Charcoal or wood fueled smokers are the gold standard and extremely popular for backyard chefs. The taste is top notch and you get to play with fire. Who could ask for more?
The problem with most charcoal and log burners is that they require a bit more nursing than electric smokers, gas smokers, or pellet smokers. You have to monitor and fine tune the fuel and air supply in order to keep the temp within your target range. This takes practice. Some are easier to control than others. With the temp yo-yoing up and down, it can be difficult to estimate when the meat will be ready; so cooks typically ruin a few meals learning a new smoker. Cook too hot and the meat will dry out and be tough. Too cool and you will serve raw meat. Set the air dampers incorrectly and the smoke can turn the food bitter.
If you are going to buy a charcoal or log pit, my best advice is to please buy a good one, invest in a really good thermometer, and plan to hang out on the patio during the cook. Have plenty of beer on hand. And don’t invite the boss to dinner until you have the darn thing figgered out.
There are a lot of cheap units in Wally World, K-Mart, Lowes, and Home Depot. If budget limits you to a cheapo, remember this: When it comes to charcoal burners, it is important to pick the one that looks like it will control air flow the best. You need the ability to regulate the air intake near the coals in order to lower or raise the temp. You want a tight and thick cooking chamber so the meat will be heated evenly and be bathed in smoke from one end to the other, and you want a vent on the far end, which is usually left open during cooking. If you can’t control temp and smoke, you can’t cook.
I know you want to buy an offset like the one above. It looks so macho. So cool. It says “I’m serious about barbecue”. I do not recommend any small inexpensive offsets. I especially mean the Brinkmann Pitmaster, Brinkmann Smoke ‘N Pit Professional (a.k.a. SNPP), Char-Broil Silver Smoker, Char-Broil American Gourmet, and especially the Char-Griller Smokin Pro. They are a serious pain in the pork butt. The more expensive heavy duty offsets, let’s say $500 and up, are fine cookers, but still require more skill than other designs.
Why? Let me count the ways: First of all, smoke and heat want to go up, not sideways. They leak badly so it is impossible to control airflow and airflow controls temperature. And they are much hotter on the side next to the firebox than on the side next to the chimney, so if you put on six slabs of ribs, some will be done way sooner than the others. Yes, you can move them around, but that’s a pain, and they still come out uneven.
Yes, I know you see the big huge trailer mounted offsets on TV, and there are some smaller backyard versions the look a lot like the $200 models at the Home Depot, but they are designed very differently. Offsets Like Lang and Horizon are made with thick steel that retains and distributes heat well.
On these cookers, the doors and vents seal tight. Some have reverse flow, a system that ducts the heat and smoke across the bottom below the food so they enter the cooking chamber on the side opposite the firebox and flow back across the food to the firebox side where the chimney is mounted. The duct also warms and radiated heat upward. Alas, they are not usually in the hardware stores, and they are not cheap. Click here to see an article that explains the difference between cheap direct flow and reverse flow offsets, and the modifications owners have had to do to get their cheap offsets to behave.
Yes, offsets look cool, but the cheap ones have turned more people off barbecue than any other cooker. That’s why they’re so cheap on Craig’s List. After one season of frustration, owners dump them. Please resist the temptation. If you have to look macho, get a drum smoker (below). Units like the Pit Barrel Cooker are about the same price as the cheap offsets and they work a lot better. There’s an inexpensive kit that will have you up and running for under $200, and cooking circles around the offsets.
As I beg you above, please do not by an offset smoker unless you spend about $1,000. If you want something that makes you look macho, and something that really works, get a drum smoker. Here are two that have earned our gold medal:
1) Sterling Ball and his team at BigPoppaSmokers.com have created a kit that you can buy for less than $140. You supply the drum. If you click the link I tell you how to get one. This kit significantly reduces the cost, time required, and probability of error. And the results can cook competition worthy meat. Really. To assemble it you will need an electric drill, an adjustable wrench or a 7/8″ and a 7/16″ wrench, a tape measure, and a straight edge.
2) Another excellent option is the Pit Barrel Cooker. Fully assembled it ships to your door for $350. Period. Looks cool and cooks circles around cheap hardware store offset smokers. They are being used with success in competitions.
If you have a Weber Kettle (under $100), you don’t need to spend a lot of money on a stand alone smoker. Look at my article on the Best Charcoal Grill Setup and you can smoke small quantities right out of the box. Better still, spend about $90 for a Slow ‘n’ Sear and you’ve got a serious smoking machine with a larger capacity. It really really works. Competition grade smoked meats. The Slow N Sear Transforms Kettle Grills In To Low And Slow Smokers.
Published On: 8/1/2014 Last Modified: 5/5/2021
One method is best, one method is worst, the others, meh. Click here to read my article on how to get your coal lit properly.
Once you have your new grill, you need heat resistant gloves, and other tools and toys that make you a better outdoor cook. Click here to read my recommended BBQ accessories and gadgets.
These are products we have tested, won our top awards, and are highly recommend. Click here to read how we test, about our medals, and what they mean.
A big part of this site is our unbiased equipment and product reviews. We love playing with toys and we have no problem calling them the way we see them. Some companies pay a finder’s fee if a reader clicks a link on AmazingRibs.com and buys a product. It has zero impact on our reviews, zero impact on the price you pay, and the sites never tell us what you bought, but it has a major impact on our ability to keep this site alive! So before you buy, please click our links. Here’s a link that takes you to a page on Amazon that has some of our favorite tools and toys: https://tinyurl.com/amazingribs
The Thermoworks Thermapen MK4 is considered by the pros, and our team, to be the single best instant read thermometer. The MK4 includes features that are common on high-end instruments: automatic backlight and rotating display. Don’t accept cheap substitutes.
Click here to read our comprehensive Platinum Medal review
A good digital thermometer keeps you from serving dry overcooked food or dangerously undercooked food. They are much faster and much more accurate than dial thermometers. YOU NEED ONE!
Click here to read our complete review
Click here to read our detailed review
This is the first propane smoker with a thermostat, making this baby foolproof. Set ThermoTemp’s dial from 175° to 350°F and the thermostat inside will adjust the burner just like an indoor kitchen oven. All you need to do is add wood to the tray above the burner to start smokin’.
The PK-360, with 360 square inches of cooking space, this rust free, cast aluminum charcoal grill is durable and easy to use. Four-way venting means it’s easy to set up for two zone cooking with more control than single vent Kamado grills. It is beautifully designed, completely portable, and much easier to set up for 2-zone cooking than any round kamado.
GrillGrates(TM) amplify heat, prevent flareups, make flipping foods easier, kill hotspots, flip over to make a fine griddle, and can be easily rmoved from one grill to another. You can even throw wood chips, pellets, or sawdust between the rails and deliver a quick burst of smoke.
Char-Broil’s Grill2Go x200 is a super-portable, fun little sizzler made of heavy, rust-proof cast aluminum. The lid snaps shut. Grab the handle and you’re off to the party! Char-Broil’s TRU-Infrared design produces searing heat while reducing fuel consumption. A 16 ounce LP gas canister is enough to keep you flipping burgers for hours.