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What is the best “1st” smoker?

July 5, 2008 by · 3 Comments 

wsmWell, you have been grilling for years. But, you want to make some of that great pulled pork like your buddy does with his smoker. And, maybe a smoked turkey for the holidays would be nice.

So, what is the best smoker to buy to get started?

There is no perfect answer except, “It Depends”.

You must ask and answer the following questions to start your search for that perfect smoker for you.

  1. How many people to you intend to feed, both routinely and on those special occasions?
  2. Would you like an “easy to use” approach to smoking? Or, are you interested in the ancient art of fire tending and long nights around the smoker?
  3. Finally, the big question. What is your budget?

Let me take you through a brief tour of the different types of smokers on the market today.  There is plenty of variety and you should find one that is best for you. For each type, I will list the most commonly discussed “Pros and Cons” for each genre.

I will be using a term throughout this discussion that needs to be defined now. A “charcoal basket” is a simple box, normally made of expanded metal or something similar. This basket holds a good supply of charcoal and wood chunks. A small amount of charcoal is lit and then spreads slowly through the supply. The burn rate is controlled by restricting the airflow.

With that out of the way, let’s proceed through the smoker types.

“OFFSET FIREBOX” SMOKERS

These are the “traditional” smokers with a separate chamber for the fire and one for the smoking area. The fire can be pure logs (sticks) or may be charcoal in a basket. Sizes and prices run the gamut from the inexpensive sheet metal ones found at the big-box stores through custom trailer rigs that cost many thousands of dollars.

PROS

Offsets are “sexy” and traditional. If you say “BBQ Smoker”, most people have a mental image of an offset firebox design.

Offsets have produced fantastic BBQ for decades. Lots of smoke flavor and the legendary “smoke ring” are common.

Offsets are dependable and relatively low maintenance. No electricity required and no real moving parts unless it is a rotisserie unit. Normally, keeping the smoker rust free, clean, and lubricated is about all the routine care required.

Offsets require the highest level of fire management skills. Many cooks consider this a badge of distinction as a “Pitmaster”. Maintaining a relatively constant cooking temp is an art form requiring frequent attention throughout the cooking cycle. This may be considered a great time to just “enjoy friends and life”, and maybe enjoy a few adult beverages.

CONS

Offsets require the highest level of fire management skills. Sound familiar?  The learning curve for fire management can be steep and long, depending on the smoker used. I personally started with a “Bandera”. It is an offset with a vertical smoke chamber made of sheet metal. I had excellent guidance on fire management, but it still was a trick to learn. I loved my Bandera, but grew weary of tending the fire every 45 minutes or so. I built a basket and that helped.

Offsets, small horizontal ones in particular, have a “hot spot” by the firebox end. Temps can be 50+ degrees hotter there. Some cooks build a baffle to even out the heat. Some cooks learn to use the difference to their advantage. But, the hot end can significantly reduce the usable cooking area in many cases. As the smoke chamber grows larger, the influence of the hot area diminishes, but the purchase price goes up exponentially. 

CABINET STYLE SMOKERS

These are the smokers that just look like a box with one or more doors on the front. The fire or heat source is located below the meat and is normally charcoal. However, the heat source may be propane or electric with small pieces of wood used for flavor. All heat sources work fine and produce excellent BBQ.

PROS

Cabinet Style units normally have relatively even heat distribution throughout the smoke box. Not perfect, but pretty even on most units.

Cabinet Style units normally enjoy long burn times at relatively constant temperatures. The ones that burn charcoal normally use some form of a basket or a gravity feed system to control the burn and keep the temperatures even for a few hours up to “many” hours of unattended smoking.

 CONS

Cabinet Style units work best if they are insulated. This means that this style with insulation may cost more that the lowest priced Offsets and some other styles.

 BULLET STYLE SMOKERS

These are the “cute” little smokers that look like R2D2 from Star Wars. They produce heat and smoke similar to Cabinet Style cookers, bur are round. Many, many cooks started with one of these. The “major player” in this genre is the Weber Smokey Mountain. I proudly owned one of these for over 2 years. I miss it sometimes.

The Pros and Cons are similar to the Cabinet style except they tend to be a single layer of steel and much more affordable. The WSM is easily the most commonly recommended smoker for a new cook.

 PELLET SMOKERS and GRILLS
These can be cabinet type or resemble an offset cooker; I made them a separate genre because they use a unique fuel—compressed wood pellets. These cookers may be complex with a timing device or a computer to control the pellet feed. Also, they normally have a combustion fan to keep the pellets burning cleanly.

PROS

 

 

Rock solid heat control.

Long burn times of over 20 hours if needed with little or no attention required.

The flavors and types of wood pellets make it easy and relatively inexpensive to create the exact smoke flavor desired. I spend approximately $.50 per hour for pellets in my FEC 100.

Pellets burn very cleanly and it is considered difficult to “over smoke” the product.

CONS

Pellet smokers require electricity to operate the controller and the fans.

Pellet smokers have electrical and mechanical parts that are subject to failure. They have an excellent service history, but most owners keep a few basic repair parts like “drive pins” available.

Pellet smokers are expensive.

 So, this completes my tour of the various types of smokers on the market.

Remember those three questions?

Evaluate your needs first and then start shopping.

Once you determine your needs, feel free to ask here for more information on specific brands.

 Happy smoking.

BBQ Tips

June 29, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

If you’re a new barbecue cook or new to bbq contests, here are a few BBQ tips to shorten your learning curve. When I was starting these tips were shared with me and I share them with new cooks every chance I get.

How to keep BBQ hot if you’re not quite ready to eat it…use an ice chest/ice cooler. Put some hot water in an empty ice chest, close the lid and let it set for 3 or 4 minutes. Drain the hot water and you’ve got yourself a portable BBQ warmer. We’ve kept pork butts warm this way for 6 or 7 hours.

How to keep your hands clean when cooking BBQ…use powder free latex gloves. They come in packs of 100 at the local Sam’s Club and will keep your hands clean. You’ll maintain good sanitary practices too. Many bbq sanctioning bodies require the use of gloves when preparing contest entries.

How to keep your spouse interested in the BBQ hobby…get him/her involved in it with you. It’s a lot of fun. You meet nice people and it’s something you can do together.

How to keep your BBQ expenses in line with your budget…research all your purchases thoroughly. Make sure your purchase will do what you want it to do BEFORE you purchase it. For example, if you want to learn to cook whole hogs, you probably need to consider a big cooker or if you want to cook 10-15 racks spare ribs every weekend you’re going to need something bigger than a WSM.

How to continually improve your BBQ recipes…keep records of your cooking efforts including cook times, prepping techniques used and especially measurements for sauces or rubs and spices used. When you tweak the recipe for taste, only change one thing at a time–change the cook time, change the rub, change the sauce, but try to avoid completely changing everything all at once. Small changes to your technique and recipes will help you focus on the effects better and you’ll be able to fine tune the product quality more efficiently.

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