Smoking Brisket & Pork Butt: How To Get The Best Bark

The art of great barbecue involves all of the senses. The alluring smell of the smoke, the decedent savoury taste, and the complementary textures of the succulent meat with the rich, chewy consistency of the bark. 

A smoked brisket or pork butt is always the hero of the meal. As a whole it’s a masterpiece, but it’s the darkened bark that always seems to be fought over before anything else. It’s also usually the first piece that anyone tastes, and for good reason!

Experienced pitmasters and smokers will always have their own technique to create the best bark, but there are three fundamentals that they execute for proven results time and time again. Let’s break it down.

What Is The Bark On Smoked Brisket & Pork Butt?

The irresistible exterior of smoked meat which appears mainly on roast cuts, brisket, or pork butt is the bark we know and love. The bark has to go through a unique transformation whilst it smokes to turn into the iconic crust. The molecules in the meat react with heat and oxygen, as well as other compounds found in smoke. This complex reaction is known as the maillard reaction, and knowing how to maximise it is the key to developing a respectable bark on your favourite meat.

Meet the Maillard Reaction

Simply put, specific sugars and proteins in meats react differently to varying levels of heat and oxygen. Heat causes the amino acids in the proteins and the sugar to react. The molecular reaction causes hardening, and the flavour becomes much more pronounced. The end result of a good maillard reaction is a crisper, dryer, and more attractive blackish brown crust.

Timing is also vital. When you grill a steak it almost instantly changes colour as it sears. This is the maillard reaction occurring more quickly due to the high temperature. At lower temperatures the maillard takes longer to work it’s magic, but because of this you get a more full-bodied and rich flavour on the surface of the meat compared to that of a sear. Over the course of the smoking process there are several points where we can help the reaction create a masterful bark.

Top Three Tips For The Best Bark Every Time

Now that we understand how the bark is made, let’s take a look at three fundamental processes of smoking meat that can ultimately impact the bark.

Smoked beef brisket ribs

The Rub

You will find thousands of different rub ideas and recipes and the best rub will depend on which type of meat you’re smoking, as well as your own personal preferences. However most rubs have a similar base, including combinations of salt, pepper, garlic, chilli, onion, and sugar.

If you really want a solid bark on your brisket or pork butt it’s important to look for a rub that includes sugar, usually in the form of brown sugar. Recalling the Maillard reaction, sugar reacts with the amino acids in the protein. Sugar can be thought of as fuel to the reaction. The more sugar there is, the more it will react with the amino acids to create the bark.

No need to go overboard, as not all of the sugar ends being used in the reaction, and too much sugar will lead to the bark being overly sweet. If you want a great bark for brisket or pork butt, best to go with around 2 Tbs – ¼ cup of brown sugar depending on the size of the meat. If you’re just wanting some hickory smoked ribs you won’t need nearly as much brown sugar especially if you’re pairing them with a nice barbecue sauce.

To be clear, you’re able to get an excellent bark regardless of what type of rub you use, but a good rule of thumb is be very generous when applying it, and sugar can make a lot of difference too!

Be sure to use the best wood flavor for smoking pork butt, or the best wood flavor for smoking brisket to compliment the rub.

Trim The Fat

During the smoking process fat means flavor. When the fat melts it actually absorbs the flavor molecules from both the rub and the smoke. It retains these flavours over the smoking process, and it contributes to form the bark. Although it plays a crucial part in forming the crust and contributes to the overall flavor of the meat, too much can actually prevent the formation of a glorious bark.

If you’re preparing a brisket or pork butt, you’ll notice it often comes with a large layer of excess fat. This is referred to as the fat cap, and for a great bark to form it’s essential to trim it. Using your best chef knife, or boning knife if you have one, trim as closely to the meat as you can. Don’t feel you need to remove all the fat, as it still has a part to play in the flavor and the bark.  It’s all about balance.

Fat also appears within the meat itself, as white or yellow streaks known as marbling, which also helps mediate the maillard reaction. Therefore, it’s recommended to remove the majority of the excess fat. Leaving about ⅛ of an inch over most of the meat will leave enough to render into the meat for more flavor and to help the bark form. Remove this excess fat from the brisket or pork butt before applying the rub.

The Temperature

Heat is what starts the Maillard reaction, but varying temperatures cause different effects on how the compounds react and how the meat cooks. For a great bark smoking brisket or pork butt, the sweet spot is between 225°F-250°F.  Lower temperatures can still cook the meat but won’t cause a bark to form and higher temperatures will start to char the meat too much.

It’s important to use a reliable fuel source if you’re smoking over longer periods of time. The best fuel for traditional barbecue is lump charcoal, as it not only holds temperatures well and over long time periods, but it’s byproducts as it burns actually help the smoking process. However, the best charcoal briquettes for smoking are designed to be long lasting which does help for longer sessions.

Final Words

Barbecue is both an art and a science. Much of the process can be slightly changed depending on your personal preference. In saying that, there are clear techniques that are widely adopted, and appear across all the traditional barbecue recipes and processes. Bark itself is just a small part of the overall process, but it’s arguably one of the most impactful to the overall eating experience.

It’s important to understand and master the basics. But as they say, the master has failed more times than the student has ever tried. Don’t give up if your bark doesn’t come out perfectly crusted every time. Learn from it. Understand what you can do better, and continue this practice across your whole smoking journey.

If you’re really looking for a solid bark on a brisket or pork butt, just remember: use enough brown sugar in the rub, trim the excess fat, and hit that 225°F-250°F sweet spot.

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