There’s not a lot that’s better than a tender piece of meat cooked low and slow over the barbecue! For years, offset or barrel smokers dominated the barbecue competition scene. But now, thanks to the rising availability of quality, at home offset barbecues, you too, can master the art of smoking. If you’re a lover of all things barbecue, an offset smoker is THE must-have barbecue. So, before you invest in one of these good looking meat making machines, here’s everything you need to know about buying an offset smoker.
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What is an Offset Smoker?
Offset smokers are also called barrel, side firebox, horizontal or pipe smokers or cookers. Most people think of them as the most traditional type of smoker and they’re capable of producing very high-quality, competition worthy smoked meats.
How Do Offset Smokers Work?
The most common type of offset smoker consists of two differently sized, sealed but connected cylinders or boxes. The smaller of the two boxes is most often called a firebox. It houses a charcoal or wood fire and is offset a little lower than the larger container. It’s positioned to force the rising smoke from the fire up and into the larger box also referred to as an oven or cooking space. From here, the smoke moves through the larger chamber, cooking the meat inside, before escaping through a chimney.
Some models also feature an additional vertical cooking chamber that the smoke passes through before exiting the chimney to increase the cooking capacity.
To control the temperature of an offset smoker, you simply adjust the air intake and exhaust vents. When the vents are more open, the increased oxygen allows the fire to burn faster and hotter.
Grilling in an Offset Smoker
Some offset smokers can be used as a barbecue grill as well by simply placing charcoal in the oven space and cooking on top of a grate.
Types of Offset Smokers
In a traditional offset smoker, the part of the cooking chamber that’s closest to the firebox is naturally the hottest. This can cause uneven cooking so most of the time, you’ll need to rotate the food or plan the positioning carefully to prevent some food cooking faster than others. The larger the offset smoker, the greater the temperature disparity there will be.
To help to reduce the need to rotate meat while cooking, you can also buy a reverse flow offset smoker. Although there are a few different ways this can be achieved, the most common of these is the addition of a steel baffle plate. This plate protects the meat from direct heat, acts as an even heat sink and allows the smoke to move around the barbecue more slowly, bathing the meat in more even heat and flavor.
You can generally tell whether a barbecue is a traditional offset smoker or a reverse flow by looking at the chimney position. On a traditional offset smoker, the chimney is set furthest away from the firebox. Reverse flow smokers feature a chimney that sits closer to the firebox, showing that the smoke has been pushed through and back through the cooking chamber before being vented.
For more detailed information about the reverse flow technology, check out our article, what is a reverse flow smoker?
What Can You Cook in an Offset Smoker?
Offset smokers are ideal for any of your traditional low and slow meats. This includes:
- Pork butt or picnic
- Large pieces of meat
However, offset smokers are also great for smoking or grilling just about any type of meat including sausages and chicken.
Offset Smoker Pros and Cons
As well as looking the part and producing some of the richest, smokiest meats, offset smoker advantages include:
- They’re ideal for cooking lots of food at once
- You can easily add more fuel and/or wood chips without opening the cooking chamber which disrupts the temperature and smoke levels
- They’re relatively inexpensive to run
- You can grill on them too
- With the right maintenance, a quality offset smoker should last a lifetime
Although I’d say, what’s not to love about an offset smoker, disadvantages may be:
- It takes longer to start and heat the barbecue than a gas grill
- The low and slow style means cooking takes hours
- It takes a bit of practice to master cooking on an offset smoker
- Cooking in colder climates can be tricky
- Offset smokers are large and take up a lot of space
- They’re heavy and can be difficult to move
What to Look for When Buying an Offset Smoker
Regardless of the size, shape or degree of fanciness, if you’re looking to buy a quality offset smoker, keep an eye out for these features:
- Heavy gauge metal – For greater heat retention and a more even cooking environment, choose a thicker metal. ¼ inch is generally considered to be the gold standard when it comes to offset smokers. It’s less likely to warp and isn’t as affected by adverse weather conditions.
- Quality seals and dampers – Quality seals are essential to create greater temperature control, improve smoke retention and reduce fuel usage. Inspect the seals to check that there aren’t any gaps. Also make sure that the dampers seal well but are easy enough to slide open and closed.
- Temperature gauges – Being able to measure the internal temperature of your offset smoker without having to open the lid is essential to create perfectly smoked meats. Look for a quality brand that’s going to give you an accurate reading for greater control. It’s useful to have 2 thermometers at grate level at either end of an offset smoker so you can see if there’s any temperature difference and adjust accordingly.
- Sturdiness – How strong are the legs and wheels? Does it have strong hinges and latches? It’s important that your new smoker is durable so it can handle a bit of wear and tear.
- Cover – Does the barbecue come with a cover or is one available as an optional extra? If you don’t have the space to store your barbecue undercover, you’ll need a waterproof cover to keep it dry and prevent rust
- Warranty – A quality smoker should last a lifetime with a bit of love and care. Nevertheless, buying an offset smoker with a warranty will give you peace of mind when it comes to potential manufacturer faults.
Other Important Offset Smoker Features
- Firebox size – Whether you’re using charcoal with wood chips, logs or split wood, make sure that the firebox is large enough to fit your chosen fuel source.
- Cooking chamber size – You don’t want to need to upgrade your barbecue because of lack of space so, carefully consider how much you’re planning on cooking when you’re first buying an offset smoker. Select an offset smoker that has plenty of space, racks and/or hooks to cook a reasonable quantity of food at a time. Moveable racks offer additional flexibility.
- Footprint – How much room will your new offset smoker take up? Don’t forget to take into account the need for ventilation space around it.
- Ease of cleaning – Are the cooking plates removable to allow for easy cooking? Is there a drain or plug that means you can simply hose out the inside of your barbecue? Does it come with an ash clean out tool? It’s more than likely that you won’t want to move your offset smoker to clean it so features that make scrubbing easy are a lifesaver.
- Portability – Will you need to move your barbecue? If so, how heavy is it? Does it have handles and/or wheels that will help you to move it?
- Accessories – Does the barbecue come with accessories? And, what accessories are available? You might want to buy extra racks, rib hooks, tools or a weather guard down the track.
Common Problems with Cheap Offset Smokers
With the rising popularity of smoking at home, the market has been flooded with inexpensive, entry-level offset smokers. If it’s all you can afford, buying any offset smoker is definitely better than no smoked meat but here are some of the most common problems you’ll experience using a base level offset smoker:
- Poor seals – If the joins, doors and dampeners don’t seal properly, heat and smoke will escape from your barbecue. This makes it hard for you to control the temperature and can result in an uneven cook. It also means that you’ll spend more money on fuel trying to create a stable environment.
- Made from thin metal that doesn’t retain heat well – Cheap offset smokers that are built from thinner steel simply can’t hold the heat as well as more quality offset smokers. You should still be able to cook good food on them, but you will need to use more fuel and watch the fire carefully to maintain an even temperature. This could be especially difficult in cooler or rainy climates.
- Flaking paint – Entry level barbecues are often finished off with poor quality paint that can start to flake with high heat and/or time. Not only are paint flakes less than ideal to be in your food, your barbecue will be more prone to rust once its outer seal has begun to wear off.
- Uneven heat and smoke distribution – Smoke and heat naturally move up, not sideways. Some cheaper offset smokers aren’t designed with such efficient smoke flow in mind. This can cause the side of the firebox that’s closest to the firebox to be much hotter than the other. You’ll probably find that you need to keep rotating the meat you’re smoking to avoid some of it being done before the rest.
What is the Best Offset Smoker to Buy?
When buying an offset smoker, don’t just look at the best offset smoker to buy. Instead, aim to find one that perfectly matches your needs and your budget.
- How much do you want to spend? – Spending more on an offset smoker usually means better and longer-lasting quality but how much do you have available to invest in your purchase?
- What do you want to cook? – How much meat are you planning on cooking at a time? Ideally your barbecue will be large enough to cater for when you’re entertaining at home but not so big that you’re wasting fuel heating up more space than you regularly use.
- Where will you keep your new offset smoker? – Deciding where you’re going to put your new barbecue will help you determine how big it can be and whether you’ll need a cover and/or extra insulation to account for cold weather.
- Which offset smoker features do you want? – Take another look at the list of offset smoker features above and decide which features are must-have’s for you. Then it’s time for you to shop!
The Top Offset Smokers on the Market
For a reviews of the best offset smokers for home or semi-professional barbecue, check out our article on the 7 best offset smokers for 2021.