It’s a pitmaster’s nightmare: The smoker ran out of pellets while cooking brisket. What went wrong, and how can you avoid this issue in the future? And most importantly, is the brisket still safe to eat? Let’s find out.
Smoker Ran Out Of Pellets While Cooking Brisket
When the smoker runs out of pellets during the cook, make sure the temperature is holding steady. If it is, all you need to do is refill the hopper. Otherwise, you might have to take a few more steps to get the smoker up and running again.
How Pellet Smokers Work
In a pellet smoker, the pellets are stored in the hopper. This feature protects the fuel from the elements while serving as a holding area.
When you turn the unit on, the auger transfers the pellets from the hopper into the burn pot (or firepot). That’s where the ignition rod lights the pellets, as a fan spreads the hot air throughout the chamber.
As soon as the pellets have been lit, the ignition rod shuts off, but the pellets keep burning until the smoker heats to the set temperature.
The fan continues to run throughout the cooking process, allowing smoke and heat to circulate and providing the pellets with the oxygen they need to keep burning.
Since the pellets serve as the fuel that’s required to heat the smoker, the unit will shut off if the hopper runs empty. That’s why it’s important to keep the smoker stocked with pellets for the duration of the smoke.
How Long Do Pellets Last?
The burn rate of your wood pellets is dependent on a number of factors.
First and foremost, the pellets will burn faster if the smoker is set to a high temperature. A hotter fire requires more fuel in order to burn consistently. For high-heat cooking applications like grilling, plan on 2 pounds per hour.
Since brisket is supposed to be cooked at a low temperature, though, you can expect to burn through fewer pellets. One pound of pellets per hour should be sufficient when the grill is set to 225 to 275 degrees Fahrenheit.
The brand you use will also affect the burn rate. There’s a reason why some pellets are available at such low prices—they may contain oils that will make them combust more easily. They’re also less dense than quality pellets, so they’ll burn faster.
Be sure to store your wood pellets in a cool, dry place. It’s a well-known fact that wet wood doesn’t burn as well as dry wood, and pellets are no exception.
An above-average burn rate may also have more to do with the smoker itself than with the pellets. Smokers with poor heat retention will burn through pellets more quickly than well-insulated ones, because they need to work harder to maintain the correct temp.
On a related note, the smoker will go through more pellets if the weather outside is particularly cold or windy. You can help to circumvent this issue by investing in a grill cover to protect the smoker from the elements.
Smoker Ran Out Of Pellets While Cooking Brisket: Possible Explanations
The easy answer is that you didn’t stock the pellet hopper with enough fuel when you started the smoke. However, even seasoned pros might encounter this problem from time to time. Let’s explore the possibilities.
Hopper Is Too Small
Smoking a whole packer brisket requires a huge time commitment. The process could take up to 24 hours or longer, depending on the size of the cut.
Large pellet smokers may offer hopper capacities of 80 to 100 pounds or more. However, many of the ones you’ll find for home use will have hoppers that hold 15 to 20 pounds of pellets.
Since we’ve determined that you’ll probably burn through 1 pound of pellets per hour, there’s a good chance you’ll have to replenish the supply at some point.
Before you start to cook, make a note of how long you expect the process to take. Factor in 1 pound of pellets for each hour of the smoke. Then make sure to replenish the hopper when the pellets start to run low.
Smoker Temperature Is Too High
Keep an eye on the smoker temperature while the brisket is cooking. Is it staying within your set range, or is it climbing too high? If the fire is burning too hot, it will deplete the pellet supply at a quicker rate than you estimated.
A high smoker temperature will also affect the quality of your brisket. The bark may turn out too tough, and the meat itself will be dry and overcooked. You don’t have to hover over the unit every second, but try to check the temperature gauge every hour or two.
It’s possible that the smoker didn’t run out of pellets at all. Sometimes, we’ll get a low pellet notification, only to check and see that the hopper still has plenty of pellets inside.
The catch? The pellets have emptied out in the middle to create a funnel-shaped void in the center of the hopper. This phenomenon is called “tunneling.” It’s more common in older pellet smokers, but it’s been known to occur in high-quality modern units as well.
The best way to avoid tunneling is to check the pellet levels from time to time, even as you check the smoker temperature. Stir the pellets around with a long wooden spoon, taking care to keep your hand from straying near the bottom of the hopper.
It’s also important to clean the hopper regularly. Excess sawdust can create a blockage, which increases the likelihood of tunneling.
If your hopper is prone to tunneling on a regular basis, it may have some structural damage that’s causing the issue. Empty the unit and check to make sure it’s intact. If you notice any damage, contact the customer service department for help.
What To Do Next
As long as you recognize the problem right away, running out of pellets during the smoke is no big deal. If it happened several hours ago and you’re just now realizing it, that’s another story (see Is The Brisket Still Safe To Eat?, below).
Your first step is to check the temperature of the smoker. Is it still at your set temperature? If so, refill the hopper now and continue the smoke.
Note that the temperature may drop for a brief time after you refill the hopper. That’s because an empty pocket may have formed in the auger. The smoker should reheat back to its set temperature shortly.
If the smoker turned itself off, or if the temperature already dropped significantly remove the brisket to the oven. Set the oven to 225 so that the brisket will stay warm while you wait for the smoker to cool.
Once the interior cools down, remove the grates, heat baffle, and grease pan. Check to make sure there are no pellets clogging up the burn pot. If there are, clean the pot until no pellets remain.
Turn the smoker back on and set it to a high temperature (at least 400 degrees). When the auger is filled with pellets, turn off the smoker and replace the grates, baffle, and grease pan.
Set the smoker to your desired temperature and return the brisket to the cooking chamber. Continue to cook as you normally would.
Is The Brisket Still Safe To Eat?
The answer depends on how long the smoker was turned off. If you noticed the issue right away and followed the instructions outlined above, you’re good to go. However, if the unit was allowed to cool off for hours on end, you might have a problem.
When meat is allowed to remain in the “danger zone” between 40 and 140 degrees for longer than 2 hours, it attracts hazardous bacteria that can cause food-borne illness. This is why you should always refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours.
As soon as you realize the smoker has run out of pellets, check the internal temperature of your brisket. Is it 140 degrees or above? If so, then you can follow the steps we’ve recommended and continue to smoke the meat.
If the unit turned off while you were asleep, or if the cooking chamber cooled off completely, you may have no way of knowing exactly how long the meat was in the danger zone. In these cases, you should discard the brisket just to be safe.
The Bottom Line
Most of the time, you can salvage the barbecue even if the smoker ran out of pellets while cooking brisket. The key is to keep the hopper well-stocked and to check the smoker from time to time—which you should do anyway to ensure that the temperature holds steady.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!