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The Ultimate Meat Temperature Guide for Grilling and Smoking

The Ultimate Meat Temperature Guide for Grilling and Smoking

If there’s one skill that will set you on the road to becoming a great pitmaster, it’s knowing the secrets of time and temperature control. Once you know how hot your meat should be and how to keep your grill at the right temp, you’re well on your way to creating BBQ that will have the whole cookout lining up for seconds. So, just how hot should that delicious rack of ribs be before you serve it? And how hot should you be running your grill to get the meat just right? We’ve got a full meat temperature guide for you below, plus the info every pitmaster needs on how time and temperature affect your cooking process. 

How Meat Cooks Over Fire

To really understand BBQ, you need to go back to the basics, and that means understanding the physical processes behind how fire cooks food. Basically, when you put meat over flames, smoke or another heat source, the heat starts to break down the proteins inside the meat. This process starts around 105ºF and increases as the meat continues to heat up.

red meat cut into slices on board

This has a few different effects. When the proteins break down, they become much softer, giving the meat its tender texture. The broken proteins also release water and liquefied fat that they had been storing, making it juicy. Finally, the heat also kills off germs inside the meat and makes it safe to eat. As the meat stays over the fire for a longer time, a few different things start to happen to it. One is the Maillard reaction, the delicious “browning” phenomenon that turns meat that lovely golden-brown color. The Maillard reaction is especially important to pitmasters since it produces the crispy, crunchy “bark” on a brisket or pork butt.

The other effect is something that’s generally not desirable: As the temperature increases past a certain point, the meat dries out. Once the internal temperature gets above approximately 200ºF (depending on the cut), the collagen fibers in the meat have constricted so much that there’s not much room left to hold the juices. Note that this happens more quickly with lean cuts than fatty ones because water leaves the meat much faster than fat does. 

why temperatures matter

Why Temperatures Matter

There are two main reasons why it’s so important to get your temperature right. Safety is the first one. The basic reason to cook meat in the first place is to make it safe to eat by killing any bacteria that might be present inside. To make sure it’s safe, it’s important to check your meat’s internal temp against the FDA’s minimum safe temperature guide. Serving food below this temperature can put you and your guests at risk of food-borne diseases.

The second reason, of course, is taste! Like we said above, grilling and smoking are all about getting meat in the temperature sweet spot. You need enough heat to get the meat tender and juicy, but not so much that you squeeze all of the juices out. Plus, some people prefer their BBQ meat at various degrees of doneness, so there can be more than one right answer on how to cook the same cut. 

For all of these reasons, it’s important to know your grilling temperatures and to cook with a grill that offers you excellent temperature control. Pellet grills like the Grilla Grills Silverbac are popular for this purpose, thanks to their highly accurate and easy-to-use digital temperature controls. For pitmasters who love charcoal, kamado ceramic grills like the Grilla Grills Kong are increasingly popular. Their heat-retaining ceramic linings help maintain a consistent temp for hours on end, which makes them ideal for both grilling and smoking. 

temperature gauge on grill lid

External and Internal Temperatures

The next big concept to understand for grilling and smoking is the difference between external and internal temperatures. This is an especially important concept for low-and-slow cooking, where you’ll be diligently monitoring temperatures on both your meat and your grill over a long period. Here’s the difference:

  • External Temperature: The temperature of the air near the surface of the grill, as measured by the grill’s built-in thermometer. For smoking, you’re generally looking at low-and-slow temps from around 225 to 300ºF. Grilling temperatures for hot and fast cooking (like burgers and hot dogs) start at around 350ºF and can go as high as 500ºF if you’re searing steak. 
  • Internal Temperature: The temperature at the center of the meat you’re cooking. The target temperature varies widely by what you’re cooking and how done you prefer it. Foods like salmon can have a minimum internal temperature as low as 145ºF, while brisket needs to get all the way up to the 200ºF range. Internal temperatures also aren’t uniform, especially in thick cuts; the center of a pork butt, for example, will typically run a lower temperature than the outside.

Mastering both external and internal temps is key for creating awesome BBQ every time. To do that, you’ll need a good grasp of the major factors that affect cooking temperatures.

factors that affect cooking time

Factors That Affect Cooking Time

Not all meat cooks at the same rate. While this might sound a little obvious, it’s important to understand just how many factors there are that can have a significant effect on how quickly food cooks. These are the major ones you need to know about:

  • Ambient Temperatures: The temperature of the air around your grill affects how much heat the grill loses. If you’re grilling on a cold day, the air will steal heat from the grill much more quickly than it would at a 4th of July cookout, potentially making it harder to keep your grill at the right temp. Fortunately, the double walled construction of Grilla Grills helps minimize this heat loss! 
  • Weight and Thickness: Large, thick cuts of meat like brisket and pork shoulder take much longer to cook than smaller and leaner cuts. Bone-in cuts will also take longer to cook. 
  • Fat Content: Fatty meats are an essential part of smoking — after all, the melting of the fat is what makes smoked meat so juicy and flavorful. However, it’s a simple fact that fatty cuts take a longer time to cook than lean ones, so be prepared to budget a little extra time to maximize the juicy goodness. 
  • Marinades and Rubs: Some marinades and spice rubs will affect how long your meat takes to cook. Marinades, in particular, often slightly increase cooking time because of the extra moisture they add. 
  • Fresh vs. Frozen: Frozen meat takes more heat energy to get up to temperature and has a lot more water locked up in its cell structure, so it will always take longer to cook. 

high quality grill thermometer

Why You Need a Meat Thermometer

We’re not gonna beat around the bush: It’s really important that you have a meat thermometer. Yes, our cave-dwelling ancestors invented grilling without one, but they also probably burned their mammoth meat all the time. There’s no reason to go through that today! That’s why any seasoned pitmaster can tell you that a grill thermometer is an indispensable tool for getting your temps just right. Even the pros don’t always know by sight whether meat has hit the right temperature. A high-quality grill thermometer, like the Grilla Grills instant read meat thermometer, will give you a reliable readout on your temperature. Just make sure to push it all the way into the middle of the meat where the temperature is usually lowest.

Meat probes are also popular for monitoring your temperatures during smoking. These are basically thermometers that stay in your meat while it’s on the smoker and give you a temperature readout on a connected device. WiFi pellet grills like the Grilla Silverbac with Alpha Connect take it to a new level — just connect the included smart meat probes to your smartphone via the Alpha Connect app and enjoy the ability to monitor and control temperatures from anywhere!

Grill Thermometers and More: Shop Must-Have Grill Accessories

Time and Temperature Tips

Before we bust out our ultimate grilling temperature chart, here are a few important final thoughts:

  • 250ºF is the baseline external temperature for most pellet grill recipes. However, if you want your meat to cook a little faster, you can bump the temperature up to around 275ºF. Conversely, if you’re OK with waiting a little longer, a temperature around 225ºF can make your BBQ meat even juicier. 
  • Remember to account for carryover cooking. This refers to the way that thicker cuts, such as a brisket or Sunday roast, will continue to cook on the inside even after you take them off the grill. It’s worth reading up on the basics of carryover cooking to make sure you don’t accidentally overcook your meat by leaving it on too long.

meat layered on grill

  • Sometimes, thick cuts will hit a “stall,” which means they hit a certain internal temp (usually around 150 to 170ºF) and resist going higher. Check out our guide to grilling with aluminum foil to learn about the “Texas crutch” — a pitmaster’s trick for wrapping meat in aluminum foil to get it to the right temp more quickly. 
  • Grilling with the lid open, as many people do at cookouts, will make your cooking take longer, since you’re losing a lot of heat. That’s usually OK when you’re cooking hot and fast, like with burgers at a cookout, but it’s something to be aware of. However, if you’re smoking meat, avoid opening the lid, as it can create big swings in the grill’s temperature. Grilla Grills’ exclusive TempTamer technology helps avoid this by compensating for the temperature difference if you have to open your grill!
  • Having trouble maintaining the right grill temperature? Make sure you’re using high quality fuel, such as all-natural wood pellets (for a pellet grill) or lump charcoal (for a traditional charcoal or kamado grill). Lower-quality fuel, such as alder wood pellets or commercial briquettes, can burn unevenly and/or have trouble lighting properly. A grill may also have trouble staying at temperature when it’s clogged with ash or grease, so be sure to clean your grill regularly

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