BBQ smoker danger zone & the “4-hour rule”: How cold is too cold?

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  July 15, 2021

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If you’re here, you’re probably wondering: how cold is too cold to use a smoker, and what is the danger zone?

The danger zone is the temperature range between 40 to 140 °F where bacteria can multiply on the meat because it’s not cold enough to be frozen, and not hot enough to be cooked, a range you should not let meat be in for longer than 4 hours.

BBQ smoker danger zone | How cold is too cold?

Weather is always a factor when it comes to outdoor smoking. Precipitation of any kind can hinder the smoking process and really mess with the smoking temperature.

Many people avoid smoking altogether in the winter. But, you can still smoke in cold weather if you follow some basic principles and stay extra vigilant.

The problem occurs when temperatures drop, and the smoker can’t maintain the ideal temperature in the cooking chamber. Ideally, you should not smoke meat outdoors when the temperatures are below 30F or 0 Celsius because it’s a hard process.

The lowest you can smoke though is -15 C or 5 F, but it is not recommended. In cold weather, the smoker has a hard time reaching an internal temperature of 225 F and the meat can end up in the danger zone (between 40 to 140 F) which causes harmful bacteria to multiply which can cause food poisoning.

If, however, you really crave smoked brisket, ribs, or a good old smoked chicken, then you can follow my tips for cold weather smoking.

So, don’t toss the idea of cooking up your favorite recipes just because the weather isn’t cooperating!

Can I smoke when it’s cold outside?

Did you know that it’s possible to smoke for up to 20 hours even if the outside temperatures are sub-zero Celsius or below 30 Fahrenheit? There are definitely more challenges, but it’s possible.

The main thing is that you must be extra vigilant and keep checking the cooking temperature. So, you’ll need a meat temperature probe and a separate thermostat because the built-in one might not be accurate.

Smoking meat is harder when the temperatures are low and the main risk is thawing and smoking in the danger zone. I’ll talk about what the danger zone is and how to avoid it in the next section, don’t worry!

A pitmaster will tell you that with the right tools and extra attention, the smoked meat will be just as tasty even if it’s cold outside.

What happens to the smoker when it’s cold?

To smoke, you need a temperature of 225F inside the smoker. Therefore you need a strong fire that can increase the heat in the smoker by about 125F.

When it’s warm or hot outside, this happens rather quickly. But, if it’s cold out, the internal temperature may not reach 225F and can even be lower by about 35F.

Therefore, you will have to keep increasing the heat quite a lot to reach that ideal temperature.

This means that you might need to use more fuel than usual to be able to maintain proper and safe cooking temperatures. Food safety is a huge issue after all and meat is prone to bacterial growth.

A problem is that when it’s cold, the cold metal of your smoker will absorb the heat inside the unit. So, as the metal absorbs the warm air, the cooking temperature is lowered and sometimes you don’t notice this.

As a rule, make sure to check the thermometer often.

Also read: Where to Put the Thermometer in Turkey

What is the danger zone for smoking pork and other meats?

Danger zone for meat and how cold is too cold for smoking

The danger zone is not a real place; it just refers to a dangerous temperature range for smoking meat between 40-140F.

Most pitmasters know about the 40 / 140 rule and the danger zone, but beginners should be extra careful.

When meat, like pork, chicken, salmon, and turkey, is not smoked at the right temperature, there’s a big food safety issue. It’s not about cold food, but rather when the food doesn’t smoke at a temperature of 225F+ you risk food poisoning.

Also, the 4-hour rule states that the temperature must rise from 40 f to 140 within 4 hours.

In the warmer months when you go for long smokes, this is usually not an issue but extreme cold can prevent the temperature from rising in the allotted 4 hours.

The 4-hour rule

When you smoke, you cook food at low temperatures.

The food is not supposed to thaw for a long time though. So, in case the food (especially meat) thaws for a longer than usual time (4 hours or less), between 40-140 degrees F, it is in the “danger zone.”

There is a food safety rule called the “4-hour rule”. It refers to the fact that the meat’s internal temperature has to go from 40 to 140 F within a maximum of 4 hours.

If it reaches the temperature of 14oF within 4 hours, then the foodborne bacteria don’t have a chance to multiply like crazy.

Between 40 F to 140 F, harmful bacteria can multiply on the food and cause severe illnesses. Therefore, undercooked or improperly thawed meat and poultry are not safe to eat.

So, always keep the 40 / 140 rule in mind when smoking in cold weather. If you avoid those low temps, you can ensure the food is safe to eat.

Why is the danger zone so serious?

There are serious effects if you smoke in the danger zone.

Bacterial growth is responsible for all kinds of food poisoning and other scary symptoms. E Coli, salmonella, and other bacteria can cause disease in adults and children and can be deadly in rare cases.

That’s why you must also be careful with food handling. You don’t want to cause yourself or others serious gastrointestinal illness.

So, the best thing to do is to avoid the danger zone at all costs. It’s better to invest in more fuel than risk getting sick.

The bottom line: the danger zone is between 40-140 F or 4 – 60 Celcius.

The 4-hour rule means that when you practice low and slow smoking, the temperature of the meat should increase from 40 to 140 F within a 4-hour time frame.

A thermometer is a must-have accessory

If you want to cook safely in cold weather, you need an external meat thermometer that will show you the cooking temps inside the smoker.

You can use the thermometer in the smoker and in a grill too. This type of thermometer must be left inside the smoker. It will show you the temperature via an app on your smartphone, WIFI, or Bluetooth.

When the temperature dips below 225F, you have to add more fuel quickly. This can mean more charcoal and pellets, or you have to crank up the heat on your propane or electric smoker.

Not sure which thermometer to buy? Check out our reviews of the best analog and digital thermometers for your smoker and grill.

Cold smoking and the danger zone

The danger zone is an especially large issue with cold smoking because you want to smoke food at temperatures below 85°F (right in the middle of the danger zone) for extended periods of time, often 12 to 24 hours (above the 4-hour rule).

That’s why you can only cold smoke food where bacteria growth won’t be a large issue or food that has been cured or salted beforehand.

That’s why you always use brine when cold smoking meat.

How cold is too cold for smoking?

There is no specific temperature that is considered “too cold” for smoking. However, once the temperatures dip below 30F and 0 degrees Celsius, it’s much harder to smoke meat.

Smoking meat is usually much easier and more convenient in the warmer months because if you’re going for a long smoke, you can usually leave the smoker unattended for quite some time. However, that’s not the case with smoking in the cold.

I would say the cut-off temperature is -15 Celcius or 5 F. Already at this cold temperature, sitting outside to monitor the smoker is extremely uncomfortable.

You need to wear lots of warm clothing with many layers to ensure you don’t get frostbite. But also, there is a chance the meat won’t smoke properly, and thus, I recommend only pros try smoking at such low temperatures.

A pitmaster can pull it off, but a beginner will have difficulty.

Which smoker should you avoid in cold weather?

The real issue with using smokers when the temps are low is that most smokers have thin walls, even if technically, they are well-insulated. Avoid using thin-walled smokers!

Some smokers like the Weber Smokey Mountain or the Kettle have notoriously thin walls and chances are you’ll be very late serving dinner because smoking will take longer and you’ll need more fuel.

Even an offset like Horizon with thicker walls requires extra fuel when smoking meat in the cold.

Ceramic & gas smokers are best

The best choices are ceramic smokers like a Kamado or Green Egg or Backwoods. But even with those, you must use more fuel and it’s going to take longer to reach your target temperature.

Luckily though, once you reach that temp, it’s a bit easier to maintain.

A gas or propane smoker is also good because the boiling point of propane is -44F, so you’ll never be smoking at such low temperatures no matter what.

But gas grills have a regulator so maintaining temperatures is easier.

Tips for counteracting cold weather, wind, and precipitation

As you already know, it’s best to smoke outdoors when it’s warm and there’s not too much wind.

But, if you must smoke during bad weather, here are a few useful tips to consider:

  • Place the smoker in a sheltered area of the patio or yard. Don’t move it to an enclosed area because that’s dangerous, but you can add it to a corner where there’s less wind and the rain doesn’t pour down on the smoker.
  • You can build windbreaks to help against wind gusts and cold gusts. But, make sure there are no flammable materials nearby.
  • Insulate the smoker using flame and heat-resistant materials.
  • Use water-heater blankets or any fire-resistant insulation from the home hardware store.
  • Always be careful and check the temperature inside the smoker. When it’s cold, the temperature can drop very quickly.
  • Clear the area under and around your smoker. This means removing snow and sweeping pools of water away from the smoker.
  • Keep extra fuel on hand, whether that’s charcoal, wood pellets, or more propane. Also, have extra flavored wood smoke in case you run out and want to make sure the meat has a tasty aroma.
  • If the temperature is constantly below 140 f, take action and don’t delay making the smoker hotter.

For more tips, read How to Smoke Meat in Cold Weather


When smoking meat at lower temperatures, there is always a risk of your food staying in the danger zone (40 – 140F) for more than the maximum of 4 hours. Thus, there’s a potential safety risk because bacteria can multiply on the meat’s surface.

Even if you smoke other foods like cheese, the danger zone temp can be a problem, so make sure to monitor the smoking temperature with your thermostat.

I recommend reading about food safety information from the official FDA website which offers helpful tips on how to prevent food-borne illness when barbecuing and smoking meat. USDA and other official websites can also give you more info.

The bottom line is that yes, you can smoke meat in cold weather but you need to pay more attention than usual.

Read next: At What Temperature do Wood Chips Smoke? Guide to Getting it Right

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Lakeside Smokers is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with BBQ Smoking (& Japanese food!) at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.