Our best rubs, sauces and condiments to help take your meals to the next level

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

Weeknight meals can be a real chore. After a day of work, few greet the prospect of having to whip together dinner with unbridled excitement.

An arsenal of amazing condiments might not shift your entire outlook on cooking, but it can make things easier and more interesting come dinnertime. Think of it as storing building blocks of flavor. Here, a collection of flavor builders, from zingy sauces and pickles to an easy steak rub to bring ordinary food to life. 

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Chimichurri

Chimichurri is a traditional Argentinian condiment that goes beautifully with all sorts of things. It's particularly lovely with grilled meat since its acidity plays so nicely with charred flavors and cuts through fat. It also adds a bright herbaceous flavor that's welcome on everything from grilled vegetables to burgers. 

Grilled Caesar salad with chimichurri shrimp

Is this recipe traditional? No, it is not. But this version is easy to make and a go-to condiment that will happily live in your fridge for at least a week. Stir it into mayonnaise, rub it on grilled chicken, and dollop it on grilled mushrooms.

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A note on preparation: If you chop this by hand, it will have a nicer, looser texture. But for speed, nothing beats a food processor.

Makes around 2 cups

Ingredients

1 bunch of flat-leaf parsley leaves (about a cup, packed)

2-4 garlic cloves, depending on your taste

Generous pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)

2 tablespoons of fresh oregano leaves, loosely packed

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Juice of half a lemon; slice the other half into wedges.

3/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

Pulse all ingredients except the oil in a food processor until chopped finely, but not pureed.

Drizzle in the olive oil and pulse a few more times until you have something like a chunky vinaigrette. You may add more oil to "loosen" it if you would like. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Preserving citrus takes only fruit, salt and plenty of patience.

Vivian Howard's "Citrus Shrine"

Hands-on time: 45 minutes

Total time: 4 weeks (curing time)

Makes a half-gallon of preserved citrus.

Vivian Howard, chef-owner of Chef & the Farmer, calls for run-of-the-mill citrus in this recipe, but you can use anything from Meyer lemons to grapefruit. As long as it’s citrus and in good condition, she says, you can preserve it.

Howard also says there's more than one way to preserve citrus in salt, including slicing the fruit or adding spices or oil. This method is just a suggestion.

As you use your preserved citrus, you can continue to add leftover lemon, lime or orange slices to the brine to marinate. Or, once the preserved citrus is ready, you can transfer to another container. Store that container in the fridge and use the leftover brine to start a new batch of citrus in a freshly sterilized jar. 

Use the finished preserved lemons in this pilaf recipe or this curried collard recipe

Citrus Shrine recipe from “This Will Make It Taste Good: A New Path to Simple Cooking,” by Vivian Howard (Voracious, 2020):

Ingredients

3-5 lemons

3-5 limes

3-5 oranges

Roughly 2/3 cup kosher salt, plus more as necessary

Juice of roughly 2 lemons (don’t even think about using that stuff in a bottle)

Instructions

Begin by sterilizing the jar or jars you want to use. I like to use a half-gallon mason jar for this because you can’t really fit three types of citrus into quart jars in a worthwhile way, but if wide-mouth quart jars are all you have, then go for it. I find the easiest way to sterilize a jar is to run it through your dishwasher, but you could also steam it for about 10 minutes. 

Wash your citrus and peel off any stickers. Slice an X from the top down to within ½ inch of the bottom. The idea is to almost cut the citrus into quarters but to leave it attached at its stem end. 

Rub the inside of the exposed flesh liberally with salt, then reshape the fruit. Put about ¼ cup salt in the bottom of your jar, if using a half gallon. If using quart jars, divide that salt between the two. Then go about the business of cramming your citrus into your jar. When I say cram, I mean cram. Imagine your kitchen is the circus. This jar is the clown car. The lemons, limes and oranges are the clowns, and you are the ringmaster. Now cram the clowns in. 

Put a layer of lemons in and sprinkle about 2 to 3 tablespoons salt on top of that layer. Use the back of a clean wooden spoon to bruise them inside the jar, which will also work to squeeze out some of their juice. 

Follow with a layer of oranges. If your oranges are large, you may have to cut them in half; it’s okay if a layer ends up being just one orange. Sprinkle that layer with salt and bruise it up. 

Now for the limes. Do the same as the lemons and oranges, and continue to alternate citrus until your clown car is full. When I say “full” I mean there may be a clown head or rear-end that peeks up into the neck of the jar. That’s okay. As long as you can screw the lid on securely and it doesn’t buckle, your clowns should be fine. 

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Finish with a layer of salt and pour in the lemon juice. If you’ve properly crammed and bruised your citrus, it may take a minute or two for the juice to seep down and through the tiny avenues that exist between your lemons, limes and oranges, but be patient because the salty lemon juice is what will do the pickling here and we need it to be everywhere. When you’re done, the lemon juice should cover everything, but if a small piece of citrus rind pokes through that’s okay, everything will soften and shrink over the next few days and it will end up submerged.  

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Leave the sealed jar in a cool, visible spot out of the sun in your kitchen for 4 weeks. From time to time, turn the jar over and let it sit on its lid for a day or so. 

When the citrus is ready it will have deepened in color just a bit and the skin should feel supple and soft. If that’s not the case, give it more time. Once the citrus meets this criteria, it’s ready to use. 

Store the finished shrine in the fridge or keep it on your counter. If you see weird, white lacy stuff around the citrus, that’s fine, just rinse it off before using it. Your Citrus Shrine will keep for a year at this point.  

How to use it

Once the citrus is preserved, there are two parts you can use (the rind and pulp); you will always remove (the salty brine). The rind is the most colorful, soft, sexy part. It’s employed in every recipe that calls for preserved citrus. It can be used “raw,” but it blooms and comes to life when it meets heat. Separated from the pith, it’s pretty versatile and should be something you consider in just about everything you cook that calls for citrus. 

The pulp, or the place where the juice once lived, is really never used “raw” but is often roughly chopped and thrown into stews, syrups or sautéed to add a singular salty, sunny funk only it can provide. When you get ready to make something that calls on citrus juice as a cooking liquid, strap on your thinking cap, chop up some preserved pulp, reduce the amount of salt the recipe calls for by a bit and throw in preserved pulp. Don’t forego the juice the recipe suggests. Instead, just revel in the fact that the preserved pulp will add a layer of citrus personality to the finished dish you never thought possible. 

Always, always, always rinse the entire orange, lemon or lime inside and out before you do anything else with it. It’s slimy and salty and will appreciate the bath before it meets your knife. 

Cut through the bottom that’s holding it together. This will separate the citrus into four quarters. Some of my recipes will call for a quarter, two quarters or three-quarters of preserved citrus. This is sometimes an easier measurement because a tablespoon of thinly sliced, unwieldy rind is kind of a hard thing to measure. 

Cut the pulp away, doing your best to leave the white pith with the rind at this point. The science that happened during preservation should make this easier than it would have been with fresh citrus. If the recipe calls for preserved pulp, this section is what it’s talking about. Just remove the seeds and roughly chop what’s left.

To mine the rind, lay a quarter of citrus whose pulp has been removed on the cutting board white pith facing up. Use a sharp knife (but not a serrated one) to cut as much of the pith away as possible. The pith is bitter and adding it to stuff will make you wonder why you trust my taste. Once you’ve cut away as much as you think possible, cut a little bit more. What you’re left with should be shiny, soft, smooth and supple. This is the stuff of transformation and you made it. 

If you separate more rind or pulp than you need for a recipe, put what you don’t use in a container or back in the brine and slide that in the fridge until you need it. Just rinse all parts again before you use them.

Sea salt steak rub

Barbecue sauce gets all the attention, but true Southerners know that the secret to great grilling is in the rub.

Sea salt rub

While this recipe should be sufficient for up to two pounds of beef, save time by making your rub in bulk. Just mix together the dry ingredients — say, five times the amount in this recipe — and store in an airtight jar in a cool place away from sunlight. Just skip the butter at this stage to avoid spoilage. You can add it in as you prep the meat on grill day.

Serves: Makes about 1/4 cup

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Ingredients

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds

1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

Instructions

In a large bowl, combine the salt, pepper, cumin, coriander and rosemary.

Just before you are about to use the rub, melt the butter in a small skillet. Add the butter to the spices and mix thoroughly, making sure not to leave any lumps. Apply the rub evenly to the surface of the meat, ideally using your hands like a true Southerner would. And that’s it — now you’re ready to cook.

Bread and Butter Pickles

Bread and butter pickles

This quick pickle has a sweet flavor that works perfectly with spicy chicken sandwiches, burgers and hot dogs. It's also great for livening up pressed sandwiches for a quick and easy weeknight meal.

These pickles are best if they have the chance to soak in the liquid overnight, but you can serve them after three hours. They'll last for about a month or so in the fridge.

Serves: 4 cups

Ingredients

3 English cucumbers, sliced approximately 1/4 inch thick

4 cups water

2 cups apple cider vinegar

2 1/2 cups sugar

1/4 cup kosher salt

1 tablespoon mustard seeds

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

4 whole cloves

Instructions

Place the sliced cucumbers in large sealable jars or an airtight container with a tight-fitting lid.

Combine all remaining ingredients in a non-reactive saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the salt and the sugar.

Pour the vinegar mixture over the cucumbers. Let cool to room temperature and then refrigerate. Let the pickles chill at least 3 hours, or preferably overnight, before serving.

Chow Chow

Cabbage and Green Tomato Chow Chow

This sweet-spicy Southern condiment will keep for one month in the refrigerator. It's awesome with sausages, hot dogs, grilled chicken and makes any sandwich pop. 

Makes 5 quarts

Ingredients

1 head green cabbage, cored and thinly sliced

2 green tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch strips

1 red onion, thinly sliced

1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch strips

1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch strips

2 jalapeños, seeded and thinly sliced

3/4 cup kosher salt

3 cups apple cider vinegar

2 1/4 cups sugar

1/4 cup yellow mustard seeds

2 tablespoons ground turmeric

2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns

1 tablespoon whole allspice berries

1 habanero pepper, halved

Instructions

In a large bowl, combine the cabbage, tomatoes, onion, bell peppers and jalapeños. Toss to evenly coat with the salt. Let sit at room temperature for 1 hour, then rinse and drain thoroughly.

In a large saucepan, combine the vinegar, sugar, mustard seeds, turmeric, peppercorns, allspice berries and habanero. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring, until the sugar has completely dissolved, 8 to 10 minutes.

Pour the vinegar mixture through a strainer into the bowl with the vegetables. The vegetables should be completely submerged; if needed, place a piece of parchment paper on top and weigh down with a plate.

Let sit at room temperature for at least 4 hours. Transfer to jars with tight-fitting lids and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Apricot Mostarda

Apricot Mostarda

This fruit jam, liberally spiked with mustard, makes a great accompaniment to grilled or roasted pork or duck.

Serves: 2 cups

Total Time: 1 hour

Ingredients

1 pound apricots, pitted and diced

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

3 tablespoons dry mustard powder

1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

In a medium saucepan, combine apricots, sugar, vinegar, mustard powder and mustard seeds. Season with salt and pepper, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until apricots have broken down and mixture is syrupy enough to lightly coat the back of a spoon, 45 to 60 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and remove from the heat. Serve warm, chilled or at room temperature.

Quick Red Onion Pickles.

Pickled Red Onion

This easy, basic recipe is perfect if you have extra onions sitting around. Pickled red onions liven up soups, salads, tacos and sandwiches. Their uses are practically endless.

Ingredients

1 red onion, sliced into half moons

1 1/4 cups sugar

1 cup water

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

2 tablespoons kosher salt

2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns

2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds

Instructions

Place the sliced onions in a medium bowl. In a small saucepan, combine the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil, just enough to dissolve the salt and sugar. Pour the liquid over the onions through a mesh strainer to remove any peppercorns and mustard seeds. Keep the onions submerged in the pickling liquid and cool for 2 hours. 

This will keep for several weeks refrigerated.

Smoked Trout Salad with Green Goddess Dressing

Green Goddess dressing

This creamy, tart dressing will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator. It's fantastic for livening up a chopped vegetable salad with grilled chicken. It's also perfect in pasta salad and on sandwiches. 

Ingredients

3/4 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup sour cream

1/4 cup buttermilk

1/2 English cucumber, seeded and peeled

5 scallions, green part only, cut into large pieces

1/2 cup Italian parsley leaves, whole

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1 garlic clove, sliced

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper

Instructions

Place all ingredients into a blender and pureé until smooth and creamy, and the entire mixture has turned pale green. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com