A Guide to Offset Barrel Smokers
Water smokers, box, barrel, and pellet smokers do a fine job smoking meats and seafood. But nothing establishes your street cred as pit master who means business like an offset smoker. For years, these hunka-hunka smokers—a.k.a., offset barrel smokers, horizontal smokers, pipe smokers, or “stick-burners”—have dominated the competition barbecue circuit. Now, thanks to mass-market models available at stores like Home Depot and Lowes, they’re bringing their own particular aura of machismo to American and European backyards.
The first offset smokers were likely built by oilfield workers in Texas and Oklahoma. Far from home and restaurants, it didn’t take much for barbecue-starved welders to look at surplus oil pipe and 55-gallon steel drums and see 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”—today one of the most respected names in the offset smoker industry.
Most horizontal offset smokers have a similar construction—a lidded barrel-shaped or box-like smoking/cooking chamber with a firebox connected slightly lower to one end (hence the name “offset”) and a chimney rising from the other. In some models the firebox is in the back.
You build a wood or charcoal and wood-enhanced fire in the firebox, so the heat is next to (not directly under) the meat. The heat and smoke flow through a portal into the cook chamber where they circulate around the food and exit through the chimney. This flow of hot air and wood smoke is one of the defining features of the offset smoker, producing ribs and pork shoulders with deep red smoke rings and briskets with exceptionally crisp “bark” (crust).
You control the heat and smoke flow in an offset smoker—in theory, at least—by adjusting the air intake and exhaust vents. (Open vents mean 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 disparity.
To equalize the internal cooking temperature, manufacturers have developed what is known as reverse flow technology. This sounds somewhat more complicated than it really is. One example is the convection plate found in popular smokers like the Horizon, manufactured in Oklahoma. 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 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 smoker lacks reverse flow technology, you can 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 people—count me in—this is part of the fun. Smoking is as much sport as science, and this is where athletes of barbecue excel.
If you know how to build a fire, you know how to use an offset barrel smoker. For home use smokers, have the air intake vent and the chimney vent fully open. Start your charcoal (I prefer natural lump charcoal) in a chimney starter and spread the embers over the charcoal rack at the bottom of the firebox. Close the lid—make sure the cooking chamber lid is closed as well—and preheat the smoker to the desired temperature (usually between 225 to 275 degrees). If the temperature is too high, partially close the vents and allow the temperature to settle; if too low, add more charcoal. (Note: If the smoker is new, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for seasoning the smoker and burning off any factory grease or protective coatings before your first smoke session.)
Arrange the food on the grate in the cook chamber. Place soaked smoking wood chips or chunks (1 to 2 cups per hour depending on the size of the smoker) or small hardwood logs to the fire. Replenish the fuel and wood chips and manage the vents as needed to maintain the target temperature.
If you compete on the barbecue circuit regularly or own a restaurant or catering company, you probably own a larger offset smoker that burns “sticks” (wood) exclusively. Use seasoned hardwood logs and add them according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Note: When burning wood only, good airflow is essential so the smoke flavor doesn’t overpower the meat.
There are a lot of offset smokers out there—some excellent, some barely adequate. Do plenty of due diligence before buying. One good place to start is the Barbecue Board; our community has lots of experience with offset smokers and lots of strong opinions about which are best.
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.) Does it look and feel substantial? Is the base (preferably wheeled) 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? (Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell until you’ve used the smoker, and by then, you’re committed.)
• 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, I always recommend buying more grill or smoker than you think you’ll need—this will 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.
Advantages of Using an Offset Smoker (Over Other Smokers)
• You can stoke the fire or add wood chips, chunks, logs, or wood pellets without opening the cooking chamber.
• Most units can be used for direct grilling by installing a grill grate over the firebox. (Many units come with custom grill grates.)
• The large size of the cook chamber gives you the ability to smoke large quantities of food.
• There’s no electrical circuitry to burn out or moving parts to replace.
• Most well-established manufacturers (see below) offer a wide array of accessories or customization options.
• The “cool” factor of an offset smoker—especially a big black steel model—is high.
Disadvantages of Using an Offset Smoker
• The market is flooded with inexpensive and poorly built units that have the potential to put the most well-intentioned people off offset smokers forever. Hinges break, paint flakes, metal rusts, and target temperatures are difficult to maintain. Some assembly is usually required.
• The entry-level cost is relatively high for well-constructed units, $1000 or more.
• It can take up to an hour for your pit to preheat. After that, you’ll need to check on it frequently. Not practical for an after-work cookout.
• Even modest-size offset smokers can weigh hundreds of pounds, making them difficult to maneuver (or trailer) without assistance.
• Smoker performance can be affected by windy, rainy, or cold weather conditions.
• Offset smokers have a fairly large footprint, making them impractical for people with limited outdoor space.
• Building and maintaining a steady fire requires dedication, patience, and most of all, practice. Lots of practice. Like I said: it’s a sport.
Because the price range is so broad, I’ve grouped selected manufacturers into three tiers. Know that some manufacturers straddle price ranges.
Offset Smoker Q & A: What Can Go Wrong and How Do You Fix It?
Problem: After just a couple of years, my inexpensive offset smoker is beginning to rust and the grill grate looks pretty rough.
Solution: Sand the rust spots with steel wool and repaint the affected areas with high-temperature paint. As for the grill grate, replace it or have it sand-blasted at a machine or automotive repair shop.
Problem: Smoke leaks from the lid of the cooking chamber and firebox.
Solution: Seal the lids with high temperature silicone or high temperature gasket by the roll. The gasket made by Nomex, for example, is rated to 800 degrees F.
Problem: It’s a struggle to maintain the proper heat when temperatures dip.
Solution: There are a couple of options here: 1) Line the bottom of the smoker with firebrick before preheating the smoker. 2) Throw a non-fiberglass welder’s blanket or space blanket over the lid of the cooking chamber during the cook. Some manufacturers sell special insulated blankets for their cookers.
Problem: I’m hosting a big family party soon and want to smoke pork spare ribs, but my grill grate isn’t large enough to accommodate the number of racks I’ll need.
Solution: Invest in a rib rack or two. (I’m partial to my own Best of Barbecue Ultimate Rib Rack.) Or coil each rack of ribs after seasoning and secure with bamboo skewers. Stand the coils upright on the grill grate. They’ll take up less real estate that way.
Problem: The temperature varies significantly from one side of the smoker to the other.
Solution: You can improvise a poor man’s heat deflector by installing a baffle made of sheet metal or even a cookie sheet. The short side should be attached right above the firebox portal (use a self-setting screw), and angled downward toward the opposite side of the cooking chamber. You can rest the bottom of it on firebricks. The objective is to force the heat and smoke downward, thereby minimizing the temperature differential. Or simply put an aluminum baking pan directly on the grill grate next to the firebox. Fill it with water or beer once the smoker’s up to temperature. It will keep the smoking environment (and your food) moist and reduce the temperature near the firebox.