Brisket is a notoriously intimidating cut to cook – not least because of the dreaded “stall.” But with a little planning and a lot of patience, brisket is nothing to be afraid of, and well worth the wait. We’re here to demystify the stall so you know what’s really happening, what to expect, and what you can do to shorten or beat it.
It is known by many names: the stall, the plateau, the zone. Whatever you call it, this phenomenon has waylaid many a barbecue and sent grill-masters everywhere into panic mode.
The temperature of the brisket will rise steadily, and just as you’re prepping side dishes and calling the neighbors, the meat seems to stop cooking. You make sure your thermometer is working, and up the heat in your smoker, but it still won’t budge. For hours. The snacks are gone, people are hungry, and it’s still just sitting there. What is going on?
At What Temperature Does Brisket Stall?
Let’s take a look at some stats. The exact temperature at which the stall hits depends on your cooking temperature and your smoker, but it’s typically around 150-160° F, far below the optimal 190-205° F most pitmasters aim for to get peak tenderness.
How Long Does the Stall Last?
The size of the brisket, the cooking temperature, and humidity and airflow in your smoker all affect stall time, but a large brisket can stall for five hours or more before finally starting to climb the thermometer again. Talk about ruining a barbecue, especially if you were planning for a linear rise in temperature.
The Science Behind the Stall
Why does the Stall happen? It’s been a topic of debate among grillmasters for decades. For a while, two prevailing theories reigned supreme: fat rendering and the conversion of collagen into gelatin. The idea is that the heat energy is used up in these processes, keeping the brisket stalled at the temperature at which the collagen/fat liquefies. But neither collagen nor fat rendering use up enough energy to keep a brisket stalled for hours.
Dr. Greg Blonder, a physicist and part-time meat scientist for Amazing Ribs, discovered that the stall is actually evaporative cooling. The meat is sweating, and until the moisture on the surface of the brisket is evaporated, all the heat energy you throw at your brisket is used in evaporation. Blonder likens it to melting ice in an oven. Until all the ice is melted, the temperature of the water remains near-freezing. Likewise, the heat in your smoker causes the meat to sweat, and the evaporation cools down the meat. The balance of heating and cooling remains until all the exterior moisture is gone.
This doesn’t mean your meat is drying out. There’s plenty of moisture trapped in meat fibers that keeps the majority of your brisket beautifully tender. The surface evaporation creates the beautiful, crispy bark brisket is famous for. It’s a good thing! But if you don’t have time to let the meat sweat it out on its own, there are a few tricks to speed up or power through the stall.
How to Beat the Stall
Upping the Heat
Competition-level pros are now smoking their briskets at a blistering 300° F or higher. More heat energy devoted to evaporating surface moisture means that the stall happens at a higher temperature and is over much more quickly. It’s not exactly low-and-slow, but it still makes a succulent, competition-worthy brisket.
With that being said, make sure you get a relatively high grade brisket if you want to try your hand at the “hot and fast” method. Avoid Select and get at least Choice grade. Prime is even better if it’s available near you for a reasonable price (Costco is always a good bet!).
Commonly called the “Texas Crutch,” wrapping your brisket in foil when it starts to stall will prevent evaporation and force a continued, steady temperature rise. Before it’s wrapped, the brisket has had plenty of time to take on smoky flavor and color, so don’t fret about a wimpy end product. Sometimes I like to throw a little beef broth or juice in the foil with my brisket to add even more moisture to the party.
Wrapping does prevent a hard, crunchy bark from forming around your meat, since the outer layers don’t get the chance to dry out. If you are looking for a thicker crust on your brisket, remove it from the foil at 190° F, place it back on your smoker, and let the bark crisp up.
Perhaps even better than foil is wrapping in pink butcher paper, as seen in the photo above. Butcher paper gives your brisket a little more room to breathe, so the finished product will have a better bark. One downside is that you can’t add any additional liquid when wrapping in paper. It’s also more difficult to find than foil.
If you’re ever doing two briskets at once, try an A/B test and see if you can tell the difference between paper and foil. You might be surprised by the results!
The Waiting Game
If time isn’t a factor, or if you know about the stall and have planned for it, the most venerated option is to wait it out. A sizable brisket likes to spend 12 or more hours in a typical smoker, so don’t rush her. Place a water pan in the smoker with your meat to keep the humidity level high and hinder evaporation. And don’t check on your meat more than is necessary for the occasional spritz, since any drop in temperature or release of heat energy will prolong the stall. Relax a little. Kick back, have a beer or two, and enjoy the wait – you’ll appreciate your finished masterpiece that much more.
To Sum Up
Don’t let the barbecue horror stories frighten you away. Brisket may be demanding, but once you understand the chemistry happening in your smoker, you can alter the conditions to suit your needs and preferences. No matter which method you choose to take on the stall, you’ll turn out a succulent, smoky, delicious brisket. Cheers to that!