BBQ FAQ Section 5.1

 

5.1 Home smokers

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[I hear the term 'off-set firebox smoker'. What does that mean?]

Editor--

The wood-burning smoker type that most experienced barbecuers will use to do their smoking is called the 'off-set firebox' smoker. This type of smoker has three main parts: the firebox, the horizontal smoking chamber, and the exhaust chimney. Some manufacturers add a vertical smoking chamber at the end of the horizontal smoking chamber and the exhaust chimney exits from the top of this vertical chamber.

The firebox is where you make the fire and it is located to one side of the smoker, either right or left. It is 'off-set' from the main smoking chamber, or middle part of the smoker (where you put the meat). Being off-set, the heat that comes off the fire does not go directly to the food racks (like on a backyard charcoal grill), but instead travels horizontally past a baffle and into the smoking chamber, ideally under and around the meat on the racks. The heated air and smoke then exit the smoking chamber through the exhaust chimney. Some smokers have the exhaust chimney opening at the top of the smoking chamber, on the end opposite the firebox. Other designs have the exhaust opening in the middle of the opposite end of the smoking chamber.

In the smoking chamber there is at least one meat grill or rack, often several and often at more than at one height, i.e. upper and lower grills. Here is where the real business of smoking meat is done--on the grills. Most backyard off-set firebox smokers can handle a brisket, a chicken and a slab or two of ribs at the same time. Larger pits can hold much more meat and feed larger crowds of people.

Some pits have a vertical smoking chamber at the end of the horizontal chamber, opposite the firebox, that can operate at a lower temperature than in the horizontal chamber. This chamber is used for smoking things like fish, jerky and bacon.

The exhaust chimney is where the smoke exits the smoker. It is usually fitted with an adjustable damper. A note of caution here: beginners to smoking should leave this damper wide open while smoking. Experience will let you deepen the amount of finishing smoke flavor by adjusting this damper. Closing the exhaust damper without knowing what you're doing will be the shortest route to ruined barbecue.

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[Can you give me some pointers on selecting a barbecue smoker?]

Editor--

Selecting a barbecue smoker is like buying any other piece of equipment. You need to do some homework and decide a few things before you rush out and buy one. Consider: where will you use it--backyard or porch or apartment? How much do you want to spend--$30 or $3000? How much room do you have--four square feet or an acre? How serious are you about barbecue, once a month or every day? How many people do you want to feed when you have a barbecue party--two or a hundred? What kind of weather do you have--hot humid Florida or cold freezing Maine? How much barbecue do you want to do at one time--a few hot dogs or a load of pork shoulders, ribs and a couple of briskets? Do you want to be able to cool-smoke some fish or bacon? Do you want a combination unit--smoker and grill? What level of attention do you want to have to put into your smoking--tending a wood burner every 30-60 minutes or a gas or an electric Lazy-Q unit every few hours or so? How long do you want the smoker unit to last--pass on to your grandchildren or replace it every other year? Do you want a smoker that you can take to the beach or the mountains, or do you want one made out of bricks that forms the focal point of your patio?

When you know the answer to all these question, picking out a smoker will be fairly straight-forward.

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[What are the advantages or disadvantages to choosing a square vs. a round firebox when buying an off-set firebox smoker?]

Harry Jiles--

Having owned both round and square firebox pits, I will give you my opinion. Square fireboxes have more room. A 16" sq. firebox has more interior volume than a 16" round firebox. This extra room allows you to have more room under the fire grate for ash, a full 16" square firegrate and more room over the firegrate, so the flames are not right at the top of the firebox. All this extra room helps give you better fire control. Ashes don't build up and smother the fire as quickly, more room to rake the coals to one side or the other and more room to add logs without burning the paint off the top of the firebox. Another added feature of the square firebox is the ability to use the flat top as a cooking surface for pots and also as a grill.

I personally feel the round firebox is one of the biggest shortcomings of the NB and Brinkmann offset pits. The 16" firebox makes fire control difficult, or at least somewhat tedious. However, when you have a round firebox of 20" or more, these problems are eliminated. Even though a 20" square firebox still has more room than a 20" round one, the round one has enough room to eliminate the problems associated with smaller round fireboxes.

Bottom line is, IMHO, that a square firebox less than 20" is better than a round firebox less than 20", but 20" and above, it really doesn't matter.

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Danny Gaulden--

Even though most folks like a square firebox, I don't. I'm talking about a firebox and smoker dedicated to slow smoking only, not a grill and smoker combined. I would choose a properly dimensioned round box over a square firebox any day. However, an improperly designed round firebox can be very awkward. I think this is the problem with the "Hondo" styled, cheaper pits like the NBBD, SnP Pro, etc. If a round firebox is approximately 1.5 times longer, or more, than its width, it is a great, user friendly log burner.

A round firebox allows me to bank my coals in the middle of it in a nice little compact, hot pile, without them trying to spread out all over as they do in a flat firebox. This makes the addition of new logs reach the burning stage much faster, for the heat and draft is concentrated into a smaller draft path. A round firebox is also much easier to take out the ashes than a flat firebox, for as you scoop one shovel full out, the other ashes fall towards the center, rather than pushed all over the place as in a flat firebox.

There are some other elements to be considered here, and one must choose what they are primarily using the firebox for. Example: the Klose Back Yard Chef--the square firebox is important to me, for I do a lot of steak, chicken, and pork chop grilling, as well as corn and potatoes. A flat firebox works best for this, for one can spread out the coals over a wider area, and that is important for grilling. However, if you are concerned with slow smoking only, I think a "properly designed" round firebox is the only way to go. The choice is yours!

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Editor--

The flat top feature of the firebox is also nice for pre-heating your firewood before it goes into the firebox. On a round firebox, there must be a flat top bracket or shelf welded onto it to get this feature.

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[What should I look for when I start shopping for a premium smoker?]

David Klose--

Here are a few features you may want to look for when buying a premium grill/smoker, whether it is charcoal, wood, or even gas-fired.

1   Ask your retailer if the unit you are interested in is made from all new steel. There are some units out there that are made from used materials and should be avoided.

2   Pick the thickest steel unit you can find and afford. The thicker the walls of the smoker, the better it will hold in the heat, as well as always cooking more evenly. Quarter inch steel pits last much longer than the sheet metal ones. Look for a pullout ash pan--this will help increase the life of the grill or smoker considerably and make it much easier to load wood or coals.

3   Try to buy a smoker that will fit the size of family/group you are normally feeding. A medium-sized smoker 18" or 20" diameter by 30" long will allow large cuts of meat like shoulders and turkeys to be cooked without burning the skin from the hotter top areas of your grill. A 20" diameter by 30" long smoker will hold a brisket or shoulder, two whole chickens, and few hoops of sausage on the bottom shelf, with 3 corn-on-the-cob, 3 baked potatoes, and a slab of ribs on the top half shelf, if one is present. This size will feed the average family/group of 5 to 10, without having to stack the meats and vegetables inside too closely together.

4   A nice feature in some off-set firebox smokers, is an adjustable meat rack over the fire, for grilling steaks, hamburgers, hot-dogs, fajitas, vegetables and blackening redfish.

5   Try to get a unit that has features like adjustable grill heights, and removable meat racks framed in steel angles for extra strength. A large log rack underneath is also helpful for storing wood, charcoal, trays and pans. A steel plate fixed baffle, welded at 45 degrees, between the firebox and main chamber of your smoker will allow you more cooking area, and helps to even out the temperatures from one end of the smoker to the other. A   2-inch high steel plate welded vertically at the bottom of the smoking chamber by the firebox, will allow you to pour water, wine, or juice in the bottom of your smoker to keep the meats moist during cooking. A drain at the end away from the firebox is useful to drain off any drippings and fluids you don't want after cooking. Place a ball valve on the drain for easy cleanup.

6   Be sure to inspect the grill or smoker for sharp edges, unwelded corners, sturdy legs and quality wheels. Swivel casters on one end, and large wheels on the heavy end will make moving your grill easier. Be sure the doors fit tightly, with a seal that won't warp due to the heat of everyday cooking. Make sure the straps on the edges of the doors are welded completely, and not skip welded, as this can lead to warping.

7   Decent handles that don't get hot are a must for any grill or smoker. Wood handles do not last very long outside in the weather. A handle that allows the air to go through it, like a coiled stainless steel handle, are by far the best you can get.

8 Make sure your smoker includes a quality stainless steel thermometer that is hermetically sealed, so smoke does not condense inside the dial. It should be mounted at the meat rack level, and not higher up in the center, or on the top of the door, as it is usually 50 to 75F hotter than at the meat rack.

9   Look for grills or smokers that have plenty of shelf and table space.

10   Be wary of grills that have cheap door hinges or latches, as these will last outside in the weather for only a short time before they rust shut or break off. The doors with a steel bar the full length of the door hinges are better.

11   Adjustable controls for air-intake at the firebox are helpful for controlling the inside temperature of your grill or smoker. Ones with the sideways sliding controls will last much longer. An adjustable cap on the smokestack will also be helpful.

12  Be sure to ask for any recipe or instruction books that may be included. Also collect any information they may have on accessories for your smoker, like covers, charcoal and wood suppliers, cookbooks, cutting boards, seasoning supplies, and replacement parts for your grill, like racks, etc.

13   Deal only with reputable companies, that will be there to answer your questions if a problem should ever arise or you need replacement parts.

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[David, since you make and sell barbecue pits for a living (BBQ Pits by Klose), I guess you could have just about any size or style smoker you want. What do you have?]

David Klose--

I have one of my Klose Backyard Chef smokers that is 20-inch diameter by 36-inch long with a 20 x 20-inch firebox. This will feed 20 people. It holds up to 4 briskets. However, a typical load for me is a brisket or a pork shoulder, 2 chickens, 2 strings of sausages, 2 ears of corn , and 2 baked potatoes. This model is the perfect size for that. I have had a 100 different smokers through the last 15 years and I like this one best.

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[I'm new to barbecue. What type of smoker should I start out with?]

Editor--

This is a question that all beginners to barbecue ask. Here is what the many of people on the BBQ List did when they started barbecuing:

1   They purchased an inexpensive water smoker. Charcoal-fired if they wanted to start off to learn barbecue and fire-control at the same time; electric or gas if they wanted to learn to barbecue with a minimum of hassle. Price of these units is between $28 and $60.

2   When their barbecue skills increased in a year or so, they wanted a 'better' smoker. They had to make a choice.

2  A Some liked the simplicity of the bullet water smoker, but wanted better temperature control. So they purchased the Weber Smokey Mountain smoker. It is the world's best bullet water smoker, versatile and forgiving. Price of the Weber unit is about $170.

2B   Some went with a traditional wood-burning off-set firebox smoker, purchasing the Brinkmann Smoke N' Pit Professional or the New Braunfels Hondo or Black Diamond. Price for these units is between $170 and $200.

2C   Some went with a better Lazy-Q smoker, purchasing a Cookshack electric smoker or the Traeger pellet-fired smoker, (prices between $485 and $1,200).

3   As their barbecue skills matured and their desire to smoke more meat at a time came about, they wanted a larger, premium smoker. Here the choice of how to go is much more complicated, but the barbecuer by this time knows exactly what he or she wants. Many List members have purchased a premium smoker from BBQ Pits by Klose, some have chosen a premium smoker made by Oklahoma Joe. Other List members went in different directions, purchasing smokers by made by other manufacturers, taking the home-built road, and some went down the most ambitious road of all, building a permanent backyard smoker or even a smoke house. Price for pits on this road range between $500 and $2,500 and above.

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Harry Jiles--

If you can afford it, get a Klose smoker or one of the other heavy commercial brands like Oklahoma Joe's. They will last a lifetime and make it easier to maintain a good fire and steady temperature than a lighter weight mass-merchandised smoker. It will probably save you money in fuel costs in the long run.

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Danny Gaulden--

Harry has hit on a valid point with the fact that a good smoker will "maintain a good fire and steady temperature." There's more to this than meets a beginner's eyes, and well worth thinking hard about. A "good" fire is not just a fire. It's a very special fire that you need when barbecuing. It's a nice little bed of coals in the fire box, and a couple of logs slowly flickering, sending out a gentle white smoke throughout the smoker and up the stack. Do not try and control the temperature by shutting down your firebox inlet damper. It should always be at least 1/2 open, preferably almost wide open. And remember always keep the exit flue damper wide open. This kind of fire will help you produce a great tasting product, without a bunch of soot or creosote. A good smoker will allow you to build this kind of fire, and be able to keep the temperature steady in the cooking chamber at the same time.

A poorly operating smoker is another matter. You will have to make a big fire in the firebox, with lots of hot coals, and keep a 3 or 4 log fire going most of the time, to keep the temperature high enough in the cooking chamber. This causes several problems--the worst being that you have a fire that is hard to control with any kind of quality. What I mean by this is if you try to close the intake damper down a bit, you will starve this hot fire of oxygen, and produce creosote, or a stale smoke and soot. Also, a hot fire such as this simply will not allow you to cook well. It will have a different, less desirable smell, create a different chemistry, etc. Every time you chuck a log into it, the log will burst into wild flames, (not good) and burn too quickly due to the intensity of the hot fire you are having to maintain. If you try to close the intake damper down a notch or two, creosote will develop. Lots of times this will occur, even with your damper wide open, for the fire just can't get enough oxygen.

You will end up going around in a vicious circle. Lots of good barbecue meat has been ruined because of this problem. On the other hand, the 'good' fire will allow you to open the intake damper wider, if you need more heat, or nearly close it down to decrease the heat, and not create the problems mentioned above, for you're not having to work with such a large fire. Plus as the years go by, and if you've barbecued a lot, you will save a sizable amount in money spent for wood. Might say you'll get a lot of your investment back, and have a heck of a lot more fun barbecuing. Think about it.

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[I've read several posts from barbecuers who use electric smokers. They say they get good results with a minimum of work. So why should I bother with all the hassle of a wood burning smoker?]

Bill Ackerman--

I have both an electric (Southern Pride) and a log burner (Klose BYC). There is absolutely no comparison between the product from the two pits. Everything I do in the BYC is superior to the electric. The advantage of the electric is that I can pretty much set it and forget it while the BYC needs to be watched and fed logs every hour or so. So when I'm lazy or real busy or I'm cold smoking something, I use the electric and the result is usually very good. But when I want to do it right, I fire up the BYC. I used to think smoke was smoke and heat was heat, but there is something magical about cooking meat with burning logs. It's hard to express, but the time, effort, and care put into tending the fire is reflected in the end result. It's also more fun and more satisfying.

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[I am soon going to order a Klose or Oklahoma Joe's smoker. What are the opinions on the vertical smoking chamber that I can order installed next to the horizontal smoking chamber? Is it worth the extra bucks to get the smoker with both horizontal and vertical cooking chambers?]

Harry Jiles--

I have a Klose Backyard Chef, and I use the vertical chamber more than the horizontal when I am not using both together. I think it is easier to open the vertical chamber to check or baste the meat, and stay out of the smoke, than with the horizontal. Also, when I add fresh logs to the fire, I can open the horizontal door for a couple of minutes and dump off the initial smoke while the wood catches fire, before it gets to the meat in the vertical chamber. The big advantage to having the vertical chamber is the increased capacity you get and a little more flexibility on arranging meat in the cooker.

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[Can you tell me something about the commercially-produced smokers and grills suitable for home barbecue?]

The following is a list of popular budget and premium smokers. Descriptions were taken from the manufacturer's literature. All prices as of late 1997. Reviews when given reflect the opinions of BBQ List members.

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BBQ FAQ Ver 1.0, 2.0 1997, 1998 William W. Wight. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 25, 1999
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