The Brisket Stall: Understanding the Science Behind It

September 13, 2023
Written by Kristy J. Norton
Edited by John Smits 

The brisket stall refers to the period of time when the interior of the brisket stops increasing. It is caused by a process known as evaporative cooling, and occurs when the internal temperature of the brisket is between 150°F and 170°F.

As someone who has been smoking briskets for many years, I’ve had to battle the stall. I know firsthand how frustrating stuck temperatures can be. Fortunately, I am friends with pitmasters who showed me how to overcome it with the Texas crutch. It’s my turn to pay it forward, and pass this wisdom along!

In this post, I will explain what the brisket stall is, what causes it, and what you can do to beat it. Let's get started!

Brisket Stall

What is the Brisket Stall?

The brisket stall is when the cooking process of the brisket begins to slow down or even stops completely. The internal temp will remain at a standstill for hours. In some cases, it may drop a little too. You can start to feel like the brisket is taunting you.

The stall happens about two-thirds of the way into a cook - when the internal temperature of the brisket is between 150°F to 170°F.

Even if the brisket does cook, the internal temp only rises by a few degrees over several hours. The stall can last anywhere from 2 to 6 hours before the brisket temperature starts climbing again.

The main issue with the brisket stall is that it increases the cooking time of your brisket. Thanks to the stall, an already long cook becomes even longer.

If you are new to smoking or brisket, you will have undoubtedly heard of the dreaded brisket stall. Seasoned pitmasters speak of it with fear in their voices.

But, what is it really?

Technically, this phenomenon can happen to any cut of meat. But it is most noticeable with a large cut like beef brisket or pork shoulder.

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What Causes the Brisket Stall?

The reason that brisket stalls is due to a process known as evaporative cooling. The scientific explanation for all of this was discovered by physicist Dr. Greg Blonder. Let me break it down in the least scientific way I can (you’re welcome).

When the brisket is first placed in the smoker, it is a cold piece of meat. Once it begins to cook, the internal temperature of the meat rises. This causes evaporation of the moisture in and around the brisket.

As the meat temperature continues to rise, the rate of evaporation increases, too.

When the internal temperature of the meat hits around 150°F to 170°F, the evaporation rate begins to balance out with the heat input of the smoker, and the temperature stops climbing. It’s the same reason that humans sweat. As the sweat on our skin evaporates, it cools our skin down. In the case of brisket, the evaporating water cools the meat.

You should even notice the brisket starting to sweat. That’s evaporative cooling in action.

It is at this stage that the brisket stalls. The brisket will not rise in temperature until there is no more moisture on the surface of the meat.

fresh smoked brisket

What Factors Aren't Responsible for the Brisket Stall?

We now know what causes the brisket stall. A few years ago, there were plenty of theories floating around. And, despite having a clear scientific answer, a lot of these old wives’ tales are still around today.

I want to dispense with them once and for all. Here are all the factors that don't cause brisket stalls:

Collagen Phase Change

At around 160°F, collagen in the meat combines with water.

Since the brisket stall also takes place around this temperature, many assumed that this phase change was to blame. The reigning theory was that collagen required energy to transform into gelatin. It was presumed that it was taking the smoker's heat to activate this process.

But Dr. Blonder proved that brisket doesn't contain enough collagen to use up enough heat energy to cause the stall.

Fat Rendering

There were also those that assumed that the process of solid fat turning into liquid form was the cause. After all, a phase change such as this requires energy.

However, it was Dr. Blonder to the rescue again, carrying out an experiment with pure beef fat (don’t ask me where he scored the beef fat). He got his hands on a large piece of pure fat and cooked it. The fat did not stall. Science, to the rescue!

Other Processes

From phase changes to protein denaturing, a lot of complex processes that require energy were blamed for the stall. However, it is now clear that evaporative cooling is the reason brisket (and other large meats) stall.

When Does the Stall Happen?

It can take place at any temperature between 150° to 170°F, usually around 165°F.

There are different factors that can affect when the evaporative cooling effect kicks in.

In terms of brisket, the size, shape, surface texture, and natural moisture content will factor in. If you inject the brisket, this may affect when the stall sets in as well.

The type of smoker that you are using and the humidity inside the smoker are also factors. Higher humidity means less evaporative cooling. Lower humidity means more evaporative cooling.

Airflow also impacts the timing and duration of the stall. Pellet grills, for example, have fans that push air through the cooking chamber. The fan helps speed up evaporation and shortens the stall.

I should point out that brisket stalls only at lower temperatures. Once you push the smoker temperature up to 300°F, the stall period is minimal. In fact, it may not occur at all.

It is usually only when you are smoking brisket at temperatures below 300°F that the stall will occur.

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beef brisket on a grill with smoke

Why Can't You Smoke Brisket at a Higher Temp?

Now, I know what you are thinking -  if beef brisket doesn't stall at higher temps, why can't you crank the smoker temperature up?

Here's the thing; brisket is an incredibly tough piece of meat. This is because the cut contains lots of connective tissues. The best way to break these tissues down so that you end up with a tender brisket is to cook it low and slow.

You can cook a hot and fast brisket at 300°F, but it is an advanced technique. A higher grade of beef is essential. I recommend mastering the low and slow brisket before trying at hot and fast ones.

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How Long Does the Stall Last on a Brisket?

The brisket stall lasts from 2-6 hours.

Once again, the same factors like size, moisture content, and cooking temperature can impact the stall time.

Larger cuts, like a whole-packer brisket, tend to stall for longer than smaller cuts. (Although I once had a rack of ribs that refused to budge from 155°F for what seemed like days. Go figure).

The type of smoker that you are using plays a part.

Again, if you are using a pellet smoker, the fan creates a convection environment. This causes the process of evaporation to speed up, shortening the length of the stall.

Some electric smokers are tightly sealed and very humid. This combo results in a shorter stall.

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Why Does the Stall End?

Once the brisket isn't able to readily produce moisture, the evaporative cooling stops.

Look, there’s a limit to how much liquid is in the brisket. Once it sweats out all the moisture that’s free, the temp will start to go up. Causing pitmasters everywhere to rejoice.

Can a Second Stall Occur?

No, it’s not an urban legend - your brisket can hit a second stall.

The second stall is rare (I’ve never had it happen to me), but it can happen. The second stall happens to pitmasters around 175°F to 185°F.

The good news is the second stall is shorter than the first, generally only an hour or two. Most pitmasters blame cool liquid from spritzing for the rare second stall occurrence. If you wrap your brisket, you shouldn’t experience a second stall.

beef brisket burger

How Do You Overcome the Brisket Stall?

The good news is that you can overcome evaporative cooling. This is usually done through a process known as the Texas Crutch.

Essentially, when the brisket stall hits, you wrap brisket in either aluminum foil or butcher paper tightly. Then, you place it back in the smoker.

When the brisket is wrapped tightly, water can’t evaporate. Bye, bye, evaporative cooling. Since evaporative cooling can’t happen, the wrapped brisket will start climbing in temperature again.

When the brisket hits its target temperature of around 203°F, it can then be taken out of the smoker for the final time. You’re done! Just let the brisket rest for 2 to 4 hours in a cooler before slicing and serving.

When Should You Wrap the Brisket?

The best way to know when to wrap the brisket is to track the brisket temp with a meat thermometer.

As I have already mentioned, the brisket stall will take place around the 150°F to 170°F mark. I wrap the brisket when the temperature stops rising.

This is most likely to happen about two-thirds into the cook. A rule of thumb is the brisket will take around an hour a pound when smoked at 225°F.

Therefore, a 12 pound brisket will be done in around 12 hours. The brisket stall for this cut should set in at around the 8 hour mark.

How to Wrap Brisket?

Now, I will outline the proper Texas Crutch method here.

The main rule to follow when it comes to this method: always wrap your brisket tightly. If it’s not a tight wrap, water will evaporate, and you won’t break through the stall. When you are done, you should be able to see the exact outline of the brisket clearly.

For this, you will need two sheets of aluminum foil or butcher paper. Each sheet should be three times the length of your brisket.

If you’re adding a flavorful liquid or butter to the wrap, now is the time to do so. I use pats of butter, but you are free to use beef broth, dark beer, red wine, kombucha - whatever you think would add some flavor to the brisket. The liquid will also help to gently braise the meat as it finishes cooking.

Place one sheet down on the work table. Then, place the other one on top. The second sheet should overlap the first one at the halfway point.

Next, place the piece of meat on the center of the foil or butcher paper. Fold one side over the brisket. Fold over the opposite side, then fold the top and bottom over.

The brisket should be completely wrapped in foil or paper. Again, make sure that the seal is tight.

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Should You Unwrap the Brisket During the Cook?

No, leave the brisket wrapped for the remainder of your cook.

Once the brisket is wrapped, moisture is trapped between the foil or paper and the brisket. The water can’t evaporate and cool the meat, which forces the temperature up.

If you unwrap the brisket, this moisture will begin to evaporate almost immediately. Then, you will hit the brisket stall, sending you back to square one.

So keep the brisket all wrapped up until it hits the desired doneness temperature. (Between 190°F and 210°F, or around 203°F. A probe or toothpick should slide into the brisket with almost no resistance.)

Should You Wrap Your Brisket?

Wrapping brisket comes down to personal preference. On the face of it, wrapping the brisket can seem like a great workaround to the stall. It is a popular method on the competition circuit, because it bumps up the moisture and tenderness of the beef.

There are some pitmasters that are opposed to wrapping, though. The reason for this is inferior bark formation.

When brisket is allowed to cook as normal, it is able to develop a dark and crispy bark. When you wrap it, though, moisture gets trapped around the brisket, resulting in a bark that’s more soft than crispy.

So, if you like toothier, hard bark on your smoked meat, then the Texas Crutch may not be the right option for you.

Personally, I wrap my brisket almost every time as I don't have the patience to wait out the stall. However, I do use two tricks to ensure that I still get a good bark.

The first involves using butcher paper instead of foil. The material is more porous than the foil. Due to this, it allows a lot more moisture to escape.

The other thing that I do is to wait a little longer before wrapping the meat. Instead, of wrapping it just when the stall hits, I let it smoke for a little longer - maybe 30 minutes. Sure, the inside temperature of the brisket doesn't climb, but it allows the bark to crisp up a little bit more.

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brisket with some beans and sauce

Should You Wait Out the Brisket Stall?

It’s up to you! Great brisket can be made wrapped or unwrapped.

There are plenty of pitmasters who simply choose to wait out the stall. This is the more traditional way of doing things.

As an added bonus, you get better bark (if hard bark is your thing).

Of course, waiting out the brisket stall requires patience and preparation. To begin with, you will need to accommodate the fact that the cooking time for your brisket is going to be significantly longer, between 2-6 hours.

First, calculate how long your brisket is going to take to smoke. At around 225°F, figure on about 1 hour per pound.

Then, add in the length of the brisket stall. To be on the safe side, assume, that your brisket is going to cook for about 6 hours.

Now, figure out when you need your brisket to be ready. This is important if you are having a cookout or are making brisket for a specific meal.

You’ll need to factor in the resting time as well. Your smoked brisket will need to rest for at least two hours once it has been taken off the heat. I use an insulated cooler to rest big cuts of cooked meat in. Leave the meat wrapped in foil or paper, and wrap that in a clean towel if you really want to trap the heat. You can rest the brisket for up to four hours.

Do the math and figure out when to start smoking the brisket so that it is done in time. A whole packer brisket weighs between 8-16 pounds, and will take between 10-20 hours to cook and rest, when wrapped. Unwrapped, that brisket will take anywhere from 12-26 hours.

Can You Avoid the Stall Completely?

This is a fairly popular question - after all, wouldn't it be nice if you could get the best of both worlds?

Besides wrapping, here are some other options:

Increasing the Temperature

One of the ways to prevent the brisket stall from happening is to cook your brisket at a temperature of 300°F or more. However, I have already mentioned why this isn't a great idea for the novice pitmaster. It also requires a higher grade of beef to accomplish.

You can bump the temperature up to 250°F, though. If you do this, I would pay close attention to the rate at which the brisket cooks. The brisket will still stall, but the cooking time and stall time will be shaved down by a little bit.

Choosing Smaller Cuts

Your other option would be to smoke a smaller cut of brisket instead of one whole-packer brisket. You could cook several of the smaller cuts if you’re feeding a crowd. With cuts less than 5 pounds, your meat will still stall, but the overall cook time will be reduced significantly. The stall tends to be shorter with smaller cuts, too.

To me the best way to avoid the brisket stall (other than wrapping) and still get great-tasting brisket would be to opt for smaller cuts.

There are two muscles on the brisket - the point and the flat. The point is fattier and richer. Buy it you can find it. Ask your butcher to cut some for you. Usually, the flat is the only portion of brisket that’s available in supermarket coolers. If you can only get a flat, it’s leaner and tougher. It’s best to wrap it.

When it comes to value, though, the larger cuts tend to be cheaper. To avoid spending more money than necessary, you can buy a large brisket and then cut it into smaller sections at home.

Brisket, like all meats, shrinks when cooked. Figure 1 pound per person.

Preparing and Braising Beef Brisket

Increasing the Humidity

Remember when I mentioned that electric smokers are less likely to cause a brisket stall? This is because there is a greater amount of humidity in the cooking chamber.

This is something that you can encourage by using a water pan. Fill this tray with water before you put in the brisket. This will work to create a more humid atmosphere. Bullet smokers have water pans included. If you’re using a Kamado or charcoal grill, fill a disposable metal pan with water.

There is a caveat here, though. The more moisture that there is in the cooking chamber, the less crispy your bark will be.

Don’t use a water pan with electric smokers, however, as the humidity levels are high enough already.

Why You Should Avoid Basting the Brisket?

I advise against basting most smoked meats as it doesn't have the intended effect of adding moisture to the cut. It also tends to remove the layer of seasonings that make up the bark.

In the case of brisket, I would strongly recommend against basting the meat. This includes mopping and spritzing it as well.

See, when you baste, you are adding a cold layer of liquid to the brisket. This will increase the evaporation rate, causing the meat to cool down even further. Add liquid, and you’re prolonging the brisket stall.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Can a Brisket Stall Too Long?

Once the available moisture in the brisket has evaporated, the meat will begin to cook again. Depending on the size and moisture content of the brisket, though, the brisket stall can go on for a long time - sometimes upwards of 6 hours. Patience, young pitmaster.

2. Does the Stall Dry Out Brisket?

As moisture continues to evaporate from the brisket, the stall can cause a drier end result. Brisket that’s cooked using the Texas crutch tends to be juicier.

Wrapping It Up

The brisket stall is no small thing - it can impact your cook quite a bit. 6 hours is a long time - you could watch two of the Lord of the Rings movies in that time span. The best way to deal with the stall is to understand everything that you can about the phenomenon. Since you are at the end of this post, I can confidently say that you have been properly schooled!

All that is left for you to do is to put this knowledge into practice. You will then be able to manage the brisket stall and produce a delicious piece of meat!

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
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