So you’ve put your big hunk of brisket on the smoker, and all is looking great. Your day of smoking BBQ is going just as planned – your brisket’s internal temperature is steadily rising.
But then after about 2 or 3 hours, the climb in temperature stops and remains at about 150-160°F for an extended period of time, much to your distress. Occasionally, it can even drop a few degrees!
This phenomenon is called the brisket stall. Sometimes it’s also been referred to as “the zone” or “the plateau”, but it’s all referring to the same thing. The dreaded period of time where your brisket seemingly isn’t cooking and your hungry guests are going to be arriving in a few hours.
In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the brisket stall. We’ll go over the science behind the stall and how it is a perfectly natural occurrence – and how it can help your brisket form a delicious bark.
What Is The Brisket Stall Exactly?
The brisket stall is a phenomenon that happens while your brisket is cooking on the smoker. Briskets typically cook for 10-12 hours, with the ambient temperature of the smoker at 225°F. Your brisket is ready to come off of the smoker once it reaches an internal temperature of 203°F.
Your probe thermometer constantly gauges the temperature of the brisket as it cooks. For the first part of the cook, your brisket rapidly rises in temperature. About two hours in however, the internal temperature of your food completely stops rising.
In some cases, it might actually drip a couple of degrees in temperature. This phase – the brisket stall – lasts for around four hours and potentially more.
If you aren’t familiar with the brisket stall phenomenon, it can be a stressful thing to deal with. You might even be tempted to crank up your smoker’s heat or bring it inside to the oven. The plateau phase seems to last forever, especially when you’re diligently checking the status of your brisket!
The short story is that the brisket stall is normal, and in fact explained by science! There is sound science behind the reasons why it happens, and there’s no reason to panic when it does.
Old Wives Tales About Brisket Stall
Brisket stall is one of those things that incites a lot of speculation and theories. Depending on which pit-master you ask, you might hear one of a few different theories floating out there about what causes brisket stall. Here are a couple of the most common old wives tales about brisket stall.
Collagen Phase Change
One of the most popular theories about the “why” revolves around a phase change that occurs during the brisket cooking process. The logic is that collagen protein combines with the moisture of the brisket and converts into gelatin at about 160°F.
Collagen is found in the steer and are connective tissues that encase muscles and connect muscles to other muscles and bone. While this theory sounds nice, there just simply isn’t enough collagen in a cut of brisket to account for all of the energy that gets released, causing the brisket stall.
It’s by pure chance that the collagen phase change occurs at 160°F – just about the temperature where the stall typically occurs.
The other popular theory has to do with fat rendering – essentially fat melting for a period of time and absorbing the energy that would otherwise contribute to the warming of the brisket.
Tests have been done to debunk this theory. In fact, the folks at amazingribs.com have even gone as far as to place a lump of pure beef fat in a smoker with a probe thermometer measuring the temperature of the fat over time.
The results? No stall whatsoever. The fat steadily and rapidly increased in temperature over time.
The Science Behind Brisket Stall
With a few of the most common theories debunked, it’s time to take a look at the real reason for the occurrence of brisket stall.
The science behind the brisket stall can be explained as the consequence of evaporative cooling – which is essentially a fancy way of saying that your brisket is sweating inside the smoker. The “sweat” cools the brisket and keeps the temperature down for a period of time (typically around 4 hours), and after the moisture is gone, the temperature of your brisket will rise more.
Inside of most types of smokers, a fire is the source of heat (or a heating element if you’re using an electric smoker). This heat is then distributed throughout your cooking chamber. Some of the heat escapes through vents, but some of it gets absorbed by the food that you’re cooking on the smoker.
The heat that does get absorbed by the brisket warms the food, melts fat, and evaporates the moisture inside of the cut of beef. From there, the evaporating moisture has an offsetting cooling effect on the surface of your meat while it continues to cook.
This balance of heat and cooling stays in place for a few hours, and is the exact reason for the brisket stall. After a certain amount of time, there isn’t any moisture left in your brisket and the internal temperature will begin to rise.
The Texas Crutch
If your goal is to retain more moisture, decrease your cooking time, and “beat” the stall – you can try out a trick called the Texas Crutch.
The Texas Crutch is a method in which you wrap brisket with foil as it has reached its stall. Once it’s reached a temperature of 150-170°F wrap it in aluminum foil. You can also add a little bit of apple cider or apple juice to increase moisture levels.
The moisture will create a little bit of steam that will further tenderize your food and speed up the cooking process. Foil prevents evaporation and will over time approach a low simmer like effect. Any moisture that comes out of the food will pool in the foil along with any liquid that you added in before hand. The Texas Crutch is a great way to speed up your cook and add moisture if you’re in a hurry.
Is Brisket Stall Bad?
Brisket stall isn’t inherently bad – some pit masters would even say that it helps the final result of your brisket. It all comes down to your personal preference.
The reason that brisket stall has a negative connotation is simply due to the fact that it can cause panic for a less experienced pit master. We’ve all been there on our first brisket! Four hours of no temperature rise is a really long time, and you begin to question if you’ve done things the right way.
If you can stick out the stall though, there is a handsome reward on the other side. In particular, the stall helps to build a delicious professional grade crusty bark on the outside of your brisket. The evaporation process allows for a bark to form and dry out on the outer layer of your meat.
So brisket stall isn’t bad per se – it can be avoided if you prefer faster results. It can also be leaned into if you prefer brisket with a deep bark.
I hope this article has helped to clear up the fact and fiction surrounding brisket stall. At the end of the day, it’s a result of the science of cooking and understanding the stall is important to your mastery of the smoker.
There are certainly ways around it if you want – like the Texas Crutch method or simply making hot and fast brisket.
Have any more questions for us about the brisket stall? Reach out in the comments section below and we’ll get them answered for you.
Want more information on brisket itself? Check out our complete guide here.