Best Brisket Rub for Bark: As Simple as 3 Ingredients

By Dylan Clay
Last Updated 
October 18, 2022

A lot goes into making good brisket; from selecting the right brisket, trimming properly, to smoking, to wrapping (or not), and resting.

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).

Backyard Barbecue Brisket vs Competition Brisket

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:

  • Injecting with beef broth or specially formulated ingredients like salts and phosphates.
  • Aggressive trimming combined with higher smoking temperatures.
  • The use of paprika - It's really not needed with brisket, especially since most store bought paprika does nothing for flavor. If the idea is that it's for "color," brisket will take on more than enough smoke to become a meteorite without it.
  • Spicy elements - Typically you'll find People use cayenne pepper, chili powder, etc.
  • Umami elements - Like mushroom powder, dashi, and MSG.
  • Sugar - Dark brown sugar or white sugar.

The list can quite literally go on forever.

What is the Bark on Brisket?

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.

brisket bark

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.

Let's Talk Pepper

Of the different ingredients, the one that matters the most in terms of bark formation is pepper.

pepper mesh size

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.

Pepper Mesh Size

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:

  • Whole black pepper - 6 to 8 mesh
  • Quarter cracked black pepper - 8 to 10 mesh
  • Coarse black pepper - 12 to 14 mesh
  • Table ground black pepper - 18 to 28 mesh
  • Fine ground black pepper - 30 to 34 mesh

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.

Freshly Cracked Peppercorns vs Pre-ground Pepper

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.

16 mesh vs freshly cracked pepper
Freshly cracked pepper Left and Pre-ground 16 Mesh right

The flavor from both forms comes from compounds like:

  • Piperine - Alkaloid responsible for the pungency of black pepper.
  • Terpenes - Compounds responsible for the way most plants smell.

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.

16 mesh black pepper
16 Mesh Black Pepper

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.

freshly cracked peppercorns
Freshly cracked peppercorns

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!

Let's Talk Salt

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 for brisket

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.

Morton's Kosher Salt vs Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt

In the barbecue community literally every single concept is an argument; No joke - people even argue about the right brand of salt to use.

mortons kosher salt
Morton's Kosher Salt

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:

  • Morton Kosher Salt (3 lbs): $3.12
  • Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt (3 lbs): $16.69

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.

To illustrate:

  • 20g of Morton's kosher salt is 17 mL by volume.
  • 20g of Diamond Crystal kosher salt is 30 mL by volume.

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.

Table Salt vs Kosher Salt

This sort of begs the question - what about regular table salt?

table salt
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.

To illustrate:

  • 20g of Morton's kosher salt is 17 mL by volume.
  • 20g of Great Value table salt is 14 mL by volume.

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.

Other Ingredients

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:

  • Garlic powder
  • Onion powder
  • Lawry's Seasoned salt - which is actually a combination of ingredients.
  • Celery salt

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.

lawrys seasoned salt

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.

Dylan Clay
I've grilled and smoked meat for roughly half my life. While i'm not a professional Pitmaster, I've worked with nearly every cut of meat. Not everyone has a hands on guide to teach them BBQ. It's my hope that Barbecue FAQ can be that helping hand.

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