Can You Overcook Meat in a Smoker?

Why yes, you can. Let’s talk about why that is, and what you can do to avoid overcooking your meat in the smoker.

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Arina Habich /Depositphotos

Whether you’re a veteran or novice at smoking meat, you’ve heard somebody say that you can’t overcook meat in a smoker. The truth is, you can, and we’ll talk about why that is if you read on below.

Here’s the thing: If you leave your meat in the smoker too long, it will overcook. The result is tough, dried-out meat that’s as hard to chew as a pair of leather shoes.

Most recipes for smoked meat specify the cooking time. But there’s one drawback to cooking time—it’s different from cut to cut, cook to cook, and smoker to smoker. Follow such recipes down to the letter, and there’s still a chance the meat will overcook.

To avoid this, pull your meat out of the smoker when it reaches the internal temperature specified in the recipe. It’s counterproductive to the end result if you leave the meat in the smoker beyond this point.

Yes, not every meat smoker has a meat thermometer. And if you’ve smoked meat so many times that you can prep your cut and fire up your smoker with a blindfold on, the fact of the matter is you don’t really need one! (Then again, you wouldn’t be here readin’ this if you have.)

The rest of us should keep a well-calibrated meat thermometer on hand.

Why Meat Overcooks in the Smoker

Wondering why meat overcooks in the smoker?

I like me a good meat-smoking question on any day! To find the answer, you need only look at your own body.

When it’s hot outside, the body needs to cool down. So it starts in an attempt to sweat to let some of the accumulated heat out of the muscles and cool down.

A brisket, pork butt, whole turkey, or whatever hunk of meat you’ve got cookin’ in the smoker is no different. (Okay, with the exception that you can escape the heat and go in the shade, whereas they can’t come out of the cooking chamber.)

As the meat gets kissed by the fragrant smoke coming out of the firebox, it heats up. And as it heats up, it lets go of moisture to cool down. The longer you keep the meat in the smoker, the more moisture it lets go of. Sooner or later, the meat loses so much moisture, it turns tough and comes out dry.

This is known as evaporative cooling, and it’s also the reason why briskets stall.

Fortunately, the solution to this problem is a simple one; all you ought to do is keep a close eye on the meat’s internal temperature and pull it out of the smoker in a timely fashion when it gets up to the right figure.

When to Remove Meat From the Smoker

Now that you’ve read all this, some of you may be wondering: “Okay, Sammy, I gotcha. So when is the right time to pull your meat from the smoker?”

It’s good that you stopped by; you ask all the good questions! 🙂 When in doubt, and in case the recipe doesn’t specify the internal temperature, use the guidelines below.

MeatPull Temperature (°F)Pull Temperature (°C)
Baby back ribs170-210°F 75-100°C
Beef brisket170-210°F 75-100°C
Beef tenderloin145-160°F62.5-70°C
Beef tri-tip145-160°F62.5-70°C
Chicken, whole165°F75°C
Chicken, cuts165°F75°C
Pork belly145-170°F62.5-75°C
Pork butt190-210°F90-100°C
Pork shoulder190-210°F90-100°C
Turkey, whole165°F75°C
Turkey, cuts165°F75°C

Use the cooking time given in the recipe as a rule of thumb to know when to start checking. Remember, however, that the internal temperature of the meat is the only indicator that can tell you for sure when the meat is done smoking… and when it’s at the point where it’s about to get overcooked.

Up next: When to Pull Brisket From the Smoker

By Sammy Steen

Sammy, Barbehow's editor, is a die-hard carnivore, barbecue whisperer, and self-proclaimed master of the grill.

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