If you’ve ever smoked a beef brisket or pork butt, you’re no doubt familiar with “the stall,” also known as “the plateau.”
The stall is the prolonged period of time when your brisket or butt hits an internal temperature typically between 155 and 165 degrees – and then just stays there. For hours. And hours. It has been known to make grown men pull their hair out, especially when the dinner guests are arriving at 6 p.m. and it’s 3 p.m. and your meat has been sitting at 160 internal since 9 a.m.
While the stall was long thought to be attributable to the fat in the meat slowly rendering and turning from solid to liquid, that has been disproved in recent years. The stall actually occurs because the moisture within the meat is making its way to the surface and evaporating. The internal temperature of the meat stops rising because of the cooling effect of the evaporating moisture, similar to the way sweat cools your body. The stall continues on until most of that moisture has evaporated, whereupon the meat temp begins to climb upward again.
The stall, therefore, isn’t intrinsically important to having a tasty finished product as it was once believed to be; it’s really just an inherent part of the low-and-slow cooking process. Most barbecue cooks, being bon vivants, don’t have a problem with the stall; they just view it as an opportunity to prolong the sitting-around-drinking-beer-and-shooting-the-breeze part of experience. Which is the second-best part of smoking meat, next to the eating of the smoked meat.
But BBQ folks are also innovators and tinkerers, and there has been a concerted effort over the years to find ways to beat the stall and shave time off the cook. The most popular method to accomplish this is known as the “Texas crutch,” which is simply the process of pulling the meat off the smoker when it hits the stall, wrapping it in foil and then putting it back on the smoker to finish. The foil wrap traps the evaporating moisture and speeds the meat through the stall much faster as a result.
The problem with the Texas crutch is that the foil doesn’t allow moisture to escape, which has the not-so-desirable effect of creating steam, which softens the exterior of the meat. To remedy this, the trend in recent years has been to wrap the meat in peach butcher paper instead, which, unlike foil, is porous and allows more of the moisture to escape while still speeding the meat through the stall.
So which is the best method? We decided to do a test with three pork butts, roughly equal in size, and document the process with the SmokeBloq thermometer and app.
The Set Up
We started with three pork butts similar in size; the largest weighed 6.75 lbs., the second weighed 6.50 lbs., and the smallest weighed 6.13 lbs. We applied a mustard glue to each and rubbed them all with Dizzy Pig’s Dizzy Dust (coarse grind), one of our favorite rubs for pork.
The butts went on a large Big Green Egg at 9 a.m. with a pit temp of 225. We left all three unwrapped to soak in the smoke until they hit the 150-160 internal temp mark.
Not surprisingly, the smallest butt (far right dial below; blue line in graph) was the first to clear the 150 threshold, about 3.5 hours into the cook:
However, we decided to wait to wrap until all three butts had cleared the 150 internal temperature threshold; that happened about thirty minutes later:
At this point, we wrapped the largest butt in peach butcher paper, the medium-sized butt in foil, and left the smallest butt unwrapped.
Although the small butt had reached 150 well ahead of the two larger ones, it was the medium-sized butt (wrapped in foil) that reached the 200 degree internal temperature first. Not surprising given the heat-insulating properties of foil:
The big butt, wrapped in butcher paper, hit the 200 degree internal temp about thirty minutes later:
Even though it was the smallest of the three, the unwrapped butt didn’t hit 200 internal until over an hour after the butcher paper-wrapped butt hit it:
Here are the final results:
Foil-wrapped butt 7:53
Butcher paper-wrapped butt 8:25
Unwrapped butt 9:34
These butts were on the smallish side at +/- 6.5 lbs; if you’re cooking larger butts in the 9 to 10 lb. range, or a packer brisket in the 12 to 17 lb. range, you can expect this spread to widen considerably.
The taste test
Now, for the trade-off…
When we tasted the finished versions of the three butts, there was no comparison: The unwrapped butt was, hands-down, the superior product. The bark was crunchy and flavorful and the meat was succulent and juicy. When the meat was pulled and mixed together, the bark imparted an incredible crunch and gentle smoke flavor to the pulled pork that the other two couldn’t compare with.
Although the wrapped versions were still, as Alton Brown might say, good eats, they weren’t nearly as good as the unwrapped butt. The butcher paper allowed for a better bark formation on the exterior, though considerably less than the unwrapped one. The foil-wrapped butt had almost no bark at all:
The foil-wrapped butt had almost no bark
The butcher paper-wrapped butt had more bark, but...
The unwrapped butt had far-and-away the best bark
and tastiest meat of the three
The bottom line
Wrapping your brisket or pork butt certainly shaves times off the cook, but in our opinion the loss of a crispy exterior bark isn’t worth it. The antidote to this that some folks recommend is to wait until the bark is set before you wrap. While that definitely improves the texture and flavor of the finished product, it doesn’t do much to speed up the process because the bark isn’t usually well-formed until after the meat comes out of the stall.
A better alternative is to build in extra time for your cook and be prepared to wrap and rest it at the end, when the meat hits it’s final temp of 200-205. For example, if you’re planning to smoke a couple of pork butts to serve, say, at 6 p.m. the next day and you’d normally put them on at 6 a.m. in the morning, put them on at midnight the night before instead. If your butts hit the 200 mark in the early afternoon the next day, you can still wrap them in foil and towels and hold them safely for four or five hours in a dry (i.e., not cold) cooler until you’re ready to serve.
One final note: We did this cook in a ceramic smoker, which maintains a high humidity in the cooking chamber and is extremely efficient at keeping meat moist. Because a metal smoker has comparatively lower humidity, the meat tends to dry out easier, which often makes wrapping a necessity to keep the meat moist. If you’re using a metal smoker, then peach butcher paper is your best bet for wrapping. You can also remove the meat from the wrap toward the end of the cook and put it back on the smoker to firm up the bark.