Initially, this was going to be two separate posts. In the first post I was going to go into wrapping, what to wrap with, and why you’d do it in the first place. One of the biggest reasons for wrapping is the stall, and that’s when I realized there was no way I was going to be able to get into any detail about one without getting into the other. Since the stall is more involved, let’s start with that.
What is the stall?
If you’ve spent any time on barbecue forums, you’ve undoubtedly heard it mentioned before. It happens to everybody, and everybody hates it. The stall is something that happens partway through cooking a large cut of meat (like brisket) at a low temperature. And hey, we are going low and slow here, right? Well, that means it’s going to happen. No way around it.
You get the temp of your cooker stabilized and you place your chosen cut of meat on the rack. You let it go for a few hours, and since you monitor the internal temperature (you are monitoring your temps, right? RIGHT?), you notice that somewhere around 150 degrees F, the temperature stops rising. For hours. Even worse, you notice the temperature went DOWN a few degrees. You have arrived at the stall.
This can be particularly frustrating when you have friends and family inside, all of them asking when dinner is going to be ready, and you don’t know what to tell them now because everything is….well….stalled.
Why did this happen? What did I do wrong? What can I do to stop it? Will it ever go up again? Is the sky going to start falling? HELP!
Calm down there, Sparky. All is well. We’ll get into the solutions in a bit (hint…hint…there might be something in the title), but let’s go over the whys and hows first.
If you’ve read any of my previous stuff, you’ll know that I’m generally not a fan of the science-y peeps out there that like to do experiments in controlled environments and then discount and dismiss people’s actual life experiences because they’re smarter than us and neener-neener and so on.
Count this as one of those rare exceptions for me. I don’t mind getting all science-y when there’s a purpose and it’s being used to solve a problem. The stall is what most would consider a problem. In order to come up with a solution for a problem, you need to know what’s causing the problem.
I always thought the stall was the result of the changes that take place within the meat. Cuts like brisket and pork butt have tons of fat and connective tissue, and during the cooking process those fats render out and those tough connective tissues break down and everything gets nice and tender.
If you stop thinking of heat as simply a temperature and think of it for what it is – energy – it would make sense that once things start breaking down, that energy is being used to render fat and break down proteins instead of continuing the cooking process. It does make sense.
It’s also wrong.
Enter the good folks at Amazing Ribs and their science advisor, Professor Blonder. The Professor did a ton of different experiments, and determined that the stall is simply the result of evaporative cooling. There’s a very well-written in-depth post on Amazing Ribs’ site, and I encourage you to check it out if you want a full-blown detailed examination on the process. I’m going to give you more of a condensed version.
What the hell is evaporative cooling, and why is this going on inside my cooker?
Have you ever found yourself sitting around outside on a hot day? Even not moving around…just sitting? As the temperature rose out there, did you notice something happening with your body? Something like little beads of water coming out of your skin? You know what I’m talking about…sweating. Your body’s own personal evaporative cooler.
That’s exactly what’s going on inside your cooker. The meat is sweating. Moisture is pushing up out of the meat on to the surface, evaporating, and cooling the meat much in the same way you sweating cools you when your internal temperature rises.
Have you ever noticed how much smaller and lighter a brisket or pork butt is after cooking? I’m talking almost 25% smaller and lighter. There’s simply not enough fat inside that meat for it to have lost that much size and weight. There is more than enough water in there, however. Just like our bodies, the meats we cook are between 60% and 70% water, and until the excess water pushes out and evaporates off, you’ll be stuck in the stall.
That can take around 6 hours or so, and I’ve heard of instances where it was even longer!
Does that mean the meat will be dried out?
Not at all. It will contain cosiderably less water, but it won’t be dry due to the stall. The water molecules serve multiple purposes and most are bound to other molecules inside the meat. About 25% of it is excess, and that water will cook out and evaporate during cooking. You will still have plenty of water/moisture left inside the meat. Unless you overcook it. Eventually the water inside will dry out, but that won’t happen to you, because you pay attention and monitor your temperatures, right? Moving on.
Once that excess water cooks out and the meat’s ability to provide moisture is diminished, your temperature will start to rise again.
There are a great many elements that can affect the length of the stall – the type of cooker, the air flow, the cooking temp, the size/shape/surface are of the meat, whether you’re using a water pan, whether you’re basting with a mop – too many to even count.
I think it helps to stop thinking of the stall as a negative thing and just view it as part of the process. If the stall didn’t happen, the outside of the meat would be dry and the middle of the meat would be undercooked…which is what happens at high temperatures. The low and slow process allows things to run their course, and the stall allows the deep inside parts of the meat to catch up to the outside areas of the meat, evening things out. Which is exactly what you want to happen.
Water pans and mopping also help with this…and they can also prolong the stall. They all serve a purpose, however, and when you start to look at it as a benefit as opposed to a problem, you won’t be as upset when it happens.
On the other hand, it’s not much consolation when you have a house full of hungry guests and you have no idea when things are going to be ready. So, how can we best work with it in a way that we end up with the best possible end product but still have things ready in time for dinner?
Well, you have a few options here.
The first one is – prepare ahead of time, plan for the stall, and start earlier. Sometimes the simplest solution will elude us. Also, if you don’t have that kind of time on your hands, it’s obviously not going to work for you.
The second one is – cook at a higher temperature. I’m not a huge fan of this, although I know many cooks have gone this route. You’ll may still have a stall (depending on how high you go), but it will be much shorter, as the evaporation of water from the meat won’t be able to compete with the higher temps in the cooker. Much the same way we go into heat stroke when it’s excessively hot outside. Your body can’t produce enough moisture to compete with those raised temperatures. My problem with this is that you lose a some of the benefits of the slow cooking. I don’t find the end product to be as tender, or I find the outside of the meat to be overcooked because it was done before the inside was.
The third option is – the wrap.
The wrap? What’s that?
Well, the wrap is exactly what it sounds like. You wrap the meat. Wrapping the meat stops the evaporative cooling, therefore stopping the stall. Wrapping also stops the meat from taking on any smoke and developing that bark we all love so much. That doesn’t sound so good, now does it?
That’s what would happen if you wrapped at the beginning of the cook. It would be just like you made it in the oven, or more accurately, if you did it in the slow cooker.
The key with wrapping is knowing when to wrap, how to wrap, and when to unwrap.
There are lots of different opinions out there, but since you’re on my site, I’m going to give you mine.
I generally don’t like to wrap until the meat has had at least 4-5 hours in the smoke. I don’t care if I hit the stall 3 hours in. I wrap it once I’ve developed the amount of color and bark that I want on the meat. Once I wrap it…no more smoke.
Once I have the bark and color where I want them, I remove the meat from the smoker. Then I wrap the meat completely in heavy duty foil. You can also add a little bit of liquid to the foil before wrapping if you’d like (apple juice, beer, etc.) to add more flavor. Make sure there are no holes or open seams. Wrap it a second time in another layer of heavy duty foil and check for holes. This is very important. If you wrap it loosely and have openings in the wrap, you can still hit a stall.
Making sure you have the meat tightly and completely wrapped will ensure that there will be no evaporative cooling taking place, which is what you want. Water will still push out of the meat, but it will pool inside of the foil and it will simmer. Essentially, your braising the meat while it’s wrapped.
Now I realize that doesn’t sound appealing, but when you think about it, it’s not such a bad thing. It is sort of a compromise, but a good one if you want to significantly cut down your cook time. If you’re 4-5 hours in, you’ve already developed a good bark and you’ve already gotten a bunch of smoke on the meat.
Now that you’ve wrapped it the smoking process stops, and it will go straight through the stall, saving you a ton of time.
What about my bark though?
The bark will still be there, as will the smoke flavor you already put into the meat. The bark will not be crispy like an unwrapped hunk of meat will though. It will still be flavorful, but it will be tender and soft.
If you want to try and have the best of both worlds, let the meat cook wrapped until you reach the desired internal temperature. Remove the meat from the cooker and raise the temp to the highest it will go…aim for 350-400 degrees F. Unwrap the meat, remove the thermometer, and place it back on the smoker for 30 minutes or so…just enough to firm up the bark to your liking.
You don’t want the thermometer in there because it can deceive you. Once you unwrap the meat, all that moisture on the surface is going to evaporate, and your readings may drop and cause you to panic. You’ve already hit the level of doneness that you want, so don’t worry about it. This is just to re-establish the bark on the outside of the meat. It’s not becoming less done, and it’s not going to be on long enough to overcook it either.
I generally only wrap when I’m doing pork butt. If I don’t wrap it takes too damn long. And to be honest, I don’t care about the softer bark on pork butts, because I’m going to pull it and mix it all together and it’s going to soften up anyway.
Every once in a while I’ll wrap brisket, but generally only when I feel like it’s drying out.
I never wrap ribs any more, unless I’m making candied ribs or doing something fancy-schmancy like that.
If you want the perfect bark and all that extra smoke flavor, the best way to do it is to go the old fashioned route and just let it go, low and slow, until it’s done.
So there you have it. My thoughts on wrapping and the stall. Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed it and maybe learnt something. Keep smoking!