As the summer barbecue season draws near, isn’t it time to meditate on some BBQ ideas? Have you tried deliberately smoking your brisket or pork butt to develop that dark, rub-filled, crusty bark?
In this article, we will be seeing how to get bark with a pellet smoker. The process involves eliminating excess fat, rubbing the meat with marinade and spices, and smoking in a temperature range of 225 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
BBQ Bark: What it is and How it Works
The BBQ bark is your favorite part of pulled pork or brisket. It is the crusty, rich, sweet, savory, crunchy dark back.
The bark is a semi-hard crust that forms outside the meat when you barbecue it. This crust results from the combination of the following;
- the rub,
- the caramelization (browning) of the sugars,
- the melted fat,
- And the smoke that slowly conditions the surface of the meat.
How is bark formed?
Bark formation is quite complex. It is the by-product of chemical reactions such as the Maillard Reaction and Polymerization.
The process begins when you sprinkle the meat with the spice mix (the rub). During smoking, the salt in the rub penetrates deep into the meat. Thanks to the electrochemical reactions with the help of moisture.
When smoking, the smoke particles stick to the surface of the meat, changing its color and appearance.
The bark formation process continues with the sweating of the meat! This can manifest in small puddles.
Then as this water evaporates, the Maillard reaction begins, where the first changes on the outer layers are noted.
Meat proteins bind and aggregate with spices, forming complex new molecules called polymers. These are responsible for the film that forms on the surface of the meat just below the spice rind, usually less than 1mm thick.
Once the polymers have formed, they can no longer be dissolved. They are permanent, and this is what you call the bark.
Several Factors that Contribute to Bark
A BBQ bark doesn’t just appear on your meat. It’s the result of a deliberate set of actions.
Yes, you may have had dark crunchy barks on your meat without a recipe or previous plan. But this time, you want the perfect result, and several factors determine this.
The rub is a salt-based mixture possibly integrated with sugar, spices, and aromatic herbs.
The recipes of the rubs can be very varied. But most of them are composed mainly of salt, pepper, sugar, and paprika.
In addition to these, everything is allowed. For example, garlic and onion powder are commonly used.
Then there can be “secret” ingredients such as cumin, turmeric, allspice, mustard, celery seeds, ginger, etc.
Do not use acidic marinades or acidic substances in the rub. You may also sprinkle baking soda on the surface.
If you don’t trust your ability to mix good ingredients for your rub, you can fall back on products sold for this purpose. Traeger Grills makes a lot of BBQ spices, and the Blackened Saskatchewan Dry Rub from the brand is great for building bark.
Low temperature, below 200 degrees, causes the bark to have a light color. At this temperature, you may want to increase the cooking time, which will then cause the crust to get slightly darker and harder, but its thickness will increase.
At medium/high temperatures, from 225 degrees Fahrenheit upwards to 250, the crust takes its usual dark color and will not be too thick.
The meat will be cooked in the layers immediately below. And you may get that beloved pink smoke ring.
The cooking level of the heart of the meat depends on the overall thickness of the piece. At high / very high temperatures, the bark on pellet smoker occurs in a few hours or even minutes; it gets dark, hard, and thin.
You shouldn’t smoke the meat for too long at this temperature, as the surface would burn. But the center may not be well cooked.
So, you need the temperature not to be too low (or you won’t get a bark) and not be too high (or the inside won’t be done).
Yes, you need moisture to let the ingredients dissolve. You don’t necessarily need water in a pellet smoker to get a good dark.
Water cannot heat up to the necessary temperatures for the Maillard reaction.
However, wood pellets produce vapors when they burn. So the meat will get water vapor from the smoke to dissolve the rub and make it penetrate the meat.
The rub ingredients that wouldn’t penetrate will dissolve with the surface fat and form the bark.
Dab your meat before smoking so that it doesn’t have too much moisture. The moist surface of the meat ensures the condensation of smoke and the penetration of molecules into the underlying tissues, ensuring the formation of a deeper smoke ring.
Fat on the meat is always useful to get the Maillard reaction. Fat on and in the meat reinforces the Maillard effect, as it ensures optimized heat conduction from the medium to the outside of the meat.
Highly marbled meat has this fat already “built-in.” With lean meat, it helps to brush the meat with a film of highly heatable fat.
However, in this case, more fat doesn’t always translate to better bark. If you are working on a fatty piece of meat like brisket, you may have to trim off excess fat and leave a thin layer.
The smoke is key to keeping the Maillard reaction. It is the second most important factor after the rub.
On the one hand, you must ensure that the heat is as high as possible. The longer the meat is smoked, the thicker the bark forms.
Remember, smoking low and slow is important, and 225 degrees is the sweet spot.
You don’t need a lot of pellets than usual; you’d need about a half-pound of pellet every hour. So, don’t forget to top it up every hour.
However, you’d need about 10 ounces of wood pellets or chips at the beginning. (See our Smoking 101 guide here)
The length of smoking mainly affects the thickness of the rind, with the same color and hardness. However, between 10 to 15 hours is the norm.
Forget about charcoal and electric smokers; vertical pellet smokers or Trager smokers are the best for the job because you need good ventilation and moisture, among other things, to have the bark formed nicely.
How to Get A Good Bark When Smoking
There are many do’s and don’ts to consider when smoking meat to develop bark. Check them out!
It all starts from the preparation
Trimming the fat if there are too many, preparing and applying the rub are key steps. Get your pellets or wood chips ready.
You’d need about 8 pounds for this BBQ smoking process.
Avoid excessive spritzing
You may need to spritz and mop the meat every 45 minutes with flavored liquid or marinade while smoking. This helps to prevent the meat from drying out. But don’t overdo it. Mopping doesn’t help meat that you intend to build bark on.
Don’t wrap your meat in foil
After cooking, leave the meat to rest. Don’t wrap it in foil during the stall, perhaps to speed up the internal cooking.
The generated heat and moisture will only spoil the bark and make it mushy. Wrapping anything, even butcher paper, around the meat can ruin the bark.
Let go of sugared rubs
Sugar can cause the bark to chat and taste bitter when it caramelizes. So, avoid sugared rubs. However, you may apply sugar in the form of a baste in the latter stage of smoking.
Use nut wood pellets or chips
You can consider nut wood chips, peanut shells, or small pieces of wood obtained from the branches.
You can also choose chips that have the bark; these ensure flavorful smoke.
Maintain Good Airflow
Good airflow helps your meat cook faster. Don’t keep the smoker’s vents closed, except the temperature is high at some point.
As you can see, getting bark on a pellet smoker isn’t that hard. Consider all the instructions, and you won’t find it difficult.
Simply rub the meat before smoking and put away sugar ingredients. Also, eliminate excess fat on the surface without removing it.
And finally, remember that you need around 225 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit of smoking for 12 to 15 hours for well-done meat with the barks intact.