If you’re a beginner, you might have heard about the dreaded “pork butt stall” without really understanding what it means. On the other hand, those of us who have experienced it aren’t likely to forget. For future reference, here’s what the term means—and why you shouldn’t fear it.
Pork Butt Stall
The stall occurs when the pork butt has reached an internal temperature between 150 and 170 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point, the meat will appear to stop cooking for several hours. You have two options: Either wait it out, or enlist in a shortcut to hasten the process.
About the Pork Butt Stall
Pork butt is the best cut of meat to use when making traditional pulled pork. The meat contains a great deal of fat, which is allowed to render out slowly as the meat is cooked over a low temperature. The long cooking process also breaks down the connective tissues in the pork, so the meat will shred easily with a fork when it’s done.
During the initial stage of the cooking process, you’ll see a steady increase in the pork butt’s internal temperature. Once it reaches a certain point, however—usually somewhere between 150 and 170 degrees Fahrenheit—the temperature will stop rising. This is the stage that pitmasters refer to as the “stall.”
During the stall, the temperature will either hold steady or rise in tiny increments. What’s worse, it can go on for six or seven hours. This can be a source of great stress, particularly if you’re entertaining when it happens.
The preferred internal temperature for pulled pork is around 200 degrees Fahrenheit. During the stall, it might seem as though the pork butt might never reach that point. So what’s a griller to do?
What Causes the Stall?
Before we discuss the methods you can use to beat the stall, let’s talk about why it’s happening in the first place.
This is a question that has plagued grilling experts for a long time. Many assumed that the stall occurred when the collagen and moisture in the meat combined to form gelatin. Since this phase change also occurs at around 160 degrees Fahrenheit, this was a natural assumption—but it’s not entirely correct.
Similarly, some folks believed that the stall came about when the pork fat had rendered, which represents another phase change. Others thought that it might be the result of protein denaturing, which occurs when chain molecules come apart.
None of these theories is correct. The science behind the stall is simpler than that, which is good news for pitmasters who want to get around it.
“Evaporative cooling” is the term that experts use to explain what happens during the stall. It means that the meat is basically sweating out moisture as it cooks, which cools it down. Once all of the moisture has evaporated, the temperature will begin to rise again.
You might be surprised to learn that pork butt (or pork shoulder, as it’s also called) is made up of 65 percent water. That means that it could take a lot of time before every last drop of moisture has worked its way out of the meat. This is why the stall seems to take forever—and why it can last even longer if the pork butt is particularly large.
Size isn’t the only factor that can affect the stall. The shape of the cut, the amount of surface area that’s exposed to the heat, the texture, the ingredients you used in your pork rub—all of these can contribute to the stall’s duration.
Also, be aware that if the environment inside the grill or smoker is especially humid, it will take longer for the moisture to evaporate.
How to Beat the Stall
First of all, don’t panic. Some rookies will immediately crank up the heat on their grill or smoker, or bring the meat indoors to finish cooking in the oven. They assume that their equipment must be malfunctioning. Otherwise, why isn’t the meat cooking?
As you now know, the meat will continue to cook eventually. The stall is just another step in the process. If you’d still like to speed things up, however, there are other ways to do it.
Invest in a Good Thermometer
A reliable thermometer is invaluable when you’re trying to beat the stall. You won’t be able to stay ahead of the process if you’re not getting an accurate readout.
Raise the Cooking Temperature
This isn’t our favorite method, as we prefer to set the smoker at around 180 to 225 degrees when making pulled pork. That said, if you set the temperature to 300 degrees, the stall will be much shorter. In fact, depending on the size of the cut, it might not even happen at all.
Use a Pellet Smoker
Pellet smokers have a fan inside that simulates the effect of a convection oven. This speeds up the evaporation process, thereby shortening the stall.
Electric smokers are another worthwhile option. Be forewarned, however, that the environment inside an electric smoker makes it difficult for the pork butt to form that delightful bark on the exterior.
Skip the Basting
Barbecue mops can add a great deal of flavor to your meat, but they also contribute moisture. Because they’re also kept at cooler temperatures than the interior of the smoker, they can slow down the cooking process.
Water pans are another culprit. They help the smoker maintain a humid environment, which keeps the meat moist for longer periods of time. Since the stall will go on until all the liquid inside the meat has evaporated, a water pan will naturally prolong the cooking time.
The Texas Crutch
Although it’s scoffed at by some experts, the Texas crutch is arguably the best way to beat the pork butt stall. This is a relatively foolproof method that will help the pork finish cooking without drying out.
The term refers to the act of wrapping the meat in aluminum foil, spritzing it with a bit of liquid, and putting it back in the smoker. The liquid then turns to steam, which has nowhere to go thanks to the foil wrapper. This causes the pork’s internal temperature to start rising much more quickly.
By way of comparison, think about what happens if you partake in strenuous exercise while wearing a raincoat. You’ll be sweating, but the perspiration will stay inside the raincoat, so you won’t get any cooler as a result.
The best time to perform the Texas crutch is when the meat reaches an internal temperature of about 170 degrees Fahrenheit. This typically occurs a few hours into the stall, depending on the other factors we discussed earlier.
If you’re worried about losing the precious bark that you’ve worked so hard to achieve, you can use butcher paper to wrap the pork instead of foil. Be aware that if you use this method, some steam will still be allowed to escape, so the cook will take a bit longer.
Either way, be sure to wrap the pork butt tightly. If there are loose seams or holes in the wrapper, the technique won’t work.
When to Remove the Foil
It might be tempting to remove the foil as soon as the temperature starts rising again in the interest of preserving your bark. Take our advice here: you should resist this urge and leave the foil on until the pork has reached your target temperature of 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
Why? Because the moisture that’s formed on the surface will still have to evaporate once you remove the foil wrapper. This can cause the meat’s internal temperature to drop all over again, effectively sending you back into the stall.
If you can’t live without that hard, crispy bark, you still have options. Try putting the pork butt back on the grill over high heat once it’s reached 200 degrees. If your grill comes with a searing burner, now would be a great time to use it.
Wait It Out
Alternatively, you can skip the Texas crutch altogether. Just be sure to account for the extra time when you’re planning your barbecue, and be patient while the pork butt is cooking. For some seasoned pitmasters, this is the only way to go.
Is Pork Butt the Only Meat that Stalls?
Not at all. The stall can also occur in other large cuts of meat, including beef brisket. You can use any of the methods described above to beat the stall for brisket as well.
Bear in mind that if you buy a whole packer brisket that weighs 15 to 18 pounds, the stall might last for a long time. Pork butt can be cut into smaller pieces, making it easier to get around the stall.
When it comes to making slow-cooked pork butt, the stall is an inevitable phenomenon. It’s up to you whether to address the issue or simply wait out the process. Either way, you’ll be rewarded with a delicious supply of pulled pork in the end.
Best of luck getting through the stall, and happy grilling!