When you’re smoking a whole chicken, do you have to worry about the dreaded stall? If you’re a novice, you might not even know what that means. That’s why we’ve put together this guide on whether or not the chicken stall is a thing.
Large cuts of meat are prone to “stalling” at a certain temperature. This happens when the heat from the smoker isn’t sufficient to combat the cooling effects from the meat’s natural moisture. While it’s common with tough, fatty cuts like pork butt and brisket, it’s not usually a problem with chicken—even when smoking whole birds.
What is The Stall?
In barbecue parlance, the “stall” refers to the point at which the meat’s internal temperature grinds to a halt.
At a certain stage in the smoking process, larger cuts of meat like pork shoulder, pork butt, and beef brisket will appear to stop cooking. This typically takes place when the meat hits the 150-160 degree mark, but it can happen at other temperatures as well.
What’s more, the stall can last for hours on end. It’s even possible for a cut of meat to stall more than once during the smoke. While we’ve come to regard it as part of the process, it can be exceptionally frustrating when you don’t know what to expect.
What Causes The Stall?
There are a lot of misconceptions behind this phenomenon.
Since collagen breaks down at about 160 degrees, some people used to assume that this was why the temperature would refuse to rise when the meat reached this point. Others believed that it was due to the fat rendering or the denaturing of proteins.
All of these theories are incorrect. The stall actually comes about as a result of evaporative cooling. Here’s what that means.
When meat is exposed to heat, its natural moisture is forced toward the surface. As it evaporates, it cools the outside of the meat, combating the heat from the grill or smoker.
Eventually, the meat will start to run out of moisture, and the heat will begin to do its work once more. As the surface moisture dissipates, the temperature of the meat will start to rise again. But the larger the cut, the longer this process takes.
The science behind the stall is similar to what happens when our own bodies perspire in order to cool us down. The perspiration evaporates on our skin, thereby cooling us off. The same basic principle is at work when your brisket appears to stop cooking.
Does Chicken Stall?
Do you have to worry about the stall when smoking a whole chicken? Fortunately, the answer is not really.
Due to the nature of the process, all meat experiences a stall to some degree. By exposing the chicken to the heat, you’re forcing out moisture, which will cool down the surface.
That said, chicken is a lean meat that doesn’t require an overlong cooking process. You don’t have to use a low-and-slow cooking application in order to tenderize the meat—it’s naturally tender to begin with.
Cuts like brisket and pork butt contain a ton of fat and collagen, both of which require time to break down. If you cook these cuts too fast, they’ll be tough to the bite, with pockets of rubbery fat.
You can turn up the temperature a bit higher when smoking chicken, as we’ll discuss in the next section. That means the meat should reach the proper temperature within a shorter time frame. If it does stall, you probably won’t even notice.
Safe Internal Temp For Chicken
Speaking of temperature, those tougher cuts we mentioned need to cook to nearly 200 degrees before they’ve acquired the proper consistency. That’s not the case with chicken, which is another reason why you shouldn’t sweat the stall, so to speak.
Chicken needs to cook to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s the ideal serving temperature for the breast meat, which will dry out if it cooks too far past this point.
Try to take chicken breast off the grill or smoker when it hits 160 degrees. That’s the best way to avoid overcooking while observing the safety guidelines, since the meat will continue to cook as it rests.
The legs and thighs should cook a bit longer. We prefer to take these cuts off the heat once they’ve achieved an internal temp of 180. Once it’s rested, the meat should have a silken texture that will melt in your mouth.
What Should I Do If I Experience a Chicken Stall?
If your chicken stalls at some point during the cook, don’t panic. The temperature will start to rise again in good time. In fact, if you raise the lid to check the temperature too often, you’ll be prolonging the process even more.
It’s customary for pitmasters to wrap pork butt and brisket in foil when it hits the stall. This speeds the cooking process by trapping the moisture inside, preventing it from evaporating and cooling off the meat.
You can do the same with a whole chicken, but we don’t recommend it. The meat should cook through within a reasonable time frame without the foil wrapper. Furthermore, the chicken will steam inside the wrapper, which will make the skin turn rubbery.
Our advice would be to wait out the stall. That’s our preferred method no matter what cut we’re dealing with, but it’s particularly relevant when it comes to chicken. If anything, we’ve found that chicken tends to cook more quickly than we bargained for.
How Long Does It Take To Smoke a Whole Chicken?
As always, you should base your estimated cooking time on the size of the chicken and the temperature of your smoker.
You can use your judgment when choosing the right cooking temp for chicken. Bear in mind that if it’s too high, the meat won’t taste very smoky, but if it’s too low, the skin won’t be as crispy as you might have hoped.
When the smoker temperature is set to 300 degrees, a whole chicken should take 3 to 4 hours to cook, depending on size. It could take more or less time, so check the temperature at the estimated halfway point to see how it’s doing.
If you spatchcock the chicken, it will cook even faster. A 3- to 4-pound spatchcocked bird should take just 1-1/2 to 2 hours to finish cooking at 300 degrees. Ask your butcher to remove the backbone from the chicken if you don’t have the time or tools to do it yourself.
Other Tips on Smoking Chicken To Perfection
Use apple, cherry, maple or pecan as smoking woods. You can experiment with various combinations to get the flavor profile you prefer. Avoid strong woods like hickory and mesquite, as these are too powerful for the mild-tasting chicken meat.
Dry the skin thoroughly before adding the seasoning rub. If the skin is too damp, it won’t crisp up.
Avoid using a water pan. This will create a moist environment inside the smoker—another death knell to crispy skin.
Remember to judge for doneness based on temperature, not time. The only way to tell for sure whether the chicken is done is to test it with an instant-read thermometer.
Smoked chicken may have a pinkish tinge around the outside layer. Don’t worry—that’s just the smoke ring, a natural chemical reaction that occurs when the smoke reacts with the compounds in the meat.
The Bottom Line
Does chicken stall? Perhaps—all meat products are subject to the phenomenon of evaporative cooling.
But since chicken doesn’t need to cook for hours on end, the stall isn’t really something you need to worry about. If you notice that the meat is taking too long to cook, try cranking up the smoker temperature by 25 degrees or so.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!