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What is BBQ Bark? A Closer Look at a Sure Sign of Legendary BBQ

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When it comes to good old fashioned BBQ, one of the signature components of any perfectly smoked meat is a delectable, crunchy outer bark.

Perfect bark is a sure fire sign that your BBQ pit master knows what he or she is doing – it’s the kind of thing that takes a few tries (or more) to truly master.

But if you came looking for tips and information on BBQ bark, and how you can get it at home, you’ve come to the right place.

In this article, we’ll go over exactly what BBQ bark is, how you can achieve great bark on your smoked meats, and why bark forms on your food.  By the end, you’ll be ready to take your smoked foods to the next level!

What is BBQ Bark Exactly?

So we know that BBQ bark is coveted by pit masters and eaters alike – but what is BBQ bark?

Simply put, BBQ bark is a crunchy, flavorful crust that forms on the outside of your meat.  Do it right and it adds layers of complexity and flavor to your food – and the crunchy texture makes for a perfect compliment to your juicy and tender food.

The science behind BBQ bark is actually pretty cool – when you heat your food, a scientific process called the Maillard Reaction takes place.  Essentially, a series of chemical reactions occurs between amino acids and reducing sugar when heat is present.

This process results in some browning of your food, but combined with a rub it also adds multiple layers of complexity and depth to your food’s flavor profile.  You can read more in depth about the Maillard Reaction in this Modernist Cuisine article.

How to Form BBQ Bark

Even though the science behind bark might sound complicated, the process itself for forming bark is actually quite simple and easy to understand.  There are just a few key components that you need to get right if you want to achieve legendary bark.

If you get these aspects of the smoke right, you’ll be well on your way to top notch crust and BBQ.

Spice/BBQ Rub

The first key component to bark formation is the spice rub you use to rub the outside layer of your meat with.  Most BBQ rubs have salt and pepper in them at minimum, and many feature sugar and other spices such as paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, and more.

The presence of sugar and salt are probably the two most important in terms of bark formation.  Since smokers cook food at low temperatures, you don’t have to worry to much about the sugars charring and ruining your food, like it could on a grill.

Generally speaking, a rub that has a higher proportion of salt in it will result in a thinner layer of bark.  Conversely, a rub that’s heavier in spices will lead to a thicker layer of bark on your food.

Smoke

The smoke from your fire will also play a large role in the formation of bark on your food.  During the course of your low and slow cook, some smoke particles will absorb into your food and flavor it, while other smoke particles will stick to the surface of your food and combine with your spice rub.  From there, the smoke particles become included in the chemical reactions that form your bark.

The longer your food is exposed to smoke, the darker it will turn.  Some meats, like brisket for example, stay on the smoker for upwards of 12 hours.  When done properly, a BBQ bark on a brisket might look like the entire cut is charred and burnt because it’s been on the smoker for so long – even though it’s perfect and flavorful.

Temperature

When it comes to cooking on a smoker in general, temperature control is one of the most important, if not the most important aspect to master.  Since food cooks for such a long time on the smoker, having your temperature dialed in is crucial to achieve flavorful and perfectly tender food.

Getting your bark right is no different – your temperature level is key when it comes to creating the best environment for formation.  If your temperature is too low, bark won’t form.  On the other end, too high of a temperature means your food will burn or char instead of forming delectable bark.

Depending on the food you’re cooking, the sweet spot temperature range for smoking and BBQ bark formation is about 225°F to 275°F.

Moisture

Your moisture levels will also play a role in bark formation (or lack thereof).  Generally speaking, a less moist cooking environment will accelerate bark formation, whereas a very moist environment will slow down or prevent it altogether.  The meat you smoke will have moisture inside of it naturally that releases during the cooking process.  For most cuts of meat, you’ll add a little bit of moisture during the cooking process – but be careful to not over do it if you’re looking for a perfect BBQ bark.

Take wrapped brisket for example.  A brisket wrapped with foil retains lots of its natural moisture and rarely forms a bark.  Brisket wrapped in pink butcher paper retains some moisture but allows for some to escape – and you can expect a thinner layer of bark to form on paper wrapped brisket.  If you smoke a brisket naked (unwrapped), you can expect a strong bark layer to form.

Fat

When it comes to bark formation, the presence of fat on your cut of meat is important.  When your food cooks, fat renders and helps to keep your meat moist and also helps to keep spices and rubs sticking to your meat.

However, too much fat (and moisture) can inhibit a proper bark from forming.  So with that in mind, it’s important to trim your brisket, pork shoulder, or other cuts of meat so that there aren’t any large, unnecessary pieces of fat on them before they go on the smoker.

Best Meats for BBQ Bark

For the most part, any meats you would normally smoke are great candidates for a tasty bark.

In particular, ribs, pork shoulder (aka pork butt), and beef brisket are popular choices – all of which can achieve legendary crust when cooked properly.

The good news is that all of these cuts are very cheap on a per pound basis.  That means you have plenty of leeway to experiment and fine tune your cooking process without breaking the bank!  Even though the process for BBQ bark is simple, it definitely takes a few tries and some trial and error to master it.

Which Types of Smokers Produce the Best BBQ Bark?

Where there’s smoke and consistent temperatures, there’s opportunity for fantastic bark.  With that in mind, the type of smoker you choose isn’t the key deciding factor for the quality of your bark.  With that in mind, here are a few of our favorite smoker types for you to consider for your next BBQ bark endeavor.

  • Traditional Offset Smokers – these smokers are what you’ll find at most BBQ joints, and the likes of Aaron Franklin and other famous pit masters rely on offset smokers to produce their legendary BBQ (and bark!) day in and day out.  With an offset smoker you’ll be managing a charcoal or wood fire though, so they take some babysitting and there’s a little bit of a learning curve for using these smokers.
  • Pellet Smokers – Pellet smokers (or pellet grills) have become something of a craze over the last decade.  These smokers are fueled by wood pellets specifically designed for grilling and smoking, and they deliver delicious traditional wood fired flavor to your food.  You can easily set a pellet smoker to smoking temperatures (225-275°F) and finesse a delicious bark on your meat.
  • Kamado Grills – The analogy I like to make with kamado grills is that they are the Lamborghini of grills and smokers.  These egg shaped cookers have ceramic shells that do an outstanding job of insulating, retaining heat, and circulating the optimal amount of smoke to your food.  As far as flavor and bark potential goes, you’d be hard pressed to find a better choice of vessel than a kamado grill.
  • Drum/Vertical Water Smokers – A budget friendly, yet still perfectly viable option is a drum smoker or a vertical water smoker (like the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker).  While these two smoker types are technically different, they function quite similarly.  Equipped with a water pan and an optimally designed cooking chamber, you can easily control your moisture and smoke levels to achieve that perfect bark.

While the above list is certainly a good one – it’s not exhaustive.  If you have another smoker and you can easily control your heat and smoke levels, odds are you can get the formula down for delicious BBQ bark.

Checklist for Delicious BBQ Bark

Here are a few tips and pointers to make sure you give yourself (and your meat!) the best chance for successful bark:

  • Get your rub right.  Your BBQ rub, and the ingredients that go into it, will probably make the most difference when it comes to the end result of your bark.  You want to make sure there is at least a tiny bit of sugar in your rub, and from there you can decide whether you want to have proportionately more salt and pepper (thinner bark) or spices (thicker bark).
  • Remove thick chunks of fat by trimming.  A proper trimming can go a long way for BBQ bark formation.  You definitely want fat and marbling throughout your meat, but too much fat – and large chunks like the fat cap of a brisket, will work against you while you cook.
  • Apply your rub generously.  Use a paper towel to pat down the outside of your meat before applying rub, to remove some moisture.  After you’ve got the makeup of your rub down, you’ll want to make sure to cover your meat generously.  More rub equates to more bark, so at the very minimum you want to make sure the entire outer surface area of your meat is coated with rub.  Some pit masters even take it as far as cutting slits into their meat and working rub into some inner sections of the meat.
  • Consider slicing bigger cuts of meat in two.  Doing this will unlock more surface area, and more potential for bark on your food.
  • Don’t wrap your meat in foil.  Foil wrapping is a fine way to cook on your smoker (especially if you’re concerned about the brisket stall), but if you wrap with foil you won’t be able to achieve bark.  There will simply be too much moisture retained by your meat for a crust to form.  Not only that, the foil blocks smoke from penetrating to the meat and adhering to the outer layer of your food.
  • Avoid spritzing or basting your meat too much.  Doing this will add moisture to your food on top of the moisture that’s naturally inside of your meat.  A crust is formed when the outside of your cut is dry, so overdoing any basting or spritzing can be counterproductive to good bark.
  • Bring your appetite.  What good would all of that work be if you and the guests don’t come hungry!  After your bark is formed, it’s time for the payoff – grab a fork, some of your favorite BBQ sauce, and get down to business.

Final Thoughts

You’ve probably seen and tasted delicious BBQ bark in your lifetime, and now I hope you feel confident in knowing how to make it yourself at home.

It’s the sort of thing that can take a good cookout to a legendary one that’s talked about by family and friends for years.  A perfect bark just adds so many layers of flavor, texture, and complexity to an already delicious smoked meat.

Don’t be afraid to give it a try at home!  The best way to learn how to make BBQ bark at home is with experience.  Learn which rub works best for you and which settings are the best on your smoker.

Have any tips for us on how to achieve the best BBQ bark?  Did we miss something?  What are your experiences with attempting to perfect the bark?  We’d love to hear about it in the comments section below.