Should you apply mustard on chicken before rub? And if you do, does it matter what type of mustard you use—or how much? We’re here to provide you with the answers you need to make your next barbecue a resounding success.
Mustard on Chicken Before Rub
Putting mustard on chicken before rub will help the seasonings adhere to the skin. Most of the time, the acrid flavor will dissipate during the cooking process. If you’re not a fan of mustard, a layer of cooking spray, oil, or melted butter will give the chicken skin similar binding properties.
About Binding Ingredients
When we add mustard to chicken or other cuts of meat meant for the smoker, we’re giving the spice rub something to cling to. That’s why you may hear mustard and other similar ingredients referred to as the “binder.”
Although raw meat should be damp to the touch, it can only take on so much seasoning before the spices start to fall off. If you’re smoking pork butt or beef brisket, you want to use a great deal of spice rub in order to promote a thicker bark.
Binding ingredients help the spices stick to the meat, but they can also create another layer on their own. This gives the meat the crisp exterior that’s one of the hallmarks of great barbecue.
Why Add Mustard?
Prepared mustard has a strong, acrid flavor, so you might be wondering why you would want to use it as a binder. In fact, there’s solid reasoning behind this technique. It isn’t all about the binding properties, although those are undoubtedly useful as well.
Think about the ingredients that you use in your spice rub. Cumin, sweet or smoked paprika, chili powder, brown sugar, garlic, onion, pepper—these are all common flavors. You might even use dry mustard, which provides a subtle heat.
The ingredients in the mustard can complement these flavors and take them to a whole new level. Since the chicken will be on the smoker for quite some time, the vinegar that causes the acrid notes will evaporate, leaving you with full-flavored and savory meat.
That said, chickens don’t need to cook for as long as fattier cuts. That means a hint of vinegar flavor could still be there in the background.
Depending on your palate, this may not be an issue. But it is something to be aware of when you’re deciding whether to take this step.
Remember that mustard is a common ingredient in barbecue sauce. Maybe not the sticky ketchup-based varieties found in places like Kansas City, but South Carolina-style barbecue sauce is renowned for its mustard flavor.
Do You Need To Put Mustard on Chicken Before Rub?
There’s no need to put mustard—or any binder—on chicken before you put the meat on the grill or smoker. When it comes to barbecue, there are numerous paths you can take. This is just one of many choices you’ll have to make along the way.
In fact, using mustard as a binder is more important when you’re dealing with cuts like brisket and pork butt. In those cases, you’re hoping the meat will attain a thick, crunchy bark. With smoked chicken, that’s not as much of an issue.
When you smoke a whole chicken, the skin should turn crisp and golden brown, locking the juices in place. This provides a delectable contrast to the succulent meat. However, the effect isn’t quite the same as what you’d get with a thick layer of bark.
The main reason to put mustard on chicken before rub is to help the spices stay in place. You don’t need to use a thick layer—in fact, you don’t even have to use mustard. We’ll talk more about the different options in the section below.
We would suggest adding a thin layer of mustard to your chicken the next time you’re planning to put one on the smoker. That way, you can decide for yourself whether the results are worth the extra step.
How much mustard should you use? We’ve found that 1/4 to 1/2 cup is sufficient for most whole chickens. The goal is to moisten the meat, not drown it.
What Type of Mustard Should I Use?
Plain yellow mustard is the standard choice. It’s inexpensive, easy to find, and it does the trick.
If you want to experiment with different types of mustard, feel free to do so. Dijon has a rich flavor, but it may be too sharp for some palates. Honey mustard is another good choice—it’s nice and sticky and provides an undercurrent of sweetness to offset the heat.
We would steer clear of whole grain mustard. Not only is it relatively expensive, but it doesn’t have the same adhesive properties as the competition. The whole mustard seeds may also have an adverse effect on the texture of the skin.
What else might you use to help the seasoning rub adhere to the raw chicken? Here are some of our favorite options.
For mild, lean meats like chicken and turkey, a cooking spray made from a neutral oil is a great choice. It won’t contribute any flavor of its own, but it will create a thin layer of fat that will allow the skin to crisp up beautifully.
Don’t have any cooking spray on hand? It’s not something we keep in our pantry on a regular basis, either.
No need to fret—you can substitute a small amount of neutral vegetable oil, such as canola. It should have a similar effect, as long as you don’t overdo it. Putting too much oil on the skin could lead to flare-ups.
Similarly, olive oil will work as a binder, but be sure to use a light hand with the ingredient. Olive oil has a lower smoke point than regular vegetable oil, too. That means the chicken skin could burn if you’re not careful.
Try melting some unsalted butter and rubbing it on the chicken skin before you add the spices. Like olive oil, butter has a fairly low smoke point, so this works better with smaller chickens that won’t be on the grill or smoker for too long.
What To Avoid
With brisket, pork shoulder cuts, and ribs, you can get away with using liquid-based binders like stock, beer, or plain water. However, you want to avoid these when poultry is on the menu.
Excess moisture will keep the skin from turning as crisp as you’d like. That’s one of the reasons why you should leave whole chickens and turkeys uncovered in the fridge for several hours—or even overnight—before putting them on the smoker.
Sure, you could just mix up a simple blend of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, and your chicken would taste just fine. But the lean meat provides an ideal canvas for more vivid flavors.
You don’t want to overwhelm the smoke flavor, so it’s still a good idea to keep it relatively simple. Try mixing smoked paprika, brown sugar, chili powder, onion powder, and garlic powder in with the salt and pepper. A hint of cayenne will offer extra spice.
For an autumn-inspired rub, mix together kosher salt ground coriander, cloves, allspice, cumin, black pepper, and cinnamon. Chicken that’s been seasoned with this mixture pairs especially well with grilled potatoes and apples.
In the summertime, use a blend of chili powder, cumin, smoked paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, dried oregano, cayenne pepper, black pepper, and kosher salt. This makes an especially enticing beer can chicken, especially with a bit of lime juice added to the beer.
Here’s another, simpler blend you can use for beer can chicken: Old Bay seasoning, lemon pepper seasoning, mustard powder, chili flakes, and fresh rosemary. It’s particularly good if you’re serving seafood along with the chicken.
The Bottom Line
Mustard makes a superb binder, but it isn’t the only option you have. Depending on the other seasonings you’re using, you might want to choose a neutral cooking spray or vegetable oil instead.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!