Because it takes such a long time to smoke a beef brisket, it can be disappointing when the results aren’t what you expect. If your brisket has no bark when you pull it off the smoker, is there any way to fix it? And how can you prevent it from happening again?
Brisket Has No Bark
If the brisket has very little to no bark, it usually means that the environment inside the smoker was too humid. Wrapping the brisket during the smoking process creates another version of the same problem, as this causes the meat to steam inside the package. If the temperature was too low during the cook, that could also prevent a good bark from forming.
What Is Bark?
The term bark refers to the crispy outer layer that forms on a perfectly smoked cut of meat. While it’s a hallmark of good beef brisket, smoked pork butt and pork shoulder can both develop an impressive bark as well.
The bark is made up of dehydrated meat, fat, and seasoning rub. In fact, the ingredients you use in the rub can affect the quality of the bark, as we’ll discuss later on.
When meat is exposed to heat, a chemical process known as the Maillard reaction takes place. This transforms the proteins and sugars in the meat, giving them a new depth of flavor, a darker color, and an enticing aroma.
What Went Wrong
When a beef brisket has no bark—or very little bark—it’s usually because too much moisture was introduced during the smoking process.
High humidity is the enemy of great bark. If the environment inside the smoker is too damp, the meat will “steam” rather than smoke. That will inhibit the formation of crust on the exterior of the brisket—in other words, the bark.
When you opt to wrap the brisket in foil partway through the cooking session, the meat tends to steam inside the wrapper. That’s why many pitmasters choose to power through the stall by leaving the meat unwrapped for the entire smoke.
The ingredients in your spice rub can also play a role here. If the seasoning mixture includes sugar, it will caramelize on the surface, which will create a thicker, stickier bark.
Finally, you should be sure to keep an eye on the temperature of your smoker. If the temp is set too low, it will inhibit bark formation. On the other hand, when the smoker temperature is too high, the bark may turn out charred and bitter.
Before you start the smoking process, let’s talk about the steps you can take to promote the production of fantastic bark on your beef brisket.
Trim the Fat
While you don’t want to remove the entire fat cap from the brisket, it shouldn’t be too thick, either. If there’s too much fat on the meat, the pellicle (a protein layer that forms on the meat’s surface) won’t develop properly. This will have a negative effect on the bark.
For optimum results, trim the fat cap until about 1/4 inch remains. That should leave you with enough fat to provide flavor and moisture without inhibiting the formation of the bark.
Use a Binder
Adding a thin layer of prepared mustard or olive oil before the seasoning rub will help the spices adhere to the meat. Without it, the bark may be “patchy”—that is, thinner or nonexistent in certain places. Regular yellow mustard is acceptable, but you can use Dijon or other varieties as well.
Be Generous With The Rub
When you’re getting the brisket ready for the smoker, don’t be tempted to skimp on the seasoning rub.
You can season brisket with a simple combination of salt and pepper, or you can add other spices such as garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, red pepper flakes, and cumin. While the meat is cooking, these ingredients will dry out and dissolve in the fat and water that are naturally present in the brisket.
As we mentioned, sugar is another popular rub ingredient, and one that can lead to an excellent bark. The sweet flavor works well with the brisket’s robust beefy taste. If you’re worried that the mixture will taste too sweet, try adding chili powder and/or crushed red pepper to the recipe.
Tip: Try not to overdo it on the sugar. While a small amount will promote bark formation, large quantities of sugar are more likely to burn, which will give the bark a bitter taste.
You can also purchase pre-mixed seasoning rub from the supermarket or an online retailer. Whichever one you choose, use at least 1 tablespoon of seasoning rub for every pound of meat.
Let The Brisket Cook
Leave the meat alone for the first few hours of the smoke. During this time, the brisket should absorb plenty of smoke and form a nice crisp exterior. There’s no need to spritz or mop the meat during this period—in fact, that may do more harm than good.
It’s fine to spritz the meat during the later stages of the cooking process. Doing so will help to attract smoke, which is great for bark production. However, if you begin spritzing too early, all you’ll do is wash the seasoning rub off the brisket.
Furthermore, it’s best to keep the lid of the smoker closed for the first few hours. Remember that every time you open the lid, you’ll lose both heat and smoke. The process will go much more smoothly if you leave the brisket alone during that first stage.
Wait To Wrap It
Should you choose to wrap the brisket in foil, make sure to wait until the internal temperature reaches at least 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Wrapping it sooner will inhibit bark production by steaming the meat inside the foil.
Another option is to wrap the meat in butcher paper instead of foil. Since this isn’t an impermeable barrier, some moisture can escape and smoke can still get inside, thereby preserving both texture and flavor.
Try Smoking the Brisket “Naked”
Remember: It’s not necessary to wrap the brisket at all. There’s a reason why pitmasters refer to this technique as the “Texas crutch”—it’s a shortcut, meant to cook the meat more quickly.
A “naked” brisket will have a harder, crispier bark than a brisket that was wrapped in foil. The interior might be a little less moist than it would if you’d wrapped it, but as long as you avoid overcooking the meat, this shouldn’t be an issue.
Introduce a Spritz
Once the brisket has been on the smoker for a few hours, you can start spritzing the meat with the liquid of your choice. This will attract more smoke to the surface of the brisket, which improves the flavor and helps create a nice crispy bark.
Popular spritz ingredients include apple juice, beer, apple cider vinegar, and beef broth. You can also use water, either on its own or mixed with melted butter and/or Worcestershire sauce.
Remember that you don’t want to introduce too much moisture. Try not to spritz the brisket more than once per hour, and do it quickly so you don’t keep the lid of the smoker open for too long.
Let’s assume that you’ve come to the end of the smoke, and the brisket has no bark. Is there any way to rectify the situation, or will you just have to hope for better luck next time?
You can attempt to crisp up the exterior of your brisket by returning it to the heat for a brief period of time. This solution also may come in handy if the bark was decent to begin with, but grew softer while the meat was resting.
It’s important not to neglect the resting period when making smoked brisket. However, if the brisket was wrapped in foil as it rested, the bark may have gone soft. This is true especially if you used a faux Cambro to rest the meat for several hours.
To crisp up the bark, try putting the meat back on the smoker for about 10 minutes before you slice and serve it. If you’re using a charcoal smoker and the fire has gone out in the meantime, set your conventional oven to its highest setting, then place the brisket inside for 5-10 minutes.
Tip: Don’t leave the brisket in the smoker or oven for too long. Your goal is to crisp up the bark, not overcook the meat.
The Bottom Line
If the brisket is properly seasoned and cooked to perfection, a soft exterior isn’t the end of the world. The meat will still taste delicious, and you can use the leftovers in a number of recipes that call for leftover beef.
That said, we understand that the interplay of taste and texture is one of the best reasons to fire up the smoker in the first place. Once you understand how the bark forms and which conditions may be preventing it, you’ll have a better shot at success.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!
Hi there! I’m Darren Wayland, your BBQHost. My love of great barbecue inspired me to curate this site as a resource for all my like-minded fellow pitmasters out there. When I’m not researching and learning all I can about the latest tips and techniques, you can find me at the grill—that is, if you can spot me at all through the clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. And since you asked, yes, that probably is barbecue sauce on my face. Welcome to the party!