How to Get Bark on Brisket [BBQ by the Book]

September 13, 2023
Written by Kristy J. Norton

To get a good bark on your brisket you should trim the fat, use the spices properly, minimize moisture, use the proper temperature, and lots more!

I have been on the competition circuit with some of the best pitmasters in the world. This has given me the opportunity to pick up top tips on how to get the perfect bark formation.

In this post, I will show you how to get bark on brisket and outline some of the mistakes you may be making. Let's get started!

How to Get Bark on Brisket

What Creates Bark on Brisket?

Before you can start working on the bark on your brisket, you have to first understand what it is. And, by the way, brisket isn't the only meat that develops a bark - pork butt, pork shoulder, and even ribs do as well!

Interestingly enough, there are various chemical reactions that are responsible for this delicious layer. The Maillard reaction and the polymerization reaction are the main ones at play here.

As the meat cooks, the moisture from the brisket and the water vapor in the air will dissolve the water soluble ingredients of the rub. This is usually the salt and sugar.

In turn, this creates a gritty slurry on the surface of the meat. The fat from the brisket bubbles up from beneath, mixing in and dissolving some of the fat soluble ingredients.

While the salt is able to dissolve and penetrate into the deeper levels of the meat, most of the other molecules are too large. Thus, these form a sort of glaze on the top.

The smoke particles get stuck to this glaze which is what gives the bark its dark color.

After enough of the water has evaporated from the brisket, the rub begins to dry. When this happens, the Maillard reaction begins. As you are smoking at a very low temperature, this process will take place rather slowly.

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The meat proteins underneath the spice layer begin to bind together, forming a complex matrix of compounds known as polymers. These, in turn, form a coating known as a pellicle.

This creates a hardened layer underneath the spices, acting as a platform. This is what you know to be the base of the bark.

A Person Slicing Barbecue Beef Brisket

Why is My Brisket Not Getting a Bark?

There are several reasons for a lack of proper bark formation on your brisket. Here are some of the top causes:

Too Thin Layer of Spices

The spice rub is what predominantly makes up the brisket bark. As such, if you don't use enough of spices or use the wrong ones, then you won't get that thick, crispy outer layer that you are hoping for.

Too Much Moisture

Too much moisture inside the smoker can lead to a rise in humidity. This, in turn, will cause the bark to soften as well and it won't form properly.

This problem is especially common with the electric smoker. This machine is sealed incredibly tightly, causing a humid environment.

Wrapping the Brisket

Wrapping brisket allows you to overcome the stall when smoking meat and lets the brisket cook faster.

Wrapping the meat or rather wrapping the meat too early can cause the same issue as high levels of humidity inside the smoker.

This is because in addition to heat, you are also trapping moisture around the brisket. This results in a softer crust.

How Do You Get Crispy Bark on a Brisket?

If you have had trouble with your brisket bark time and again then follow these tips to make sure that you end up with a good bark:

Trim the Brisket Properly

Every brisket will come with a fat cap. A lot of people make the mistake of leaving too much fat on the meat's surface.

This is because of the belief that the more fat there is, the moister that your brisket will be.

To a certain extent this is true but too much fat can prevent the smoke from reaching the meat. Not only will this extend the cooking process but it can also tamp down the flavor.

To add to this, when you add spices on top of the fat, they will cook and the sugar and salt will melt. However, that tough pellicle will not form.

This means that you don't get a crust that is as hard or as crispy.

To avoid this scenario, make sure to trim down the excess fat so that the fat cap is no more than 1/4th of an inch thick.

Use More Spices

To make sure that your spice crust is as thick as possible, you need to use more spices.

Now, I don't mean that you should add all the spices in your kitchen into the mix. I find that the best rub recipe is a simple one.

Personally, I tend to stick with brown sugar, kosher salt, freshly cracked black pepper, smoked paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, and sometimes cayenne pepper.

What you need to do is to make more of the spice rub for your smoked brisket. However, always keep each ingredient balanced with the other ones to ensure that one flavor doesn't overpower any of the others.

For a medium sized brisket, make up to half a cup of dry rub. The larger the brisket, the more that you will need.

Remember, if any of the spice rub is left over, you can place it in an airtight container and use it later on. As such, none of it is really going to waste.

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Variety of spices

Select Larger Particles

It isn't enough to just use more of the dry rub. Try to create a thicker layer by choosing chunkier spices.

For instance, I like to use kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper for this reason. The larger flakes lend to a crispier crust.

I know that some people like to use cumin and similar spices in their rub. If this is the case for you as well, then use crushed spices instead of ground ones or the powder version.

Use Yellow Mustard as a Glue

If you have ever tried to get spices to stick to the surface of your brisket, pork butt, or any smoked meat really, you know how tricky this can be.

Most of the time, the ingredients in the rub simply end up falling off onto the surface below.

This is why you should always apply a thin layer of yellow mustard to the entire brisket. This acts as a glue.

I also find that mustard enhances the flavor of the rub, resulting in a more delicious bark. Don't worry if you aren't crazy about the flavor of the mustard and most of it will have gone away by the time the brisket is done cooking.

Some people will use olive oil or some other cooking oil but this doesn't really work as well. For one thing, it adds moisture to the outer layer of the brisket, disrupting the bark formation.

Leave Out the Water Pan

A lot of people will add a water pan in their smoker. This can help to keep the temperature low so that the brisket can cook low and slow.

At the same time, this moisture in the air is great for keeping the meat moist as well.

The problem is that if your smoker already creates a very moist environment then a water pan can exacerbate the problem. So, make sure to leave it out of the smoker or to keep it empty.

Don't Baste, Mop, or Spritz the Meat

Spritzing or mopping the meat tends to be quite popular as people assume this adds moisture to the meat. Well, it doesn't!

In reality, basting, mopping, and spritzing has no positive impact on your brisket at all. And, when it comes to your bark, it can be downright dangerous.

See, if you add liquid to the brisket before it has time to properly set, all you are doing is washing the spices off. When you do this, there isn't going to be much bark left.

Even when you do it after the bark has formed, you are still adding moisture to the mix making it difficult for the bark to get crispy.

This is why it is best to skip the spritzing all together.

If you insist on ding it, wait until the bark has properly formed - it is best to spritz the meat right before it is wrapped.

Cooked meat on skillet

Choose a Higher Temperature

When I mean a higher temperature, I don't mean set the temperature dial high. Brisket needs to be cooked low and slow. Otherwise, the meat will not be tender enough to enjoy.

I have found that the optimum cooking temperature for brisket is 225 F. If you have been setting your smoker to this and found your bark to be lacking then kick the temperature up to 250 F.

The higher temperature should help the spices on the surface of the meat to crisp up properly.

I would advise against going any higher than 250 F. Also remember that the meat will be cooking faster at this temperature so monitor the internal temperature more closely.

Wait Longer to Wrap the Brisket

Many people like to wrap the meat the moment that the stall hits. This does make sense - after all, why would you want your brisket to take longer to cook than necessary?

The only problem is that your brisket bark takes a while to form. Thus, if you wrap the brisket too early then the bark will not be as thick and as crispy as you want it to be.

Furthermore, wrapping the brisket early on means that it spends more time wrapped and exposed to moisture. As I have already explained, this isn't a good thing.

I would say to wait about an hour after the stall has set in before you wrap it. This should be enough time for the bark to form. The only way to know for sure though is to monitor the formation closely.

Use Butcher Paper

I know that aluminum foil is the most popular wrapping for brisket. Not only is it readily available but it also creates an impermeable barrier around the brisket.

In doing so, it causes the temperature around the meat to rise more drastically, allowing the brisket to cook more quickly.

The only downside to this, of course, is that the bark can end up downright soggy.

It is because of this that I prefer to use pink butcher paper. It is more porous allowing some of the moisture to escape through.

Just remember that your brisket will take about an hour or so longer to cook and prepare accordingly.

Avoid Wrapping Brisket at All

A lot of the pitmasters that I know prefer to simply let the brisket come out of its stall without any help from the wrapping. This way, you get a good bark that isn't compromised at all.

If this is something that you are preparing to do, keep in mind that your cook may be as much as 12 hours long, depending on the brisket.

This doesn't have to be a problem for you as long as you make the appropriate calculations. Make sure to start the cook so that by the mealtime comes around, the brisket has had time to cook and rest for a few hours.

If you would like to shorten the cooking time then one of the things that you can do is to cook smaller briskets.

Instead of cooking one large brisket, smoke two or more smaller briskets. These will not take as long to cook.

In fact, if you choose a brisket that is less than 4lbs, it may not even stall in the first place! Thus, this is an option for you to consider.

Person Seasoning the Steak

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Wrapping It Up

There you have it - all that you need to know about getting a gorgeous bark on your brisket. If you haven't been having too much success in this department, things are about to turn around for you!

Just follow these guidelines and watch as a dark, crispy, and delicious bark forms on your brisket each and every time!

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
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