Discovering that your pricey jar of barbecue rub is basically colored salt is disappointing — and problematic. Add too little to your food and the flavor is bland; add too much and you’ve created a salt bomb. The salt level in so many blends made for chicken, fish and meats is simply too high.
Enter a new category of seasoning blends — salt-free rubs that deliver a blast of complex flavors without relying on salt. Flavor without salt allows the cook to control the salt level of the finished product — and it’s perfect for those on salt-restrictive diets.
Companies both large and small have introduced salt-free rubs, including Lawry’s and Walnut Creek-based Kinder’s. Dak’s, an Alabama company, sells nearly two dozen kinds of salt-free seasonings. As plentiful as salt-free offerings have become, they are difficult to find in stores. The best place to get them is online.
To get a sense of what these salt-free offerings are about, we gathered nine brands and put them to work on a range of proteins.
Sadly, while most salt-free rubs are harmless in terms of health, not all of them are food-worthy. Bad salt-free rubs are disappointing, off-kilter blends that beg for more or less of something. The worst are nothing more than garlic and onion powder with a touch of color.
Great salt-free rubs are made with top-quality, freshly ground spices and aromatic herbs that deliver a burst of flavor. Those elements are expertly crafted into a balanced, flavorful blend that transforms plain protein into a bite of extraordinary, restaurant-worthy tastiness.
Here are details on the most flavorful barbecue rubs and the dusty, disappointing duds. Nutrition info is not included, as none of the rubs have calories, fat or sodium.
The pop of freshly ground black pepper, a touch of smoke and a kick of fresh herbs makes for a terrific seasoning for steak, pork or anything else. This brand includes potassium chloride, a salt substitute. Note that the Kinder’s Ancho Chili & Lime is also good, but not quite as impressive. $4.59 for 2 ounces at Raley’s. (4 stars)
Dak’s Original Red
Those looking for a traditional barbecue rub that hits the expected notes of smoke, heat and sweet will love this. It has a big punch of garlic and lots of spice, but the flavors mellow on the grill. Dak’s Blackened is also good. $9.95 for 2 ounces online. (4 stars)
Spice House West Indies Barbecue Rub
Adventurous eaters will fall for this bold rub that reflects Caribbean grill flavors. Allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon balance the heat of the chiles; thyme and dill add bright notes. Those looking for a more traditional flavor profile might prefer the company’s Central Street Old World Seasoning. $8.99 for 2.5 ounces at www.thespicehouse.com (3½ stars)
Dizzy Pig Dizzy Dust Barbecue Rub
A hint of pine, a dash of herbs and a pinch of sweet make this complex, flavorful and ready to take on any protein. Note that this is best used in saucy dishes or on slow-cook proteins as the sugar makes it prone to burning. $13.39 for 6.7 ounces online. (3½ stars)
The Spice Lab Salt Free Salmon
It could be argued that this is not a rub — it’s more of a sprinkle — but it’s far too fun to leave out. A few shakes of this peppery mix of dill, parsley, oregano and thyme plus onion and garlic wake up even the most bland hunk of fish. This is so tasty that it makes you forget that it’s salt-free. $10.95 for 2.9 ounces at Walmart. (3 stars)
Dizzy Pig Pork, Poultry, Salmon Rub
Medium heat and lots of smoky paprika provide a balanced mouthful of traditional barbecue notes. The flavors are good, but not terribly exciting. $13.39 for 6.4 ounces online. (2½ stars)
Fat Boy BBQ Rub
It smells like celery salt, but this light-colored dust delivers a surprising kick of heat and smoke. It’s ordinary, but completely usable. $9.99 for 4 ounces online. (2 stars)
Dash Chicken Grilling Blend
The ingredient list on this super chunky blend is impressive; it includes herbs, carrots, orange peel and lemon oil. But the garlic obliterates every other flavor. $2.92 for 2.4 ounces at Walmart. (1½ stars)
Lawry’s Southwest Sweet & Smoky
If color and texture were the primary considerations, this dark orange rub would win. Unfortunately, too much tomato dims the heat and smoke, making it decidedly bland. $12.39 for 13 ounces online. (½ a star)
Bolner’s Fiesta Extra Fancy Brisket Rub
This light colored dust — rice powder is the first ingredient — is a huge disappointment. It delivers a pinch of garlic and that’s about it. $9.99 for 5 ounces online. (No stars)
Reviews are based on product samples purchased by this newspaper or provided by manufacturers. Contact Jolene Thym at [email protected]. Read more Taste-off columns at www.mercurynews.com/tag/taste-off.