What is Bark and How to Build Bark on Brisket, Ribs, Pork Butts and More!

What is BBQ Bark?

To put it simply, bark is the crispy dark layer of seasonings and flavor that builds on the outer layer of your slow-smoked bbq. If we want to go a little bit deeper, then there are a ton of ways we could explain it. For our sake, think of it more like the bark of a tree, than the sound a dog makes when the grill smells good.

Bark builds as the result of the mixture of a spice rub containing salt and sugar, moisture from the meat and from spritzing, and finally some good ol’ smoke from a low-heat wood-burning fire. Keep reading, and we’ll go more in-depth about where it comes from, and how to build it in order to make your smoked meat the talk of the town.

Where Does Bark Come From?

There are some big scientific words we could use to explain the process like Maillard Reaction, caramelization, polymerization, hibernation, grillanation … sorry drifted off there for a second. I’ll try to keep it as simple as possible to keep the average reader’s eyes from glazing over. 

Essentially, bark comes from the evaporation of the moisture in and on the meat from the low temperature, diffused heat fire. As water evaporates and the fats of the meat liquefy and bubble throughout, smaller molecules like salt penetrate into the meat (assisting in the production of your smoke ring). Other larger molecules like seasonings from your rub will remain on the surface, brown, and combine with the fats of the meat creating the dark, delicious crust that pitmasters and BBQ lovers all strive for.

Dino Bones

It’s important to note that this bark building is definitely different from the process of caramelization, even though they may look very similar to the untrained eye. Caramelization is what happens to sugars when cooking above 300-degrees in most situations. Essentially, the sugars burn, brown and change chemical composition making them taste different than they would have otherwise. You have to be very careful when caramelizing, as doing this too early, too hot, or too long can end up having negative effects on your end-product. Nobody wants to take a bite of a brisket that looks like it has an awesome layer of bark to find a hard, tasteless shell that gets stuck to the teeth.

How to Build Bark on Your BBQ

This is the part we all came for! Whether you’re putting an 1/8-inch of the good stuff on a pork butt you’ve smoked for upwards of 10-hours, or a thin, dark, delicious layer of crust on your ribs, bark is what we came here for! 

baby back ribs recipe

There’s a ton of different theories on the best way to build it, BBQ geeks will say it’s a fine science of applying the perfect amount of salt, seasoning and moisture at a certain temperature for a special amount of time. The backyard boys will say just throw rub on it, spritz it down periodically and let the bbq gods do their thing. Then there’s the experimental guys and gals who are willing to try just about anything at least once to see if they might be able to find the new trick that gets them some clout in the bbq world.

Instead of trying to brow-beat you into using one method over another, or act like we’re the end-all-be-all of bbq knowledge, we’ll give you some tips and tricks we’ve learned that seem to have worked pretty dang well for us so far!

1. Season Your Meat With a Good Rub

You’re gonna need a decent starting layer of seasonings for your meat to start building that beautiful bark. Make sure the entire surface of your meat is covered with a layer of rub. Throughout the cook, don’t be afraid to add more to the portions of your meat that may have fallen off, or start to look thin as the cook proceeds.

Try a bunch of different kinds to find one that works for you. They all have different amounts and types of sugars, salts, seasonings and other ingredients that can make massive differences in the taste of your bark. Start off with using one, or any combination of Grilla Grills rubs for a solid start to your bark building. Our All-Purpose Rub combines great with either our Beef Rub, or What Da Cluck Chicken Rub, and is a fantastic way to start your smoke session.

Add Some BBQ Flavor

Grilled ribs

2. Spritz Your Meat To Build BBQ Bark Layers

This is a move that will be hotly debated among different people, but we think it definitely helps in the production of some awesome bark. Fill a spritzer bottle with a savory combination of different liquids. Things like apple cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, balsamic vinegar, or any other delicious savory sauce you can mix together to make a flavor you’ll enjoy. Make sure there’s no solid chunks in whatever you use so it doesn’t clog up your bottle, and try to avoid anything that’s exceedingly high in sugars that might burn at higher temperatures.

Spritzing works a lot better than other methods of adding moisture during a cook. First, it’s much more measured and easier to apply only to portions of the meat that are needed. It’s also much easier to keep from washing off the dry-rub that you’ve applied to your meat. Finally, it provides the perfect amount of moisture to stick even more rub onto your meat.

Spraying down your meat is going to slow down the cooking process, giving you more time to build up that bark! Of course, spraying the bark is going to soften it, but over time the flavor from the spritz is going to dry up and leave a little flavor behind each time you spray it down. You can also add a bit more rub after a spritz to make that bark even thicker!

Spraying down your food also makes it easier for smoke to stick to it. Smoke flavor sticks to moist surfaces, more so than dry surfaces.

Barbecue sliced chuck beef ribs with hot rub as closeup on a wooden cutting board

3. Cook Your Meat Low & Slow

This one is pretty obvious, but should be said just in case. You’re going to have to be cooking low and slow to build an awesome bark on your brisket, ribs or pork shoulder. Cooking at high temperatures is going to really make it hard, if not impossible to build a good layer of bark. Keep your grill around 225-degrees or lower for best results.

4. Don’t Overdo It With the BBQ Rub

Play it safe the first few times you try this out. Too much rub will overpower your food, too much spray will wash off what you applied. There’s no exact science, but if you play it safe at first, you’ll find it’s a lot easier to dial in your measurements. You can always add more of whatever you want to your food, you can’t take it away once it’s been applied.

Ready to build some awesome bark? We can help! Grab yourself a Grilla Grill and see how easy it is to up your grilling game with one of our Kamado or Pellet Grills.

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