To Wrap or not to Wrap Barbecued Meats?

Packer Brisket

For what seems like a friendly pursuit—cooking hefty hunks of meat over live fire to be eaten mostly by other people—barbecue has long been besieged by controversies. Among them: Is it sacrilege to sauce brisket? Are fall-off-the-bone-tender ribs the mark of an amateur? Is brining for the birds?

Add to the list: Should you wrap meats like brisket, beef shoulder clod, pork shoulder, ribs, etc., in aluminum foil or unlined butcher paper hours into the smoke, or leave the meat “naked”?

Not unsurprisingly, there are pros and cons with each method. Read on.

Wrapping Meats in Foil

Wrapping barbecued meats in foil, a technique long known as the “Texas Crutch,” was popularized on the competition barbecue circuit where small adjustments can make the difference between getting a “call” (a place in the winner’s circle) or driving home with a “DAL” (Dead Ass Last) on your record.

In the beginning, the term Texas Crutch was probably coined as a derisive term, but it’s the foundation of the popular 3-2-1 method of cooking ribs. Not familiar with the equation? This is what cooking ribs such as spare ribs and baby backs by the numbers means:

  • 3 hours of smoking unwrapped at 225 degrees, followed by
  • 2 hours of cooking wrapped in foil (with a little liquid, such as apple cider), followed by
  • 1 hour of cooking unwrapped at a higher temperature, with a generous basting of barbecue sauce

The process gives you meat so tender it virtually slides off the bone, with the multiple layers of flavor most of us associate with great barbecue. And within a predictable 6-hour time frame, too.

It’s relatively fail-proof, meaning that if you follow the directions, you are almost guaranteed you’ll avoid the dual pitfalls of ribs that are tough or dry. And if you serve ribs cooked by the 3-2-1 method, 95 percent of the people who taste them react with delight and will declare you a barbecue genius.

But does the technique work with brisket, the Achilles heel of many backyard barbecuers?

According to celebrity pit master Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, the answer is an unequivocal “yes.” Named Best Chef – Southwest by the prestigious James Beard Foundation (the first barbecue chef to win the honor), Franklin has sold out of brisket every day since his establishment opened in 2009. How does he do it? Fortunately, he’s generous with his secrets. He freely admits he wraps his brisket in unlined peach or pink-colored butcher paper for the last few hours of smoking. (We highly recommend Franklin’s book, Franklin Barbecue, to anyone interested in upping their barbecue game.)

Wrapping Meats in Butcher Paper

Let’s talk, for a minute, about this special paper. Generally made of Southern Pine, butcher paper suitable for smoking is pulped with food-grade sizing to reduce its tendency to absorb liquid. It is more permeable than aluminum foil, meaning it can release some of the excess moisture that tends to accumulate on the surface of the meat.

Wrapped Brisket

What does this mean in practical terms? Here is a summary of the pros and cons of all three methods:

Unwrapped (“naked”)

  • If you like bark in your bite—bark is that tasty obsidian-colored outside layer of smoke, desiccated meat fibers, and spices that crust barbecued meats—do not wrap your meat in foil or butcher paper.
  • Food will be exposed to smoke as long as you want. (Do avoid over-smoking, however. Bitter, acrid flavors are not the goal.)
  • Unwrapped meats will take longer to cook and will be more susceptible to drying out, especially if they endure a lengthy “stall” during the smoke session. (The stall occurs when moisture begins evaporating from the surface of the meat, sometimes adding hours to the cooking time. Both brisket and pork shoulder are notorious for this.) But we have barbecued many juicy, delectable briskets, pork shoulders, etc., without enrobing them in foil or butcher paper.
  • Unwrapped meats are harder to hold (aka, rest) in a cooler or warmer.

Check out this recipe for North Carolina Pulled Pork that utilizes the unwrapped method.

Wrapping in Foil

  • Heavy-duty foil (preferably in 18-inch rolls) is widely available, relatively inexpensive, and easy to use. You can mold it to the contours of the meat for an airtight seal, or create headspace for the addition of liquids or other ingredients.
  • Foil is the wrap of choice at Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, Texas, twice named the #1 BBQ in the state by Texas Monthly, where legendary pit mistress Tootsie Tomanetz (who’s nearing her 86th birthday) tends the fires.
  • Meat will generally be juicier and more tender. However, do not overcook. Meats like brisket and pork shoulder are best when taken to an internal temp of 203 degrees.
  • Meat will cook faster and power more easily through the stall (see above).
  • You can hold foiled meat for several hours in a towel-lined cooler or Cambro.
  • Its impermeability stops the absorption of smoke once the meat is wrapped.

Here is a Barbecued Spare Ribs recipe using the famed 3-2-1 method.

Foil Wrapped Pork Butt

Wrapping with Peach/Pink Butcher Paper

  • Hastens cooking time, making the meat less prone to drying out in your grill or smoker.
  • As a technique, wrapping in butcher paper works best when the meat is allowed to reach the stall (usually between 160 and 170 degrees internal temperature) before wrapping. This retains most of the integrity of the bark while enveloping the meat in a moist, tenderizing environment.
  • You can monitor the internal temperature with a meat probe/thermometer or a good-quality instant-read thermometer. There is no need to unwrap the meat (same for foil).
  • Like foil, meat wrapped in butcher paper can be held for several hours.
  • Butcher paper is somewhat more difficult to wrap than foil around a hot hunk of meat like brisket or pork shoulder. The package can look a bit greasy when removed from the grill, but this matters not.

You can use Butcher Paper for this BBQ Titans’ Brisket recipe.

What is your favorite method for wrapping meats? Share them with us on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or Instagram!