You have seen the smoke rising up over the neighbors privacy fence. You have walked out the front door and smelled the meat cooking only to walk back inside and eat the same old baked chicken. Whether you have a smoker or grill, or you simply have to envy your neighbor, below you can learn more about smokers, grilling, and cooking outdoors.
Mankind has been cooking outdoors much longer than it has been using indoor ovens, so the use of outdoor cooking appliances is a natural draw. If you like being outside and want to know more about outdoor cooking or if you are just researching before purchasing a new grill or smoker, there is always something to learn about BBQ and smoking. Below you will find descriptions of the different types of outdoor cookers. Please feel free to add comments about what you use, prefer, or what questions you have.
The Offset Smoker: The Neighborhood King
One of the most widely recognized smokers in the South is the offset barrel smoker. This smoker has two barrels, both horizontal, one larger and sitting higher, and the other (the firebox) is lower and runs into the bottom of one end of the large barrel. This design allows for a large grill, or cooking, area and prevents direct heat which can dry out or burn your meat. It also gives the person cooking the ability to open the firebox area and change wood without greatly affecting the overall temperature of the cooking barrel.
Some offset smokers have a shield or a horizontal plate that runs under the cooking grill to the other end of the cooking barrel. Smoke and heat then travel under the shield to the other end and then up and through the meat. This design change further eliminates the possibility of flame up and gives the cooker the flexibility of being able to place drip pans or flavorings to evaporate on the shield. A person could also place charcoal on the shield to use the smoker as a grill for faster cooking, but I don't recommend such (mostly because I prefer smoking). Grilling with charcoal, as I mentioned, is not needed in most of these offset smokers because they have the capability of producing enough heat from the firebox to reach grilling temperatures.
Upright Drum Smokers And Vertical Water Smokers
Both the Upright Drum Smoker and the Vertical Water Smoker operate with the same basic design in mind. The smoker barrel is vertical with the food rack on top and the fire rack on the bottom, about 24 inches below. The difference is that in the Vertical Water Smoker there is a bowl or tray of water between the two. This bowl serves three purposes: it diverts direct heat so that the meat is less likely to be burned due to flame up, it holds liquid that evaporates to keep the meat moist, and it catches the grease droppings from the meat to help prevent flame up and to keep grease from landing on the fire and cooling the wood or charcoal.
Both of these designs are goo, especially for the single family setting, but each have their downfall. The Upright Drum Smoker has less ability to safeguard against flame up, only the distance of 24 inches, which should be good in most cases. Do to this shortfall, temperatures must be kept around 220 F, and not much higher. If you prefer to cycle your temperatures (referred to below) then you will not want this design. If you are able to watch your smoker more carefully, then this design may suit your needs.
The downfall of the Vertical Water Smoker is that they can be size prohibitive. The grill on most of these smokers is small and will definitely only fit food for a small group. Also, some people complain that these smokers produce less flavor due to the drippings falling in the water bowl. This can be overcome by putting spices in with your water.
Propane And Electric Smokers
In the past several years there has been a rise in the popularity of propane and electric smokers. These smokers are unequalled in their ease of use. No more splitting firewood. No more using charcoal to fuel or start your fire. No more chasing your temperature by adding or taking away air. The ease of just turning a knob to set your temperature is beyond desirable. Most of these smokers are built on the Upright Drum Smoker design although some may have water pans similar to the Vertical Water Smoker design.
The downside of the Upright Drum and the Vertical water, not having room for more meat, is overcome with these smokers because due to the fuel source's ability for fine tuned metering, more space can be taken by meat instead of a buffer area. These smokers do have to use wood chips, however, to get their smoke, so some may doubt their flavor. I will say that they shouldn't.
"MacGyver" Smokers: Use What You Have
Although many of the smokers that are cooking across the country and around the world each weekend are store bought and fall into one of the above designs, there are many other designs out there. There are websites devoted just to designs that you can build yourself. Some of these include the double barrel smoker, the whole hog pit, and smokers made from junk appliances or even cars.
The double barrel smoker is made from two 50 gallon drums, both horizontal. The bottom drum is the firebox and is attached to the cooking box by two pieces of pipe which are welded between the two and hold the upper barrel up. The whole hog pit can be simply a fire in a pit with a hog suspended by sticks over the pit and a makeshift roof, or it can be a small building made around a hog on a table made of blocks.
The most interesting of these smokers, in my opinion, are the ones made junk appliances or cars. I have seen a smoker made by a two drawer filing cabinet welded side by side to a four drawer filing cabinet. The two drawer was the fire box and there was a hole cut out between the bottom two drawers. The owner had cut holes out in the bottom of the top 3 drawers of the taller cabinet and could simply lay whole chickens in the drawers (or any other meat for that matter). Another was a smoker made from an old refrigerator. The refrigerator was upside down, had a hole cut between the freezer area (now on the bottom) and the refrigerator area.
In an area near where I live there is a man who pulls an old VW Bug to local fairs. He has a trailer tongue coming out the front to pull it with his truck. When inspected you can see that he places meat in several areas of the car, but has the firebox in the back where the engine would normally be. Genius.
Tips And More
Each grill master has his own tips and tricks, and everyone has both something to learn and something to teach. I do not claim to be the greatest outdoor cook to live, but I can get most people started. For some, smoking can seem like a daunting task that takes too much time and doing something they do not understand. If this is you, simply try it, you'll like it.
I, personally, prefer to use my offset smoker and split my own wood. I cut mine very thin to start out until I get a good bed of hot coals. I know some smokers that would faint if someone put an ounce of bark into their firebox. I know others that use charcoal and wood chips. Find which flavor you like, find which grill design you like, and then try recipe after recipe. It all tastes great, so you have nothing to lose.
I will say this, use either gloves or tongs to move your meat. The last thing you want, especially for large pieces like Boston Butts, is to break the crust, or bark, of your meat, allowing all the juices to run out leaving dry meat. I personally will cook my butts about 3 hours, just when they get a nice auburn brown, and take them out and double wrap them with heavy duty aluminum foil, careful to not rip or poke a hole in the foil. This wrap still allows smoke to enter the meat, but stops it from getting the charred outside that some people prefer.
I also run most of my meats through heat cycles. By this I mean that I will run my barrel temperature up to about 300 F and then come back down to about 190 - 200. For a 8 lb Boston Butt, for example, I will do this about 3 times over 4 or 5 hours then let it cook steady at about 200 F for another 4 or 5 hours. I started doing this while smoking meat at the fire station with a small smoker that had trouble regulating heat. I soon noticed that my butts were much softer and the blade would be falling out when I removed them from the smoker.
FutureDrKate on January 05, 2012:
Ha! I loved the part about drooling over the neighbor's fence, but I think I'll have to find someone to cook for me instead. I just botched making pasta.
Joseph Davis (author) from Florida on January 04, 2012:
Personally I think the Bradley BTIS1 electric is the best deal for just under 300 on sale. If you can find an Oklahoma Joe's offset they are a great buy as well. Right now I have a offset that is homemade, about a 36" x 24" cooking area.
Paul Edmondson from Burlingame, CA on January 04, 2012:
I love smoking meats. What's the best smoker under 300?
Joseph Davis (author) from Florida on January 04, 2012:
Oklahoma Joe's are great. They are generally well build and tend to last. The one's I have used also have had a good sized firebox, which makes getting plenty of air to get the fire started much easier.
ssgreenland from Oklahoma on January 04, 2012:
Great stuff!! I use an offset smoker...it's an Oklahoma Joe's brand, super heavy duty and fairly small. Love cooking anything on it. Thanks for the info.