When you are smoking meat, it’s common practice to wrap the meat about halfway through your smoke.
Wrapping helps to lock in moisture and keep your meat tender during the final hours of cooking and can also speed up the cooking process.
Some people like to wrap in aluminum foil and others swear by butcher paper – but what is the difference?
Today I will break down the pros and cons of both options and then tell you what I prefer for different types of meat and why.
Why do we wrap meat?
Wrapping is a popular barbecue technique used by both professional pitmasters and backyard cookers alike. It is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – you literally wrap your meat in either aluminum foil or butcher paper.
Generally, you let the meat smoke unwrapped for the first portion of the cook while the bark develops and the meat soaks up that delicious smoky flavor.
Then you wrap the meat up tight to speed up the rest of the cook, and lock in as much moisture as you can to prevent your meat from drying out.
Some people like to wrap meat when it reaches a certain temperature.
I know people that swear by wrapping brisket or pork butt at 165°F internal.
I’m more of a “let the bark tell me when to wrap” kind of girl. I like to wrap between 165°F internal and even up to 190°F internal – it all depends on how my bark looks.
When you know it’s time to wrap, your bark needs to be fully set. By that, I mean that you need to be able to have a solid bark that won’t peel away from the wrap.
This is true whether you’re wrapping in foil or wrapping in butcher paper. You want to make sure that you can’t just scrape the bark away with your temp probe before you even think about wrapping it.
Aluminum foil: “The Texas Crutch”
Now, this is where the debate comes into play. It’s time to wrap your meat – are you reaching for the butcher paper or the aluminum foil?
Aluminum foil, also known as the “Texas Crutch”, is a popular choice because it’s far more easily accessible than butcher paper. Most American households keep aluminum foil around all the time, but they may not be so quick to keep a roll of butcher paper on hand.
Foil is relatively cheap and easy to use, plus it can really help speed up your cook. The foil acts as a heat insulator in the smoker and will trap the moisture in the meat, allowing the meat to steam as it finishes cooking.
The “Texas Crutch” is kind of a jab towards Texan pitmasters, but it’s one that I embrace. People call it the “crutch” because it speeds up the cook and will help get you through a stall when you’re smoking low a slow.
Haters are going to hate, but the “Texas Crutch” can really help when you’re trying to get your meat through the roughest part of a cook!
Another great thing about foil is that it doesn’t soak up any of the juices from the meat, so the meat can sit there and braise in its own juices while it finishes cooking.
The biggest argument AGAINST using aluminum foil is definitely the fact that it can compromise your bark. If you wrap with foil too early, that bark can get steamed and end up sliding right off your brisket.
I recommend that if you are going to use aluminum foil to wrap then you should make sure your bark is nice and set before you wrap. This could happen around 165°F or not until 185°F internal, but it takes a bit of an experienced eye.
One final tip, I recommend investing in a big roll of heavy-duty foil. It’s great for wrapping things like pork ribs that have sharp bones that can puncture your foil.
Butcher paper: keep it traditional
Butcher paper is made from wood pulp. You can find it in a variety of colors and the different colors generally have different uses.
When wrapping barbecue, you want to look for peach or pink butcher paper.
We sell 150ft rolls of butcher paper that come in a resealable tube to keep the paper safe and dry between uses.
Butcher paper will protect the bark and helps to keep a lot of the moisture inside the meat. The paper will absorb some moisture but doesn’t allow nearly as much liquid to evaporate as aluminum foil does.
I think the most common argument AGAINST the use of butcher paper is that it can really slow down your cook, especially if you’re smoking a brisket and you hit a stall. Aluminum foil insulates the meat and helps keep a steady temperature, but butcher paper is not nearly as forgiving when it comes to letting heat escape.
Butcher paper vs foil: pros & cons
|BUTCHER PAPER PROS||BUTCHER PAPER CONS|
|Protects your bark||Allows heat to pass through so if you have a temperature swing the meat won’t be protected|
|Fat soaks into the paper and braises your meat||Potentially longer cooking time|
|Stronger, more pronounced smoke flavor||You may have to partially unwrap to check temperature|
|ALUMINUM FOIL PROS||ALUMINUM FOIL CONS|
|Faster cook time||Keeps smoke away from your meat, resulting in less smoke flavor|
|Allows the meat to braise in its own juices||Creates steam and can compromise your bark|
|Helps maintain a consistent temperature|
|Easy to check temperature by piercing the foil|
So, what do I recommend?
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. I actually use both aluminum foil and butcher paper when I’m smoking meat. It depends on what I’m cooking, where I’m cooking, what type of time constraints I have, and frankly… my mood!
I’m going to break down when I choose each option and why…
If I’m smoking a brisket at home with no time constraints, we will almost exclusively use butcher paper. It maintains a beautiful bark and allows the amazing smoke flavor to penetrate into the meat for the duration of the smoke.
If I’m cooking for a crowd, catering, or even sometimes in competition, I do rely on aluminum foil, A.K.A. “The Texas Crutch”.
Whether I’m competing or I’m catering, at the end of the day I just cannot risk hitting a stall and not finishing the cook before it’s time to serve.
Usually, when it comes to competition, I don’t make the decision to use butcher paper or aluminum foil until the brisket hits around 165°F to 175°F internal. I take a look at the bark, decide if it’s set enough for my liking, and then make the decision to wrap or wait.
Now, one thing to mention is that if I decide to use foil, I will wrap the briskets slightly later to allow a solid bark to form before wrapping it so that we can preserve the bark in the final product.
I usually won’t wrap with foil until the brisket is up around 185°F or so, as a general rule.
Pork ribs: aluminum foil
I always use foil when I wrap my pork ribs – IF I even wrap them at all. Some people claim that butcher paper is the way to go, but I just don’t see the logic there.
Aluminum foil is perfect for pork ribs. It allows the ribs to cook in their own juices, as well as the delicious butter and sauce that I like to add about halfway through the smoke, like in our 3-2-1 smoked ribs recipe.
With pork ribs, you’re not generally concerned about a “bark”, so the steam created by the use of aluminum foil doesn’t cause any issues.
If you choose to wrap your ribs, just be aware that the aluminum foil will insulate the ribs and inevitably speed up the cook.
If you are used to smoking your ribs unwrapped and you decide to use foil for the first time, just keep in mind that you want to start checking them a little earlier because they are going to cook faster than you would expect.
Pork shoulder: aluminum foil + an aluminum tray
When I smoke my Competition-style Pork Butt, I like to use aluminum foil.
After the first 6 to 8 hours of smoke on a pork butt, it should have a beautiful bark and plenty of smoky flavor. At that point, I transfer the butt to a metal tray and wrap it in aluminum foil.
I like to use foil because it keeps an even temperature. I’m not wrapping the pork butt directly in foil, and instead, wrapping it inside of a metal tray. This means that I don’t have any issues with compromising the beautiful bark.
Also, since I add apple juice and butter to the bottom of the aluminum tray, the steam that is created and captured by the aluminum foil infuses the pork with extra succulent flavor.
Beef ribs: butcher paper
The key to a great Texas-style beef rib is the beautiful bark that is created during the smoking process. While I’ve used aluminum foil in the past, I’ve pretty much transitioned to exclusively using butcher paper (or leaving them naked/unwrapped) when smoking beef ribs.
The butcher paper allows all of the delicious smoky flavor to penetrate the meat and really kicks the flavor of the ribs up a notch, plus it allows the glorious bark to remain intact.
I like to wrap our beef ribs about halfway through the cook in two layers of butcher paper.
Do you even have to wrap bbq?
There are people out there that disagree with me, but I don’t believe that wrapping is crucial. I think that it can help speed up your cook, protect your bark, and keep your meat from drying out.
Some people will argue that wrapping your meat can compromise your bark, but that’s only if you choose to wrap too early. If you wait until your bark is fully set, as mentioned above, then you don’t really run much risk of compromising your bark by wrapping it. I find that wrapping actually protects your bark because it will prevent it from getting too hot and becoming burnt or too smoky.
A lot of it has to do with what type of smoker you are using, and, like most things BBQ, it really just comes down to personal preference.