Many of the pleasures of smoked brisket come from the bark—that dark, delicious crust that forms during cooking with the fat, juices, seasoning, and browning of the meat.
The same can be said for most of the frustrations. When it comes to brisket, almost all recipes and techniques aim to build up the bark.
But bark formation is one of those things in smoking that’s easy to understand and hard to master. Small, seemingly innocuous mistakes during the cook can add up to the wrong result.
One of those frustrations is when, after hours of smoking, the brisket is finally done. And yet, the bark is nowhere to be found!
When this happens, you can’t help but wonder: “What went wrong? And how can I prevent this from happening the next time I slide a brisket in the smoker?”
Your brisket can come out without a bark if you forgot to rub it, did so with a wet rub, smoked it at too low of a temperature, and/or wrapped it in foil or paper way too early.
This should already give you some clues as to what went wrong. Let us now go into more detail about each of these mistakes to understand why they hinder the building of the bark so much.
You Didn’t Rub the Brisket
There are many ways to season a brisket. And, although the opinions outnumber the opinion givers on the subject, it can be argued that the only wrong way to season a brisket per se is to not season it at all.
Think of the seasoning on your brisket and the smoke that permeates your cooking chamber as dancing partners: A great deal of the bark is formed from the interaction between the spices in the rub and the streams of smoke that play with them during the cook.
Rub the hunk of meat liberally on all sides, then slap it on a rimmed baking sheet, cover it with saran wrap or butcher paper, slide it in the fridge, and keep it there overnight. This technique, for those of you asking, applies to all cuts and seasonings.
Within one or two hours, the salt crystals will pull the juices from the meat through the process called osmosis.
Those juices will dissolve the salt and get aromatized and flavored by the spices until they’re ready to be reabsorbed right back by the brisket, seasoning it on the inside.
On the outside, the spices stay almost wet, their wetness aided by the humidity level in your fridge. This helps to keep them bound to the meat before, during, and after smoking.
You Slathered the Brisket With a Binder
When it comes to brisket, some rubs work better than others do. And, as far as the outer bark is concerned, I reckon rubbing brisket with spices is better than slathering it with a binder and spices on any day.
Trust me on this and try smoking a brisket that’s dry-rubbed, but not slathered. Despite lore to the contrary, you don’t need to use a binder, be it mustard, Worcestershire sauce, extra virgin olive oil, or anything else the recipe says, to keep the rub on the meat.
The excess moisture from the binder just makes it harder to build up a high-quality bark. At best, the bark will come out wet. This is particularly true if you’re smoking in an upright smoker your gas grill, where the humidity is higher than in other types of gear.
The Smoker Temperature Was Too Low
Aim for a smoker temperature from 225°F to 275°F when smoking brisket.
Decide on a figure, whether on the lower or higher end, and stick to it. Learn temperature control and do all you can to keep the temperature in your smoker’s cooking chamber constant; it shouldn’t fluctuate by more than 5-10 degrees at any time.
Flat cuts tolerate haste and temperatures on the higher end, as they cook quickly. Point cuts and whole briskets, bulkier and more uneven, take longer to cook, and so warrant temperatures on the lower end.
When in doubt, go for 250°F, a.k.a. the Goldilocks temperature that’s “just right” for most cuts. In any case, you don’t want the smoker’s temperature dropping below 225°F.
Remember: the boiling point of water is 212°F. To crisp and brown, meat needs to be heated to temperatures well higher than that. It is simply not possible to build the bark in a cooking chamber that isn’t hot enough.
You Wrapped the Brisket Too Early
Don’t wrap your brisket too early, fellers.
Once the meat is wrapped in aluminum foil or butcher paper, it will continue to cook low and slow, but the building of the bark is pretty much over with.
As the juices turn to vapor and escape from the meat, the steam gets trapped under the foil or paper and softens the outer bark.
Now, while the softness of the bark is counteracted by the long resting period once the brisket’s done, if the bark hasn’t formed by then, it will not form once you’ve wrapped the brisket. Do keep that in mind.
Generally speaking, it isn’t time to wrap the brisket until it reaches 170°F. Depending on the cut, the size, and the temperature, this internal temperature can take a good few hours to reach, especially if your brisket stalls.
Do not rush; a brisket wrapped at the right time is one that’s never left over after you send it to the table.
Some meat smokers, myself included, prefer not to wrap the brisket at all. Maybe I like a crispy crust and maybe I am blessed with good teeth, I can’t deny either, but I swear that’s how I and the missus like it best.
You will find my musings on this at “Does Foiling the Brisket Ruin the Bark?”
Don’t Forget the Resting Time
Not resting the brisket for enough time is arguably one of the most common mistake made by novice smokers. For the reasons you and I are about to discuss below, this step is as mission-critical as the cook itself.
When you rest brisket, the meat continues to cook in its residual heat. The juices settle where they belong, and they don’t run out as much when the meat is carved. Last but not least, the bark dries out and crispens up.
As soon as the brisket is done, take it out of the smoker, unwrap it from the foil or paper, and let it rest for 30 to 60 minutes before carving and sending to the table.
The longer the resting time, the better the outcome—juicy brisket with a salty, smoky, crispy crust that makes the soul sing, the stomach growl, and the mouth water.