It’s just a barrel, but, it’s consistently rated as one of the top smokers on the market. Loyal users love them. And, the price? Well, it’s one of the most affordable smokers as well.
So, how good can the Pit Barrel Cooker really be?
Is it really set and forget? And, how does it manage to cook food so evenly while it’s literally dangling over the fire?
In our Pit Barrel Cooker review, we answer these questions plus more to give you the low-down on what it’s like to use one of these smokers.
Spoiler alert – it really is one of our all-time favorites, and of course, made our best drum smoker line-up!
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Table of Contents
The Quick Version of our Pit Barrel Cooker Review
The Pit Barrel Cooker is the original and the top rated ugly drum smoker in the world. Thoughtfully designed by a US veteran, the Pit Barrel Cooker uses natural convection cooking to charcoal smoke meat that’s hung inside it’s open barrel.
This means that not only does it hold a huge capacity, it’s also extremely easy to use, and, very low effort. No babysitting or adding charcoal every hour or so. The Pit Barrel Cooker literally is a set and forget charcoal smoker, unlike any other charcoal option on the market.
Because there’s no adjustable dampers, it’s temperature is pretty much set at around the 300°F mark. It cooks faster than your typical low and slow speed, but, still manages to retain all the moisture and flavor you need for really good barbecue.
Ideal for anyone who loves that charcoal flavor but doesn’t want a smoker that’s too hands-on, the Pit Barrel Cooker is affordable, very well-built, and, comes with everything you need for ridiculously good barbecue at home.
The Pit Barrel Cooker really has earnt every single great review that’s been written about it.
Features of the Pit Barrel Cooker
- Porcelain-enameled 18-gauge steel for durability
- Rust-resistant stainless steel hooks
- Ideal for hanging large and/or long cuts of meat
Ease of use:
- Included charcoal basket is the right size for regular cooks
- Single piece design means minimal assembly and makes it easy to move
- Fixed temperature creates a set and forget process
- 8 hooks with 2 hanging rods
- Standard grill grate
- Wooden hook remover
- Charcoal basket
- Upgraded packages available through PitBarrelCooker.com
A Bit About the Pit Barrel Cooker Classic
The Pit Barrel Cooker Classic is the full-sized charcoal barrel barbecue, designed and manufactured by the family owned company, Pit Barrel Cooker Co.
Born out of US Marine veteran, Noah Glanville’s dedication and love for that smoky charcoal flavor, he worked to create a cooker that took the guesswork out of charcoal smoking. And, by trialing and modifying 29 different versions of what appears to be a basic barrel drum, the Pit Barrel Cooker was created.
With it, he brought a new kind of smoker to the market that’s as affordable as it is easy to use.
To this day, the design hasn’t needed to be modified. Pit Barrel only sell 3 primary products; the 18.5″ Classic, it’s smaller brother, the 14″ Pit Barrel Cooker Junior, and the newest addition, the 22.5″ PBX.
In this review, we’ll focus on the Pit Barrel Cooker Classic. But, the Junior is just a smaller more portable version while the PBX is for those needing that extra cooking capacity (here’s a link to our PBX review).
Unboxing and Set Up
Because the Pit Barrel is one big barrel, it’s probably the easiest smoker you’ll ever put together.
Pull everything out of the box, screw the horseshoe handle on the lid, set the barrel on the base and you’re ready to burn it in.
It even comes with a screwdriver and wrench so you don’t need to grab your tool kit.
The Pit Barrel Cooker’s build is easily described as basic and high-quality.
It’s essentially a 30 gallon drum with feet, a vent and handles welded to it. But, it’s made from 18-gauge steel with a porcelain-enameled coating for premium durability, strength and rust-resistance.
At the base, there’s a charcoal basket to hold the coals. And, in it’s most used setup, 2 steel rods hold 8 stainless steel hooks so that you can hang your meat to get the full benefit of 360° cooking and the most bang for your buck in terms of usable space.
The Classic version also comes with a standard grill grate that you can use for wrapped meats or grilling.
There’s no temperature gauge to measure the heat inside the drum.
Simply set the bottom vent to the recommended position based on the elevation at your location, light it and leave it to do it’s thing.
When it’s going, you’re looking at hitting between 250 and 300°F with a full basket of charcoal.
It’s the closest thing to hands-off pellet smoking. Just with charcoal and no power needed.
Easy, simple, well-built and durable.
With an 18.5″ diameter, cooking on the standard grill grate gives you a modest 240 square inches of cooking space.
But, that’s not really how this thing’s meant to be used.
When you hang meat inside, not only do you get the benefit of cooking with natural convection heat, you also increase it’s capacity dramatically.
There’s no specs on it. But, in the Classic, you can easily hang 8 full racks of ribs at one time or 2-3 whole briskets. It’s a huge amount of real estate for how much space this barbecue takes up on the ground. Plus, there’s also a hinged grate available so you can cook on the flat and hang at the same time.
Sounds too big? There’s also the smaller Junior version available that holds a 14″ grate instead.
And, if it’s too small, there’s the 22.5″ PBX that can hold 20 racks of ribs.
Smoking in a Pit Barrel Cooker is truly incredible!
To smoke in one of these, you simply fill the charcoal basket with coals (we’d recommend using charcoal briquettes if you’re new to the PBC because they’re more consistent), set the one damper as per the instructions, put your meat in and close the lid.
Then go and find something else to do for literally the whole time.
The smoker will just do it’s thing and you can come back after the recommended time to get your meat out.
If you’re following the recipes on the Pit Barrel website, we’ve found most of our cooks tend to go on the longer side of the times they recommend.
And, although you don’t need it, we 100% recommend using a meat thermometer with the Pit Barrel. It’ll just give you that extra bit of feedback to tell you exactly when your meat is perfectly cooked.
Our go-to with the Pit Barrel is the MEATER Plus. There’s absolutely no wires to get positioned with the lid so it’s as easy as you want with a low-fuss smoker.
On average, you can do baby back ribs in about 3 hours, 2 hours for chicken, 30 minutes for tri-tip or 6 hours for a whole brisket.
The results? Friggin juicy as, evenly cooked meat that’s got that distinctively charcoal smoked with burnt juices and melted fat.
Adverse Weather Performance
The only time we really struggle with the Pit Barrel is when the weather’s pretty wild.
Because of the way the lid is designed, water pools on top causing the drum temperature to drop significantly when it’s raining.
If it’s very windy, we usually find the temperature drops as well. Crack the lid (even though you’re technically not meant to) and it’ll come up again.
And, if you’re smoking in snowy condititons, you’ll probably find your cooks take a lot longer.
How the Pit Barrel Works
We had to ask ourselves, how can the Pit Barrel Cooker really be so much better than a typical drum smoker? How does the meat stay so moist without a water pan? And, what makes it cook so evenly cooked when one end is so close to the coals?
Well, it turns out that the key to everything is in the drum itself.
Designer Noah didn’t waste any time experimenting with different drum sizes and different venting configurations to get the perfect conditions. And, you don’t have to either since one of these is literally the blueprint to fast, set and forget charcoal smoking.
Think of it like this, when you turn your hand vertically over a hot grill, you won’t feel the heat nearly as much as if you put it palm down. The surface area just isn’t as much. So, when you hang meats for smoking, you’re sticking them right in the center of the heat.
From there, the natural convectional movement of the heat creates an even temperature throughout the drum. The lid, and fact that there is no upper vent, locks in the moisture.
From there the moisture drips back down onto the meat along while the juices fall onto the charcoal, giving you even more flavor than you’d get on an offset smoker or even the Weber Smokey Mountain.
The Pit Barrel Cooker is primarily a smoker. It’s what it was designed to do and what it does best. But, using the included standard grill grate, you can grill on it as well.
The grill grate sits about 25 inches above the charcoal. So, it’s not as close as you’re probably used to and won’t be as hot either. But, if you don’t want to have two barbecues sitting around and are just using it occasionally, the results aren’t bad.
You can grill directly on the grate, or, we like using a cast iron pan to block the flare-ups and keep all the juices in too.
Included and Optional Extras
The standard Pit Barrel Cooker Classic package comes with everything you really need for smoking or grilling. You’ve got the drum itself with a stand, 2 hanging rods, 8 stainless steel hooks, the charcoal basket, standard grill grate, and, a wooden hook remover.
The full 18.5″ Classic PBC is decently large. But, it’s easy to move because it’s just one piece (except for the stand) and everything can stay inside of it.
You will need to wait at least 30 minutes to let the drum cool down before you put it in the back of your truck. Longer if you’re throwing it in the back of a car. But, it’s a great option for portable smoking because it cooks faster than most too.
The Pit Barrel Cooker comes with a 1 year warranty. After seeing how well-built this smoker is and how incredible it’s performance is, it’s pretty surprising that they don’t offer a longer warranty.
Like, any PBC should WELL outlive a 1 year warranty. And, because it doesn’t have electronics or even much in the way of moving parts, there’s not a lot of room for things to go wrong with it anyway.
Regardless, we’re letting you know, the warranty is 1 year. Their customer service is great though and you shouldn’t have any problems sorting any issues out.
I’d still buy confidently despite the shorter than expected warranty period.
Cleaning the PBC
When it comes to cleaning, you’re also getting simple, straight-forward and not very time intensive with the Pit Barrel Cooker.
Basically, you’ve got to clean the meat hooks and/or grill grates after using just like any smoker. Plus, you’ll need to empty the ash from the bottom of the drum.
Bascially, it hooks on to the bottom of the charcoal holder and collects any ash so you can literally pull the whole thing out and empty in less than a minute.
Without it though, it still won’t take you long to empty it. You could use a shop vacuum if you’ve got one handy.
And that’s it! Leaving the drum itself will just season the inside even more and doesn’t really need to be touched.
Pros and Cons of the PBC
What We Like About the Pit Barrel Cooker
- The meat this thing makes is really, really good!
- It’s faster than most other types of smokers
- Set and forget – we’d prefer to be doing something else AND get a good feed at the end of it
- Really durable build that should last years
- Easy to use
- Comes with everything you need for grilling and smoking
- Holds A LOT of meat
- Simple cleaning
- It is portable and easy to move thanks to it’s one piece design
What We Don't Like About the Pit Barrel Cooker
- It’s great that it’s set and forget. But, because there is so little to do, you also lack control when something does throw your cook off.
- It’d be nice if you could set the grilling grate a bit closer to the fire, or, raise the charcoal up so you’re cooking more over direct heat
- What’s with it’s 1 year warranty?!?
Should I Buy the Pit Barrel Cooker?
Perfect for anyone who’s looking for a smoker that’s less hassle and more hands-off, the Pit Barrel cooker is equal parts easy, well-priced and top performing (that’s why we rated it as one of the best smokers out there).
Because it doesn’t have any electricals or much in the way of moving parts, this smoker will last years to come.
Plus, the distinctly charcoal-smoked flavor means that it’s also perfectly justifiable to sit in your backyard beside a wood-based option for flavor alone.
Incredible results that are easy to achieve in a large capacity, super durable body that’s also one of the cheapest options out there. Um… what?!? How?!? Yep.
We’d only steer you away from the PBC if having control and being able to adjust and finely tune your smoker is your thing. In that case, check out the Weber Smokey Mountain for a similar charcoal-based option.
What Other Barrel Smokers Should I Consider?
If you’d like something that does a better job of grilling as well as being able to smoke, we do love the Oklahoma Joe Bronco.
It’s a really versatile drum smoker that comes with a whole heap of accessories. And, it’s designed to be more versatile than the set and forget Pit Barrel.
For a full side by side, check out our Pit Barrel Cooker vs Oklahoma Joe Bronco comparison. And, read our Oklahoma Joe Bronco review too.
FAQs About the Pit Barrel Cooker
Q. Is the Pit Barrel Cooker any better than making my own drum smoker?
Hell yes!! Noah made a lot of prototypes before settling on the final design of the PBC. And somehow, it’s just WAY better than any other UDS we’ve ever used. Plus, if you consider all the accessories it’s got included, the price is, in our opinion, well-justified. We’d buy it again and again. Except we shouldn’t need to, this thing will last.
Q. Is it faster to cook on the PBC?
Yes. The temperature sits a bit higher than you’d normally set a smoker. And, the natural convection movement of the heat helps to cook meat faster. It should be done in 1/2 to 2/3rds of the time you’d expect on any other type of smoker.
Q. Do you need to turn the meat when you’re hanging it on the PBC? One end is closer to the fire.
It seems like you’d need to but, no. As long as the meat isn’t touching the coals, she’ll be right. We find that the bottom rib can be a bit dry and crispy though. I usually eat it because I kind of like it that way sometimes.
Q. Why doesn’t the Pit Barrel Cooker have a water pan? And, doesn’t it need one?
No, you don’t need a water pan inside the PBC. There’s no top vent so all the moisture is locked inside the drum and circulates around keeping the meat moist. It really does work.
Q. Is there any way to use meat probes inside the PBC?
Using meat probes with the PBC is a really good idea. You can run wires through the hanging rid holes or under the lid. But, we recommend the completely wireless MEATER Plus because it removes that hassle and is just a great unit too.
Q. Does the PBC need any mods?
No. Honestly, it’s made not to be messed with. You don’t need to seal the lid tighter and it’s not meant to be all-adjustable. In our experience, people who have modified their PBC’s usually regret it.
Q. What’s better; the Pit Barrel Cooker or a Traeger?
The Pit Barrel Cooker and Traeger pellet smokers are some of the most popular set and forget smokers on the market.
When deciding between these two, we always ask people what fuel flavor they like the best.
The charcoal smoked Pit Barrel will give you that heavier, charcoal smoked taste while a wood pellet smoking Traeger gives a more subtle but still very much there, woody flavor.
There’s more that sets these two top choices apart. For all the details check out our Pit Barrel Cooker vs Traeger comparison.
Specs for the Pit Barrel Cooker Classic 18.5"
Barbecue type: Charcoal drum cooker
Barbecue material: Porcelain-enameled, 18-gauge steel
Grate material: Stainless steel or regular steel depending on accessory
Cooking capacity: Varies depending on accessories used
Heat Range: 250 – 300°F
Fuel type: Charcoal
Price guide: $$
Model: Pit Barrel Cooker
Assembled size (in): 21″ W x 31.1″ H x 21″ D
Warranty: 1 year
Jared Brown, an avid lover of all things meat has a fearless enthusiasm for experimenting with anything that's grilling, smoking or outdoor cooking. With a wealth of experience across a range different barbecue types, Jared's got a real knack for helping others make a decision they're happy with, ensuring they find the perfect fit regardless of conventional notions of the 'right' choice. This unique approach has made Jared a trusted guide in the world of barbecue.