How to get a good bark when smoking meat

How to get a good bark when you smoke

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There’s no denying that eating barbecue is a sensory experience. The smell as it comes off the pit, and the sight of the smoke ring as you slice into it are part of what makes this hobby so satisfying.

The bark is an integral part of this experience. A flavorsome, licorice black bark is often the reason you and your guests will be coming back for a second, even a third helping of smoked meat.

A consistent, delicious bark is one of the hallmarks of a true pit master. But the skills to produce a good bark shouldn’t take you a life time to master.

But what exactly is bark? Why is it so damn important and how do you make sure you get a delicious bark every time you smoke?

What is bark?

Bark is an incredibly tasty crust that forms on your smoked meat. It is actually the result of some complex chemical reactions that have happened throughout the cooking process. Specifically, the Maillard reaction and polymerization.

In basic terms, bark forms when the surface of the meat is exposed to heat and oxygen. When the meat is also exposed to smoke, the bark will become a dark, licorice color. Without exposure to smoke, the bark will be more of a dark red, mahogany color.

T-ROY COOKS has an excellent in-depth video that looks at how to get a bark.

Interestingly, contrary to common belief, caramelized sugar is not responsible for the formation of the dark crust on the meat. Ideally, the optimum cooking temperature inside the cooker should be between 225 – 250°F. However, table sugar does not start to caramelize until it hits 300°F.

As the meat is cooking, the surface begins to dry out. Proteins on the meat’s surface bond together and form polymers. This is called the Maillard reaction. The result is a hard layer on the surface of the meat, called the pellicle. If you applied a spice rub to your meat, it will form a crust just on top of the pellicle.

And there you have it – in more common terms, the bark.

How does your rub affect the bark?

The ingredients in your rub that are water soluble or fat soluble have specific roles to play in the formation of the bark.

As the meat smokes, the ingredients in the rub that are water soluble, such as salt and sugar, will dissolve either in the moisture of the meat, or the moisture in the smoke. The dissolved salt molecules will go on to penetrate the meat.

The undissolved ingredients of the rub will remain on the surface of the meat and start forming a glaze. As the meat continues to cook, fats in the meat will render. At this point, the fat soluble ingredients of your rub will dissolve also.

Rub on pork butt

The glaze, which contains dissolved ingredients, along with the remaining undissolved herbs and spices, combine to form a pasty substance on the surface of the meat.

As the cook progresses and the pellicle forms, these ingredients on the surface will dry out and form the spice crust. The pellicle along with the crust is your delicious bark.

Did you know? According to Prof Greg Blonder of Amazing, salty and acidic rubs will tend to form a bark faster. This may sound like a potential short-cut, but don’t get too excited. While the bark may initially form at a quicker rate, this does not actually improve the quality of the bark you achieve by the end of the cook.

What are the basic ingredients in a rub?

So now we know the importance of a good rub to form a bark, but what kind of rub should we be using to produce a good bark?

While there are countless variations of meat rubs, the basic ingredients should include salt, pepper, sugar and paprika. Often there is onion and garlic powder in the mix.

The specific spices you include in your rub, and how much you use will affect how thick your spice crust is. This is an important consideration when planning out your bark recipe.

How much chili can you handle in your spice crust? Creating your own rubs is a great way to experiment with different variables and see what your personal preference is. great opportunity to test your limits.

Or you can go the store bought route and try a few of the best rubs available. Personally I like to keep a few good rubs stocked in the pantry for when I don’t have the right ingredients to make my own rub (or when I”m feeling lazy). I’m partial to Plowboys Yardbird Rub, especially for pork and chicken.

How does smoke affect the bark?

Smoke is also a key factor in the creation of the bark. The longer your meat is exposed to the smoke, the darker it will become as more smoke particles stick to the glaze.

A piece of meat that has been smoked for a long time (12 or more hours) may appear burnt. On closer inspection, however, the bark on this meat should be glossy, not dry and charred. The meat, in fact, will not taste burnt. On the contrary, it should be delicious!

After rub, smoke is the second most important factor to achieve a good bark.


T-ROY COOKS, How To Get Good Bark on BBQ

“The longer a piece of meat is exposed to the smoke, the darker the bark will be. It just happens.

A piece of meat that’s smoked for about 15 hours will almost look burnt. But it’s not. If it’s done correctly, good bark is a highly coveted piece of the meat.

The smoke particles stick to the glaze and change the color of the original rub. “

How does temperature affect the bark?

One of the basic principles of successful barbecuing is temperature control. This principle also applies when creating a great bark. If the temperature is too low, the bark will not form. If it is too high, you will char the meat.

A good temperature range to aim for is around 225-250°F.

Around half way through the cook, moisture starts to evaporate from the meat, thus cooling the meat, and slowing the cooking. This is referred to as the “stall”.

graphic showing bbq stall

Eventually, after enough moisture has evaporated from the meat, the rub will dry out and the Maillard reaction will begin. The chemistry of the outer layer of the meat will change, creating the pellicle.

If the temperature is too low, the Maillard process will not happen, so maintaining adequate temperature throughout the cook is vital.

How does fat content affect the bark?

As is the case with the temperature, when it comes to the fat content of the meat, balance is required to form a great bark. It is not simply a case of the more fat, the better.

Fat is necessary to form the bark, because the fat soluble components in the rub dissolve and hold on to the spices, forming the crust.

If your meat is too fatty, however, it could hinder the creation of the pellicle, by obstructing the access of heat and oxygen to the proteins on the surface of the meat.

In light of this, it is advisable to trim off any excess fat. Aim to leave just enough fat to render and provide that nice glossy glaze for the spices, smoke, and dissolved salt and sugar to stick to.

How does moisture affect the bark?

To form a bark, there must be some moisture present so that the water soluble ingredients can dissolve. The moisture that is naturally in the meat and the smoke is usually adequate.

Therefore, you don’t need to go crazy basting of your meat throughout the cook. Too much moisture will in fact stop the bark from forming, because the surface of the meat needs to dry out in order for the Maillard reaction to start.

Tips & Tricks to guarantee a good bark

Now that we know how and why a bark is formed, what steps can we take to make sure we get a good one next time we smoke some meat? Here are some tips:

  • As discussed, remove any excess fat from your meat. Around a ¼ inch to ⅛ inch of fat on your meat is all you will need.
  • Don’t sit your meat in a pan while it’s on the smoker. This will reduce the airflow and prevent the surface from drying out. Sit it on the grill plate.
  • Sugar can char and cause your bark to be bitter in taste. If you are a beginner, you could try applying sugar in the form of a baste during the latter stages of the cook.
  • Don’t wrap the meat in foil to speed up the cook during the stall. This will damage your bark. Due to the steam that accumulates inside the foil, you could end up with mush instead of a bark.
  • Some pitmasters use butcher paper through the stall, around the point when the temperature is 160oF, and report no ill effects. Others, however, swear that wrapping anything around your meat will kill your bark. The jury is out on this one – perhaps a little experimentation is in order.
  • Don’t mop or spritz for the first 2 hours of the smoke. Not only are you potentially washing off your rub, you may also be hindering the formation of the crust. The crust will have started to form after a couple of hours. It is safe to baste, mop or spritz after this has happened.

Rub recipe for getting good bark on brisket

This is where regional differences and different styles of barbecue come into play. You can’t go wrong with this rub from

  • 3 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon granulated white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 2 teaspoons mustard powder
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons chili or ancho powder
  • 1 teaspoon chipotle or cayenne powder

Note that there’s no salt in this rub. This is because it’s better to pre-salt your meat the night before. If your meat has not been pre-salted,  add about 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt per pound of meat.

Another good rub for brisket is an ultra simple Texas style like Aaron Franklin does on his brisket, and go with a basic salt and peper rub.

Rub recipe for getting a good bark on pork butt

This recipe for a ‘Boston Butt’ dry rub comes from Dave of Visit the site for a full run-down of how he creates his ‘Boston Butt’.

Below are the quantities required to cover a 10 pound ‘Boston Butt’, likey with some rub left over.

  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup sea salt
  • 1/4 cup paprika
  • 2 heaping tablespoons of onion powder
  • 2 heaping tablespoons of garlic powder
  • 2 heaping tablespoons of black pepper
  • 1 heaping tablespoons of celery salt
  • 1 heaping tablespoon of cayenne pepper – this can be adjusted according to how spicy you like your meat.
  • 1 heaping teaspoon of cumin.

Wrapping it up

We hope you have enjoyed our run-down of how to get a delicious bark on your smoked meat. Anyone who has had a expertly smoked meat, complete with black, flavor filled bark will attest to the fact that it is a skill worth mastering.

Have you got any extra tips or questions related to achieving a good bark? Share them in the comments section below.

And if you enjoyed this article and found it useful, don’t forget to share!

Feature CC Image courtesy of Ernesto Andrade on Flickr

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  1. Thanks this helps a lot I have smoked 2 pork shoulders and did not know anything about achieving a bark. Until recently watching the bbq pitmastets competition I’m learning but it’s fast and it’s not a lesson more of some pointers..I’m learning a lot from you guys and I will be smoking a brisket in the next month I hope everything goes well wish me luck.. I have 2 Dynaglo smokers both smoke boxes are on the side one is verticle

  2. When I smoke pork butts, after 165 degrees they can take no more smoke and run the risk of becoming bitter because of too much smoke.. now this defies what I’ve read, I finish them in foil wrapped container in the apple cider brine, no bark, but bursting with flavor

    1. Hey Chris,

      So long as you are burning a clean fire, and avoid using excessive amounts of wood there’s nothing wrong with going ‘naked’ and smoking unwrapped the whole time.

      It’s per a personal preference thing. Wrapping like you do and adding some apple cider is a delicious way to do it, but some people like more of a bark.

      Something you gotta experiment with for sure.

    2. Chris, I am a 30+ year pitmaster.
      The quality of the smoke is an important key to great flavor of the bark. A small, hot, clean fire will produce what you need and will never make that bitter taste on the meat.
      I’ve smoked hundreds of beef briskets at 235°F from 10 to 12 hours before wrapping. This results in incredible bark with better than any beef jerky taste.
      Hardwood smoke has creosote in it which produces flavor. There is good creosote from small molecule, light blue smoke, and bad creosote from large molecule, “dirty” smoke.
      You want clean light blue smoke.
      Look online for the KBQ smoker and study what the inventor did to create clean smoke all the time for delicious bark.
      I own four of these simply to keep up with demand for my BBQ.
      My brisket looks like a meteor but the flavor is otherworldly.
      I am a longtime student of Aaron Franklin.

  3. In the brisket rub recipe there is no Salt in the rub mix, I’d this a forgotten ingredient, can you specify how much salt if any?

    1. Hey Mike,

      I should have mentioned that in the original recipe, there is a separate step to pre-salt the brisket. I’ve added this info to the post now.

      Thanks for your comment.

  4. Great advise i will most defiantly be trying this new method for my next cook. I didn’t see or maybe i missed you mention at what internal degrees you take off the brisket from the smoker. Also is there a specific internal degrees for say the fat side vs the lean side when its done? Because i do know the lean side cooks faster then fat side. And also how long do you let brisket sit after removing from smoker before you start cutting into it?

    1. Hey Eli,

      I would usually aim for around 203-207°F in the thickest part of the brisket. Then I would let it rest for an hour wrapped in foil and a few old towels in a cooler. Maybe even longer depending on what time it finishes and what time we’re eating.

      1. Temperature is a guide. The 203°F to 207°F is commonly what I get in my packers as well, however, the center of the brisket where the point muscle stops is the location to measure this temperature. The point muscle will easily be this temperature before the flat muscle. This is because of the higher fat content. Basically, the point will be done before the flat and you can be fooled ending up with tough stretchy meat in the flat. Always check the flat for tenderness and not the point when smoking or cooking a full packer brisket. Tenderness trumps temperature every time.
        Use a meat thermometer probe to test. If the meat lifts ever so slightly in the center when you pull the probe out take that brisket out of the heat and allow it to rest at room temperature for about 2 hours to cool down to 140°F. This will allow the water to redistribute in the meat. At this point in time you can hold in a low temperature oven at 145°F for as long as needed. I typically hold my packer briskets for 10 hours before slicing and serving. My teacher, Aaron Franklin does exactly the same.

  5. I signed up for your newsletters and blogs and have been following your advice carefully. I smoked my first brisket overnight Friday for a Saturday PM BBQ, following the article from Aaron Franklin last week and also did smoked pulled pork. Amazing….my guests have raved about the taste and noted it was the best BBQ food they ever experienced. What a satisfying hobby this is! Thanks for the great articles 🙂

  6. I have just started smoking. Can the use of a water pan help with moisture in the meat or am I wasting time. Can you tell me after about 4 hours of smoking my temp just drops to about 125 or 150 am I doing something wrong or it is the STALL I have been reading about

    1. The water pan won’t affect the moisture in the meat directly. The water pan is helpful to regulate the temperature in the smoker and can prevent it from getting too hot. If the smoker runs too hot for too long, then that can burn / overcook the meat (which could cause it to dry out).

      Some would also say that increasing the humidity in the smoker helps to keep the meat moist.

      The temperature of the meat can drop a little bit during the stall. For example, you might go from 160 back to 155°F but you shouldn’t see a large sudden drop.

      1. Thanks for the info. So if I see a drop of about 50 degrees or would you say it was safe to say I should had more hot coals?

  7. I have started to smoke pork loin instead of shoulder and noticed that back is pretty hard and difficult to chew. I use an electric smoker so the temp is stable. I use butcher paper to wrap the meat after it hits 160. Lately I had to move the meat into an oven to overcome the stall and ahad it as high as 275. Is the higher temp an issue or could it be the cut off meat? Thank you for your help.

  8. Very helpful thanks,just bought a gas smoker (smoke hollow) I cooked a shoulder for 12 hrs had a good rub but have no bark to speak of I kept water pan full and wood chips always full what did I do wrong.

  9. Thank you Joe. I’ve learned more reading your article along with the comments than I have learned in any book. Most restaurant owners or competition cooks who write books in my opinion are “liars by omission” lol. Thank you for the details.

  10. The daunting part for me about smoking pork butts or especially brisket is the timing. If I want to serve either meat at 6:00 pm, when should I start the process, and when should individual steps occur?

    1. The best way to remove the stress is to make sure the meat will be done a few hours before 6:00pm, and leave it wrapped up in foil plus a few old towels in a cooler. That will make the meat better anyway, but it also takes the stress out of the timing.

      Depending on the heat you cook at, size of the meat, and various other factors you should be OK if you start at around 6:00AM. You can always cook a little hotter than most recipes recommend (e.g. 275) and you will be able to shave some time off.

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