Skip to content

Offset Smoker vs Vertical: What’s the Best Configuration?

Barbecue purists usually say there’s no better way to smoke than on an offset smoker. But, does vertical smoking provide a better way? After all, you’re using the laws of thermodynamics to smoke a whole lot of food in what seems like a small barbecue and, it’s usually a more set and forget experience.

In this comparison, we dive deep into the offset smoker vs vertical debate to help you decide which is best. Remember, there’s no single answer, just the one that’s best for you. So, here we’ll talk about how each of these types of smokers work, what their pros and cons are, and how they’re the same or different.

Following that, you’ll also find a cost comparison to give you an idea of what you’re up for when buying either of these smokers, plus links to reviews of our favorite smokers in each of these categories to make the next step of buying one, easier too.

Burning Brisket is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Read our affiliate policy to learn more.

A Quick Comparison of the Offset Smoker vs Vertical

Table of Contents

What Is an Offset Smoker?

Offset smokers were born out of the Texas oil fields. Also known as horizontal smokers, barrel smokers, stick burners, pipe smokers or side firebox smokers, they’re probably what most people first think of when you say ‘smoker’.

Offset smokers feature a smaller firebox from which heat and smoke can move through to an interconnected, larger cooking chamber. There, the food cooks at what’s usually a low and slow temperature before the heat and smoke exits the smoker through a chimney that’s often called a smokestack.

Pitmasters most commonly run offset smokers on pure wood, burning hardwood logs or splits in the firebox to create heat and smoke that’s ideal for cooking. But, offset smokers can also run off of just charcoal, charcoal with wood chunks for a more woody flavor, or a charcoal base with wood splits for a bit of both.

Offset smokers aren’t hands-off to use like some other types of smokers. They require frequent attention during use in order to maintain the steady temperature needed for great cooking. But, using an offset smoker well has a good payoff, promising to make some of the best, restaurant and competition-worthy meats possible. And, they can be quite fun to use, if you do have the time to dedicate the day to barbecuing.

Some offset smokers can be used as a grill as well. A small grate that sits over the fire in the firebox can give you enough space to sear up a few steaks. Other models have charcoal grates you can add to the cooking chamber to convert the whole thing into a huge charcoal grill.

Despite that, offset smokers are designed to do one thing well, and that’s low and slow smoked meats.

How Does an Offset Smoker Work?

With a wood or charcoal fire burning in the offset firebox, joined to the cooking chamber, heat and smoke move through the large internal opening, into the cooking chamber to cook food before exiting through a smokestack.

The fire is manually maintained by lighting wood or charcoal, whichever you prefer to use, and adding more fuel as is required to maintain your target temperature.

On any offset smokers, you’ll find a damper or vent on the firebox that can be opened for more oxygen so the fire can burn hotter, or partially closed to dampen it down.

Check out the video below for a quick run-down on how to use an offset smoker if you’ve never seen one in use before.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Offset Smokers

Pros
Cons

What Is a Vertical Smoker?

Although a vertical smoker is essentially any smoker that’s vertically orientated, when most people mention a vertical smoker, they’re talking about a vertically oriented, charcoal-based smoker. That means that it’s a pretty wide umbrella term that’s used to include a range of smokers including bullet smokers, water smokers, ugly drum smokers (UDS), box smokers, and cabinet smokers. 

And, all of these types of smokers are similar in that they’re essentially a vertical box with a firebox at the very bottom and a single cooking grate, series of cooking grates, or hooks to hang meat above.

Some vertical smokers, but not all, also have a water pan that sits above the fire and below the cooking grates. This acts to introduce more moisture to the cooking environment, even out the temperature, and stop drippings from the smoking meat from hitting the fire causing flare-ups.

Vertical smokers are different to an offset smoker in that the fire is not offset. It sits in the same physical container as the cooking grates and the direct heat usually isn’t blocked or deflected other than by the water tray.

Inside the Weber Smokey Mountain

Offset smokers can be built with a vertical configuration as well. And, although a vertical offset smoker does have a vertical grate configuration instead of the typical horizontal, they’re distinctively different from a vertical smoker because they have that offset firebox. For the purpose of this comparison, vertical offset smokers are talked about and considered in the offset smoker section, not the vertical section.

Vertical smokers are designed to run best from a charcoal fire with wood added for smokiness. But, vertical offset smokers can be powered by a wood fire if you so wish.

How Does a Vertical Smoker Work?

To use a vertical smoker, you light charcoal, and sit the lit charcoal inside a charcoal basket, or on the charcoal grate at the bottom of the smoker.

The temperature is set and adjusted by setting the air intake vents, setting them open for more oxygen and a hotter burning fire, or closed for less airflow and a more smouldered, cooler fire.

Although the charcoal fire alone provides enough smoke to flavor meat and create good smoke rings, wood chunks or chips can be added on top of the lit charcoal to create a woodier flavor. This can also be a good way to add a more unique flavor profile by choosing the type of wood based on what you’re trying to create.

For a closer look at how to set up and use a vertical smoker, watch the video below. This shows you how to use the Weber Smokey Mountain which is one of the most popular vertical smokers and a good example where the basics flow over to other types of vertical smokers as well.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Vertical Smokers

Pros
Cons

How Similar Are Offset and Vertical Smokers Similar?

Whether you’re thinking of going offset or vertical, these two types of barbecues have these things in common:

How Are Offset and Vertical Smokers Different?

Fuel Type

Although both offset smokers and vertical smokers can both be run off of charcoal, offset smokers are primarily designed to be a stick burner.

Using unprocessed hardwood versus charcoal does produce a noticeably different flavor and smoke profile. They also burn quite differently with hardwood logs requiring more frequent replenishing than charcoal does.

Involvement Required for Fire Management

If you’re running an offset or a vertical smoker on charcoal, managing that fire is going to require about same amount of time and effort, depending on the exact barbecue you’re using.

But, if you’re looking at using wood in an offset and charcoal in a vertical smoker, the offset will require you to put in a lot more time during smoking in order to maintain a steady temperature with good smoke production.

How often you’ll be there adding more fuel and adjusting the vents does depend a lot on whether you’re using a cheap and leaky offset, a 1/4″ thick steel top of the line model, or somewhere in between. But, adding a split of wood every 45 minutes to an hour is pretty normal, and you’ll need to dedicate a lot of time on barbecue day to managing the smoker to get great results.

Getting the fire right inside an Oklahoma Joe's HIghland offset smoker

Vertical smokers, on the other hand, don’t require as much time or effort to run.

How much time you’ll need to spend on actually barbecuing on a vertical smoker will depend more on what type of vertical smoker you’re looking at.

Some, like the Pit Barrel Cooker, are set and forget and pretty much don’t require any attention after you light them and add your meat. Others, like the Weber Smokey Mountain, require a lot more in terms of fire management and you’ll find yourself out there checking the temperature dial and making adjustments more frequently.

Charcoal and wood fire inside the Weber Smokey Mountain 14

Generally though, vertical smokers are much less time intensive to run than offset smokers.

Heat Distribution

Inside a vertical smoker with it’s narrow cooking chamber, the laws of thermodynamics help to create a really even temperature distribution so there’s not much difference in the heat between one level and another. This means that you can pretty much place any piece of meat wherever you’d like it and it’ll cook at about the same rate as the piece of meat above, below, or beside it.

Pit-Barrel-Cooker-Convection

But, on an offset smoker, you might have to be a bit more thoughtful in your placement of things because the side closest to the firebox can be significantly hotter than the side furtherst away.

So much so that some people say the first third of the offset grate that’s closet to the firebox is a dead zone that you pretty much need to leave alone. Placing a water pan in that space to help even out the temperature and keep the moisture content up inside is pretty common.

Smoking chicken on the Dyna-Glo Signature Series Offset smoker

Reverse flow smokers try to even things out by adding a baffle plate below the cooking grates and forcing the hot air and smoke under the cooking grates before it can start filtering upwards through the cooking chamber.

This configuration is preferred by a lot of offset users because it allows you to really maximize the cooking space, loading the grates up fully while expecting a pretty steady cook across the barbecue.

Learn more about regular and reverse flow offset smokers in our comparison.

Learning Curve

Because offset smokers require more frequent temperature managment, and might have a larger temperature discrepency from one end of the smoker to the other, they’re generally harder to use than vertical smokers.

Don’t expect to just whip up a great brisket the first time you use an offset smoker. Give yourself plenty of time to learn how to manage that fire, create the best quality smoke possible, and use any different heat zones to your advantage.

On the other hand, most vertical smokers are a lot easier to get the hang of and it doesn’t take as long to learn how to set the vents to the right temperature, how much fuel you’ll need to maintain a steady 225°F, and how many wood chunks you like for great flavor.

Quality of Results

Either way you go, both offset smokers and vertical smokers can cook really good food. Meat smoked on either is distinctively smokey and you can get nice thick smoke rings and a delicious bark.

Oklahoma Joe Bronco Ribs

But, most people will find that food cooked on an offset smoker does have a bit of an edge over things cooked on a vertical smoker. I mean, there is a good reason why offset smokers are the most commonly used type of smoker in bbq joints and competition. They’re best set up to really master the variables of smoking and give you the most control over how you cook your meat for incredible results.

It will take time to learn how to get it that good though.

Portability

An offset smoker is not the easiest type of smoker to load up on the back of your truck and take with you camping, tailgating, or to a friends place. If you do have a pickup, you can do it. But, offsets aren’t exactly portable.

Vertical smokers on the other hand, are much more compact and easy to pick up, load up, and move around.

Pit Barrel Cooker Portability

So, if you want portability, there’s really only one option, vertical.

Cost Comparison

A good offset smoker is expensive! It doesn’t seem like they’d be but, if you haven’t checked out the cost of a decent one yet, jump to our best offset smokers review to have a good look. You can get cheaper ones that do perform alright. You’ll probably at least want to add a gasket to help seal them properly.

On the other hand, vertical smokers are quite cheap. Even a good quality vertical that performs well won’t set you back anywhere near what an offset smoker will.

Follow the links above, or check out the table below for a quick idea of how the cost of an offset smoker vs vertical.

So, What’s Better? An Offset or a Vertical Smoker?

Both offset smokers and vertical smokers are capable of producing some really great food. Meat smoked well on an offset definitely has the edge over that done in a vertical charcoal smoker. But, using an offset requires a huge amount more time, and not everyone has that time or is prepared to dedicate the whole day to tending to the fire.

An offset smoker might be the better buy for you if you:

  • Enjoy tinkering with the fire throughout your cook
  • Have plenty of time to focus on the barbecue every time you want to run it
  • Like doing things the ‘proper’ way
  • Want to make the very best possible barbecue
  • Are aiming for the cleanest burn for the best smoke quality

Vertical smokers are the best choice if you:

  • Want an easier, less time-intensive way to create good barbecue
  • Don’t have as much space in your backyard
  • Have a smaller budget to buy a barbecue but still want good quality
  • Are planning on taking your smoker on the road with you

Buying a Good Offset or Vertical Smoker

Where are you at with your decision? Are you going for a trusty offset, or an easier to use vertical smoker?

If you’ve decided 100% which of these types of smokers you want to buy, check out the sample of our favorite smokers in each of these categories below. And, if you’re not quite there yet, having a look at what you can buy might help you make that final decision on which is best for your backyard.

Our Favorite Offset Smokers

Oklahoma Joe's Highland Offset Smoker
Oklahoma Joe's Highland
4.6/5
Yoder Loaded Wichita
Yoder Loaded Wichita
4.9/5
Dyna-Glo Wide Body Vertical Offset Smoker
Dyna-Glo Wide Body
4.3/5

Read our full review of the best offset smokers, the best offset smokers under $1000, or the best offsets under $500 for more models worth considering.

Our Favorite Vertical Smokers

Oklahoma Joe's Bronco Drum Smoker
Oklahoma Joe's Bronco
4.5/5
MEADOW CREEK BX25
Meadow Creek BX25
4.7/5
Pit Barrel Cooker Classic
Pit Barrel Cooker
4.8/5

Read our full review of the best vertical smokers and the best charcoal smokers.

FAQs About the Offset Smoker vs Vertical Smoker

If you’re looking at the quality of the food alone, meat smoked well on an offset smoker will be better quality than meat smoked on a vertical smoker.

Offset smokers are set up for better airflow which produces better quality smoke for competition and restaurant quality results. The fire in a vertical smoker tends to smoulder a bit which can produce a slightly more acrid taste, and being so close to the fire at the bottom of a bit, the lower end of meat hung in a vertical can char.

That being said, vertical smokers can still produce really great food, and for a lot of people, are the better choice. Vertical smokers are far easier to use than offsets, and aren’t as time intensive to use. They’re also not as expensive to buy as an offset, so you can get a better vertical smoker for the same price as you’d spend on a poor quality offset.

Meat cooked on an offset smoker can taste noticeably different to meat smoker in a vertical smoker.

Because the fire inside a vertical smoker has somewhat restricted airflow, the smoke it produces can taste a little more acrid. With the proper airflow, an offset smoker can produce very high quality, thin blue smoke which gives the meat a gentler but still very distinctively smoked flavor.

If you compare a similarly sized offset smoker and vertical smoker, both running on charcoal to compare like to like, the vertical smoker usually uses less fuel than the offset smoker.

Burning wood instead of charcoal, you’ll usually go through more wood. But, some barbecue enthusiasts source their own wood for free or very cheap and that’s always better than buying charcoal, no matter how much you use.

How you manage to fit larger cuts of meat in a vertical smoker will depend on which model of vertical you’re looking at.

But, generally, to fit larger cuts of meat you’re going to need a vertical smoker in which you can hang meat. Something like the Oklahoma Joe’s Bronco or the Pit Barrel Cooker comes with heavy duty hooks. Push one through a rack of ribs, or two through a full brisket to hang the meat vertically inside the cooking chamber.

Kate Brown, the founder and voice behind Burning Brisket, is not your typical pitmaster or restaurateur. Her expertise in barbecue grew from a humble desire to cook exceptional meals for her family. From overcoming burnt brisket mishaps to establishing her boutique cattle ranch, Kate shares her passion to help 'ordinary' individuals cook extraordinary barbecue, believing that simplicity often yields the best flavors. Kate is commited to making great barbecue accessible to all with the right resources and some tasty practice.

About Burning Brisket

Burning Brisket is one of the leading, independent authorities on all things barbecue. Family-owned and run, it's our mission uncomplicate the art of smoking to help you enjoy making incredible food at home for your family and friends to create memories over.

Browse BBQ Reviews
Cook Better Barbecue

Get our latest reviews, guides, and recipes to help you move from burnt to simply brilliant!