Pit Barrel Cooker
Pit Barrel Cooker
The Pit Barrel Cooker is a very basic Ugly Drum Smoker, aka UDS, that has many of us scratching our heads in amazement. It provides large cooking capacity* at a great price, and produces delicious results with an ease of use that approaches the set it and forget it bliss of digitally controlled pellet smokers. This charcoal burning, 30 gallon steel drum with a lid on top and a small hole on the bottom is one of the more impressive cookers we've tested.
Homemade Ugly Drum Smokers have been around for years, providing an inexpensive and relatively easy way for Do-It-Yourselfers to create a nice smoker with a 55 gallon drum and some elbow grease. They work well and routinely show up at BBQ competitions. The Pit Barrel costs more, but is delivered to your door ready to go, no assembly needed. Follow the single page instructions and you'll be flabbergasted as you create one perfectly smoked delicacy after another with little more effort than preparation.
WARNING: Do not modify your Pit Barrel. Unlike many other inexpensive smokers, Pit Barrel should work great right out of the box. If it does not, call the manufacturer. You're probably doing some wrong. Some of our readers expressed concern that the PBC has no water pan. We cooked a variety of foods in small to large quantities and never had a problem with lack of humidity. In fact, when loaded up, moisture collects on the inside of the lid. Because there is only one small intake vent at the bottom and no exhaust vent, humidity gets trapped inside the barrel.
The directions are simple, but pay careful attention, drum smokers are different from other smokers and the PBC has some attributes that make it even more unique. It comes with a chrome plated wire grate but the meat hanging method is preferred. A heavy charcoal basket with handle rests at the bottom of the barrel next to a 3" hole. A round steel cover affixed above this hole by one screw constitutes the only damper on the PBC and provides one of the only opportunities you'll have to screw up. Take heed of the following statement in the first paragraph of the directions: "The bottom vent on your PBC is adjusted half way open upon arrival. If you live at the elevation of sea level up to 2,000 ft. adjust your vent to 1/4 way open, 2,000-5,000 ft. 1/2 way open, 5,000 to 8,000 ft. 3/4 way open and 8,000 ft. and above all the way open."
To the right is an illustration of the basic settings. Our elevation is about 800 feet so we adjusted the vent 1/4 open. Later, we tried setting it at 1/2. The PBC got real hot for a couple hours then, even with plenty of coal remaining, the temperature dropped like a rock and almost died out. When we returned the damper to 1/4 way open, the fire came back and temperature began to rise. It would be nice if the round steel cover had 1/4, 1/2 and 3/4 marks and a wingnut instead of a screw, but this is minor because once set, it shouldn't have to change. You may have to tweek it a little at first. It helps to look at the damper from inside the barrel so you can see the round opening and eyeball the setting better.
We planned to begin our tests with a couple slabs of ribs, hanging one on each rod. You could easily fit eight slabs. The Pit Barrel website has a number of clear instructional videos for lighting the coal and making various recipes from Ribs to Pizza to Rack of Lamb. Use our recipes for preparation, but follow Pit Barrel's cooking instruction because it cooks faster than most smokers. You may start the coal with lighter fluid or a chimney. Pit Barrel recommends using only Kingsford Original Briquettes that come in the familiar blue and white bag until you really get to know this unique smoker. Once you've done several sessions without a hitch, go ahead and try adding wood or using lump charcoal if you wish, but you may find yourself returning to Kingsford. Read The Zen of Charcoal.
We followed the video instructions for ribs: trim and season the meat then pop the PBC stainless steel hooks a couple bones down into the thick end of the slab, start the coal and let it burn at the bottom of the barrel uncovered for 15 to 20 minutes, install the two provided steel rods by sliding them through four 3/4" holes at the top of the barrel, hang the ribs from the rods, put on the lid and walk away for three hours. But hold your horses! The bottom ends of those hanging slabs were just a couple inches above the red hot coal. Wouldn't those ribs come out overcooked – even burnt at the bottom and undercooked at the top? They didn't. We lifted each slab from the hot barrel with a "hook remover" that comes with the PBC and found the ribs were smoked nice and even from one end to the other. Subsequently, when smoking larger quantities, we had a few slabs that were so long they touched the hot coal which is not desirable.
Next was Tri-Tip, the Poor Man's Prime Rib which can be chewy if not prepared properly. Tri-Tip is a long crescent shaped piece of beef. Hanging from the stainless steel hook, it looks V-shaped. Per Pit Barrel's instructions, cooking time was 35 minutes over the same charcoal setup we used for ribs. In fact all PBC recipes call for the same charcoal set up. How can two nice sized, V-shaped pieces of beef be hung above hot coal and come out uniformly medium rare from the thick top by the lid to the thin tip at the bottom near the fire? But they did! Pink, juicy and delicious from head to toe. Where was the man behind the curtain hiding inside this magic drum?
AmazingRibs Science Advisor, Dr. Greg Blonder explains: "Hanging the meat vertically reduces the radiative heating contribution significantly. For the same reason turning your face away from the sun is cooling, or holding your palm perpendicular to the grill doesn't feel so hot. Plus, dripping juices radiatively cool the bottom of the meat. All that being said, I'm still surprised it was that uniform."
When we got into longer cooks, like brisket and pork butt, Pit Barrel dramatically reduced cook time. We heard about Pit Barrel through our friend John Dawson, who is a competitive cook with his team, Patio Daddio BBQ, and a big fan of PBCs. Dawson remarked: "I hung a 11.5-pound brisket and a 8-pound pork butt in the same cooker (one on each rod), and they were at 140 internal within two hours! And that's at a lid temp of about 275. I couldn't believe it. In my 55-gallon UDS cooker it takes that long at 325. They were at 165 by three hours, and at 200 within four and a half hours." The Pit Barrel video for brisket demonstrates cooking a 13 lb. packer in 5 1/2 hours! That's half the time one would expect for this large hunk. We had a similar experience and our brisket came out great. Why? Why? Why? Suddenly Dawson's reference to his 55 gallon UDS jumped out. Why does the PBC use a 30 gallon drum instead of the typical 55?
Pit Barrel President, Noah Glanville explains: "We found that a 30 gallon drum provides a cooking environment that produces the better product every time. I can't explain the scientific reason for this. I can tell you we have gone through 29 different prototypes with different size drums and vent adjustments every way you can imagine."
Once again we ran this by Dr. Blonder, asking if there is any reason the smaller drum would be superior. "Absolutely makes sense." he replied, "The reason the Pit Barrel works is simple, heat rises. So you have a hot fire at the bottom, and hot air that rises to the top; which basically evens out the temperature profile to more or less constant top to bottom. Hang the meat vertically so the hot air is not blocked, and it's the perfect oven - unless there are convection cells that mess up this even profile. Imagine a really wide cooker. Hot air would rise, bump into the cooler lid, cool off and sink, forming a rotating convection cell that lowers air temp at the lid and creates unpredictable turbulence. But as you narrow the diameter of the cooker, it becomes harder and harder for air to make the turn and descend. Sounds like 30 gallons is the dividing line between stable and unstable flow."
PBCs are made from brand new 30 gallon steel drums. Even though they come with a stand that elevates the bottom a few inches off the ground, you should use an additional protective layer when placing them on any surface that could be damaged by heat like grass or wood. The PBC uses horseshoes for one handle on the lid, two handles on the barrel and the legs for the stand. Nice visual touch, but the steel lid handle can get pretty hot, particularly when first fired up. Our temperature tests with a probe hanging a few inches down from one of the steel rods showed the PBC started hot at around 500 degrees, then dropped to 300 within a half hour and gradually stabilized in the 250 range where it could stay for several hours.
All fabrication is done at their facility in Strasburg, CO. After fabrication is complete, they sandblast the outside and apply a black DuPont high temp powder coat finish rated up to 1,000 degrees.
Glanville is a self-described salt lover, evidenced by the two PBC rubs he generously includes with each cooker. If you love salt, you will love his All-Purpose Pit Rub and Beef & Game Pit Rub. Regardless, check out Meathead's Tested Recipes for Rubs, Spice Blends, Pastes, Marinades, and Brines. Although Glanville's instructional videos are essential for getting started with the PBC, we disagree with his frequent assertions of the importance of letting meats rest before serving. This is a popular notion we have disproved.
Glanville clearly takes great pride in his work and vows to smother all PBC customers with attention. His cell phone number goes on every Pit Barrel and he encourages customers to call with any and all questions and comments. In addition to a great product, it appears he has a solid business plan that is working well. One wonders how much longer Glanville can field calls from a growing list of customers. Current Pit Barrel owners may eventually find they have bragging rights with their direct line to the President.
*1152 square inch capacity based on 8 slabs of ribs at one square foot (144 s.i.) of flat cooking grate per slab.
Our test model was provided by The Pit Barrel Company.
$269 Manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP), actual price may vary.
1,152 square inches ( about 56 burgers )
Manufacturer claims that all or practically all of this device is made in the USA
Cooked On It
We have hands-on experience testing this product. We have also gathered info from the manufacturer, owners and other reliable sources.
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