Your guests are arriving in half an hour. But your thermometer tells you the meat has at least 2 hours of cooking left before it is ready to be served up.
At this point you are secretly hoping your buddies have a flat tire, or some other unexpected form of engine trouble on the way to your place, and will be held up.You start to thinking Chinese takeout or a 10pm dinner may be on the cards.
The problem with relying on cooking time and temperature charts is that sometimes after making sure your weight calculations are all correct things still go wrong.
These charts focus on weight to estimate meat cooking time, when there are actually a lot more factors at play. By understanding these factors, and how they affect the time your meat will take to cook, you will be sure to nail the timing of your next barbecue.
There’s no doubt that having the right tools on hand can get rid of a lot of stress. The following are handy tools to have in your arsonal:
- A quality dual probe thermometer to measure the temperature of your smoker and the progress of your meat. The Smoke by Thermoworks is a great option.
- A instant read thermometer to quickly check the temperature at various points.
- A reliable smoking times and temperatures chart to help you estimate.
Click to jump straight to each topic
1) The Thickness and Diameter
While temperature charts would lead you to believe that the weight of the meat is a primary factor in determining how long your meat will take to cook, this is not really accurate. In fact, the size, shape, diameter and thickness of the meat is far more important.
For meat to be cooked, the center of the meat must reach a certain temperature. Now imagine you have two pieces of meat which are the same weight. One is thick, with a small diameter, and the other is thin, with a larger diameter. The heat is going to reach the center of the second piece of meat faster than it will the first.
While taking into account the shape of your meat will help you make a more accurate estimate of the time it will take to cook than working of cooking time charts alone, this still isn’t a foolproof way to calculate how long it will take.
2) How Much Connective Tissue and Fat There Is
If the cut of meat you are cooking has a lot of fat and connective tissue, you will need to factor in a longer cooking time.
The collagen in connective tissue can make your meat moist and succulent if you cook it right. That means you have to melt it down. This happens when the connective tissue reaches temperatures between 160°F and 205°F and stays there for several hours.
Fat in the meat you plan to cook is not a bad thing either, as it will add loads of flavor. But it also needs to be melted down to spread through the meat in order to unleash its benefits. This happens at around 130°F.
Cooking meat with lots of fat and connective tissue fast, at high temperatures, will negate the benefits that fat and connective tissue can impart to your meat, leaving it tough and dry. Not cooking long enough will leave you with chewy, sinewy ribbons in your meat. Not appealing. So take it slow, and enjoy the perks of having collagen and fat in your meat.
3) How Hot You Are Cooking
Feel free to accuse me of stating the obvious, but if you cook at high temperatures, your meat will be done quickly. The trick is accurately measuring and regulating the cooking temperature.
First up, make sure you are using a good quality thermometer. Unfortunately, most smokers come with poor quality thermometers, which are not positioned to give you an accurate reading of the temperature of the meat itself.
To get an accurate reading on the temperature at the cooking surface, measure the temperature a few inches away from the meat, and consider measuring the temperature on both sides of the cooker, as these two temperatures can vary significantly. You could also try using a meat thermometer to see what is actually going on inside the meat.
Another tip is to get a good grasp on the vent system of your cooker. This will take some practice, but managing your vents is essentially the same as managing your temperature.
4) The Weather and Your Smoker’s Insulation
If it’s snowy, windy and miserable outside, it stands to reason that you will have to allow more time for your cook. Cold air, wind, and rain will cool the exterior of your cooker, which will slow down cooking time. Cold air coming in through vents will also cool the coals and the temperature inside the cooker.
Aside from accepting the reality that dinner will take a bit longer in these conditions, you can insulate your smoker and soften the blow a little. You could purchase a cold weather jacket, or try a DIY option such as a welding blanket to prevent your smoker losing too much heat.
Even with insulation, you will still need to stock up on fuel and leave yourself more time to complete your cook on time if it is chilly out.
If you want to know more we have a full guide to smoking in extreme conditions.
5) Humidity Levels
If you have ever traveled to a tropical location, you will know how oppressive a humid environment is. Nothing you do cools you down. This is because the water on the surface of your skin is not able to evaporate. Things are much the same inside your cooker.
If the humidity levels are high, moisture cannot evaporate off the surface of the meat, keeping the surface temperature of the meat high, speeding up the cooking time. On the other hand, if humidity levels are low, the moisture will evaporate and cool the surface of the meat, slowing down the cooking time.
Therefore, the climate where you live will affect cooking time. If you live in a very dry climate, which will mean your cooks will generally take longer, how can you control the humidity levels inside your cooker, and speed up the process? One way is to place a water pan inside the cooker. This will provide a steady level of moisture in the air and keep the humidity levels constant.
Another suggestion by Dr Greg Blonder of Amazingribs.com is this:
Prof. Greg Blonder, What Influences Cooking Time?
“If you want to increase humidity, and you do, fill the pan with those red lava rocks sold at garden stores, and then add the water, but don’t cover the rocks.
They are very porous so they act like sponges, and the large surface area pumps more moisture into the air. And don’t let fat drip into the pan because it will quickly coat the surface and prevent evaporation.”
If you’re a fan of spritzing your meat, keep in mind that this will encourage evaporation on the meats surface and slow the cooking process. While there are benefits to spritzing, such as attracting smoke and improving flavor, you might want to consider using a rub or a sauce instead, as they will also add flavor, without affecting the cooking time of your meat like a spritz will.
Wrapping your meat in butcher paper or tin foil (a technique known as the Texas Crutch) will also increase the humidity, and speed up the cooking time.
Wrapping the meat creates an environment in which moisture is not able to evaporate, meaning that the cooking time will be speed up.
This is why many pit masters will use this technique to get through the dreaded “stall”.
6) Whether Your Meat is Boned or Deboned
There is much conjecture around whether your deboned meat will cook faster than meat with the bone left in. Word on the street is that the bone will conduct heat to the center of the meat and speed up the cooking time.
But the truth is that bones are not good conductors of heat. In fact, because bones are porous and dry, the meat itself will conduct heat better than bone.
One thing to remember when making the ‘bone or no bone decision’ is that meat cooked with the bone left in is tasty. Furthermore, the bone itself can provide you with a clue as to when the meat is perfectly cooked. In cuts of meat like a pork butt being able to effortlessly pull out the bone is a sure fire sign the meat is done.
While you will need to allow more time for the cook if you do leave the bone in, the time difference is not huge. As a rough guide, a 5lb pork shoulder might take you about 30 mins longer to cook with the bone left in. Not a high price to pay if you prefer the taste.
7) Type of smoker your cooking with
If you are after quick cooking times, you might want to consider using an electric smoker. Because there is no combustion involved when cooking with an electric cooker, there is also less airflow required. This means that there is less evaporation, and therefore less evaporative cooling on the meats surface. The end result is faster cooking times.
Before you rush out and purchase an electric cooker, keep in mind that you will not get the same flavor when cooking with an electric cooker as you do when you use a stick burner or charcoal smoker.
While you’re probably not going to be smoking on the top of Mt Everest, you may need to allow more time if you live at higher altitudes. Air pressure at higher altitudes is lower, which leads to a few conditions that make cooking a lengthier process.
One effect of altitude is that water boils at a lower temperatures the higher you climb. So how does that affect your cooking time?
Water evaporates when it boils. This means that moisture is going to be evaporating from your meats surface at lower temperatures at altitude, thus cooling the meat at lower temperatures. It’s worth keeping in mind that while water boils at a lower temperature at altitude, the meat will not cook at a lower temperature.
This lower boiling point also means that you will lose moisture from your meat quickly, so to keep your meat moist you will need to lower your cooking temperature. The end result is that it will take longer for your meat to cook.
To add to your challenges at altitude, there is less oxygen available, so keeping your fire at a healthy temperature might also take a little more attention.
Wrapping it Up
We hope you have found this article helpful. Cooking low and slow is not an exact science, and there will be plenty of trial and error along the way, but having a heads up as to what affects your cooking times will no doubt help demystify the process.
Do you have any tips to add? Or any questions we have not covered in this article? Be sure to leave a comment below. And if you liked this article, be sure to share!