Something that tends to get glossed over is the bark and the spices role in promoting a better bark.
In my opinion, the best brisket rub for bark is 1-2 Tablespoons of Morton's Kosher salt, 1-2 Tablespoons of freshly cracked black peppercorns, and 1 Tablespoon of garlic powder; All the above is per side.
With that said, I'm still a huge fan of using ingredients like 16 mesh black pepper and Lawry's seasoned salt (more on these below).
To start with, something that a lot of people do with Barbecue - whether we're talking brisket or any other cut of meat - is they borderline assault the meat with spices.
In some cases it's to the point where you're tasting more rub than you are the meat and its own intrinsic flavor.
It also doesn't help that these days most of the people teaching you how to smoke brisket are also Barbecue Competitors. In my opinion, there is a huge difference between backyard barbecue and competition barbecue.
Competition barbecue is about attacking the taste buds of Judges. Backyard barbecue is about creating flavor that makes you want to eat more.
Competition brisket involves a number of things, namely:
The list can quite literally go on forever.
The bark on brisket is the dark exterior crust that forms on the meat. The bark is a byproduct of chemical reactions; Namely the Maillard reaction and polymerization that results in the pellicle.
The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction between the amino acids (proteins) and sugars - in and on food - and is transformed by heat.
The result are new flavors, aromas, and color; People will often refer to the maillard reaction as a "browning."
Another chemical process that's worth mentioning is polymerization. This process results in the jerky-like pellicle (From the Latin pellicula, meaning skin) on the exterior.
We also have the color of the bark.
Without any smoke the bark would turn a deep mahogany color. However, when smoke is introduced, the resulting color is a deep black.
Essentially, we get browning from the maillard reaction of amino acids and reducing sugars, a jerky-like thin pellicle, and a deep black color from the hardwood smoke.
Combining the above with rendered fat and we get a black velvet-like sheen.
This rendered fat also has the added benefit of holding onto spices like coarse ground pepper (more on that below) which works to create a "crunchy" bark. This is the reason coarse ground pepper is best applied first as apposed to last.
Of the different ingredients, the one that matters the most in terms of bark formation is pepper.
The main things to understand are "mesh" sizes and the effect of freshly cracked peppercorns vs ground pepper.
There's also the concept of different types of peppercorns. However, for all intents and purposes - most people use black pepper; I'm personally a big fan of purple peppercorns with brisket.
After following enough brisket articles or watching enough brisket recipe videos, you'll hear the person mention the word "mesh."
The term mesh simply refers to the coarseness of ground pepper.
It also quite literally refers to the size of the holes in the mesh screen the spice passes through while it's being ground.
To illustrate various mesh sizes of pepper:
Mesh size is important for creating spice blends - even for something like a brisket rub.
The most commonly referenced "mesh" size for brisket is 16 mesh black pepper. Based on the above list, it's somewhere between coarse and table ground.
Something that I wanted to harp on is that there is a huge difference between freshly cracked peppercorns and pre-ground, 16 mesh black pepper.
To start, they don't taste the same.
The flavor from both forms comes from compounds like:
Freshly cracked peppercorn has less surface area so these compounds don't evaporate quickly. Conversely, something like 16 mesh has a greater surface area meaning a higher rate of evaporation.
Put simply, freshly cracked peppercorns are stronger or more pungent than 16 mesh black pepper.
The only reason I bring this up is because if your recipe calls for an excessive amount of 16 mesh black pepper, I wholeheartedly advise against substituting the same amount of freshly cracked black peppercorns.
I personally love freshly cracked peppercorns - while you can't use nearly the same amount as you can with 16 mesh, it adds a quick pop of pungency in your bite.
With freshly cracked peppercorns, you need maybe 1-2 tablespoons for both sides of a 7-12 lb brisket.
Where-as with 16 mesh black pepper you can be super aggressive; The result is an almost "crunchy" exterior that gets formed. This combined with the pellicle on the surface of the meat creates a different mouth-feel that's pleasurable.
Maybe a better option would be a mixture of both 16 mesh for the crunchy bark and a tablespoon of freshly cracked peppercorns for a pop of flavor?
I'll report back with my findings!
The next thing to bring up is salt. Almost every beef recipe - whether it's brisket, steak, ribs, etc. will use salt in the seasoning.
Salt is used because it enhances the natural "beefy" flavor of the meat.
The main thing to talk about in terms of salt is the type of salt you're using (table vs kosher salt) and the brand.
In the barbecue community literally every single concept is an argument; No joke - people even argue about the right brand of salt to use.
Elitist's will say to use Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt because it features a singular ingredient - kosher salt.
Where-as people who don't taste a difference - like Me - will use Morton's because it's cheaper - and I mean much cheaper.
I typically source my Ingredients from Walmart. As of writing this article (9/28/2022), Walmart has the following prices for Kosher Salt:
The reason the Elite don't like using Morton's is because it features an anti-caking agent (yellow prussiate of soda, or sodium ferrocyanide). Where-as Diamond Crystal is just kosher salt.
In my humble opinion, for a person who does backyard barbecue, this doesn't matter; You aren't going to taste a difference.
However, something that does matter is knowing how the brands can affect the "saltiness" of your food.
In my recipes on BarbecueFAQ I specify that I use Morton's Kosher salt - as apposed to just "kosher salt." If in a recipe for brisket you see someone use a significant amount of Diamond Crystal, you cannot substitute equal parts Morton's.
This is because Morton's is denser than Diamond Crystal.
If the recipe didn't specify, you'd either have an over-salted or under-salted meal; Personally I'd rather have something under-salted than over-salted.
This sort of begs the question - what about regular table salt?
The reason I brought up the brands first is because it helps to transition into the reason why table salt is problematic:
Table salt is denser than Morton's.
There is also the fact that the grain size of kosher salt and table salt are much different; It's in a similar vein to pepper mesh sizes.
Kosher salt is coarse where-as table salt is fine.
The coarse grains will salt your food in a way that enhances the flavor of the food. Conversely, table salt will simply make the food taste "salty."
There's also the concept of iodized vs non-iodized salt. Morton's and Diamond Crystal kosher salt aren't iodized where-as some table salts are. Some folks find that iodized salt has a bitter after-taste.
Truly, all that's needed to make a good brisket is Kosher Salt and Pepper. Aside from those two ingredients it comes down to personal taste preferences.
Other Ingredients I quite like with brisket are:
Typically I'll just stick to Morton's Kosher Salt, Freshly cracked peppercorns, and garlic powder.
Lawry's seasoned salt has become super popular in the Barbecue community because of Johnny White from Goldee's Barbecue - which was recently voted as the number 1 barbecue joint in Texas by Texas Monthly.
Johnny White used to work for Franklin's Barbecue which is world renowned for their brisket. Aaron Franklin is someone who has harped on just using "salt and pepper," which I totally agree with.
You can sort of read between the lines here.
Barbecue has long been something people have been secretive about and that even includes things like rub ingredients. Recently though, when Aaron was asked about Lawry's he actually admitted that they've used it.
With that said, I think Aaron's comment - "you don’t have to have a complicated rub to make great barbecue" is true. Something as simple as Kosher salt and Pepper make wonderful bark on a brisket.
The use of other spices is simply personal preference.