For the past five years, the interaction between meat and smoke has been a cornerstone of our business. Despite having cooked literally tons of meat in that time, I consider us to be neophytes amongst the giants of the barbecue world, but I also think that there's a mystique that's been cultivated around the science of smoking a big hunk of meat that makes people think they can't do what the big boys (and girls) do. To be fair to those building the mystique, how couldn't there seem to be a little magic, a splash of special sauce somewhere in the process that makes truly great results unattainable for the average person? Turning relatively cheap, tooth breakingly tough cuts of meat into succulent treats is, after all, pretty phenomenal, but it's not magic.
To make a long story short, barbecue really revolves around temperature and time. For big cuts of tough meat like beef brisket or pork shoulder, the low temperatures most people smoke at (approximately 200-225 degrees fahrenheit) let all kinds of cool sciency stuff happen as the internal temperature of the meat slowly rises. That being said, one of the most common mistakes is freaking out when time and temperature don't interact the way you'd expect them to and, as an attempt to compensate, you turn your smoker into a blast furnace.
On the surface, smoking meat is just like cooking meat any other way; you're raising the internal temperature from about 40 degrees up to your desired doneness. However, when you do that slowly in a smoker that's downright cold compared to the screaming hot surface of a grill, or even a 400 degree oven, you have to have the steely resolve of a nuclear submarine captain. Imagine, if you will, that you told your significant other that you'd make some killer brisket for a party. You watch your Youtube videos, read your barbecue forum posts, bust out your sweet new remote temperature probe and get your smoker fired up. Temperature and time seem to interact like you'd expect them to at first, as the numbers on your meat thermometer slowly tick upwards. And then, somewhere around the 150s, it stops. For half an hour. An hour. You start to wonder if your smoker has a cold spot, if your thermometer works, if your spouse is going to throw your smoker in the trash when you ruin the party by not having the meat done.
Science just slapped you in the face with the stall period, something brisket is notorious for having. There are a few different theories as to why it happens, but whether it's collagen breaking down or stored water evaporating, the end result is that the meat will remain steadily in the 150s for an hour or two before climbing steadily upwards. Cranking up the temperature will hurt more than it'll help, so keep your cool and wait it out. Now, the real barbecue magic lies in why meat cooked to an internal temperature of 185+ degrees isn't dry shoe leather (hint: it sort of is, but you just don't notice it), but that's a topic for another day.