Which is better? A dry rub or marinade for steak?

Which is better? A dry rub or marinade for steak?

Some beef aficionados have a very adamant answer to this question. Some will quickly say that a marinade for steak is best, while others say that a dry rub is the best way to go. And then there is another group of people that are secretly wondering “Is there really a difference between the two?

There is a difference between the two, but it’s important to know that both rubs and marinades for steak are good choices. Both options enhance the flavor of the beef. We usually gravitate toward rubs (we’ll explain why), but there are times that marinades are better. Here’s what you should know about marinades and rubs.


A marinade is one way to enhance the flavor of beef. It’s a strongly flavored liquid made with herbs and spices that beef is steeped in until it takes on some of the liquid flavors. Marinating can take as little as an hour or as long as overnight.

You may also have heard that a marinade for steak tenderizes the beef. Some chefs agree with this statement and others say marinade does very little, if anything, to help tenderize beef. From our own personal kitchen experience, we usually side with the chefs that say it does very little. Marinades can definitely make a tough cut more flavorful, but will never turn a tough cut tender.

What ingredients are used in steak marinades?

A quick online search will provide you with hundreds of marinade recipes from simple to complex. Whichever one you choose, you’ll notice that they often have four compounds:

  • Salt: Kosher salt, sea salt, or something salty like Worcestershire.
  • Oil: Because beef is naturally saturated with water, beef won’t absorb oil in the marinade. But you still need to use oil in a beef marinade because the herb and spice flavorings you add need oil to release their full flavor.
  • Flavoring: Spices and herbs are your friends and they’ll add a punch of flavor! Some of our favorites are oregano, thyme, cumin, garlic, onion, and white or brown sugar.
  • Acid: Depending on the desired flavor, many marinades have an acidic liquid like vinegar or lemon or lime juice. The acid helps flavor the beef, not tenderize it.

How do you apply a marinade for steak?

First, make and choose a marinade recipe (or buy a marinade at the store). We recommend making ¼ to ½ cup of marinade for each one to two pounds of beef.

Then place the marinade in a sealed plastic bag or glass container so that the beef can “sit” in the liquid. We like to use one gallon Ziploc bags since it makes it easy to periodically flip the beef so that the marinade works evenly. We don’t recommend a metal container since the acidic ingredients can react with the metal.

Lastly, make sure to place the container in the refrigerator as the beef marinates. Never marinate beef at room temperature.

As a side note, contrary to popular belief, beef doesn’t absorb the marinade flavor throughout the cut of beef. Rather, the flavor stays on the surface of the meat and that’s the punch of flavor that you taste with your tongue.

How long do you marinade?

Less tender cuts should be marinated for at least 6 hours, but no more than 24 hours. Tender cuts of beef, like a tenderloin, only need to be marinated for 15 minutes to 1 hour for flavor.

Can you over-marinate a steak?

Yes! Many marinades have an acidic base, which can toughen beef if it soaks for too long. Never go over 24 hours with a steak marinade. This is especially true if you are using a fruit marinade like kiwi since marinating too long will make your beef have a mushy texture.

What cuts of beef should you use with marinades?

Marinades really shine on thin cuts of beef! They also do great with cuts of beef that are tougher. The toughest cuts of meat are those at the steer’s leg and neck since those muscles do most of the work. Examples of these cuts are skirt and flank steak.

What to do with leftover marinade?

If you have leftover marinade, you can use it to baste the meat while cooking. However, do not use it as a sauce while serving the meal. Remember, raw meat just sat in that liquid for several hours so it’s not safe to use as a sauce. The only way you will be able to use the marinade as a sauce is if you vigorously boil the marinade for several minutes in a sauce pan before pouring over your fully cooked steak.

Easy steak marinade recipes

If you’re new to steak marinades and want something easy to start with, get a bottle of your favorite vinegar salad dressing, add ½ teaspoon salt, and dilute with a little water. Marinate your meat and then put it on the grill. You’ll be impressed.

Here are a few simple recipes to try. The instructions for all of these recipes are the same. After mixing all the ingredients well, add steaks and marinade to a ziploc bag. Toss the steaks a few times to coat. Press the excess air out, seal the bag and refrigerate for 15 minutes to 2 hours. Remove steaks from the bag and discard marinade (unless you want to baste). Grill steaks.

Ginger Soy Marinade: ⅓ cup soy sauce, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 2 tablespoons honey, 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger, 1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon peel. Mix well.

Easy 4 Ingredient Steak Marinade: ½ cup Italian dressing, ¼ cup lime juice, 1 tbsp honey, 1 ½  tsp ground cumin. Mix Well. 

All Purpose Steak Marinade Recipe (no vinegar): ½ cup olive oil, ½ cup soy sauce, ¼ cup Worcestershire Sauce, 1 tbsp minced garlic, 1 tbsp honey, 1 tsp onion powder. Mix well.

All-Purpose Steak Marinade Recipe (with vinegar): ¼ cup olive oil, ¼ cup balsamic vinegar, ¼ cup Worcestershire Sauce, ¼ cup soy sauce, 1 tsp Dijon mustard, 2 garlic cloves minced, 2 tsp honey, salt and pepper to taste. Mix well.


Now that we’ve talked a lot about marinades, let’s compare them to rubs. A rub is a dry mixture of spices and seasonings that are literally rubbed onto the surfaces of raw meat. Rubs are designated to flavor meat. That’s it.

We like marinades a lot for steaks, but when we’re forced to pick between a marinade and a rub, we usually go with a rub. One of the main reasons we like rubs is because they create a savory crust on the meat, which marinades don’t do. Plus, rubs help seal in the meat’s juiciness.

Another huge bonus of rubs is that they can be applied just before cooking.

If you have more time and want a more pronounced flavor you can rub your rub directly on the beef and then let it sit in your refrigerator. When you do this, the rub (especially sea salt or kosher salt) is able to work its way into the meat. The salt breaks down the protein and literally improves the steak’s texture.

What cuts of beef should you use with rubs?

We like rubs on roasts, steaks, ground beef, brisket, and ribs, just to name a few.

How to apply a beef rub

The application of rubs is very easy. Simply mix the ingredients, pat beef dry, and rub all over your favorite piece of beef. As an estimate, use two tablespoons of rub for every pound of beef. Then let the beef soak up the flavors.

You can either put the meat in a ziploc bag or wrap it in plastic and place it in the refrigerator.

The longer you let the beef soak, the more flavors you will notice when you eat it. We’re not very scientific on timing it, but usually we try to put on the rub anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours before we cook the beef.

How to store beef rubs

Another plus about a rub is that you can make them ahead and store them for quick use in the future. You can store a dry beef rub in an airtight container for up to 4 months. Beef rubs can also make a great edible gift to share with family and friends.

Steak Rub Recipes

Here are three very simple rubs to try:

The Dalmation (Salt & Pepper): This is a classic. It will tenderize the meat and bring out its natural flavor. We like using kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper (2 tbsp per pound).                 

DlY 8:3:1:1 This is one of our favorites because you can use almost any ingredient in your spice cabinet and your meat will turn out great. The basic idea is 8 parts brown sugar, to 3 parts kosher salt to 2 parts (1:1) of various other spices. One of our favorite combinations is 8 tbsp light brown sugar, 3 tbsp kosher salt, 1 tbsp chili powder, ½ tsp ground black pepper, ½ tsp cayenne pepper, ½ tsp thyme and ½ tsp onion powder.

All-purpose Dry Rub: Mix 1 tsp cumin, 1 tsp oregano, 2 tsp garlic powder, 2 tsp onion powder, 1 tsp chili powder, 1 tsp kosher salt, 1 tsp paprika, 1/4 cup brown sugar.

I’m still confused on which is the best, marinade or rub for steak?

If you need a little more help deciding which is right for you, here’s an easy way to decide based on how much time you have.

Do you have an additional 15 minutes to 2 hours before eating? 

  • Yes: Great! You have some extra time and you can either use a marinade or rub for extra flavor.
  • No, not today: No problem. Consider using a rub which can be applied just before cooking.

If you have any questions about our beef products or how to prepare them please contact us today.

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