustard powder, dried ginger, and all kinds of dried herbs.
Seasonings are different from rubs as they can be sprinkled on the meat before cooking, or at the table for service. They can be made ahead of time and stored in small shakers for whenever you need them. Seasoning mixtures are either salt based, or herb or spice based.
Barbecue sauces are definitely regionally influenced, and can contain anything from ketchup to mustard, mayonnaise to vinegar or fruit juices. They can be sweet and sticky or zippy and thin, and spicy with some kick to completely tame and mild. A good sauce can also save an otherwise unremarkable barbecued piece of meat, too, heaven forbid.