Pit Barrel Junior is a smaller version of the popular Pit Barrel Cooker charcoal smoker. Both Pit Barrels produce delicious results with an ease of use that approaches the “set it and forget it” bliss of digitally controlled pellet smokers. These charcoal burning barrels have a lid on top and a small hole on the bottom and are some of the more impressive, affordable cookers we've tested. Pit Barrel Junior (PBJ) is a 14” diameter, 16 gallon drum for $250, while the full-size Pit Barrel Cooker (PBC) is an 18.5” diameter, 30 gallon drum for $350. Prices include shipping.
Pit barrels are variations on Ugly Drum Smokers, aka UDS. For many years Do-It-Yourselfers have fashioned Ugly Drum Smokers from 55 gallon drums with a few spare parts and some elbow grease. They work well and routinely show up at BBQ competitions.
The Pit Barrel costs a little more but is delivered to your door ready to go with no assembly needed (see below).
We used a Pit Barrel Cooker in our Science of BBQ & Grilling With Meathead video series presented by Kingsford. Click here to see videos from that series and check out my Virtual Showroom vid of Junior below:
As with the large Pit Barrel, operation of the Junior is simple. But pay careful attention. Drum smokers are different from other smokers, and Pit Barrels have some attributes that make them even more unique. Pit Barrels are designed to produce a cooking environment in which one temperature fits all. They do not have traditional adjustable air intake and exhaust dampers for you to fiddle with. Set the lower intake damper for your elevation, start the charcoal fire correctly, and you'll be flabbergasted as you create one perfectly smoked delicacy after another with little more effort than preparing the food. To make sure you get off to a great start, click here to read, The Amazing Pit Barrel Cooker: Setup, Tips, Tricks, & Techniques. If you need further info, Pit Barrel provides detailed instructions in the box and on their website.
Setting the Intake Damper
A 3" hole with an adjustable damper is located at the bottom of the barrel where the charcoal basket rests. Unlike most dampers, it is set for your elevation rather than a specific cooking temperature. If you live at the elevation of sea level up to 2,000 ft. adjust your vent to 1/4 open, 2,000-5,000 ft. 1/2 open, 5,000 to 8,000 ft. 3/4 open and 8,000 ft. and above all the way open (see below).
Our elevation is about 800 feet so we adjusted the vent 1/4 open. Eyeballing this isn't too hard, but 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. You may have to tweak this a little at first, but once set, the intake damper shouldn't have to change. As an experiment, we opened the damper halfway to see what would happen. The Barrel got real hot for a couple hours, and then (even with plenty of charcoal remaining) the temperature dropped like a rock and almost died out. When we returned the damper to 1/4 open, the fire came back and the temperature began to rise.
Lighting the Charcoal
Begin with high-quality charcoal briquets. After you go through several cooking sessions without a hitch, go ahead and try using lump charcoal and adding wood chunks if you wish. Although Pit Barrel owner, Noah Glanville, now prefers lump over briquetes, unless you're already using lump and understand it's pitfalls (HA!) we still recommend starting with briquets as they are much more consistant. Click here to learn more about charcoal. You can start the fire with lighter fluid or a chimney. We’ve found that using a chimney offers more consistency and control. Fill the Pit Barrel’s charcoal basket, remove 1/4 of the briquettes, and place the removed briquets in your chimney. Set the charcoal basket at the bottom of the barrel then light the chimney and let it burn for 12 to 15 minutes for elevations under 2,000 feet. All other elevations should burn for no more than 20 minutes. Dump the hot coals onto the fresh briquettes already in the basket and immediately begin cooking.
WARNING: Do not modify your Pit Barrel. Unlike many other inexpensive smokers, Pit Barrel should work great right out of the box. We occasionally hear about some well thought out and well executed mods. Indeed our Pit Barrel Maven, Jerod Broussard, has supercharged his PBC. However as one of our Moderators points out, "When Max states you shouldn't mod your cooker he was speaking to the legion of folks who cannot resist modding something the second they get it home. Many of these folks are coming from cheap offset smokers that had to be modified just to get them to work. My PBC is mod free and works great."
Hook and Hang
PBJ comes with the chrome plated wire cooking grate shown below.
But hanging foods is the preferred method for many recipes. Two lengths of rebar slide into small holes at the barrel top and six stainless steel hooks are provided for hanging ribs, poultry, beef roasts, briskets and pork butts.
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.
Pit Barrel Junior (PBJ) vs Pit Barrel Cooker (PBC)
Below is Junior on the left with big brother PBC on the right. After testing, we feel performance is very similar for both with size and capacity being the main differences. While both are portable, the smaller, lighter Junior is much easier to pick up and move if easy portability is a priority.
PBJ can handle six slabs of ribs or one turkey in a single cooking session, while PBC does eight slabs or two turkeys.
We began tests with a comparative cook of baby back ribs, one full slab hung in each barrel and smoked simultaneously. The results were practically identical. Both slabs came out soft, smoky, and succulent. You may wonder how the bottoms of each slab, dangling just inches above red hot charcoal, didn’t get overcooked or even burnt. 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."
The hooks place the food in the center of the heat. Think of this setup like a stationary rotisserie. Hang a beef roast and it comes out pink and juicy from top to bottom. As a bonus, the juices from the meat drip onto the hot coals creating a delicious blend of smoke and sizzled drippings that rises back up into the meat, producing a unique flavor that you can't get with an offset smoker or a Weber Smokey Mountain. The burning of these juices, laden with seasoning and melted fats, is a hallmark of PBC performance.
Our tests occurred right before Thanksgiving, so turkey was next on the menu. You can hang just about anything, including turkeys, from the stainless steel hooks, but Pit Barrel’s turkey hangers (shown below on the larger PBC) work even better.
Pit Barrel has a variety of accessories for hanging sausage, corn on the cob and Brazilian Churrasco that are affordable, effective and fun. Click here for more on these cool contraptions. We used a Pit Barrel turkey hanger for an 18 pound bird. The 14” diameter PBJ was a tight fit for our big bird….
But the results speak for themselves.
PBJ’s charcoal basket is relatively small next to PBC’s.
In a side by side duration test with a full charcoal basket in each barrel, PBJ started fading under 225°F after about 6 hours while PBC kept going for 8 hours. Click here for our review of the full size Pit Barrel Cooker. Of course, you can always add charcoal to extend the cook time if needed. When finished, just dump out the cold ashes, or click here for PBJ's attachable ash pan (shown below) that connects to the bottom of the charcoal basket for more convenient ash removal.
Even though Pit Barrels 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. Like its big brother, the PBJ uses horseshoes for one handle on the lid and also for two handles on the barrel. They make a nice visual touch, but the steel lid handle can get pretty hot, particularly when first fired up. Put on your gloves before lifting the lid to look into the barrel.
Pit Barrel owner, Noah 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 meat rest before serving. This is a popular notion we have disproved.
In our original PBC review we wrote, "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. 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". As predicted, Pit Barrel sales took off and a new customer service department number replaced Glanville's cell phone. We're happy to report quality of customer care does not appear to have suffered.
*Our posted capacity of 154 square inches is for the single round cooking grate. Capacity for hanging meats is dramatically more. For example, you can easily hang six full slabs of ribs. Want to hang and cook on a flat grate at the same time? No problem with PBJ's Hinged Cooking Grate. The picture below of the larger PBC hinged grate shows how you can hang and cook on a flat grate simultaneously.
Our test model was provided by The Pit Barrel Cooker.
There are many lively discussions about Pit Barrel Cookers in our Pitmaster Club Forums. Even if you're not a Pitmaster Club member, you can view up to 12 club pages for FREE! Here is one popular link to check out:Click here to learn the benefits of membership.
Cooked On It
We have hands-on experience testing this product. We have also gathered info from the manufacturer, owners and other reliable sources.
The Pit Barrel Cooker Company is a family-owned business established in 2010 in Strasburg, Colorado. Their flagship product, The Pit Barrel Cooker, may be the first upright drum smoker, commonly known as an Ugly Drum Smoker, that has been marketed and sold for under $300 fully assembled.
Affectionately referred to as The PBC, it has proven to be a phenomenon in the residential outdoor cooking world. Aspiring backyard pit bosses who previously struggled with cheap offset and bullet smokers, are astonished to discover the best smoked meats they ever made can now be produced effortlessly on this magic drum. Scroll down to read the numerous raves from PBC aficionados.