Smoking Meat Safely: The Danger Zone And The 40-140-4 Rule.

When cooking meat, food handling safety is extremely important to ensure you are not exposing you or your guests to foodborne illness. Food safety is especially important when smoking meat because we are often cooking low and slow. When smoking meat, all pitmaster’s should be aware of the danger zone and the 40-140-4 rule. Here is everything you need to know to make sure you are using good food handling practices when smoking meat.

What Is The Danger Zone When Smoking Meat?

When smoking meat, the “danger zone” is the temperature range between 40° F and 140° F where bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella can grow on the meat exponentially. This bacteria is harmful to humans and can cause food related illness such as food poisoning.

What Is The 40-140-4 Rule?

The 40-140-4 rule, sometimes referred to as the 40-140 rule, is a general food safety rule stating that meat should rise from 40° F to 140° F within 4 hours to reduce the amount of bacteria growth on the meat.

The 40-140-4 rule is widely used as an easy way to remember how long food can be left in the danger zone before it becomes unsafe to eat.

How does the danger zone effect smoking?

Because smoking involves cooking meat low and slow, you may be wondering if you should worry about the danger zone. In short you shouldn’t have much to worry about. Most of the time, our meat will pass the 40-140-4 rule; however, there are a couple factors that can affect the time your meat spends in the danger zone.  

Intact Meat:

When smoking meat, almost all the meat we are cooking is considered intact meat. Intact meat is any meat whose interior is protected from pathogens. For example, a whole brisket or a whole pork shoulder are considered intact. Once you mechanically alter the meat, such as grounding it up, injecting the meat, or puncturing the surface, the meat is then considered non-intact.

If you are smoking an intact piece of meat, you do not have to worry about danger zone. Because the interior of the meat is protected, the bacteria that grows in the danger zone cannot reach the interior. The only piece of the meat that is vulnerable to the danger zone is the outer 0.5” of the meat; however, because the exterior of the meat cooks much faster than the inside, it will pass the 40-140 rule with ease at any temperature above 200°

When working with meat that is not considered “intact”, the harmful bacteria that grows within the danger zone is able to reach the center of the meat. To cook non-intact meat safely, you must make sure all parts of the meat are pass through the danger zone within 4 hours.

It is important to note that cutting a larger piece of meat into smaller pieces would still be considered intact meat because you have not created a pathway to the interior of the meat.

Puncturing Your Meat:

Injecting your meat is a popular practice in the meat smoking world and is done before the meat is thrown onto the smoker to start cooking; however, once you inject the meat, you are creating a pathway for the bacteria to reach the middle.

If you decide to inject your meat, you should pay extra attention to the 40-140-4 rule. Unlike intact meat, meat that has been injected has 4 hours for the internal temperature to go from 40° to 140° to be considered safe to eat.

Likewise, because puncturing the meat allows the harmful bacteria a pathway to the center of the meat, you need to be careful about putting a thermometer in too early. In general, you would wait 2-4 hours before sticking the thermometer in. This will give the interior of your meat more time to get through the danger zone. There is really no benefit to putting the thermometer in the meat at the start of the smoke anyways. When you put the thermometer in largely depends on the size of the meat.

Size of Meat:

The size of the meat is a deciding factor in how long it will take to cook. The larger the piece of meat, the longer it will take to cook, and vice versa. Briskets for example can range from 12-24 hours of cook time depending on the size.

The longer the meat takes to cook the longer the meat will take to get through the danger zone. Now if you are smoking an intact meat, you don’t have to worry about size. No matter the size, the outside of an intact meat will always pass the 40-140 rule; however, when smoking larger pieces of meat, pass on the injections and wait until later in the cook to insert your meat thermometer.

Now, if you are smoking something small, such as a rack of ribs, there isn’t much worry about the danger zone. Smaller pieces of meat will cook fast enough to pass the 40-140 rule even when they are injected.

How long can smoked meat sit out?

While the danger zone applies to cooking meat, it also applies to the handling of cooked meat. The USDA states that once meat has cooled to 140°, it should either be consumed or stored.

In general, food can sit out at room temperature for 2 hours before dropping below the 140° mark. If you are leaving food out in a warmer environment, then the time is reduced to 1 hour.

If you are not consuming the meat right away or are looking to hold it for later, we recommend using a faux Cambro. You can create a DIY Cambro at home using tin foil, a blanket, and a cooler to hold meat above the 140° mark for up to 5 hours.

How long can you hold meat at 140?

The USDA has not been too clear on how long you can hold meat above 140; however, they did advise that food can be held at 135° for a maximum of 8 hours and 140° indefinitely. I would generally advise for you to store your meat after 4 hours of being held above 140°.

Smoker Went Out, is the meat still safe to eat?

Whether you were trying to smoke overnight, or you just were not paying close attention, having your fire go out in the middle of a smoke can be heartbreaking. You may be wondering if the meat is still ok to eat. While it is hard to say this, most cases it is not safe to eat the meat.

Paying attention to the danger zone above, between 40° and 140°, harmful bacteria growing on our meat can multiply rapidly. Eating meat that has been left in the danger zone for too long can cause food related illness such as food poisoning. Meat left in the danger zone for more than 4 hours is considered not safe to eat.

If your smoker fire went out and you are searching to see if your meat is still safe to eat, you need to be looking at the amount of time your meat spent in the danger zone. If your meat never reached 160° before the fire went out, look to see how long it has been above 40°. If it has been more than 4 hours, you should toss it.

If your meat did pass the 140° mark before the fire went out, wait until the meat has returned to the 140° mark before starting to count time. Be sure to add the time it took the meat to get through the danger zone initially to this number.

For example, you find that your fire has gone out and you realize that the meat has dropped below 140° and has been sitting below 140° for 3 hours. You also noted that it took 2 hours for your meat to initially get through the danger zone. This means your meat has been in between 40° and 140° for a total of 5 hours and should be tossed.

Ultimately, looking at the total time your meat spent between 40° and 140° will determine if your meat is safe to eat. Unless you catch the fire going out early, chances are the meat is not safe to eat. If you are not sure how long the meat has been in the danger zone, you should error on the side of caution and toss the meat.

If the meat got above 140°, can’t I just reheat it to kill off the bacteria?

Unfortunately, reheating the food to kill of bacteria will not work. According to the USDA, while heating food does kill off certain bacteria, there are foodborne bacteria that are not killed off by heat. Meaning that no matter how hot you cook the meat, there is still a chance you could get sick from eating it.

I do not like wasting food just as much as you do, but at the end of the day, it is better to play it safe than sorry. If you were really looking forward to having some smoked meat, grab a rack of ribs or some tri-tip. Both are cooked in short periods of time and can still be ready for dinner! 

Michael W.

Half of my family lives in Texas and we would visit them often. As a food lover, naturally I fell in love with smoked meat. Smoked brisket and peach cobbler is a staple around where my family grew up and quickly became a favorite of mine. Unfortunately we didn't have good BBQ where I grew up. After enough years, I finally decided to get a smoker so I didn't have to wait for good BBQ until I went to Texas. Getting into a new hobby can be overwhelming. When I first started smoking meat, there was so much conflicting information and so many different styles and techniques that I didn't know where to start. I started this website to help people BBQ better and learn the ropes by sharing my knowledge and experiences.

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