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Pellet Smoker Cooking Time and Temperature

Ever noticed that two identical cuts of meat can take different length time to cook? This often results in overcooked lamb chops and steak that is tough and dry.

In this article, we will demystify the cooking times of various cuts of meats in a pellet smoker, explore the science, and define the art of getting it just right.

In this guide you will learn:

Factors that Affects Cooking Time on a Pellet Smoker

Thickness of the Meat

Let’s start with the most obvious one, the thickness of the meat. As the thickness of the meat is also a function of the total weight of the cut, we can assume this will affect cooking time as much as the thickness when comparing two identical parts of the same animal.

Thicker and heavier cuts of meat will often take longer to cook to the right temperature in comparison to thinner cuts.

A cut of meat is done only when it gets to the ideal temperature in the centre. Think about it this way – when you sear a steak, it might seem fully cooked to the desired doneness on the outside, but the inside can still be raw.

As the thickness of the meat increases, it takes longer for the external heat to travel through to the middle and cook the entire cut and this is where cooking the meat slowly can be a huge advantage

Cooking Temperature

In the same way your beer gets warm quicker during summer compared to winter, the cooking temperature will have an impact on cooking times.

With that said, wouldn’t it be simple to just crank up the temperature when cooking a large chunk of meat? The answer is not so simple.

The art of ‘low n slow’ cooking is to literally cook your food slowly at a lower temperature. Some cuts of meats such as beef cheeks and pork shoulder will have high collagen and fat content, which needs to be broken down over time to become tender. By cranking your pellet smoker up to high, the proteins around the connective tissues will dry up before it has a chance to break down.

With that said, you may want to crank up your pellet smoker until it is nice and hot (around 200oC or 392oF) and get a good sear on your steak by using it more like a grill than a smoker.

Type of Meat

A thin slice of salmon will have quite a different cooking time to beef brisket.

As mentioned previously cuts of meat from different animals will have different fat, moisture, and collagen content are factors that all come into play.

Humidity

It is not uncommon to come across pellet suppliers claiming that they add water into their pellets, which creates steam to keep your food moist while you cook. Whether or not that is true is still debatable, as a high water content will actually prevent the pellets from igniting quickly and could actually lead to the fire going out.  But one thing is for sure – humidity plays a role in cooking time.

According to Meathead Goldwyn from AmazingRibs.com, humidity has a bigger impact on your longer low n slow cooks. As your food begins to rise in temperature, it will start to lose moisture from its surface due to evaporation. This will inevitably cause your food to lose some heat energy, due to the process of evaporative cooling. The same physics are behind an evaporative cooler.

At some point, the heat loss and heat gain will come to an equilibrium, and you will notice that the internal temperature of your food plateaus for a couple of hours. This is known as the barbecue stall.

Spritzing will also cool the surface of the meat down, which will increase cooking time. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as you are preventing the bark of the meat from getting too dry, whilst allowing more time for the fats and collagen to break down.

Ambient humidity can also affect cooking time. The lower the ambient humidity (dryer), the more moisture will evaporate from your meat. In theory, the same cut of meat will have slightly different cooking times when cooked in Victoria versus Queensland.

It is common advice to add a large flat water tray in the grill to increase moisture, but neat trick we learned from an expert is to fill the pan up with lava rocks, which you can buy from your local Bunnings or Mitre 10, and add a little water until it’s half full. The porous rocks will increase the surface area, which will then add more moisture into the air. 

Altitude

While Australia is mostly flat, it is worth us mentioning that lower air pressure at higher altitudes can also affect cooking time. The effects of evaporative cooling increases as you go higher in altitude, as water boils at lower temperatures.

For most regions down here in Australia, this effect is negligible. However, if you live somewhere up in The Snowies or the Victorian Alps, you may want to experiment with lower cooking temperatures. For example, if a recipe calls for cooking your brisket at 107oC (250oF), you may want to try cooking it at 107oC (225oF). While this means a longer cooking time, it also means that you will allow more time for the fats and collagens to break down.

Types of Pellets

Lower quality pellets may contain fillers or lots of wood dust which can burn inconsistently, giving rise to sudden temperature spikes and dips. Generally, if you are using decent pellets quality pellets, the type of wood should have  little effect on cooking time. With that said, if you are already going to spend the money to treat yourself to a nice brisket, you may as well get yourself some high-quality pellets to cook it with. The key here is to look for pellets that burn very cleanly, leaving little ash in the fire-pot. Our favourite types of pellets are Southern Hardwood from Smokin’ and the Hickory Blend from Lumberjack which are available from our site.

Pellet Smoker vs Oven Cooking Times

Sometimes people forget that they can use their pellet smoker as a fan forced (convection) oven. At the higher temperatures there is almost no smoke and so things like bread, cakes and pizza turn out great.

In fact, pellet smokers are more closely related to ovens than grills. If you think about it, pellet smokers are a smoke-filled heated chamber that you cook your food in. Subtract the smoke and you have a convection oven.

The key difference is that in most conventional ovens, more air is circulated around your food. While most pellet smokers do have a fan, the volume of air circulating around your food is less as the size of the fan is often smaller.

The heat in a pellet smoker is often less direct than in a convection oven, often resulting in superior cooking results than an oven, especially when cooking things like pizza and bread.  It does, however, result in slightly longer cooking times and so 20 minutes at 180°C temperature in an oven may translate to 25 minutes at 190°C on a pellet smoker. 

Cooking Temperatures and Food Safety

Cooking not only helps food to develop its full flavour potential and makes it digestible; it also ensures food is safe to consume.

We want to point out there is a real risk to undercooking food, especially when it comes to meat and poultry.

Raw meat and poultry can contain harmful microorganisms, that can cause mild to severe food poisoning. It is for this reason that the NSW food Authority and various other regulatory bodies have recommended investing in a thermometer. 

Fortunately, at Z Grills Australia, our range of pellet smokers comes with 2 food thermometer probes right out of the box. You may also want to invest into an instant read thermometer or a wireless thermometer if you like being able to monitor the internal temperatures of your food on your phone.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s dive into the estimated cooking times and internal temperatures of common foods.

Estimated Cooking Time and Internal Temperature

Beef

Brisket

Brisket is probably what comes to peoples’ mind when they think about American barbecue. Not to be confused with corned beef that you often see in supermarkets here in Australia, which is used to make pastrami.

There are two schools of thoughts when it comes to cooking briskets – wrapped or unwrapped. The cooking time can vary from 12 hours all the way to 24 hours, depending on which method you go with.

Firstly, preheat your pellet smoker to 107oC (225oF). Then place your brisket in it; leave it to do the hard work.

Pro tip: Now is a good time to use the lava rocks in a pan trick we told you about previously. Grab some garden lava rocks, place them in a pan and fill it up a third of the way with water. The porous rocks with high surface area will increase the humidity in the cooking chamber, which will help your brisket retain as much moisture as possible during the cook.

After about 10 hours of cooking at 107oC (225oF), the brisket will develop a deep brown-reddish colour and should be sitting at 65-75oC (149 – 167oF). This is the stage where you will notice that the internal temperature plateaus and stalls. By wrapping the brisket at this stage, you will eliminate evaporation and therefore reduce the effects of evaporative cooling. We recommend using high quality aluminium foil to prevent any of the precious juices from leaking out. If you prefer a crustier bark, you can use food-grade butcher’s paper in place of the foil. Check out Mick’s first attempt at cooking a brisket:

If you choose to go down the route of not wrapping your brisket, the brisket can end up stalling for a long time, staying roughly the same internal temperature for 5-6 hours. You’ll need to pay extra attention to the humidity within the cooking chamber as your brisket can end up drying out if you’re not careful.

Beef Ribs

Regardless of the cut, back ribs, chuck ribs, or plate ribs (excepting short ribs), the cooking method is roughly the same.

There are some charts, probably citing the USDA, stating that beef ribs are done at 145oF (63 oC). However, if you tried biting into a stack of ribs that was only cooked until that temperature, you’d be better off chewing used car tyres.

Due to the high amounts of connective tissue in short ribs, you want the internal temperature to get to at least 96oC (205oF). This temperature will allow the fats and collagen to break down, which gives the ribs a juicy, tender texture.

Pro tip: Do not remove the membrane as you would with pork ribs. Otherwise, there will be nothing holding it together and it will fall right off the bone when cooked. We’re not going for pulled beef here - texture is key.

If it your first time attempting a stack of beef ribs, we’d recommend keeping it simple, no fancy rubs here, just salt and pepper. Afterall, these bad boys do come at a price! Preheat your pellet smoker to 148oC (299oF) and place your seasoned beef ribs meat side up on the rack. Remember to spritz every half an hour to prevent it from completely drying out. I usually use apple juice but you can use anything you want from beef broth to plain old water. Due to the variability, the cooking time for beef ribs can vary from 5-10 hours. The internal temperature should read around 96 – 100oC (205 – 212oF). You can then take it out, wrap it with some foil or butcher’s paper and let it rest in a cooler for at least an hour.
Short Ribs, or Shorties

Strictly speaking, short ribs are cuts of ribs with just one bone in it. With that said, here in Australia, we’ve seen many butchers use it interchangeably with beef ribs. So, if your beef ‘short ribs’ comes in a rack of more than one bone, feel free to follow the guide on beef ribs above.

A great to cook short ribs in your pellet smoker is to braise it in some kind of liquid, such as wine or stock. This will allow it to retain moisture and remain tender. Depending on whether or not you like your short ribs almost falling off the bone, you can braise it at 148oC (299oF) for 3-4 hours.

A neat trick we’ve seen some people do is to smoke their short ribs for an hour or so, on the lowest setting your pellet smoker will go, before braising it in liquid. This will give it a wood-fired flavour whilst getting the same benefits of braising.

Steak
You can sear it on a cast iron BBQ plate in your pellet smoker just like you would on a typical gas grill. Alternatively, you can reverse sear it for consistent doneness throughout your steak.
Tri-Tip

Due to the size of a typical tri-tip, if you only sear it hot and fast as you would with your usual cut of steak, you might get a nice golden brown crust and a perfectly done medium-rare centre but the intermediate layers will be nothing short of disaster. If you want consistent results we recommend reverse searing your trip-tip.

Reverse Searing in a Pellet Smoker

To do this, pre-heat your pellet smoker to 135oC (275oF) and cook your steak to your desired doneness (refer to chart below for steak doneness temperature). This will usually take anywhere from 45 minutes to a few hours, depending on the size of your steak.

Doneness Internal Temp (oC) Internal Temp (oF)
Blue 45-50 120-125
Medium Rare 55-60 130-135
Medium 60-65 140-145
Medium-well 65-70 150-155
Well Done >70 >160

Once it has reached the desired temperature, wrap it with foil and let it rest in an Esky (We call our cooler box an Esky here down under, for our American readers) for at least 15 minutes, 20 minutes if you are cooking a tri-tip.

While that is happening, turn up your pellet smoker to high and drop in a cast iron BBQ plate to let it heat up. Once the plate is nice and hot, add some oil and get it sizzling before searing your steak on it.

Our aim is to get a nice brown crust and not cook the inside any further than it needs. This will happen very quickly, so it is important to have your tongs ready to flip it.

The high heat will cause sugars and amino acids on the surface of the meat to react and develop new flavour compounds. This is known as the Maillard reaction, which is the same process that gives Chinese stir fry and toast bread its characteristic taste.

Set TemperatureoC Set TemperatureoF Estimated Cooking Time
Brisket 107 225 12-15 hours
Beef Ribs 148 299 5-10 hours
Short Ribs 148 299 3-4 hours
Steak & Tri-tip (Reverse Sear) 135 275 45 minutes – 2 hours

Pork

Shoulder (Boston Butt)

The Boston Butt also know as pork butt is the upper part of the shoulder from the front leg and often contains the shoulder blade bone.

It is the most forgiving cut of meat you can cook on your pellet smoker. If you are new to pellet smoking and just got yourself a Z Grill, I recommend giving the Boston Butt a go before anything else.

Smoke the seasoned pork shoulder in your pellet smoker for 4-5 hours at 121oC (250oF) until it develops a nice outer bark. The internal temperature should be around 70-73 oC (158 – 163oF) at this point. Don’t forget to spritz it every hour to make sure it doesn’t dry out.

Wrap it tightly with foil, put it back into the pellet smoker, and let it cook for another 4-5 hours depending on the size of the shoulder. Take it out once the internal temperature reaches at least 90oC (194oF). You will commonly see people cooking it up to 93 oC (199oF) for the best texture.

You will need to let it rest in an Esky or cooler for at least an hour to let the fibres in the muscle relax before pulling.

Pork Ribs

Pork ribs are the epitome of American barbecue. There are so many resources telling you what to do and what not to do. Here is our beginner-friendly foolproof way to cook it.

Preheat your pellet smoker up to 107oC (225oF), and place your seasoned ribs meat-side up. Allow it to smoke at that temperature for about 3-4 hours. The meat should just start to shrink back a bit, revealing the end of the bones.

The key here is to avoid any sudden temperature spikes. It is important to avoid opening the grill lid, except for when you’re spritzing every hour or so.

After the 3-4 hours, you want to carefully remove the ribs and wrap with some aluminium foil. You can drop in some butter and sugar or a small amount of braising liquid before wrapping it.

It is important to use a thicker foil such as the foil available from our store to prevent any punctures or leaks. Trust me on this, you don’t want the juices to leak out halfway through your cook.

Place the wrapped-up ribs meat-side down into your pellet smoker for another 1-2 hours, or until the internal temperature is at 95oC.

Very carefully unwrap the ribs and glaze with the liquids in the foil pouches, or your sauce of choice, and return it to the pellet smoker for another 25-60 minutes to let firm up a little. It will be ready to serve right after.

You will commonly see people referring to this technique as the 3-2-1 method; that is, smoke unwrapped for 3 hours, smoke wrapped for 2 hours, and finally smoke unwrapped for 1 hour.

While 3-2-1 is easy to remember, know that it should serve as a guide and you can feel free to experiment based on how much ‘bite’ you want your pork ribs to have.

Pork Chop or Pork Fillet
A typical Aussie BBQ usually involves some kind of pork chop. This can be anything from rib chop or blade chop, all the way to country-style rib. In this guide, we will consider all of them as pork chops. To quickly cook up some pork chop in your pellet smoker, you first want to drop in cast iron BBQ plate or a skillet, crank your pellet smoker up to high and get it really hot. Once the plate gets up to temperature, you can start by searing the fat side on the outer edge of your pork chop for 3 minutes or so.

Pro tip: If you have multiple pork chops to sear, you can use a skewer to hold them in place so they will stay edge side down.

Sear one side of the pork chop for about 4 minutes or so, depending on the thickness, before flipping it. Once you flip it, you can baste the pork chop with some butter and aromatics to help it cook more evenly and give it the desired flavour. Continue searing the other side for another 2 minutes. The internal temperature should be at least 63 oC (145oF). Given how quick all this happens, there is very little room for error. A little too long, and you will overcook it and be disappointed with tough pork chop. You should consider getting yourself an instant read thermometer to be able to quickly tell if it is ready to pull off the pellet smoker.
Pork Roast

Preheat your pellet smoker to 82oC (180oF) and smoke your seasoned roast for an hour or so. Increase the temperature of your pellet smoker to 165oC (329oF) and roast it for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the internal temperature is 63oC (145oF).

Pro tip: If you want to get a crackling, you can take it out of your pellet smoker just before the internal temperature of your roast is about 61o(142oF), and finish it off on high in your oven for 15 minutes. Note that you can leave salt on the rind the night before your cook to draw out as much moisture as possible, which will give your roast a crispier crackling.

Set TemperatureoC Set TemperatureoF Estimated Cooking Time
Shoulder (Boston Butt) 121 250 8-10 hours
Pork Ribs 107 225 6-8 hours
Pork Chop or Pork Fillet 232 250 Under 10 minutes
Pork Roast 82 – 165 180 – 275 45 minutes – 1 hour

Chicken

Whole Bird or Half Bird

Cooking a whole chicken in a pellet smoker is simple. Preheat your pellet smoker up to 162oC (324oF) and cook your chicken in your preferred seasoning for 2 to 3 hours. Be sure to keep an eye on the internal temperature of the chicken, to ensure that it is not overcooked. Once the internal temperature is about 73oC (164oF)  throughout the bird, remove it from the pellet smoker and let it rest for at least 10 minutes.

Pro tip: You can try brining the whole bird prior to cooking, to help it retain moisture during the cooking process.

Chicken Wings and Drumettes

Chicken wings are one of those foods you usually can’t get enough of to eat. Fortunately, you can quite easily cook up heaps of wings in a pellet smoker.

You first want to preheat your pellet smoker to 176oC (349oF) . Once it is hot and ready to go, you need to put the seasoned chicken wings on the rack and let them cook until the internal temperature is at least 75oC (167oF) . This usually takes about 30-45 minutes.

While it might be tempting to cook the wings at a lower temperature to get a smokier flavour, it can result in the wings steaming, which will create a rubbery texture.

Pro tip: What some people do is that they leave their chicken wings on a cooling rack in their fridge uncovered, to let it dry out for a day or two before smoking. Alternatively, you can add a little baking soda to your dry rub to draw out moisture from the skin of the wings.

Chicken Drumstick

A quick way of cooking chicken drumsticks in your pellet smoker is to follow the same cooking method above as you would with chicken wings. You simply just need to allow for slightly longer cooking time to get the internal temperature up to 75oC (167oF) .

To get a smokier flavour, you can smoke the drumstick at the lowest temperature your pellet smoker will do for at least 30 minutes. You then want to crank up your smoker to 176oC (349oF)  and let the drumsticks come up to temperature, which should take another 30 minutes.

Pro tip: You can try making Chicken Lollipop if you are looking to impress. It is essentially a frenched chicken drumstick.

Chicken Breast

You can cook your chicken breast in a pellet smoker similar to how you would in the oven. Pre-heat the pellet smoker up to 232oC (250oF)  (or HIGH if you’re using a Z Grill). Cook the chicken until the internal temperature is at least 74oC (165oF) . This should take around 15-20 minutes depending on the size of the breast.

Another alternative is to cook the breast at 148oC (298oF)  for around 30-40 minutes, or until the internal temperature is at least 74oC (165oF) .

As chicken breast is lean and mostly protein by weight, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to season your chicken breast well before cooking.

Pro tip: Similar to whole chicken, you can experiment with brining your chicken breast prior to cooking to retain moisture, which will give it a juicier bite.

Chicken Thighs

As with most of the foods in this guide you can generally use your go-to oven-baked chicken thigh recipe.

If you are feeling something hearty, you can crank up your pellet smoker to 121oC (250oF)  and braise your chicken thighs in liquid for 2 hours. You can then finish it off on the highest setting of your smoker until your chicken has a bit of colour.

Another method would be to preheat your pellet smoker to 176oC (349oF)  and cook the chicken thighs until the internal temperature is at least 74oC (165oF) . With that said, cooking it up to 80-82oC (176 – 180oF)  would result in a better texture.

Make sure to rest the chicken thighs for at least 5 minutes before serving.

Set TemperatureoC Set TemperatureoF Estimated Cooking Time
Whole Bird 162 324 2-3 hours
Chicken Wings 176 349 45 minutes – 1 hour
Chicken Drumstick 176 349 45 minutes – 1 hour
Chicken Thighs 121 250 2 hours

Lamb

Lamb shank

Lamb shanks are by far the most popular cut of lamb to cook in a pellet smoker. Similar to how you would braise short ribs according to the guide above, you can smoke the shanks at the lowest setting of your pellet smoker.

Another alternative would be to do the opposite and cook the shanks at 232oC (250oF) (or HIGH on a Z Grill) for approximately 20 minutes, to let it develop some colour before braising it in your liquid of choice.

You want to braise your shanks at 190oC (374oF) for around 3-4 hours, or until the internal temperature is 85oC (185oF).

Pro tip: You can experiment with braising your lamb shanks with your mirepoix (pronounced as meer-pwah) of choice to add an extra layer of sweetness. This is usually a combination of carrots, onions and celery.

Lamb Rack

Start by preheating your pellet smoker to 232oC (250oF) (or HIGH on a Z Grill). Once it has come up to temperature, place your seasoned rack of lamb on it and let it cook for 10-15 minutes, or until the surface is slightly browned.

Lower the heat to 148oC (299oF) and cook for another 10-15 minutes until the desired doneness.

Lamb Chop
While lamb chops are technically just individual slices from the lamb rack, we thought it was worth including a separate section, given how quintessential they are to your typical Aussie barbie. The trick to lamb chops is to give it a good sear whilst maintaining the desired doneness in the idle. While you absolutely can do a reverse sear, you can also sear it directly on a cast iron BBQ plate with your pellet smoker cranked up to the maximum temperature.
Set TemperatureoC Set TemperatureoF Estimated Cooking Time
Lamb Shank 190 374 3-4 hours
Lamb Rack 148-232 298-250 30 minutes
Lamb Chop 232 250 Under 10 minutes

Final Thoughts

We know how confusing it can be, especially if you are new to the sport. Trust us, we’ve been there before. We’ve done our best trying to demystify the cooking times and temperature when cooking on a pellet smoker, and we hope you got something out of this guide. All that’s left now is for you to get yourself a pellet smoker and start cooking!

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