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Letting Meat Rest After Cooking: How It Works & Why It Makes Your Barbecue Better

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Why You Should Let Meat Rest After Cooking

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In one of my earliest barbecue experiences, I took a brisket out of the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker after it was cooked and sliced into it immediately. I was surprised to see a flood of juices run out across the cutting board, and when I ate the meat it seemed very dry.

My experience was an example of why it's important to let meat rest after cooking. Allowing any meat to rest—whether steaks, thick chops, whole turkeys, briskets or pork butts—helps keep meat more moist and improves the texture & tenderness of meat.

How Resting Meat Works

Meat is muscle, and muscle consists of proteins, fat, vitamins & minerals, and water—lots of water. According to The Science of Good Cooking, raw beef is about 75 percent water. When meat is cooked, muscle fibers begin to compress and contract, which really puts the squeeze on water. In the book CookWise, author Shirley O. Corriher says that up to 120°F internal temperature, meat proteins shrink in diameter only and there is little moisture loss, but above 120°F the proteins also begin to shrink in length—up to half their original length—which forces moisture it into the spaces between the muscle fibers and toward the surface and center of the meat. For very lean cuts of meat, by the time they reach 170°F internal temp, most of the moisture has been squeezed out, rendering them tough and dry.

When meat is allowed to rest after cooking, this process is partially reversed. As the meat fibers begin to relax, moisture that was driven out is redistributed and reabsorbed by some of the dissolved proteins. Rested meat holds on to more of its natural juices—they don't flood the cutting board when you slice into the meat. And since our perception of tenderness is greatly affected by moisture content—moist meat is softer and perceived as being more tender than dry meat—the result is more succulent, tender meat.

How much moisture is lost when meat is not rested? America's Test Kitchen Radio did an experiment in which they cooked pork loin roasts at 400°F to an internal temperature of 140°F. Here's how much liquid each roast lost after different resting times:

Resting Time Amount of Liquid Lost
0 minutes 10 TBSP
10 minutes 4 TBSP
20 minutes 2.5 TBSP
30 minutes 1 TBSP
40 minutes 2.5 tsp

America's Test Kitchen Radio, "A New Manifesto for School Lunch", March 23, 2012

Just a 10 minute rest resulted in a 60% decrease in lost liquid, and a 40 minute rest resulted in a 90% decrease of lost liquid—and even after 40 minutes, the internal meat temperature was still hot enough to serve.

A 2-4 Hour Rest Makes Briskets & Pork Butts Better

Holding pork butts above 140°F in a dry cooler
Photo 1
Holding brisket above 140°F in a dry cooler
Photo 2

Briskets and pork butts are commonly cooked to internal temps as high as 205°F, which drives a lot of moisture out of the meat. So why don't these cuts get tough and dry? Because they contain connective tissue that is converted to gelatin after many hours of "low & slow" cooking, and it's this gelatin that rehydrates the meat during the resting period.

Many competition barbecue teams will wrap briskets and pork butts in aluminum foil during the final stages of cooking and add broth, juice, or other flavorful concoctions to the foil package. When the meat has finished cooking, they allow it to rest in the foil in a dry cooler or insulated Cambro box for several hours where it reabsorbs some of the accumulated liquid before being sliced or pulled for presentation to the judges.

It's been well documented that some of the best barbecue chefs in America like Aaron Franklin and Wayne Mueller wrap their cooked briskets in butcher paper and hold them in insulated Cambro boxes or custom warming boxes for 2-4 hours before serving. "It took our quality index from a low A to a high A," says Mueller. Jeff Savell, professor of meat science at Texas A&M University and an expert on brisket, says about restaurants holding barbecue for 2-4 hours, "My observation is that this rested the best ever produced."

At home, you can rest briskets and pork butts just like barbecue competitors and restauranteurs. Place some towels in the bottom of a dry cooler to protect the plastic from the hot meat. Wrap the meat with more towels as insulation and place into the cooler. Monitor the meat temp to ensure it stays above 140°F for food safety. See Holding, Storing & Reheating Barbecued Meats for more details.

Carry-Over Cooking

Have you ever noticed that the internal temperature of meat continues to rise after removing it from the cooker, grill or oven? This is called carry-over cooking and is caused by residual heat transferring from the hotter exterior of the meat to the cooler center.

As a general rule, the larger and thicker the cut of meat, and the higher the cooking temperature, the more residual heat will be in the meat, and the more the internal temperature will rise during resting due to carry-over cooking. This means the meat must be removed from the heat at an internal temperature slightly lower than your desired final internal temperature, allowing the residual heat to finish the cooking.

How Long Should Meat Rest?

Most well-documented recipes on the Web and in cookbooks will specify the resting time, so follow the author's advice. Otherwise, here are some guidelines for various meats.

Note that thin cuts of meat like ribs, chicken, fish, and thin steaks and chops need almost no time to rest after cooking. They just don't have enough mass to hold a lot of residual heat, so there is little, if any, carry-over cooking, and if you let them rest too long, they're cold! So for thin cuts of meat, the time it takes to get them off the grill and onto your dinner plate is enough of a resting period.

Resting Time Rise In Internal Temp
Chicken, pieces
Barbecued at 225-250°F
Roasted at 350°F

0 minutes
0 minutes

Chicken, butterflied or whole
Barbecued at 225-250°F
Roasted at 350°F

0 minutes
5 minutes

Turkey, whole
Barbecued at 225-250°F
Roasted at 350°F

20-30 minutes
20-30 minutes

Pork ribs, spares or loin back
Barbecued at 225-250°F
0 minutes 0°F
Pork butt
Barbecued at 225-250°F
Finished in a 300°F oven

30 minutes
30 minutes

Barbecued at 225-250°F
Finished in a 300°F oven

30 minutes
30 minutes

Rib roast (prime rib)
Roasted at 325-350°F
15 minutes 10-15°F
Steaks, thin chops**
Grilled over high heat
5 minutes 5°F
Thick chops, small roasts**
Grilled over high heat
10-15 minutes 5-10°F
** From Cook's Illustrated magazine, July/August 2004

For example, when roasting a prime rib at 325°F and targeting a final internal temperature of 135°F, remove the meat from the fire at 120-125°F, cover loosely with foil, and let rest for about 15 minutes. The roast will rise to your final internal temp during the rest.

Cover Loosely With Foil...And When Not To

During the resting period, cover meat loosely with aluminum foil to prevent the surface from cooling off too fast. Make sure the meat is on a cutting board with a "gravy groove" or a half sheet pan to catch any juices. An exception to this rule is chicken or turkey...if you've worked hard to achieve crispy skin, covering with foil will soften the skin, so do not cover these with foil. And of course, if you plan to hold brisket or pork butt for several hours in a dry cooler, you will want to wrap these tightly with foil. See Holding, Storing & Reheating Barbecued Meats for more details.

Cooking Times & Temperatures

If you're looking for some general guidelines for cooking times and internal temperatures for various meats, see Cooking Times & Temperatures.

Updated: 06/10/2015

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