A Definitive Guide To Offset Smokers
When it comes to picking the right smoker your your backyard barbecue's, water smokers, box, barrel, and pellet smokers all do a fine job smoking meats and seafood. However, nothing establishes your street cred as pit master who means business quite like an offset smoker. For years offset barrel smokers, horizontal smokers, pipe smokers, or "stick-burners" - have dominated the competition barbecue circuit. Now, thanks to mass-market models available at the likes of the big chain home improvement stores, the offset smoker/grill bring their own particular aura of machismo to American and European backyards.
Chances are that the first offset smokers were built by some meat-hungry oilfield workers in Texas and Oklahoma. Working out in the middle of nowhere, it didn't take much for barbecue-starved welders to look at surplus oil pipe and 55-gallon steel drums and see them transformed into grills and smokers. They based the offset design on traditional brick barbecue pits where the fire is built in one chamber and the smoke and heat cross the food in another.
In the early 1980s, the price of oil dropped from $30 to $10 a barrel. Texas metal fabricator Wayne Whitworth, founder of an oil contract-dependent business in Houston, started building barbecue pits to keep his employees busy during the downturn. He called his smoker business "Pitt's & Spitt's" which is still one of the most respected names in the offset smoker industry today.
The horizontal offset smokers of today are all of similar construction. That is they have a lidded barrel-shaped or box-like smoking/cooking chamber with a firebox connected slightly lower on one end which is where the name "offset" is derived along with a chimney rising from the other. In some models the firebox is in the back.
With an offset smoker, you build a wood or charcoal and wood-enhanced fire in the firebox, so the heat is next to, but not directly beneath the meat. The heat and smoke flow through a portal into the cooking chamber where it circulates all around the food and then exits through the chimney. This flow of hot air and wood smoke is one of the defining features of the offset smoker that produces ribs and pork shoulders that have that deep red smoke ring and briskets with exceptionally crisp crust - commonly referred to as "bark".
Theoretically you control the heat and smoke flow in an offset smoker by adjusting the air intake and exhaust vents. Opening the vents allow more oxygen which produces a hotter fire. In practice, temperatures vary inside the cook chamber, with the end nearest the firebox being the hottest. So in addition to maintaining the fire, you also have to rotate the food or otherwise manage the airflow to avoid uneven cooking. The bigger the grill, the more pronounced the temperature variation.
To equalize the internal cooking temperature, manufacturers today have developed what has been come known as reverse flow technology. This sounds somewhat more complicated than it really is. One example is the convection plate found in popular smokers. This heavy perforated metal plate slides back and forth under the food on the grate in the smoke chamber with smaller air holes closer to the fire and larger holes further away. The position of the plate and holes help to equalize the hot air flow.
A more sophisticated reverse flow technology system developed by Lang BBQ Smokers of Nahunta, Georgia uses internal piping, baffles, and a chimney mounted on the firebox end of the smoker. The hot air and smoke are forced to travel to the far end of the cook chamber before reversing course over the food grate and heading back toward the firebox and chimney. This not only equalizes side-to-side temperatures in the cook chamber, but helps retain heat when the lid is opened.
But even if your offset smoker lacks this reverse flow technology, you can help ensure even cooking simply by moving and rotating the food in the cook chamber. Start with the larger, fattier end of the brisket or pork shoulder towards the fire. Rotate the meat every hour or so, moving pieces that started at the cooler end of the cook chamber closer to the fire. This makes offset smokers a bit more labor intensive than set-it-and-forget-it pellet grills, but for many backyard chef's, this is all part of the fun. Smoking is as much an art as it is science, and this is where barbecue excels.
I am assuming that if your smoker is new you have followed the manufacturer's instructions for seasoning the smoker and burning off any factory grease or protective coatings before tackling your first smoke session. Aside from that, if you know how to build a fire, you know how to use an offset barrel smoker. For backyard smokers, have the air intake and the chimney vents fully open. While I recommend utilizng The Minion Method, use whatever methods of starting your charcoal in a chimney starter that works best for you and spread the embers over the charcoal rack at the bottom of the firebox. Close the lids making sure the cooking chamber lid is closed as well. Be sure to preheat the smoker to the desired temperature of around 250°F - 275°F. If the temperature gets too high, partially close the vents and allow the temperature to settle; if too low, add more charcoal.
Once you have your smoker up to temp, arrange whatever it is that you are going to smoke on the grate in the cook chamber. Place 1 to 2 cups of soaked or dry, seasoned smoking wood chips or chunks per hour, depending on the size of your smoker and be sure to read the article about whether to soak or not to soak wood chips or chunks. You can be a stick burner so you will want to add small hardwood logs to the fire making sure to replenish the fuel and wood chips and manage the vents as needed to maintain the target temperature.
If you happen to compete on the barbecue circuit regularly or own a restaurant or catering company, you probably own a larger offset smoker that burns "sticks" (logs) exclusively. Be sure to use dry, seasoned hardwood logs and add them according to the manufacturer's instructions. Keep in mind that when burning wood logs only, good airflow is essential so the smoke flavor doesn't overpower the meat.
There is a wide assortment of offset smokers out there - some excellent, some barely adequate. Do plenty of research before deciding which model best suits you. A good place to start is our reviews section or one of the many bbq forums where you will find reviews and comments from backyard chef's who acutally use the grill or smoker they comment on.
Factors to Consider When Buying an Offset Smoker:
- Establish your budget. You can buy mass-marketed units for as little as $200 or drop $5000 or more on custom-built smokers.
- Is the smoker made of heavy-gauge (1/4 inch) steel? This is the gold standard or smokers. Does it look and feel substantial? Does it have a wheeled base that is stable?
- How is the craftsmanship? Do the welds look strong? Are the handles insulated?
- Do the lids on the cooking chamber and the firebox seal well? How about the seal between the two chambers?
- Is the smoker big enough for your entertaining style? If you cook a whole hog once a month, you'll need a very different smoker than if you smoke the occasional ribs or pork shoulder. In any case, it is usually recommended to buy more grill or smoker than you think you'll need. This may well inspire you to stretch your imagination and grow your skill set.
- Don't forget to consider the options, which may include extra grill grates, a removable charcoal drawer or rack, a counterweight on the cooking chamber lid, jerky smoking racks, a warming box, front or bottom shelves, a trailer, etc.
- Finally, how good is the warranty? Some higher-end units come with a lifetime warranty.