Next to flavor, doneness (texture) is the most important attribute of your barbecue. We spend a lot of effort getting the right fire emissions, the right cooking temperature, and the right rubs and mops. Doneness is a matter of knowing when to pull the meat off the pit and when to let it ride a bit longer.

Foiling – wrapping the meat in foil late in the cook – is a perennial topic when discussing doneness. Foiling to avoid an “oversmoked” flavor is driven by poor fire control – the cook is shielding his meat from his own creosote-producing fire. Foiling will soften bark, accelerate the cooking process, and reduce moisture loss. Foiling is a lot of work and mess.

Here are three ways to gauge doneness:

  1. Cooking time – this gets us in the ballpark for planning purposes. The times below assume we’re cooking at 250F (a convection fan can reduce these time by up to 25%).
  2. Internal temperature – because each cut is different, time alone is insufficient. Internal temperature is easy and objective – a good guide, especially for beginners. The best tool is a digital probe that has a skinny tip for fast response – these can be had for under $20. Aim for the center of mass, avoiding bones. Start probing before your estimated cooking time to catch cuts that finish early.
  3. Tenderness – tenderness is an explicit measure of the breakdown of collagen into gelatin that we learned about in How Meat Cooks, rather than implicit measures like internal temperature or cooking time. It’s the best gauge, but it takes experience.

And here are the meat-specific guidelines:

  • Beef brisket and pork shoulder: plan on cooking time of 75 minutes per pound, but start checking temps at 60 minutes per pound. Boneless butts will finish a bit faster. Target internal temp is 190-200F. Tenderness gauge is the temperature probe – it should slide in easily, as if you were stabbing Jell-O.
  • Pork ribs: spares should take about 5 hours; baby/loin backs about 4. Forget about internal temps. Tenderness check is a “bounce test” – using tongs, pick-up the rack at its midpoint. If it bows and will tolerate some gentle bouncing, keep cooking. If it cracks deeply, forming an inverted “V” – it’s done.
  • Fowl (whole bird): plan on 3-4 hours for chicken and 4-5 for turkey, depending on size. Look for 160-165F in the deep breast.
  • Steaks: with these cuts, we’re not trying to break down collagen because there isn’t much connective tissue in a nice steak to begin with, which is why it is called a nice steak. But it can still be smoked. Plan on 40 minutes per inch of thickness and look for an internal temperature of 135-140F (warm pink center).

Logistics: Wrap meats in 3-4 sheets of newspaper or a layer of foil and hold them in a cooler after cooking. This hold time should be at least 30 minutes to allow temps and moisture to even-out, and up to 4 hours. Plan the hold time at 1 hour – this gives you some latitude should your meat finish earlier or later than planned. Here’s an example plan for spare ribs, working backward from the serving time:

  • 7:00 p.m. – slice and serve
  • 6:00 p.m. – into cooler for hold (1 hour budgeted)
  • 1:00 p.m. – meats on pit (5 hrs budgeted)
  • 12:00 p.m. – light fire (1 hour budgeted; lead time on this is pit-specific)

Final points on logistics:

  • Rubbing meats the night before can make life easier, and it also lets you move meat directly from the fridge to the pit to maximize your smoke ring.
  • Don’t unwrap meats until your guests are standing there, plates in-hand, salivating. This is good theater and ensures they’ll get the meat at its hot, juicy best. A great hunk of barbecue is quickly ruined by slicing it thin and letting it sit for 10 minutes to cool-down and dry-out.