Arguably, the best part of a smoked brisket is the bark. Dark, crispy, and incredibly flavorful, you’re going to want to do everything to ensure that your brisket’s bark is everything that smoking dreams are made from. So the question is – does a water pan affect the bark on a smoked brisket? We canvased this question to a few pitmasters to find out.
A water pan may affect bark formation on a brisket, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use one. A water pan can add the moisture that a brisket needs for a smoker that burns on the dry side. But – a water pan can also create a very humid environment, affecting bark formation.
Let’s examine why and how to use a water pan and other ways to ensure that your brisket gets that all-important and uber-delicious bark.
What Does A Water Pan Do For A Brisket?
You know the crispy outer layer on a smoked cut of brisket? That’s the bark. And it’s the sign of a well-smoked piece of meat.
This delicious crust is created thanks to the Maillard reaction. We will explore this chemical reaction in more detail a little later. The water pan helps to keep your brisket moist and prevents overcooking by regulating the temperature. But – too much moisture or humidity in the smoker, and you risk a softer bark.
Even so, using a water pan is often one of the keys to cooking a great smoked brisket. Here’s why:
If you have a smoker that burns on the dry side, or if your smoker is temperamental as far as heat regulation is concerned, then using a water pan while cooking is a good idea.
Another reason to use a water pan is to prevent direct heat or flames from burning the food. It also stops any fat from dripping onto the coals, preventing flare-ups.
The condensation will also react with the rub on the meat, resulting in a stickier surface that the smoke can adhere to, resulting in better flavor.
How To Use A Water Pan
Where you place the water pan depends entirely on what sort of smoker you have and how much space you have. Ideally, it should be placed beneath the meat and above the heat source.
How Does The Bark Form? The Maillard Reaction
It’s time for a bit of a science lesson as the Maillard Reaction is a chemical reaction. It happens when the cooking temperatures of between 300 and 500°F.
In very simple terms – the Maillard Reaction occurs when heat from any source breaks down the food proteins into amino acids.
In turn, the amino acids react with the sugars in the food (especially all those yummy rub ingredients) to create the much desired dark, flavorful, and aromatic crust that we all clamber for when it’s time to serve the food.
Other Factors That Affect The Bark Formation
A water pan may create a very humid environment. This means the meat will be steamed instead of smoked and will affect the formation of the bark. The resultant bark will be on the softer side. But this is certainly not the only thing that can impair bark formation.
To avoid the annoying stall, pitmasters might decide to use the Texas Crutch to stop heat and moisture from escaping from the smoker. They do this by wrapping the brisket in foil at some point in the cooking process.
While the Texas Crutch might help to get through the stall, it can mean that the bark becomes soggy. It can also stop the meat from achieving its full smokiness. To counter this, remove the foil for about 30 minutes before removing it from the smoker.
Butcher’s paper is often better than the foil for the Texas Crutch. Or better still, don’t wrap the meat at all – try and push through the stall without resorting to wrapping the meat.
If you decide to wrap the meat at some point in the cooking process, you should definitely remove the water pan at that point.
Ensure that your smoker’s temperature is neither too high nor too low. Too high, and you’ll have a bitter, unpalatable bark. Too low, and your bark won’t form.
On the other hand, if your rub includes sugar as an ingredient, the resultant caramelization will help create a thick, sticky bark. Also, use a binder, such as mustard, to help the rub adhere to the meat.
Another critical factor is to ensure that you have trimmed enough fat from the cut of meat. Too much fat will prevent a good bark from forming.
And, as with most things in life, being patient helps. If you leave the brisket to cook uninterrupted for the first few hours of the smoking process, you will give it time to form the bark. Avoid spritzing the meat during this time – as the spritzing will only wash the rub off the meat.
What If There Is No Bark, Or The Bark Has Gone Soft?
So what happens if there isn’t much bark on your brisket? Don’t panic – all is not lost.
Sometimes, while the meat is resting, the bark will soften. You can try to crisp up a softened bark or create some sort of bark by sticking the meat back on the heat for a few minutes. Then, either put it back on the smoker or place it inside a very hot oven for between 5 and 10 minutes.
And another thing – don’t forget to remove any foil or wrapping while the meat is resting.
A water pan is an excellent way to ensure that you have a moist smoked brisket, but it can affect the crispiness of the bark. Figuring out whether you need to use a water pan comes with experience, especially as you become familiar with the unique properties of your smoker.
It may take some trial and error, but it’s worth persevering as a result is well worth it!
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