How Cocoa Powder Will Transform Your Spice Rub
Unsweetened dark cocoa powder will bring fruity, floral, and wonderfully bitter flavors to your grilled meats.
As soon as the first buds of spring poke their heads out after the long winter, it is grilling season at our house. My husband is a grill master, and I’d estimate that between April and November, about 70% of our meals involve flame, charcoal, and wood. We grill vegetables for side dishes and salads, fruits for desserts, and of course, proteins of every possible variety.
Sometimes we go super simple—there is nothing finer than a well-marbled ribeye anointed only with salt and pepper. But we do love a good spice rub on our meats and poultry and have recently found the perfect way to amp up the flavor of our rubs, whether homemade mixes or store-bought concoctions: unsweetened dark cocoa powder. And yes, I do specify dark here, because it is more compatible with savory dishes, although regular cocoa powder will do in a pinch.
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Before you go running off thinking I am a crazy person for adding chocolate to my meat, let me gently remind you of the tradition of adding unsweetened chocolate to Mexican mole sauces. Unsweetened cocoa powder has diverse flavors that are fruity, floral, with wonderful bitterness, and notes of everything from vanilla to coffee to cinnamon, which is why chocolate goes so well with all of those flavors in sweet applications. But in savory cooking, its true nature is allowed to shine, and when paired with spices, it can add a wonderful depth and complexity to a rub, while also helping with achieving great browning on the surface of proteins.
Depending on the rub, and the other flavors, I start with ½ tablespoon of dark cocoa powder per 3 tablespoons of rub. For rubs that lean herbal, this is usually enough for the floral elements to come forward, without making the rub lose its essential vegetal qualities. For rubs that are spicier, especially rubs that lean Latin or Asian in their profiles, I will use about a tablespoon of dark cocoa powder to every three of rub. And in rubs that go to an African, Caribbean or Creole place, think jerk seasonings or food that starts with a dark roux, I might go as much as a tablespoon and a half to every three of spice mix. The best thing is to experiment and see what works great for you.
Once you have found how terrific dark cocoa powder works in spice rubs, you’ll start to find other places to use its magic. I find that a bit stirred into bottled barbecue sauce helps make it a little more special. I use it in my chili, and even in my roasted tomato salsa. A little sprinkle in my black bean soup takes it next level.
So, break the cocoa powder out of the baking dungeon and start cooking!