How to Know When Meat is Done

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Note: If you're looking for a digital meat thermometer, my guide called “6 best digital meat thermometers” will help you decide which one is best for you.

Often the only difference between something that tastes really great and something that leaves a lot to be desired is in the amount of time it was cooked and at what temperature.

Every type of meat has it's own done temperature and this isn't always the same as the “safe” temperature that the USDA quotes.

Let's talk about preparation methods for some of the classics, how to cook the meat and how to determine when it is done cooking.

Smoking Ribs

Ribs can be one of the most rewarding meats to cook and they just happen to be my all-time favorite meat so I am very excited to talk about them!

Most of these techniques can be used on baby backs as well as spare ribs. I will make distinctions between the two where necessary.

Removing the Membrane

Lay the ribs bone side up on a cutting board or clean tabletop and you will notice that there is a white almost plastic-like membrane that covers the bone side of the ribs. I highly recommend removing this to allow the smoke to better penetrate into the meat. Many restaurants do not take the time to remove this and let me tell you that it is like eating a piece of candy with the paper still on it.. just ain't right I tell ya'!!

To remove this membrane, use a sharp object like a knife or spoon handle to lift up a little piece of the membrane. Once you have a little bit to grab, use a paper towel to hold it and begin to carefully pull it off. If it tears just stop and take another go at it. With a little practice you will be doing this with your eyes closed.

Some folks have written me and said that they use catfish skinning pliers to accomplish this feat.. I say, “whatever works for you, just do it”.

Adding Rub to the Ribs

Add a thin layer of regular yellow mustard to the ribs on both sides then sprinkle on enough rub to cover the ribs with a light coating of rub. I like to apply my own original rub so that I can no longer see the meat.

My rubs are not salt based so this is OK. If you are using a store-bought rub then it is most likely salt-based and you will need to go easy with it.

Looking for a good rub for ribs, beef, chicken and almost anything you'll cook in the smoker? Mine are bottled and available just for you!

Cooking the Ribs

Place the ribs flat on the grate if possible and cook them at 225-240°F for at least 6 hours or until they are tender. (baby backs will only require about 5 hours in most cases).

Be sure to spray them with apple juice or olive oil every hour or so to keep the outside from drying out.

When Are They Done?

The ribs are done when they are tender enough and not until. In my experience, the sweet spot for ribs is when they measure 195°F in that meat right between the bones.

Visually you should be able to see the meat pulling well back from the bone and if you grab a couple of bones and try to pull them away from each other, you will be able to get a sense of how tender they are.

If you still aren't sure, do like I do and just take a big bite. If they need more time then give them more time.

3-2-1 Method

If you like ribs that are fall-off-the-bone tender then you’ll love the 3-2-1 method of cooking ribs which is simply a 3 step method for cooking very tender ribs:

  1. 3 hours on the grate, bone side down at 225-240°F.
  2. Then 2 hours wrapped in foil on the grate, bone side down at 225-240°F.
  3. Followed by a final hour unwrapped again and placed bone side down on the grates at 225-240°F.

During this last hour you can add barbecue sauce if you are making wet ribs.

Note: Baby back ribs follow the same process except it is more of a 2-2-1 method with step 1 being an hour less than spare ribs.

Smoke can be omitted during step 2 for both the 3-2-1 and the 2-2-1 methods since they are wrapped in foil during this time.

Some competition folks lay the ribs meaty side down during step 2 on a bed of butter and brown sugar. Sounds great to me!

See all of our pork rib recipes

Smoking Pork Butt (Shoulder)

Pork Shoulder is usually separated into two pieces, the butt and the picnic. In my opinion the pork butt is the best half of this cut and that is what should be used for the best pulled pork.

The butt may also be labeled “Boston Butt”.

Prepping the Pork Butt for Smoking

Rub a thin layer of yellow mustard all over the pork butt. Coat the butt with a heavy coating of my original rub making sure to get it into every nook and cranny of the meat. I recommend placing the pork butt in a disposable aluminum pan during the smoking process.

The pork butt will get plenty of smoke in the pan and the juices will be caught in the bottom. We will add those juices back into the pulled pork later.

Smoking the Pulled Pork

Smoke the pulled pork at around 240°F if possible until it reaches an internal temperature of 160°F. At this point, you may want to wrap it in foil to help hold in some of those tasty juices. You don't have to but it is a good option.

Note:you may reach a point when it seems that the pork is stuck at a certain temperature, usually around 150°-160°F and refuses to climb any higher. This happens with large cuts of meat during low and slow cooking and the best thing to do is just wait it out. This is called the “plateau” and is completely normal.

Continue to cook the pork butt until it reaches an internal temperature of 200°-205°F at which point you can remove it from the smoker and set it aside to rest for about 30 minutes.

Remember it is not done until it reaches this temperature, no matter how long it takes.

In my experience, most pork butts in the 5-9 pound range will require about 14 hours to finish if you maintain a smoker temperature of 225-240°F.

Pulling the Pork

Once the pork butt has rested, pour the juices in the pan into a separate container and place them in the fridge for fat separation.

Enjoy pulling the bone out of the meat.. trust me, it should slide right out at this point and that is just proof that you did a pretty good job of getting it tender.

Stir the meat around using a couple of forks and pull the meat into the size of chunks that you like. I also like to go through the meat pretty good and remove any chunks of fat that remain. At this point, the fat has done it's job in keeping the meat moist and in flavoring the meat and it can safely be discarded.

Once the juices have been in the fridge for an hour or so, they should begin to form a thick layer of fat at the top. This fat can be scooped off and thrown away leaving you with the extremely flavorful au jus.

Pour the au jus over the pulled pork and stir it up real good.. it is now ready to eat and I have a feeling it is really delicious.

See all of our pork butt recipes

Smoking Brisket

Brisket is one of those meats that scares folks and I'm not entirely certain why this is. I think there are lots of misconceptions and hopefully I can put an end to those.

Prep the Brisket

Briskets can be prepped in a number of different ways, my favorite way to prep brisket is to make crosshatch cuts across the fat layer just through the fat without cutting into the meat. This will allow the smoke to get to the top of the meat a little easier since the fat cap is so thick.

I also like to apply a thin layer of yellow mustard to the brisket all over and then apply a good hearty portion of my rib rub to it. Massage it in making sure to get it all down in the meat, the cuts we made through the fat and anywhere else you can possibly get it.

If you want to get fancy, you can make incisions with a sharp knife about 3-4 inches into the meat to create little pockets for garlic cloves. The cloves can then be pushed in as deep as possible with your fingers or the handle end of a wooden spoon.

Smoke the Brisket

Like pork shoulder, I like to place the brisket in a disposable aluminum pan during the smoking process. Not only does this catch those tasty juices but with the bottom of the brisket sitting in the juices, it tends to soak the juices up and keeps it more moist than if it is just sitting on the grate with dry heat all around it.

Yes, I know, this keeps it from creating as good of a bark but in my opinion the trade off is well worth it in most cases.

Smoke the brisket at around 240°F for best results.

You can place some foil over the top of the brisket at around 160°F internal temperature if you like. I usually skip this step on brisket.

Note: brisket also experiences the plateau I wrote about in the note above for smoking pork butt.

The brisket is done at around 200°F and should be about right for slicing or pulling. You can even go a little longer if you want it to be really tender. Remove the brisket and set aside to allow it to rest before pulling or slicing.

Preparation for Serving

Pour the juices in the pan into a separate container and place them in the fridge for fat separation.

Once the brisket has rested for about 30 minutes it can be pulled into pieces, chopped, or sliced depending on how you want to serve it.

I recommend separating the point and the flat before slicing. You will notice a layer of fat that runs through the brisket lengthwise. Allow a sharp knife to follow this fat layer to separate the two pieces. Once it is apart, it should be sliced across the grain into pieces that are 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick.

Once the juices have been in the fridge for an hour or so, they should begin to form a thick layer of fat at the top. This fat can be scooped off and thrown away leaving you with the extremely flavorful au jus.

Pour the au jus over the brisket pieces or slices.. it is now ready to eat and I have a feeling it is really moist and delicious.

See all of our brisket recipes

Smoking Chicken

Chicken is quite easy to smoke. place a little rub up under the skin wherever possible and place the chicken on the grate breast side down.

Smoke it at 240°-275°F until it reaches 165°F in the thickest part of the thigh. This will take approximately 2-1/2 hours or so but just remember, it's NOT done until it reaches the proper temperature no matter how long it takes.

Rubbery Skin?

Chicken smoked at lower temperatures tend to have skin that is just not very crisp.. to help crisp the skin you can remove the chicken from the smoker once it reaches about 140°F and finish it on the hot grill or in the broiler of your oven.

Tip: Mayonnaise rubbed on the skin before smoking has been said to help crisp up the skin as well.

See all of our chicken recipes

Times and Temperatures Chart

If you want to know the time and temperature for every cut of meat in both F and C scales, then I have a really nice downloadable chart for you.. and it's FREE!

Download Here