Actual Temperature in Your Smoker and Common Smoking Misconceptions

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noboundaries

Epic Pitmaster
Original poster
OTBS Member
SMF Premier Member
Sep 7, 2013
10,254
5,376
Roseville, CA, a suburb of Sacramento
Good morning Smoking friends. As an schooled engineer with experience in trend analysis and quality assurance, I've noticed a lot of comments over the years about differences in smoking times and temperatures. With the trend toward more and more technology in smokers, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that as long as the power stays on, temps and times seem to be mentioned more and more. Small meats taking forever. Big meats cooking fast. And comparisons of equal sized meats taking significantly different times when smoked at the same temperature in relatively the same manner. Let me help you understand what is happening with temperature in your smoker.

One more point: most of my comments apply to fuel based smokers/grills. Much of what I wrote can be applied to electric smokers if they have sufficient wattage.

First, let's all agree meats can be ornery. The same cut of meat of the same weight, from two different animals, can take different times to get tender because they were most likely raised, fed, and exercised differently. Grades of meat can impact times. Even the stress in an animal's life from beginning to end can impact the meat.

Second, let's all agree that any given temperature of say, 250F (set centigrade aside for this discussion), it is 250F whether it is in California, New York, Australia, or Europe. Yes, altitude, atmospheric pressure, salinity, etc, can impact how chemical and physical properties react at a given temp, but 250F is 250F. Same for any other temperature on the gauge.

Which brings us to our smokers and a VERY common misconception. Let's first all agree our thermometers are correct for this discussion and toss out inaccuracies of lid therms and wireless algorithms (they can be VERY different). The common misconception is when you see 250F on your thermometer you assume 250F is the temperature everywhere inside the smoker. Nope. The only place you can be assured the temperature is 250F is at the tip of your chamber probe. If the grate is 8" lower than the probe, the grate will be a different temp. If the probe is at the front of the grate, the back of the grate may or may not be at 250F. A probe in the center of the grate will read differently than one closer to the fire, one farther away from the flame, or one near the top. In a vertical smoker, the probe under the vent in the airflow will read higher than a probe opposite the vent away from the path of least resistance. A probe one inch away from cold meat will read substantially lower than one placed 4 inches away until the meat warms up. Bottom line, and I've tested this statement in a Weber Kettle and a WSM, you can have temperature differences of up to 150F in your smoker/grill (50F WSM/150F Kettle) from what your probes are telling you. Heck, I've even tested non-convection kitchen ovens where I've lived with multiple accurate temperature devices and have yet to find an oven that reads what I've dialed in on the knob or screen. Bottom racks read lower temp than top racks. My current oven reads a 15F difference between racks and the hottest part of the oven still reads 5F lower than the setting.

Pit builders have done their best to minimize temperature differentials in a smoker. Some are better than others, but you'll always have differences in the same smoker, regardless of design, based on where your chamber probe is located. I've developed techniques with my WSM on how to place meat based on the temperature differences around the top grate (edges hotter than middle, grate hottest under vent, bottom rack 15F cooler than top rack even with no water). I've recommended time and time again to test smokers and grills without meat using a $5 oven rack thermometer in different places on your cooking grate with your chamber probe right next to it. Identify the hot and cold spots. You might be surprised at the differences.

Back to smoking. Meat absorbs heat based on the temperature difference between the meat and the chamber. Cold meat absorbs available heat faster than warm meat. Where this is noticeable is at the beginning and end of a smoke. A 15 lb packer brisket may only take 3-4 hours to go from 38F to 140F at a 250F chamber, but after the stall may take up 4-6 hours to go from 170F to 200F, even longer at lower chamber temps. There's a reason I crank the heat up at the end of my overnight smokes. I don't like waiting on physics to heat my meat. Or you can do that right from the beginning and have a shorter smoke with the same results. There's nothing magical about what temp you use. Only the clock cares.

Let's put another misconception to rest, one I've tested. No cold meat, straight from the fridge, will reach room temperature in an hour. In a 250F chamber, yeah, but not a 70-80F room. It's all physics, and literally impossible, unless your looking at an ounce of meat. In which case, don't invite me to dinner.

Another common misconception is that a smoker is running cooler when you load cold meat. That's only partially true. If you load meat in a smoker stabilized at 250F, the chamber temp is going to drop due to the cold mass you just added, BUT THE SMOKER IS STILL BURNING AT 250F. Cold meat absorbs heat. If you don't do a thing to your fire (vents, fuel, etc) the chamber will return to 250F as the meat absorbs available heat energy and warms up. If you have a process for reaching and maintaining a 250F chamber with an offset, don't change your process by adding more fuel to the fire to bring it back up to 250F. Whether you change vents or add more fuel, you are now burning a hotter fire than 250F and will end up chasing temps for the rest of the smoke.

"Lookin' ain't cookin'" is a common and accurate mantra in the smoking world. It does two things. First, it releases heat. Second, it draws more air through your vents to stoke the fire. Your exhaust just went from a 4" hole to a 22.5" hole in a large WSM, for example. Same rule applies to any other type of smoker. A quick open for spritzing or instant-read meat temp checks will have minimal impact, but over the long haul will impact cooking time and fire management the more you access the smoking chamber. Depending on your vent settings and your smoker's ability to recover, it can shorten or lengthen the cooking time, but lengthen is more common than the other.

Meat probe readings can be impacted by placement in the meat. If too close to a bone, it will read cooler than a couple inches away from the bone. If the probe tip is in a fat seam, you'll get a hotter reading than if it was in the muscle. Probe placement in a packer brisket is best in the flat, not the point. The fat-filled point of a packer brisket appears to cook faster than the flat, but comes out chewy if removed at what you think is the correct internal temp reading. I've seen 10-15F differences between the flat and the point. The actual meat in the point takes just as long as the meat in the flat to reach the tender stage, but all the fat will give a false reading.

To wrap this up, look at the common rules of thumb for smoking times. If your times are SIGNIFICANTLY different for a given temperature, that piece of meat was most likely smoking at a different temp than the end of the chamber probe was reading, or your meat probe placement was not reading muscle or impacted by cooler bone.

This thread is what happens when shelter-in-place starts getting too familiar. If helpful in some way, take what you need. Before countering what I've said, test your input. Untested anecdotal assumptions are often wrong or only partially correct.

Be well. Stay safe.

Ray
 
WOW............What a write up!!!!!
It just goes to show you how different people que. I go buy the redneck rules if a pot of water is at a slow boil in my smoker I am slow smoking, If the pot of water boils out in 40 minutes too and hour I am smoking hot and fast. In all actuality I don't really pay that much attention to precise temperatures because it doesn't effect the outcome of my smokes unless I'm smoking cheese or Salmon.
 
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Ray this is a great read. As I read through it I thought about several instances where I learned some of this on the fly. So good and from my experience very accurate. A lot of real good fuel for thought (pun intended)

And school continues..........
Thanks for sharing that with us.
 
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Good read! Thank you for posting

Ryan
I enjoyed this read. Thank you Ray!

Justin and Ryan, you are welcome.

Thank you. I have done that with both smokers, checked all corners and front to back temps. It is truly amazing the differences.

It is an eye opener for many. And once you do it, it is easy to understand how things work with the clock. For example, up until this year I've roasted or smoked 4 to 6 turkeys a year for probably the last 35 years. We're taking a break from the big gobblers this year, but I've changed how I put them in the WSM as a result of my tests (white meat opposite vent and far against the other side). As a result, my white and dark meat finish at the exact same time with a perfect temp difference (160-165F white, 170-175F dark) without any frustration on my part. I even tried something new (for me) with my last turkey in the oven. Start with breast down and flipped after 90 minutes. Temp diff came out perfect. Never too old to learn.
 
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Thank you for this thread. Truly an eye opener. Big like!

You're welcome MJB. A lot of the smoking advice, even amongst the professionals, is anecdotal. I've heard that "room temp in an hour" statement on TV so many times. My wife gets pissed if she's enjoying a cooking show, I hear it, and immediately change the channel because everything else the chef says is now just suspect. It is the easiest thing to test with an instant read therm next time you're going to grill or smoke. A 38F piece of meat MIGHT reach 42F to 45F in an hour on the counter, even for small pieces.
 
And who says the online schooling isn't working... excellent write up...

What I did on my stick burner when I first fired it up was to put the Pillsbury pop and fresh biscuits all over the grates.... it will tell you where your hot/medium/cool spots are by the browning/doneness ...
 
Lots of good info in that post Ray and good read! Glad you touched o the room temp meat point too. It’s always funny to me to hear people say they bring their 15 pound packer or 10 pound butt up to room temp before putting it on the smoker. Was it left out for 12 hours?
 
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