Bark, Don’t Bite...

How to create great "BBQ bark"

Originally written in April 2009:

Dear BBQ Friend:

I had a request from a BBQ competition judge to do a newsletter on creating a good "BBQ bark". He says that a lot of teams and home cooks get it wrong. So that's what this month's newsletter will concentrate on. But first, let me do a little bragging... we won our first Grand Championship at the Albany, GA contest a couple of weeks ago! It was a Florida BBQ Association event with some of the best teams in the Country present. We took first in pork with the highest pork score in the FBA so far this year. We also took 2nd in chicken and 2nd in brisket. Also congratulations to Clay Gordon and his BBQ team "Got Smoke?" He is a reader of "Competition BBQ Secrets" and he took 1st Place in the backyard division!

Here's a video clip of the contest...

Just a few quick tips that I learned from past contests that helped us win this one...albany bbq contest

  • Don't try to do it by yourself. I'm not saying it can't be done because some of the best teams are one man operations like Rub at Swamp Boys. But it sure does make things a lot easier when you have two experienced BBQ cooks on your team. I asked my Brother-in-law, Lee Sweat to help out at this contest and it sure did make a difference.
  • Space - Make sure you have plenty of space on your smoker(s). Preferably, have at least two smokers because you may need to cook chicken and ribs at a different temperature than butts and brisket. You also have to open the lid more often for chicken and ribs than for butts and brisket - and whenever you open that lid, all your heat escapes.
  • Backup plan - Be sure to have a backup plan especially if you have something like a pellet smoker that depends on electronics and mechanical augers to run properly. If the electricity goes off, like it often does at a contest, have a 12 volt inverter handy. If a smoker konks out entirely, make sure you have enough room on the other smokers to move your meats around. This actually happened to us at the Albany contest!
  • Give the judges plenty of meat - this may be the best tip I have ever given you! Those judges love to see a full turn in box. So pack it to the rim with meat. I was always worried about getting sauce on the inside lid of the box. Now I know it's more important to get a lot of meat in the box and if a little sauce gets on the lid, it's not a big problem.
  • Gameplan - Make sure you have a written schedule. I had a nice schedule written out and then Lee had a great idea - he took that schedule and put it into a chart format with the times down the left side and four columns for brisket, chicken, pork, and ribs. So an entry like "flip chicken" or "foil ribs" was entered for every step for the entire weekend.
  • Be Prepared - Make sure you bring all your equipment, tools, utensils, thermometers, fuel, etc. It would be very smart to do a practice run also. We invited all our friends and relatives over for a covered dish dinner the weekend before. We provided the meat. We did our practice run exactly like we would do it in the contest.

Now on to creating great bark...

Bark is that nice crust that forms on butts, ribs, and brisket during a long smoke. What you want to do is avoid the extremes of too little bark and burnt bark (aka tree bark). Chicken does not have bark, but you do want to try to avoid the dreaded rubbery chicken skin (see the newsletter archive for a fix to that problem).

It's pretty hard to get too little bark. You would have to do something stupid like not applying any rub at all or foiling for the entire smoke or at least for the majority of the smoke. So to avoid burnt bark or a tough, dry bark, try some of these tips...bbq bark on brisket

  • Foiling - use foiling properly. Longer foiling provides protection from excessive direct heat and smoke and gives you less bark. It will also sort of tenderize your bark a little. I would always foil your ribs for at least an hour during a 5-6 hour cook.
  • Burning - A lot of people confuse bark with burning. A good bark is a very dark brown to black in color (mahogany). The problem is... a burnt bark is the same color. So, the question is - How do you avoid burning your meats? You have to go back to the basics. Keep a eye on your fundamentals of times and temperatures. Low and slow will almost always work out right since the lower temperature will not burn your meats as easily. Just be sure to watch your internal meat temperature and do not overcook. If you are smoking at a higher temperature like a lot of BBQ teams do, make sure you do not smoke it too long. Again, watch your internal meat temperature to know when to pull it off.
  • Sugars - You especially have to be careful when you have a lot of sugar in your rub. The sugars burn easily and since rubs are applied from the start, rubs with a lot of sugar tend to burn easily. My suggestion is to limit the amount of sugars in your rubs. The sweet flavors can be added in during the latter parts of the smoke.
  • Flavors - Layers of flavors can be added during the last hour or so of a smoke. Since these flavors usually contain a lot of sugars, they are not applied too early or they will burn. Apple juice can be sprayed on during the last hour or two of a smoke. Glazes can be applied during the last hour only. Things like honey, BBQ sauces, jellies, etc can be used as a glaze. Or you can use a mixture of these. Just apply your glaze and put back on the smoker for up to one hour to "set" it.
  • Brisket bark is usually not as sweet as pork bark. I like a little "bite" in my brisket bark, so just a good rub with a little pepper spices is good for me. I do not glaze my brisket. Maybe just spray it with a good au jus during the last couple of hours is good.
  • Fat - On briskets and butts, the fat layer plays a role in creating a good bark too. On briskets, the fat is full of flavor. I try to keep a thin layer of the fat on so my bark actually forms on the outside of the fat layer. Just trim the fat cap down to 1/8th of an inch if you want a bark with a little fat. On butts, the fat cap is usually left on and is removed after cooking, so that side does not contain bark. Leaving the fat cap on sort of protects the meat from drying out too much. If you would rather have more bark, feel free to trim it off and apply your rub on that side.

And there you have it... Bark, Don't Bite!


Bill Anderson