ooking barbecue isn’t very complicated – you light a fire, control the airflow to give the desired temperature and wait (sometimes very patiently) for your food to cook.
But move beyond the familiar territory of high heat, direct grilling and into the world of low-n-slow smoking and you will likely encounter a phenomenon known as the stall. Even when you’ve completed a few long cooks and are expecting it, the stall will often have you second guessing yourself and wanting to deviate from the plan.
What is it?
When the meat first goes on the cooker, the temperature will quickly begin to rise as one would expect. For the first couple of hours everything is going well. But when the temperature reaches around 160F, it just stops. Regardless of the cooker temperature the meat just won’t budge for hours on end.
At this point it’s easy to panic, particularly as the hours slip by and dinner time approaches. There’s a strong temptation to push the cooking temperature up or just serve it as is. Now is the time to e patient, though, as although the meat may be safe to eat, it will not be good.
The typical barbecue cuts of meat are not flashy. They are usually fatty and tough and require the extra long cooking time to allow the fat and collagen to break down. During the stall period this hasn’t had time to happen so the meat definitely won’t be fall-apart tender.
The stall is caused by water evaporating from the surface of the meat, in much the same way that humans are cooled by the evaporation of sweat from the skin, and is a crucial element in the creation of a crusty layer of bark.
This process is faster in a dry environment, just as you fell hotter in high humidity, so using a water pan keeps the cooker humid, slows down the moisture loss and allows the adequate cooking time for the fat to render without drying out the meat.
What’s the Solution?
A very common method for dealing with the stall, to speed up the process and retain decent moisture content, is to wrap the meat part-way through cooking. The downside is that you prevent the smoke from reaching the meat after this point. It becomes a matter of practice and personal preference to determine if and when to wrap and with what material.
Not wrapping at all will give the longest cook and the most evaporation, as well as the darkest and smokiest bark. Wrapping at the start of the stall with foil will give the highest moisture content, least smoky and softest bark and shortest cooking time. Wrapping midway through the stall with paper will hit somewhere in the middle and is what I tend to do.
The best way to figure it out is to use the excuse to cook a lot of barbecue, change one thing at a time and don’t panic!