To Crutch Or Not To Crutch: Wrapping Barbecue In Foil

It's the bane of every barbecue master's existence---the frustrating stall. With stomachs rumbling and saliva glands working overtime, watching the internal temperature of a prime cut of beef or pork plateau for several hours can be a pain in the butt.

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Fortunately, wrapping barbecue in foil (a little trick called the "Texas crutch") works wonders if you're unwilling or unable to sweat it out until your protein pushes through the stall on its own. Are the results worth it, though?

The Stall Explained

When "low and slow" barbecue stalls between 150ºF and 160ºF, the meat's moisture is rising to the surface and then evaporating (see our Beastometer food and meat grilling thermometer if you haven't already gotten yours yet). Much like sweating, this process significantly cools the huge chunk of protein and stops the internal temperature from rising for a few hours. The knee-jerk reaction of many newbies is to turn up the heat, but it's essential to be patient during this time. The good news is that the exterior of the meat is drying out and developing a deliciously dark and crusty bark that's a key part of the barbecue experience.

How the Texas Crutch Works

Since liquid is highly effective at transmitting heat, you can help speed up the cooking process by tightly sealing the meat in a heavy-duty foil package with a small amount of water, juice, light beer, beef broth, or chicken broth. The foil hinders the natural cooling process during the stall by preventing surface evaporation. This effectively cuts the stall period down and shortens the overall cook.

However, it's critical to seal the foil package properly when crutching. There should be no leaks, tears in the foil, or open spaces. Any gaps for ventilation will allow moisture to evaporate, which can cause the internal temperature to decline rather than increase.

Factors That Affect the Stall

A number of factors can affect the duration of the stall, including the piece of meat's surface area, water content, shape, and size. A surface area with many nooks and crannies tends to release moisture faster than a cut of meat with a smooth surface. This generally makes the internal temperature of the porous meat drop much lower during the stall. In addition, larger pieces of protein contain more water, producing more evaporating liquid per inch of surface area.

It's important to keep in mind that the airflow, humidity, and source of fuel in your smoker can also influence the temperature. It's for this reason that controlling cooker temperatures is a high priority.  Speaking of temperatures, you'll want to ensure your bbq thermometer is calibrated and functioning properly at all times - watch our video and learn how to calibrate a meat thermometer.

Reasons to Foil:

  • If you need to finish at a specified time, foiling can help your meat push through the stall and reduce the cooking time.
  • When pit temperatures are too high, and your meat is in danger of charring, wrapping your barbecue in foil will reduce exposure to direct heat and prevent burning.
  • Adding a strong flavored liquid to braise the meat while it's wrapped can enhance the taste.
  • Braising provides additional humidity, helping to break down the collagen and tenderize the meat.
  • Foiling can help preserve the appearance of the bark when there's still a long wait ahead.

Reasons Not to Foil:

  • Foiling can cause the bark to soften slightly, which isn't ideal if you prefer a chewy, dryer, harder bark.
  • If you're a barbecue purist, the crutch is likely to mess with your sense of traditionalism.
  • Adding too much liquid and braising for too long can turn your meat mushy.
  • The braising liquid can draw out the flavor of the meat.
  • Crutching for too long can cause the proteins to tighten, leading to moisture loss and toughness.

A Means to an End

Although it appears as if many grill masters are strictly in the foil or no foil camp, the reality is that foiling is simply a means to an end. It's not always as simple as choosing whether to crutch or not---there's usually an objective to be met. There are also your personal preferences to take into account.

It's true that many top competitive teams wrap their barbecue in foil because it not only ensures they complete the cook on time, but it can also give them a slight competitive edge when it comes to tenderness and juiciness. This isn't always the case outside of the competition circuit, nor is it the case for many backyard cooks.

If you have the time, wait out the stall and focus on temperature control instead. If you don't have the time, then crutch. Either way, your barbecue is still likely to taste fantastic. Consider testing the two methods in an experiment of your own. It's the only way to determine whether you're for the crutch, against the crutch, or couldn't be bothered at all.

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