How to Finish Your Meat on Time—While Calmly Sipping Your Favorite Beverage

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Does planning a barbecue feel like shooting in the dark? In this article, I will share several of my tips for getting the meat done on time—without stress.


Have you ever been stressed or embarrassed trying to finish meat by a certain time? Would you like to avoid this mistake instead of learning the hard way?

Nothing takes the joy out of cooking faster than trying to finish meat in an impossible timeframe. Follow these tips and tricks to help you smoke or grill for cookouts, parties, and other events without losing your cool when you have people depending on you to finish the meat by a certain time.

Prefer to talk with us? Visit our store at 140 W Main Street in New Holland, PA or call us at (717) 355-0779 for everything you need to cook outdoors, including pans, cutting boards, gloves, thermometers, rubs, and sauces. More importantly, we have personal experience in feeding people and can help you plan a barbecue event that will leave a great impression with your guests and customers.

Carefully Estimate the Cooking Time

Barbecue enthusiasts frequently ask us about cooking times and target temperatures for certain meats, so we’ve compiled a bunch of the common cuts in a handy chart for your reference.

Note: These times are only estimates, so you should only use these as a guideline for planning your cook. In most situations, you should use a thermometer to determine when it’s done.

Practice When It Doesn’t Matter

You can learn a lot about cooking by reading and watching videos online, but some things must be learned by doing. Unless you’re an experienced pitmaster, I would never recommend cooking a meat for an event before you’ve cooked it successfully at home.

Cooking outdoors is a lifestyle. Practice often, either for yourself or for a few of your friends. Keep the serving time flexible and take notes of cooking times and the outcomes of different methods. This experience will make the transition to bigger crowds a lot easier. If you can cook for 10 people, you can cook for 100 if you learn how to manage a few details. If you can cook for 100, you can learn how to feed 500.

Add Some Margin to Your Schedule

While planning and practice is important, sometimes it’s impossible to tell exactly when the meat, especially larger cuts, will be done. How do experienced pitmasters make sure the meat is both ready and fresh at the planned serving times?

A food cooked over direct heat that takes one hour or less is much easier to finish right at serving time because the variation is minimal. For example, a case of chicken quarters on the BBQ42 chicken flipper can usually be cooked in one hour, and most people don’t think much about waiting ten or fifteen minutes to eat.

The challenge is with larger cuts of meat, such as a brisket or Boston butt, where the finish time can vary by several hours. The solution is to finish the meat early and hold the meat in a warming box for up to several hours until serving time.

If you often cook for crowds, a professional warming box is a good investment. They are specially made for keeping food warm and some of them come with slots for sliding stainless steel pans in and out.

If you cook for events occasionally and have limited storage space, or if you like to host backyard feasts on a budget, a sanitized ice chest is probably the best option.

As the meat finishes, transfer it to pans and put the pans in your warmer or ice chest. If using an ice chest, fill part of the void above the pans with a couple of towels to help reduce heat loss if you’re worried about it cooling too quickly.

When I’m cooking for a crowd or even when I’m cooking a variety of meats at home for my family, I use an ice chest, disposable half pans, and aluminum foil. I have two large chests that can hold a double stack of half pans or one stack of full pans.

How long can you safely hold meat in a chest? Generally, several hours is not a problem, but you are responsible to make sure the meat stays hot enough. The folks over at NakedWhiz.com have a great article on the factors that determine how long the meat stays outside the danger zone (above 140 degrees F) using this method. 

Read it here: Holding BBQ Meat in a Cooler

Even if you happen to finish the meat at serving time, you may want to use a warming box to keep the meat warm until it’s being served, especially if you have a variety of meats to remove from the smoker and prepare for serving. The meat will finish at different times and meat cools quickly after it’s sliced or pulled.

  • How you set up for serving and keeping the meat warm will depend on whether you’re making take-out boxes at a fund-raiser, serving 100 people cafeteria-style, or entertaining a dozen people on your patio. Heated chafing pans are nice for keeping prepared meat warm in a serving line.
  • If you’re planning to hold the meat for more than several hours, always make sure the meat stays in the safe zone and take care to cool the leftovers properly.
  • If you wish to cook meat a day ahead of time, learn how to cool and reheat the meat without sacrificing too much on quality.

What If You’re Still Late?

I’ve run tight quite a few times when cooking for an event, and it’s no fun to see the time slipping away and the meat not keeping pace. If you see this happening, try to adjust the temperature or your cooking method as early in the cook as you can or, if bad comes to worse, try to reschedule your serving time.

  • Wind, cold, and other factors in the weather can affect how well your grill or smoker performs on any given day. If the fire lags, you may need to add extra fuel and stoke the coals more. I’ve even used a propane torch to raise the temperature in my smoker when I was desperate for time. This can also work on a charcoal grill if the pit is deep enough to run the torch on the coals without burning the meat.
  • For larger cuts of meat, such as a pork butt, you can shave hours off of the cooking time by wrapping the meat in foil once it reaches 160 degrees F or has the color you want it to have.
  • Most smokers have a hot spot where the meat will cook faster. Use the hot spot in your smoker to finish meats that require a higher cooking temperature.

Take a Deep Breath… and Enjoy That Beverage

Much more could be said about cooking barbecue for a crowd, but if you can estimate the approximate cooking time, practice ahead of time, and use a margin to hold your meat until serving time, you’ll have a good shot at a stress-free experience.

Cooking is an opportunity to serve loved ones, guests, and customers. Every skill worth learning takes patience and practice, and practice makes excellence!

Did you know that we stock warming boxes, and everything else you need to cook outdoors, including chafing pans, steam pans, aluminum foil, cutting boards, gloves, thermometers, rubs, and sauces?

More importantly, we have personal experience in feeding people and can help you plan a barbecue event that will leave a great impression with your guests and customers.

Come visit our specialty barbecue store at 140 W Main Street in New Holland, Pennsylvania or call us at (717) 355-0779 for everything you need to cook outdoors.

About the author: Lavern Gingerich is a writer and the digital marketing manager for Meadow Creek Barbecue Supply.

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