Information About Holding Meat In A Cooler

Why Hold Cooked Barbecue Meat In A Cooler? -- When cooking big tough pieces of meat in a smoker, you cook it at low and slow temperatures in order to break down the tough connective tissue and turn the meat into a tender, moist and tasty piece of meat, right? Well, many recipes/methods, for brisket in particular, recommend that you wrap the meat in foil once it is done, and stick in a cooler wrapped in towels for a while. This allows juices to redistribute and in general helps the tenderness of the final product. Also, one of the challenges of cooking low and slow is that it seems that different pieces of meat seem to take different lengths of time to get to the desired internal temperature. All the guests are coming at 4, so when should I start the meat cooking? When will it be done? How many hours per pound? The real answer is nobody always knows, so the standard advice is to make sure it gets done early and then you can hold the meat in a cooler, wrapped in foil and towels. This subsequently raises the question, "how long can I safely hold the meat in a cooler?"

How Long Can I Safely Hold Meat In A Cooler? -- The standard advice on food safety is that you can safely keep food in the "danger zone" for a maximum of four hours. The danger zone, of course, is between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees. So, you can safely hold a piece of meat in the cooler, assuming that the meat was properly handled before cooking, until the temperature drops below 140 degrees, and then perhaps for another 2 hours. We assume that you need to account for some of the time before and during cooking when the meat was in danger zone. And this then raises the question, "how long can meat be kept in a cooler above 140 degrees?"

Before we address that question, we think it is also important to point out that when many people answer this question on message boards, the typical answer is something like "I held my meat in a cooler for 5 hours and when I took it out, it was still too hot to pull by hand." We will admit to having repeated this phrase a time or two. The implication is that meat which is too hot to pull by hand is somehow safe, or that this is an indication that the meat was above 140 degrees. However, while composing this page, we recalled the little nugget of wisdom that the human threshhold for pain when it comes to temperature is somewhere around 115 degrees. We took our trusty Thermopen and measured the temperature of the water coming out of our faucets and it was 130 degrees. This was way too hot to hold our hand under. 118 degrees was still too hot. 113 degrees was barely tolerable to us. So, if the meat is "too hot to pull", it could be as low as 115 degrees, well into the danger zone.

How Long Can Meat Be Kept In A Cooler Above 140 Degrees? -- The answer to this question is going to vary depending on several factors:

  1. Did you pre-warm the cooler?
  2. How much meat are you keeping in the cooler?
  3. What is the outside temperature?
  4. How many towels did you wrap the meat in?
  5. What was the internal temperature of the meat when you placed it in the cooler?
So, we feel that if you think you are going to try to hold meat in a cooler for a long period of time, you should leave a thermometer probe in it when you wrap it up so that you can monitor the temperature and take appropriate action when the temperature drops to an unsafe level.

However, in order to give you a feel for how long meat can be kept in a cooler, we conducted a simple experiment in which we placed a hot pork butt into a cooler and monitored the temperature as it cooled. (You knew this was coming, didn't you?)

To the right side you will see photos of our setup. We used a fairly basic Coleman cooler which can be bought at any Wal*Mart, Target, K-Mart, etc. For the purposes of this experiment, we chose not to pre-warm the cooler since that would just add more questions about how warm, how long, etc. The cooler had been sitting outside, so it was probably at about 70 degrees F when we started the experiment.

The next step was to wrap the meat in foil. The main reason you want to do this is to keep all the juices, fat, bark, etc. contained so as not to cause marital strife when your other half finds out you used the 300 thread count Egyptian cotten sheets to wrap up the meat. So, we placed the meat on a single sheet of foil, leaving the temperature probe of a BBQ Guru ProCom4 remote unit in the meat. This allowed us to monitor the experiment from inside the house. We then placed the foil-wrapped meat on a second sheet of foil and wrapped it around the first foil-wrapped bundle. The main reason for this is just to be sure things don't leak. You can see in the next photo, circled in yellow, the temperature probe wire sticking out of the package. This then is the package which is going to be placed in the cooler, surrounded by towels.

As you can see in the next photo, we placed a single folded beach towel (from beach towel night at the San Diego Padres in 1991) in the bottom of the cooler. We assume that since heat rises, less insulation was needed on the bottom of the cooler. The foil-wrapped meat package was placed on the towel, probe wire extending out of the cooler.

Two more folded beach towels (Bugs Bunny and a yellow Limited Too '91 towel) were then placed on top of the meat, and the cooler was closed. We took a photo of the closed cooler, but we don't feel compelled to display it here. Photographic evidence that the cooler was indeed closed, can be provided on request for a very sizeable service fee.

The ambient air temperature throughout this experiment was from the high 70's to the high 80's by time we were done. Temperature readings were then recorded at one-hour intervals, also noting the time at which the meat actually reached 140 degrees, the upper limit of the danger zone.

So now we come to the exciting bit, eh? The results shown in chart form so even us BBQ types can understand it!


So What's The Bottom Line? -- As you can see, in our test, the meat was probably safe for 5 hours. The meat's temperature actually reached 140 degrees at 5 hours and 3 minutes. After that, you have to consider how long the meat may have been in the danger zone prior to and during cooking. Also remember that we were measuring the internal temperature of the meat. The temperature at the outer regions of the meat was somewhat lower, and thus entered the danger zone earlier than our chart shows. When we finally ended our experiment, for example, we used our Thermapen to measure the temperature of the meat near the surface and found it was about 5 degrees cooler than the internal temperature.

How Can I Extend The Time I Can Keep Meat Safely In A Cooler? -- There are several ways to extend the holding time safely:

  1. Pre-warm the cooler. You can do this by filling it with hot water and letting it sit for a while. Dump the water out and immediately put the towels and meat in the cooler.
  2. Put a couple of hot fire bricks wrapped in foil in the bottom of the cooler before adding the meat and towels.
  3. Place the cooler in a warm place.
  4. Use one of the thermo-electric coolers made to be carried in a car. They have the option to cool or heat and could be used to keep food warm. A photo of a typical unit appears at right.


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