Nothing says BBQ like a pile of thinly sliced or chopped beef brisket that’s been slowly cooked for hours on your backyard smoker. I’d say that most novice pitmasters dream of smoked brisket as they shop for their first smoker. Smoking a whole brisket is a pretty straightforward process, too…until you hit the dreaded brisket stall.
The brisket stall, or meat plateau, for the purists out there, often catches novice smokers by surprise. It can lead to panic as you try to organize your meal around a brisket that seems parked permanently at 155°F.
So, what is the brisket stall, and what can you do to prevent it or work around it?
- 1 What is the Brisket Stall?
- 2 How Long Does Brisket Stall Last?
- 3 Why Does the Brisket Stall Happen?
- 4 The Science of the Brisket Stall
- 5 How to Get Past the Brisket Stall
What is the Brisket Stall?
Before we dig into the meat of the brisket stall, we need to talk briefly about the process used for smoking a brisket.
In an ideal universe, smoking a brisket goes something like this:
- Preheat the smoker, allow the coals (if using a charcoal-fueled smoker) to burn down until they produce a steady amount of heat and light-colored smoke.
- Add your trimmed and seasoned brisket to the smoker.
- Maintain the smoker temperature, adding more fuel and wood chips as needed, until the brisket reaches an internal temperature of 195-203°F.
- Pull brisket and allow it to rest for at least 1 hour before slicing.
Of course, there are lots of little and not-so-little details I’m leaving out, but that is the basic process for meat smoking. The most difficult part is estimating how long it will take to smoke a brisket.
Step 3 can take anywhere from 8 to 15 hours, depending on the size and quality of your meat and your smoker’s set-up. There are many variables, and it’s one reason that smoking meat is as much of an art as it is a science.
As your brisket sits inside your smoker, it’s internal temperature slowly rises. If you have a dual probe thermometer, you can even monitor this temperature change without having to crack the lid to your smoker. Ideally, your brisket’s temperature will increase at a consistent pace until it hits the desired number.
The Brisket Stall Strikes!
Sometimes, however, your brisket cooks perfectly for a few hours and then just stops in its tracks. It will hit a temp around 150°F and then remain at that temperature for hours. It might even drop a few degrees.
Then, a few hours later, the brisket’s internal temperature starts to rise again. For no obvious reason. If you were to chart the temperature of your brisket over time, you might see a picture that looks something like this:
This is the famous brisket stall. The brisket stall doesn’t necessarily happen every time you smoke a brisket, but when it does strike it can be really frustrating. Especially if you are on a tight timeline and have guests about to arrive for a party.
The brisket stall doesn’t just happen to brisket, either. Any large cut of meat can experience this kind of stall during a low-and-slow session. Pork shoulders and racks of ribs often suffer through a meat stall as well.
At what temperature does a brisket stall? While the stall is most common in the 150-170°F temperature range, other factors can push the range up or down. If you wrap your brisket, or if your smoker is fairly airtight, you may experience a brisket stall at a higher temperature than 170°F.
How Long Does Brisket Stall Last?
It’s hard to judge how long a brisket stall will last. That is one reason novices often panic when their meat’s temperature gets stuck in a stall. It seems to go on forever and there’s no clear end in sight.
I’ve had short brisket stalls that only lasted a couple of hours before the temperature started back up again. I have also had a few that went longer, including a marathon 7-hour stall on a huge brisket that nearly had me tearing out my hair.
If you opt to wait it out, you will have to be patient for a few hours. Grab a beer, monitor your fire, enjoy the aroma of wood smoke and dream of the meal to come. There is no way to know in advance how long a particular brisket stall will last.
Why Does the Brisket Stall Happen?
While it seems random when it’s happening to your brisket, there are actually reasons for a brisket stall. Luckily, there are many things you can do to shorten or eliminate a stall and get your dinner back on track.
To understand the brisket stall, you have to think about what makes up a piece of meat and what happens to it as it is slowly cooked in your smoker.
Brisket is a Tough Cut
Meat contains fibers of protein from muscles and connective tissues, along with fat and water. There’s other stuff in meat, too, but these are the things that matter most when it comes to smoking a brisket. Connective tissue is mostly made up of collagen fibers and water.
Brisket is an ideal meat for smoking because it is a very tough cut with a lot of connective tissue. If you just tried to cook a piece of brisket over high heat like a steak, it would have the texture of shoe leather and not much flavor.
The trick to making a tasty brisket is to cook it slowly enough that the collagen fibers loosen up and turn into gelatin. The collagen surrounds the meat proteins and helps anchor them to the living steer. When the collagen turns into gelatin during the cooking process, you get a brisket that is tender and juicy all the way through.
That gelatin is the key ingredient that makes a slice of brisket melt in your mouth. Collagen starts to convert over to gelatin at around 160°F and is usually finished at 190°F.
The challenge of smoking a brisket is getting all that collagen converted over to gelatin without drying out your meat. That’s why brisket is usually finished cooking right around 195-203°F. No one wants to eat brisket jerky, and you can definitely smoke a brisket for too long.
Briskets Lose Moisture
A typical brisket loses about 25% of its weight during the smoking process and shrinks a little in size. As your brisket cooks, the muscle fibers shrink and tighten up. The fat melts and some may drip into the grease pan. But the majority of the weight loss is from water.
It turns out that this water loss during the smoking cycle is a key player in the brisket stall.
A raw brisket contains about 60-70% water by weight. As it cooks, the surface of the brisket quickly reaches the same temperature as your smoker, or slightly below. The center, on the other hand, takes its time. There’s actually a gradient of internal temperatures inside your brisket, not just the single internal temperature you see on a meat thermometer.
This gradient of internal temperatures helps move the moisture from the center of the brisket. The tightening muscle fibers draw water from the center and deposit it on the surface of the brisket as it cooks. There, the moisture may drip down into the water pan or evaporate away.
Theory Behind the Brisket Stall
There have been a lot of theories over the years about what, exactly, causes a brisket to stall.
Some pitmasters figured the melting fat was absorbing the energy from the smoker, causing the brisket to stall until the fat was rendered out. But there just isn’t enough melted fat from a brisket to account for a multiple-hour brisket stall.
Another popular theory was that the collagen fibers were absorbing the heat as they converted to gelatin.
This last one seemed to make sense since the brisket stall often happens right around the same temperature that converts collagen to gelatin, 160°F. But again, the amount of collagen in a brisket just isn’t enough to account for an extended brisket stall.
It took a scientist by the name of Greg Blonder to solve the mystery of the brisket stall.
Through a series of ingenious experiments, Dr. Blonder proved that the cause of the brisket stall is the evaporating moisture from the surface as it is drawn from the center of the meat.
The Science of the Brisket Stall
To explore the science behind the brisket stall, Dr. Blonder carried out a series of experiments with his smoker.
First, he wanted to observe a brisket during the smoking process and capture the stall with real-time measurements. Using his electric smoker and a water pan, he smoked a small brisket at 225°F and charted its internal temperatures over time. You can clearly see that his brisket stalls right at 153°F, and it stays there for nearly 6 hours before rising rapidly again.
Next, Dr. Blonder wanted to test out a few competing theories for the brisket stall. He redid his brisket-smoking experiment, but this time used a chunk of pure beef fat and a soaking-wet sponge. If the melting fat was causing the stall, then the beef fat should stall just like a brisket.
Instead, the beef fat continued to rise steadily in temperature, even as it melted, while the wet sponge stalled- just like the brisket. Once the sponge was nearly dry, however, it’s temperature increased rapidly.
After this set of experiments, Dr. Blonder concluded:
“The barbecue stall is a simple consequence of evaporative cooling by the meat’s own moisture slowly released over hours from within its pores and cells. As the temperature of cold meat rises, the evaporation rate increases until the cooling effect balances the heat input. Then it stalls until the last drop of available moisture on the surface is gone.”
With Dr. Blonder’s results in hand, we can now explain the mechanism behind the brisket stall. It turns out that the brisket stall is really porous bed expansion cooling, otherwise referred to as “evaporative cooling.”
Evaporative cooling is easily explained because all mammals use it to regulate their body temperatures. When you get hot, your body produces sweat. As the sweat evaporates from the surface of your skin, the moisture absorbs a little bit of energy as it changes from a liquid to a gas. The evaporating sweat helps cool down your body.
So, your brisket stalls when the evaporating moisture causes the surface of your meat to cool just enough that it balances out the effects of the smoker’s heat input.
The muscle fibers stop absorbing heat energy from the smoker, and the heat evaporates the moisture instead. Your brisket refuses to absorb any more heat energy until the center of the brisket has no more moisture to pass on to the surface. Then the surface temperature will start to rise again, and the center will follow.
In fact, Dr. Blonder’s experiments also showed that the surface of brisket stalls an hour before the center does. Once the surface begins to rise, the center follows by an hour as well. This backs-up the evaporative cooling theory.
The brisket stall can only happen when all of these forces balance each other. When you increase your smoker’s temperature or change your meat’s evaporative potential (through wrapping, humidity or airflow changes) you alter these dynamics. This can extend or shorten the stall time, depending on which changes you make.
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How to Get Past the Brisket Stall
Pitmasters and backyard chefs have created various ways to get around the brisket stall, even before they knew exactly what was causing it. An especially frustrating aspect of the brisket stall is that it doesn’t happen every time you smoke a brisket.
There are many factors that all play a role in the brisket stall, including: the type of smoker and fuel-source; how the smoker is set-up; and the size, shape, quality, moisture content, surface area and preparation of your brisket.
I know this all seems complicated, like you need a Ph.D. in “BBQology” to get around the brisket stall.
Let’s look at it this way, instead.
Factors that extend a brisket stall:
- High rate of airflow through the smoker. The more air that moves through your smoker, the longer your brisket stall. Drafty smokers and offset-style designs with lots of open dampers may cause a brisket to stall at lower temperatures than more airtight models. Pellet smokers also have this problem, but their convection fan acts to counter the effect.
- Lower smoker temperatures. As your smoking temperature decreases, your brisket experiences the effects of evaporative cooling at a lower temp and can balance the forces longer.
Ways to reduce or eliminate a brisket stall include:
- Increase the heat of the smoker. As the temp approaches 300°F, you may shorten or eliminate the stall entirely. The energy from the smoker overwhelms the meat’s ability evaporatively cool and halts the brisket stall.
- Reduce evaporation from the surface of your brisket. Decreasing the airflow through your smoker can shorten the brisket stall since there will be less evaporation from the surface of your meat. Ceramic smokers have little airflow and rarely experience problems with the brisket stall. Wrapping the brisket tightly can also eliminate evaporation and shorten a stall.
- Speed up the evaporative cooling process. A convection fan in a pellet smoker can power through the brisket stall by speeding up the process. The fan disrupts the humidity immediately surrounding the surface of the brisket, causing it to evaporate faster and at a lower temperature. Thus, your meat loses its extra moisture faster and the stall-time decreases.
- Increase the humidity. When you increase the humidity in your smoker, the brisket stall happens at a higher temperature and is shorter in duration. Humidity also increases your cooking times, however, and may suppress the formation of a crusty bark on your brisket.
Using one or a combination of these techniques can get you through the stall. Let’s take a look at how these methods can work together to shorten or even eliminate a stalled brisket.
The Texas Crutch
One of the most popular ways to get around a stalled brisket is a method called the Texas Crutch.
When you “crutch a brisket,” it means you pull it from your smoker and wrap it tightly in several layers of foil. Then you place it back in your smoker until it hits the desired temperature.
The Crutch eliminates evaporative cooling since the meat is entirely enclosed in foil and no moisture is exposed to the air. It also raises the humidity around your meat, leading to a shorter stall. The moisture can’t evaporate and the meat’s temperature begins to quickly rise.
This method was first used on the professional BBQ circuit. Needless to say, BBQ judges can’t hang around for 6 hours while a team is waiting out a stalled brisket.
When to Wrap a Brisket
Timing is important when using the Texas Crutch method, but every chef has their own particular process. Should you wrap before or after the brisket stall? There is no right answer.
Some BBQ pitmasters wrap sooner, some later, and some also unwrap and finish the brisket back on the smoker. Each method has its own flavor profile and unique texture, so it really comes down to what you prefer.
Clearly, you don’t want to wrap your brisket too soon, or your meat won’t acquire the smoky flavor necessary for good BBQ. Generally, after a few hours of smoking your meat has absorbed all the flavor from the smoke that it’s going to. Wrapping your brisket in foil at this point won’t prevent it from acquiring a smoky flavor, but it may change the flavor profile a little.
The foil can reduce the flavor from the smoke and any BBQ rubs you may have used on the exterior of your brisket. The liquid inside the wrapper will wash a bit of this flavor from the bark. You can always collect these juices and use them for a sauce or demi-glaze, however.
Some pitmasters wrap their meat after two or three hours of smoking. Others wait until their brisket stalls, and then pull and wrap it.
If you like a really thick bark, you might wait until your brisket temp hits 170°F before wrapping, and then give it some time back on the smoker at the end. You may have to wait out the stall if it occurs earlier, but you will have a nice, tasty bark on your brisket.
Brisket Second Stall
Some users of the Texas Crutch method experience a second brisket stall when their meat hits a higher temperature, usually above 170°. What’s going on with that? Isn’t the point of the Texas Crutch to skip over a stall?
It’s simple. The brisket stall happens when the evaporative cooling from the brisket balances with the rate of heating from the smoker. If your foil isn’t completely sealed, a bit of air could sneak in and evaporate some of the juices contained by the foil. This pushes the stall temperature higher instead of eliminating it entirely.
If you experience a second brisket stall while using the Texas Crutch method, chances are that your foil isn’t tight enough. Other reasons for a second brisket stall could be changes in the environment around the meat or smoker.
Spritzing your brisket with water or juice could cause a short-term second stall, as the liquid cools the outer surface of the meat. If the wind drops or the weather changes, that could also alter the temperature at which your brisket stalls.
If you unwrap your brisket and return it to the smoker to develop a deeper bark, you may experience a second stall as the exterior moisture evaporates. It should be a short stall, however, and then the temperature of the brisket will increase again.
Brisket Stall Butcher Paper
A similar method to the Texas Crutch is to use butcher paper to wrap your brisket in, instead of foil. This method has recently become very trendy on the competition circuit and is popping up in backyards across the country.
Sometimes referred to as the peach “Paper Crutch,” since the butcher paper is pink or pale-colored, the butcher paper method won’t entirely eliminate the brisket stall. Since the paper is porous, some evaporative cooling may still take place inside the wrapping.
The advantage of using peach paper is that it allows your brisket to form a tasty crust while it is wrapped. The limited amount of evaporation pushes the brisket stall-temperature higher and makes it shorter in duration. You may cut your brisket stall-times in half, depending on the other conditions.
The downside to using the butcher paper wrapped brisket method is that the paper can’t collect the juices that leak from the brisket. You won’t be able to save these juices to make a sauce or demi-glaze.
Also, the bark formed under the paper wrapping isn’t as thick as the bark from an unwrapped brisket. If you really like the bark, you may want to finish your brisket on the smoker. There may be a short second brisket stall while the surface dries out.
Increase the Humidity
As I mentioned above, increasing the humidity inside your smoker can help you work through the brisket stall. The increased humidity pushes the stall temperature higher and shortens the duration.
Many smokers come with a water pan, to help even out the heat inside the cooking chamber. The increased humidity also increases the flavor of your BBQ, because it allows more smoke to “stick” to your brisket.
You can increase the humidity inside your smoker by keeping the water pan filled, or by spritzing or mopping your brisket with water or juice. You just want to keep the surface of the brisket moist, without washing the rub and smoke flavor from the bark.
The downside to only adjusting the humidity in your smoker is that it won’t eliminate the brisket stall, it just reduces the duration. Your brisket may still spend several hours in a stall.
If you are frequently opening the smoker to mop or spritz, or to take your brisket’s temp, then you will lose a lot of heat to the atmosphere. This could also extend the brisket stall.
Humidity Inhibits Bark Formation
Another downside to increasing the humidity greatly is that it reduces the amount of bark that is formed on your smoked brisket. If the exterior of your meat never dries out, you won’t get that crusty texture or deep flavor that a drier brisket provides.
This is a common issue with ceramic and electric smokers. The combination of very low airflow and high humidity means that these smokers rarely suffer from an extended brisket stall, but they don’t produce a deep bark either.
Of course, crafty pitmasters have a solution to getting a nice bark while using higher humidity levels in their smokers.
You can develop bark on a brisket by cranking up the heat and removing the water pan for the first few hours. Once your brisket stalls, lower the heat, increase the humidity and continue smoking until your brisket temp is around 190°F. Then finish the brisket without the water pan to around 200-203°F.
Alternatively, some BBQ chefs just keep their brisket in the high humidity smoker until around 190°F and then remove the water pan for the last bit of smoking. This won’t develop a deep bark but can still make some tasty smoked brisket.
Use a Higher Temperature
Low-and-slow was once the by-word for BBQ competitions around the country. But lately, things have been heating up in the professional world.
Many pros are now smoking the best meats using high heat, instead of the traditional 225°F low-and-slow approach. This can completely avoid the brisket stall and quickly develops a deep and crusty bark on your meats. It also cuts the preparation time for a smoked brisket, so your food is ready faster.
There are a few ways to approach this higher-heat smoking method.
You could just smoke the brisket using high-heat all the way through. If you set your smoker to the 275-295°F range, you may totally avoid a brisket stall. Your meat will dry out faster, however, and you will want to keep a close eye on your brisket temps.
If your brisket starts to look too dry before it’s ready, you can always “crutch it” for the finish or add moisture to your smoker to compensate. Adding humidity could increase the cooking times, though.
Some backyard chefs leave the temperature low until the brisket stalls and then increase the temp to push through it. This will reduce the length of the stall and help develop a deep bark on your brisket.
The primary downside to increasing the heat is you could end up overcooking your brisket if you’re not paying attention. If you leave your brisket in the smoker past 203°F, your meat may end up mushy instead of moist and juicy.
I admit that I often use this method to push through a brisket stall when I don’t feel like waiting it out. I’ve tried both versions of this method and enjoyed the results. My last brisket finished smoking in less than 10 hours, so increasing the heat to overcome the brisket stall shaved at least 4 hours off the process.
Wait it Out
Our final method for overcoming the brisket stall is to just embrace it and wait it out.
Smoking a brisket has traditionally been an exercise in patience. It gives you a chance to bond with your smoker, to play with the coals and wood and to enjoy time with your guests. If you want to feel like you are making true, classic BBQ, then just wait through your brisket stall.
While it seems like it goes on forever, the brisket stall is a good time to work on other dishes. Maybe you want to smoke some chicken thighs or grill up some veggies for a side dish. When you read the best smoker recipes, you often see that they assign certain prep activities during the brisket stall to save time.
How to Tell When Smoked Brisket is Done?
You should smoke your meat until it reaches the correct temperature. That temp will vary depending on what you are smoking. Large cuts like brisket and pork shoulder are best removed a few degrees before they are completely done.
Most BBQ chefs recommend removing your brisket from the smoker at around 195-200°F. The best smoked brisket is usually cooked to 203°F.
Since meat continues to rise in temp after you take it out of the smoker, pulling it right before it hits the ideal temp prevents it from overcooking.
Sliced Brisket vs Chopped
Once your brisket has rested for an hour (or longer), you can get ready to dig in!
Using a sharp knife, slice the brisket into thin slices across the grain. You can add a sauce or demi-glaze to the slices once plated.
While sliced brisket is traditional and very tasty, you can also chop brisket like a pork shoulder. The chopped beef makes a great filler for sandwiches and sliders, or for stuffing in bell peppers or other veggies.
No matter how you slice it, smoked brisket is one of the most popular BBQ meats. While the brisket stall is frustrating, there is no need to panic. Either adjust your smoker set-up using one of the methods we outline here or just be patient and wait it out. I promise, the end is in sight and amazing BBQ awaits!