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 a little more, but is delivered to your door ready to go, no assembly needed. Follow their simple instructions and you'll be flabbergasted as you create one perfectly smoked delicacy after another with little more effort than preparation.
We used a Pit Barrel 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 below:
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. To make sure you get off to a great start, click here to read, The Amazing Pit Barrel Cooker: Setup, Tips, Tricks, & Techniques.
It comes with a chrome plated wire cooking grate, but hanging foods is the preferred method. Two lengths of rebar slide into small holes at the barrel top and eight stainless steel hooks are provided for hanging ribs, poultry and roasts. A heavy charcoal basket with handle rests at the bottom of the barrel next to a 3" hole with adjustable damper. The damper must be set for your specific elevation before use. Take heed because setting the damper is critical. 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, (see below).
Our elevation is about 800 feet so we adjusted the vent 1/4 open. It helps to look at the damper from inside the barrel so you can see the round opening and eyeball the setting better. 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. As an experiment we tried setting it at 1/2. The PBC got real hot for a couple hours 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 way open, the fire came back and temperature began to rise. You may have to tweak it a little at first, but this is minor because once set, it shouldn't have to change.
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 charcoal 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.
At the outset we recommend using high quality charcoal briquettes which you can start with lighter fluid or a chimney. Once you've done several sessions without a hitch, go ahead and try adding wood or using lump charcoal if you wish. Read The Zen of Charcoal. Just dump the cold ashes out when finished or Click Here for PBC's new Attachable Ash Pan, (shown right), that connects to the bottom of the charcoal basket for more convenient ash removal.
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 andinstall the two provided steel rods by sliding them through four 3/4" holes at the top of the barrel. Then 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."
The hooks place the food in the center of the heat. Think of this setup like a stationary BBQ rotisserie. 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 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.
Pit Barrel has some really cool new stainless steel Turkey Hangers that enable you to easily hang two full size gobblers at once. Click Here to Learn More.
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."
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. 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.
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.
In our original 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 240 square inches is for the single round cooking grate. Capacity for hanging meats is dramatically more. For example, you can easily hang eight full slabs of ribs. Want to hang and cook on a flat grate at the same time? No problem with PBC's new Hinged Cooking Grate. Click Here For More Details. In 2017 Pit Barrel introduced a smaller drum smoker named Pit Barrel Junior. Click here for our review.
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."
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.
Our test model was provided by The Pit Barrel Cooker.
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.