The Dreaded Brisket Stall Explained

brisket stall
Courtesy of Kingsford

Don’t let the dreaded brisket stall get in the way of your BBQ. There is nothing better than enjoying a slow afternoon around the smoker with your loved ones. The only downside of a good brisket barbeque (apart from the occasional turn of the weather) is the wait. All the finger snacks have been polished off, stomachs are rumbling and mouths are starting to drool in anticipation. Then it happens… the dreaded brisket stall, also known as the brisket plateau or the ominous “zone”. Suddenly the temperature of the brisket, which has been steadily climbing as it cooks, stops dead and refuses to rise any further. Your beautiful cut of meat that you labored over has suddenly stopped cooking.

You’ve heard stories about this temperature plateau lasting for hours, and now you’re in a panic. We’re here to help!

Below we explain why the brisket stall occurs and what you can do to make sure your dish comes out of the smoker on time and tasting delicious.

What exactly is a brisket stall?

A brisket stall is a phenomenon that occurs when, after a brisket has been put on to roasting on a barbecue or smoker, the temperature of the meat suddenly stops rising. This stall in temperature can last for four or more hours, sometimes even dropping a few degrees in temperature instead. The stall usually happens at around 150°F, nowhere near the ideal temperature of 203°F for a tender, succulent brisket.

the stall
Courtesy of AmazingRibs.com

There are many theories about why this happens, you’re likely to get a different explanation from different pit masters.

Popular belief is that a brisket stall is caused by a phase change of collagen to gelatin in the meat. The collagen protein combines with moisture and converts into gelatin at about 160°F, which is just about the same temperature that the stall begins.

It has also been speculated that fat rendering (the process of lipids becoming liquid) is the cause of the stall, while others consider the cause to be protein denaturing (the breaking down of long chain molecules).

The underlying science behind all these theories is that the process in question uses heat energy to occur, which can lower the overall temperature of the brisket. The amount of heat required for any of these processes, however, is not enough to halt the temperature increase for four or more hours.

Science behind the stall

With experiments conducted by several scientists, chefs, pitmasters and barbeque enthusiasts, the definitive cause of the brisket stall is evaporative cooling. Could it really be as simple as that, you ask? Evaporative cooling is just a fancy term for the effect of sweat. The same way your sweat cools your forehead down on a hot day, so the moisture in the brisket evaporates and cools the barbeque down.

How evaporative cooling causes the brisket stall

The brisket stall is a naturally occurring phenomenon during cooking with lower temperatures. The fuel in your cooker burns and produces energy in the form of heat. The heat is distributed throughout the cooker, some of it being absorbed by the meat while some escapes through the sides and vents of the cooker. The heat energy that warms the meat also melts the fat and evaporates the moisture in the meat. The evaporating moisture cools the surface of the meat even as the cooker heats it.

After a few hours of this, with the temperature continually rising and increasing the rate of moisture evaporation, eventually the cooling effect of the evaporation matches the heating effect of the cooker. The cooling counteracts the heat and the temperature stops rising, at about 150°F.

During the brisket stall, the balance of heat and cold continues while all the moisture slowly evaporates away. After some time, there is no more moisture left in the meat and the temperature again begins to rise, signaling the end of the stall.

Beat the brisket stall with the Texas Crutch

There are several ways you can beat the brisket stall. Simply leaving it for hours on end will eventually solve it, if you can stand the wait! The most recommended technique is the Texas Crutch – basically wrapping your meat in foil right as you hit the temperature plateau. Looking at the chart below you can see that by wrapping your meat you can steadily increase the temperature and avoid the plateau. 

brisket stall temp
Courtesy of AmazingRibs.com

After the brisket has reached about 150 – 170°F, wrap it in aluminum foil and add a splash of liquid like apple juice or beer. Continue as usual, and enjoy a succulent, delicious, perfectly-done brisket! Neil Strawder (aka Bigmista) does a great job of explaining this technique below. 

Worried how wrapping your brisket could affect your final dish. Check out our article that explains when to wrap a brisket and how it changes your final dish. Have more questions about the brisket stall? Drop us a comment and we’re happy to help!

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