To us, a crisp flavorful bark is one of the best reasons to smoke a brisket. In the course of our experiments, though, we’ve been known to take it a step too far, creating a brisket bark too hard for our liking. What causes this, and is there any way to fix it?
Brisket Bark Too Hard/Tough
Tough brisket bark is usually the result of high heat, not enough moisture in the smoker, too much sugar in the seasoning, or a combination of all three. Using the correct temperature and wrapping the meat partway through the smoke can keep the bark from hardening up too much.
How Do You Get Brisket Bark To Form?
“Bark” is the term for the dark, crunchy coating that forms on the outside of smoked meats such as brisket. It’s created when the proteins in the meat break down and mix with its natural sugars—similar to what happens every time meat is browned.
The bark itself contains rendered fat, as well as the spices you used for the seasoning rub. Combined with the smoke from the fire, this makes it taste amazing. The combination of the crisp, seasoned bark and the tender, juicy meat is a match made in flavor heaven.
Most of the time, a good bark will give the brisket a burned appearance. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, if you’re having a hard time slicing or shredding the meat with your metal utensils, the bark will probably be difficult to bite into as well.
Brisket Bark Too Hard: What Went Wrong?
We enjoy a nice crunchy bark as much as the next barbecue enthusiast. However, if the brisket bark is too hard for a knife to slice through, that can be an issue.
There are a few reasons why this might have happened. If the temperature inside the smoker was too high, the meat cooked too quickly and the exterior got too tough as a result.
The brisket also may have been too close to the heat source. This will dry out the bark more quickly than if the meat had been placed over indirect heat. It may even give the bark a charred, bitter flavor.
Leaving the brisket unwrapped for the duration of the cook can also create a tougher bark. This will prolong the cooking time as well, which is the main reason some pitmasters opt to wrap the brisket after several hours. For more info on wrapping, see the section below.
An overly dry cooking environment is another possible culprit. The drier the air is inside the smoker, the harder the bark will be.
Finally, the ingredients in the spice rub play an important role in bark formation. If there’s a lot of sugar in the rub, it will burn, creating a tougher bark.
To prevent the bark from creating a hard shell-like casing around the meat, keep the smoker temperature low and steady. We suggest setting the smoker to 225 degrees Fahrenheit, but a range of 250 to 275 can also work.
You might also try positioning the brisket so that the fat cap is facing the heat source. In most smokers, that means the fat side should be facing down. The fat will provide a barrier between the heat and the meat itself, so the bark won’t get too hard.
A water pan is another good method for keeping bark on the softer side. Excess moisture can prevent bark from forming, but a small amount will attract smoke, contributing to both the flavor and texture of the brisket.
Add about 1 gallon of water to the pan for the early stages of the smoke. This should last a few hours, so don’t be tempted to open the smoker too often. If you’re wrapping the brisket, you won’t need to add more water to the pan during that stage.
Keep brown sugar to a minimum when making brisket rub. It’s fine to use a small amount, but don’t overdo it. If the recipe is meant to coat a single large brisket, a couple of tablespoons should be enough.
Should You Wrap Brisket?
Another way to keep the bark from toughening is to enlist the “Texas crutch.” That means wrapping the meat in foil or butcher paper after it’s had a chance to cook for a while. It’s called a “crutch” because the meat cooks more quickly inside the wrapper.
The best time to wrap brisket is when the internal temperature reaches 150 to 160 degrees. At this point, the meat enters what’s known as the “stall,” when the temperature holds steady for hours at a time. Wrapping the brisket will help it power through this phase.
Since the wrapper will trap moisture inside, the bark shouldn’t get too hard during this phase of the smoke. For optimum results, use butcher paper instead of foil, as it creates a more permeable membrane.
It’s important not to wrap brisket until it’s had a chance to absorb a good hit of smoke flavor. If you wrap it too soon, you might wind up with bark that’s too soft—or worse, no bark at all.
Since every brisket is different, use the 150-160 degree mark as a point of reference. Don’t go by time alone, especially if the exterior of the brisket still appears too soft.
It’s always good to keep preventive measures in mind, but for some of you, it might already be too late to consider them. What can you do if the bark is too tough on a brisket you’ve already prepared?
Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to soften the bark at this point. You could try wrapping the brisket in foil and returning it to the smoker, but this only works if the meat isn’t finished cooking. If you cook it too far past the 210-degree mark, the brisket itself will be tough and dry as well.
Looking on the bright side, however, tough bark isn’t usually a serious problem. You might want to make a few notes for next time, but you can still enjoy the brisket even if the bark doesn’t have the texture you’d hoped for.
If you can get the knife through the bark at all, make the slices as thin as possible. You can also chop or shred the brisket and discard some of the bark as you go, leaving just enough to provide a nice contrast to the tender meat.
Another option would be to make burnt ends. These are supposed to have an especially crunchy texture, so it won’t matter so much if the bark was on the tougher side. They’re typically made using just the point, but you can use the flat in a pinch.
To make burnt ends, cut the brisket into cubes about 1-1/2 inch thick, then place them in a disposable aluminum pan. Add about 1/2 cup of beef broth and cover the pan. Return it to the smoker for about 1 hour.
Remove the pan from the heat and toss the cubed brisket with enough barbecue sauce to fully coat the cubes. Return the pan to the grill until the sauce has caramelized, then let the burnt ends rest for about 15 minutes before serving them with toothpicks.
The Bottom Line
Once you’ve smoked enough briskets, you should get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. If your brisket bark turns out too tough at first, keep experimenting until you find a technique that delivers the texture you’re looking for.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!