Brisket fresh out of the smoker, resting on the counter, people milling about and grumbling because they’re hungry? Are folks picking at the corners of the brisket? All good, all normal, but how long can your smoked brisket sit out before it becomes dangerous to eat?
The timeframe is shorter than you may think.
The Danger Zone
The temperature range between 40 °F and 140 °F is known as the danger zone, and meat or poultry should not be left in that zone for more than a couple of hours.
The key is to keep cold food cold and hot food hot.
Keep food out of the danger zone.
Here’s what the USDA has to say about it:
If a perishable food (such as meat or poultry) has been left out at room temperature overnight (more than two hours) it may not be safe. Discard it, even though it may look and smell good. Never taste a food to see if it is spoiled. Use a food thermometer to verify temperatures. Never leave food in the Danger Zone over two hours; one hour if outside temperature is above 90 °F.
The Danger Zone is the temperature range between 40 °F and 140 °F in which bacteria can grow rapidly. To keep food out of the Danger Zone, keep cold food cold, at or below 40 °F, and hot food hot, at or above 140 °F.— USDA
It’s important to note that USDA mentions if the ambient temperature is 90 °F or higher, the recommended time to let meat or poultry (your smoked brisket!) sit out reduces to about an hour.
How long do we let our smoked brisket sit out?
We cook a lot of brisket, and after it has rested properly (although it’s tasty), there is usually a bit left on the cutting board after everybody has had their fill.
I can say with absolute certainty that we have regularly violated the USDA rule, and to my knowledge, nobody has gotten sick.
I’m not advocating that it’s ok; I’m just keeping it real. An Uno game gets started, or the Karaoke thing doesn’t stop, and before you know it, four or five hours have passed, and there is still brisket sitting on the cutting board.
Ideally, I would (and sometimes do!) keep the brisket in the oven at about 160 °F, which is a great serving temperature, or keep it in a pan over a warmer.
Vacuum packed at room temperature?
What if you vacuum pack your brisket? Can you then leave it at room temperature for longer periods of time?
Vacuum packing removes the air from the meat but not the bacteria that can cause it to go bad.
From a geeky perspective, some bacteria are aerobic (needing air), while others are anaerobic (not needing air). So vacuum packing will not kill or remove all of the dangerous bacteria. Click to read more about the fascinating world of bacteria.
For the record, items with a low enough moisture content can be vacuum-packed and have a longer shelf life, but your smoked brisket does not fall into that category.
Or, at least, it shouldn’t.
You didn’t smoke your brisket so long that it has that low moisture content, did you?
Ok, smarty pants, so how long can smoked brisket sit out?
How long can smoked brisket sit out?
Smoked brisket can sit out at room temperature for two hours at most. If the ambient temperature is 90° or higher, that reduces to about an hour.
Ideally, you want to keep your brisket above 140 °F if it’s sitting out, so keep a warmer under it or in the oven at about 160 °F.
Keeping freshly smoked brisket out of the danger zone
There are really two options: cool it or keep it heated.
If the party is still going, cooling it is out of the question. Eating cold brisket can cause dimensions to collapse.
We don’t want that.
So until folks go home, you must keep the brisket above the danger zone temperature range. I think about 160 °F is a good serving temperature for my brisket.
Not too hot to grab a piece in between Karaoke songs.
We used to keep the smoked brisket in a pan in the oven at 160 °F, and then people could go in there and grab some.
Lately, my wife has been buying warming pans and disposable sterno burners. These work very well and keep the brisket nearby for everybody.
We also have some of those electric warmers, but they always seem to be filled with sauces, macaroni and cheese, or some kind of dipping sauce. But they’ll work too. Anything to keep the brisket above 140 °F.
I don’t have one, but now that I’m looking, I think I may have to pony up a few dollars and get one. I’ll let you know how it works.
Keeping brisket out of the danger zone (and your friends and family healthy!)
Ok, so that’s a wrap on the topic of letting your smoked brisket sit out. As I mentioned, I’ve violated the USDA rule many times to no ill effect, but why take the chance? Keep your smoked brisket above 140 °F while it’s sitting out, then if there is anything left over, get it in the fridge so you can enjoy it over the next couple of days. Or, in the freezer so that you can enjoy it next month.
Most of what we discuss is based on years of smoking and bbq-ing experience, but we know when to lean on the experts. The below sources were used to help write this article:
- National Institue of Health, National Library of Medicine
This is a new article, first published in April of 2023