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Ribs Stall During the Smoke: Is This a Normal Phenomenon?

You may know that large cuts of meat tend to hit a plateau, temperature-wise, when they cook for long periods of time. Do ribs stall during the smoking process? And if so, how should you handle the situation?

Ribs Stall During The Smoke

During the smoking process, the internal temperature of the ribs might halt or “stall” at around 150 to 170 degrees. This is normal, and it happens when the moisture from the meat condenses on the surface, causing it to cool down. You can get around the stall by wrapping the ribs in foil or butcher paper after the first few hours.

What Is The Stall?

“The stall” is the term for the phenomenon that occurs when the internal temperature of a large cut of meat stops rising during a long cook. Although this is an expected part of the process, it sometimes lasts for hours, which can be frustrating.

During the stall, the meat’s internal temp might even drop a few degrees. For beginners, this can be a cause of concern or even panic. Fortunately, there are ways to beat the stall, which we’ll discuss in greater detail later on.

The stall—which is also called the plateau—usually happens at around the 150-170 degree zone. However, some cuts might stall earlier or later—or even more than once.

The Science Behind The Stall

Experts have long debated the root cause of this reaction. Many people still believe that the stall happens when the collagen in the meat breaks down and turns into gelatin. Although that also happens around 160 degrees, it isn’t directly related to the stall.

Cuts of meat that require long cooking times tend to contain a great deal of fat. Therefore, experts theorized that the stall might have been caused by the fat rendering. This has also been debunked, as fat doesn’t evaporate when it melts.

That brings us to the true science behind the stall: evaporative cooling. This process bears a striking resemblance to the reaction that you and I would refer to as sweating.

When the meat is exposed to heat, its natural moisture begins to evaporate. This moisture is drawn to the surface, where it creates a cooling effect. When the heat of the smoker is no longer sufficient to counteract this effect, the meat’s temperature ceases to rise.

Do Ribs Stall?

While we anticipate the stall with huge cuts like pork butt and beef brisket, it’s not always something we think about when dealing with ribs. After all, there’s a lot of bone in a rack of ribs, and bone has different thermal properties than flesh.

However, the meaty portion of pork ribs is made up of about 65 percent water. This moisture will evaporate as the ribs cook, thereby contributing to a potential stall.

Since a rack of pork ribs weighs significantly less than a whole packer brisket or pork shoulder, it should power through the stall more quickly. Depending on the rib type and the size of the rack, you might not even notice it.

How To Abbreviate The Stall

Apart from the weight of the rib rack, there are several other factors that could affect the length of the stall. Let’s explore the most common ones.

Smoker Type

Pellet smokers are a good choice if you’re hoping to speed through the stall. These are outfitted with fans that cause moisture to evaporate more quickly. Units that are fueled by gas and charcoal, meanwhile, aren’t as effective in this regard.

Temperature

It’s best to cook ribs slowly, so 225 degrees is our preferred smoker temperature. You can set it a bit higher if your goal is to get through the stall more quickly, thereby shortening the overall cooking time.

Moisture

If you opt to spritz or mop the ribs as they cook, the increase in moisture will prolong the stall. Of course, it also attracts more smoke, which leads to intensely flavorful ribs.

Putting a water pan in the smoker will have a similar effect. The high humidity level will keep the heat from combating the evaporative cooling effect.

Tips For Beating The Stall

Once you accept that the stall is a natural part of the smoke, you can just wait out the process. However, if you’re hoping to get a more accurate guess about the total cooking time, there are ways around the stall.

The most popular method for beating the stall is the foil wrapper method, also known as the “Texas crutch.” This creates a miniature oven-within-an-oven by trapping moisture and heat, so the internal temperature of the ribs will increase more rapidly.

After the ribs have been on the smoker for 2 to 3 hours, remove them from the heat and wrap them in a layer of foil. Then put them back on the smoker for another hour or two, depending on which method you’re using. Remove the foil for the final hour of the smoke.

We’ve found that the foil creates an impermeable membrane that can affect the texture of the bark. If you want the ribs to maintain a nice crisp crust on the exterior, try wrapping them in butcher paper instead.

Never wrap ribs until they’ve had a chance to cook for a few hours. During the initial stage of the cook, they’ll take on a good hit of smoke flavor while the bark begins to develop. You won’t be able to replicate these effects later on.

How Long Does It Take To Smoke Pork Ribs?

You’ll need to adjust your estimated cooking time based on the type of ribs that you’re making, as well as the temperature of the smoker.

If you follow our advice and smoke the ribs at 225 degrees, a rack of baby back ribs should take about 5 hours from start to finish. Spare ribs, which are larger and consist of fattier meat, should spend at least 6 hours on the smoker.

In either case, add about another hour to the estimated cooking time if you choose not to wrap the ribs. Remember that every rack is different—it’s best to judge by the internal temperature of the meat, and not necessarily the numbers on the clock.

By increasing the smoker temperature to 275 degrees, you can save a bit more time. When the smoker runs this hot, a rack of baby back ribs might cook through in as little as 3 hours. Spare ribs will still need more time, but a 5-hour estimate is a good bet.

Best Method For Smoking Baby Back Ribs

When you’ve set the smoker to 225 or 250 degrees, you can target a 5-hour cooking time for baby backs—assuming you’re willing to wrap the ribs. If this is the case, you can choose between the 2-2-1 or 3-1-1 methods.

When you smoke the ribs 2-2-1, you put them on the smoker for 2 hours, then wrap them for another 2 before taking the foil or paper off for the final hour. This is an easy technique that yields tender and juicy meat.

Those of you who prefer a more intense smoke flavor should opt for the 3-1-1 method. Smoke the ribs unwrapped for 3 hours, then wrap them for just 1 hour, then give them one last hour without the wrapper.

You can add barbecue sauce to the ribs during the last 15 or 20 minutes, but try not to apply it too soon, or the sugar in the sauce will burn. Let the ribs rest for at least 10 minutes, and serve with additional sauce on the side.

Best Method For Smoking Spare Ribs

Chances are you’ve heard of the 3-2-1 rib technique, even if you’ve never used it. As with the methods described above, the numbers refer to the hours in the process—3 hours on the smoker, then 2 in the foil or paper wrapper, then another hour over direct heat.

We like this method for spare ribs because it gives the fat enough time to render and flavor the meat. Again, feel free to baste the meat with barbecue sauce during the last 15 to 20 minutes or so, and don’t forget to rest the rack for at least 10 minutes.

Final Thoughts

Your ribs might stall partway through the smoke, but if you adjust to this idea ahead of time, you may not even notice it. The timing guidelines we’ve provided should give you some idea of how long you’ll have to wait, with or without a wrapper.

Happy grilling!