Everyone who’s ever slow-smoked a brisket has experienced the stall, whether they know it or not. And if you know it, then it’s probably been a source of panic. Your beautiful brisket, seasoned to perfection, has been sitting in the smoker for hours. The internal temperature has been steadily rising—and then it halts, the numbers remaining the same for what seems like forever.
This phenomenon is what’s known in barbecue parlance as the stall, and while it’s inevitable, there are ways to speed the process along. We’re here to teach you how to beat the brisket stall so you can enjoy the results of your hard work without the stress.
Defining the Stall
What is the stall, exactly? Put simply, it’s the point at which the temperature of the meat holds steady for a long period of time. Sometimes, it even drops a degree or five, which can be exceptionally frustrating.
The stall, also known as the plateau or the zone, typically occurs when the meat’s internal temperature reaches about 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Because this is well away from the sweet spot of 203 degrees, this is worrisome if you don’t know what to expect. What’s more, the phenomenon can last for four to six hours, putting a serious damper on your backyard barbecue.
The good news? Once the temperature starts to rise again, it usually does so quickly. We’ve seen briskets jump from 170 to 203 degrees in as little as one hour.
What Causes the Stall?
Before we explain the true answer, let’s dispel a few common myths.
Myth #1: Collagen to Gelatin
For a long time, people believed that the stall occurred when the collagen in the meat combined with moisture to transform into gelatin. Because this happens at around 160 degrees, the inference is understandable.
However, correlation is not causation. The average brisket will only be about 2 percent collagen, which isn’t enough to offset the heat from the smoker during this transition.
Myth # 2: Fat Rendering
Similarly, experts have posited that fat rendering was to blame. Since the average beef brisket is 15 to 20 percent fat, this is a viable theory. However, tests have proven that pure fat will continue to heat up during a long, slow cook. That’s because fat doesn’t evaporate—it simply melts, which requires less thermal energy.
Myth #3: Protein Denaturing
Protein denaturing refers to the process of long chain molecules breaking down. This occurrence requires heat energy, so it makes sense that the temperature of the brisket would lower slightly as a result. It also happens around 140 to 150 degrees, which coincides with the timing of the stall. Still, protein denaturing doesn’t require nearly enough heat to cause the temperature to halt for hours on end.
Evaporative Cooling Defined
So, what really causes the stall? The true answer is both more and less complicated than these misconceptions.
The scientific term for it is evaporative cooling. You and I would refer to the same process as sweating.
That’s right—as the brisket is exposed to heat, the moisture in the meat slowly evaporates. Just as human perspiration has the effect of cooling the body down, so does the brisket “sweat” cool the meat and slow down the barbecue.
When you think about it, the phenomenon makes perfect sense. If you’ve ever cooked a large piece of meat before, you’ve likely noticed that its weight drops significantly after it’s done. That’s because of all the moisture that was lost through exposure to the heat.
At a certain point—about 150 degrees—this cooling effect is enough to counteract the heat of the smoker. That’s what causes the temperature to halt. The stall ends when all of the moisture has evaporated away, allowing the temperature to rise again.
Is brisket the only type of meat that’s affected by the stall?
Will smoking another cut of meat help you avoid all this frustration? It would be nice if that were the case.
Unfortunately, just about every cut of meat is made up of 65 percent water, and you’ll be using the same low-and-slow cooking application regardless. It’s this combination that causes the stall, not the meat itself.
If you’re hoping to cut down on the amount of time you spend waiting for the temperature to rise again, you can choose a smaller cut. Should you decide to go this way, pork butt is a good option. Although pork is prone to the stall as well, it’s easier to find a piece that weighs 3-4 pounds, versus the 7-8 pounds of a typical whole brisket.
Are there any other variables that could affect the stall?
Yes—in fact, there are several of them. Aside from the size of the cut, the following factors could either lengthen or shorten the stall:
Type of smoker
Because airflow encourages evaporation, the design of the smoker has a direct effect on the evaporative cooling process. If there’s a fan in your pellet smoker, you may have a shorter stall. Those of you who use charcoal or gas might be in for a longer wait. You can also help to decrease the stall time by sealing any gaps in your smoker.
The higher the set temperature, the shorter the stall. Because smoking is a long and slow cooking application, it’s difficult to get around this one. If you would prefer to smoke the brisket quickly at a higher temperature, see Method #3 in How To Beat the Brisket Stall, below.
If you use a water pan, the humidity level in the smoker will remain high throughout the cooking process. While they impart a rich smoke flavor, they’ll likely increase the stall time.
Similarly, applying a wet mop to the meat will slow down the cooking time by increasing the moisture level. Again, mopping has definite benefits, but a shorter wait isn’t one of them.
How To Beat The Brisket Stall
The simplest way to beat the stall is to simply wait it out. Start cooking early in the morning and understand that wait is simply part of the cooking process. This method will result in dark, crispy bark and meat that’s tender and succulent.
However, if you had that kind of time, you probably wouldn’t be reading this guide. Here are a few other time-tested methods for beating the stall so you can hit 203 degrees that much sooner.
Method #1: The Texas Crutch
The Texas Crutch entails wrapping the meat in foil as soon as it reaches that plateau of around 150 degrees. When you see that the temperature has hit this mark (or slightly higher), place the brisket in a large piece of foil and add a hit of liquid. Apple juice, beer, wet mop, or even plain water are all acceptable options. Wrap the foil tightly around the meat and continue to cook until the meat is done.
What makes the Texas Crutch so popular? The additional moisture gets trapped by the foil, which prevents evaporative cooling from taking place. Without the resultant drop in temperature, the stall doesn’t occur.
To stick with the sweat analogy, imagine running a marathon while wearing a waterproof raincoat. You’ll certainly be sweating, but the moisture won’t be evaporating off your skin. This means that your body temperature will continue to climb. That’s what happens to the brisket when it’s wrapped in foil.
The only downside is that the excess moisture will give the exterior a softer texture—a deal-breaker if you love good crispy bark. You can counteract this effect somewhat by removing the foil when the temperature reaches 203 degrees and briefly placing the brisket back on the smoker.
For a visual demonstration on the Texas Crutch method, take a look at this video tutorial.
Method #2: Butcher Paper
This method eliminates the foil barrier, allowing smoke to pass through while still trapping moisture inside. It doesn’t shorten the cooking process by as much as the Texas Crutch, but it’s a nice compromise for true pitmasters who crave a strong smoke flavor and chewy bark. Simply follow the same instructions outlined above, using butcher paper instead of foil.
Method #3: Some Like It Hot
As we mentioned earlier, you can opt to cook the brisket hot and fast. The technique won’t work with the flat or a whole brisket (the meat will be too dry), but if you’re dealing with the point alone, you can have your meal on the table in as little as 6 hours.
To use this method, set the smoker to 400 degrees. Smoke the brisket until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees, about 2-1/2 hours. At this point, place the meat in a roasting pan and transfer it to a 250 degree oven. In another few hours, the internal temperature should be about 200 degrees. Remove it from the oven and let it rest for about 45 minutes before slicing it against the grain and serving.
Now that you understand what causes the stall, it should be easier to find your way around it. Because we love to achieve that dark, solid bark, we would recommend either waiting it out or using the butcher paper method, but you should choose the method that works best for you.