Gas grill for smoke cooking

How to Buy a Barbecue Smoker or modify an offset smoker

How to set up and modify an offset smoker
How to set up a bullet smoker like the Weber Smokey Mountain
How to set up a charcoal grill for smoke cooking
How to set up a gas grill for smoke cooking


Tags: Barbecue Smoker; offset smoker; Weber Smokey Mountain; smoke cooking; gas grill; charcoal grill; good grilling;


How to Buy a Barbecue Smoker or modify an offset smoker

You can make damned good ribs on an all-purpose charcoal grill or gas grill, but to make truly Amazing Ribs, if there's room in your yard and in your budget, a specialized barbecue smoker can make a big difference. Here's what to buy.


With a high quality modern barbecue smoker you no longer need to hover over your machine for five hours, constantly monitoring the temp, fiddling with the dampers, adding fuel, and spritzing your meat with a mist of secret moisturizer. A good smoker means that you can win the battle against creosote, soot, and ash. With a good smoker you can get your food on the table on time and not fear that it is over- or under-cooked. Here is a checklist of what to look for before you buy.

Temperature control is the most important thing to look for. 

For most folks, getting great food on the table that is not over- or under-done makes you look better than standing over a hot smoker jiggling the dampers and feeding it lumber. Delivering the meal on time is more important to your spouse than paying homage to your heritage by cooking with George Washington's cherry tree. That's why, First and foremost, you should look for a smoker that makes it easy to control temperature. The problem is that damn few outdoor ovens have that most basic standard equipment feature on every indoor oven: A thermostat. Electric smokers have thermostats, and they work great on thick cuts of meat, but, frankly, I just don't like the flavor they give ribs

Gas cookers produce great flavor, and they are fairly easy to set and forget. If you are not a purist, I recommend them

If you dream of competing on the barbecue contest circuit, you should cook with wood or charcoal. Most competitions don't allow electric or gas smokers. They're too easy. The notable exception is South Carolina where gas and electric cookers are allowed.

For competitions, the easiest way to go is with a pellet smoker. They are legal because pellets are made from wood sawdust. And they are thermostat controlled so you can deliver meat that is perfectly done. They are also good grilling


Charcoal and wood burners need to be built very well in order to manage the temp. If you're going with charcoal or wood, get a unit that is made of heavy gauge steel or one that is insulated, make sure it is tight, and that it has a good system of dampers, especially the air supply to the fuel. A great option is to buy The BBQ Guru, a thermostatically controlled blower that controls the oxygen supply to fire boxes


Barbecue Smoker/ Insulation and seals. 

It's an axiom: Cheap units leak. Your heat and smoke escape. And that makes it hard to stabilize temperatures and manage the amount of smoke flavor. So study the insulation, seals, welds, and thickness of the metal before you buy.

Materials, workmanship, and durability. 

How heavy is the metal? Heavy steel holds and distributes heat better than thin steel. Is the metal thick enough that it will not warp? How are the welds? Does it have sharp edges? Sturdy legs and wheels? Big hinges and latches? Is the paint going to remain waterproof and rustproof? Do the moving parts look like they'll last? Some thoughts on stainless steel: It shows dirt, dust, grease, and rainspots. If you are a neat freak you'll go crazy polishing your smoker. It's a barbecue for cryin out loud. Who cares if it's dirty on the outside? Also, stainless tends to be thinner and provides less heat retention. It is also more expensive.

Thermometer. For Barbecue Smoker/

You need a high-quality thermometer that is well sealed to prevent smoke and moisture from entering the dial area. There should be at least one, preferable two: one at meat-rack level nearest the heat source and another at the furthest distance from the heat source.

How to set up a gas grill for smoke cooking

Temperature range. On a normal day of, say, 80F, what will the low and high temps be? What about cold windy wintry days? Summer days? Can you crank it to 350-500F for cooking turkey?

Even heat. Sometimes there is a large difference in temp in the unit, especially with offset fireboxes where it can be 50-75F hotter near the firebox than on the chimney side. Is the temp the same at the top as at the bottom in the cabinet or bullet?

Cold smoke capability. If you want to smoke cheeses, pasta, spices, lox, nuts, chipotles, tomatoes, and salsa, you will want a cold smoker. Cold smoking is defined as curing with smoke while keeping the heat under 120F.

Price. What is the bottom line? Prices range from $50 for cheapo charcoal bullet-shaped cookers up to $5,000 for all-in-one grills and commercial or competition rigs cost more. Make sure to ask if there is a shipping charge or if there is sales tax.

Accessories for Barbecue Smoker/.

 Does it come with a cookbook? Cover? Rib hooks? Do you need a cold-smoking baffle? What do they cost?

Warranty and support. What kind of warranty and/or guarantee does it come with. What is the dealer's reputation? Is there a phone number and email for tech support? Is the website informative? How about the manual? What if you need parts? How long have they been in business?

Safety. Child and pet safe. Are electrical parts safe from rain and snow? Cool handles are cool. Wood handles disintegrate quickly. Coiled stainless handles are the best.

Access. Look for easy access to the firebox to add fuel if you buy a charcoal or wood smoker. If you use chips, chunks, or pellets for smoke, you will need easy access to the place they go. Most important, you want access to the food. Front-loading, cabinet-style smokers give you much easier access to all shelves than top-loading bullet-style smokers.

Capacity. If all you cook is an occasional slab of ribs for you and your spouse, then a small bullet will do the job. That's me most of the time. But then there's the annual Fourth of July party we throw when I need to be able to crank out 13 slabs or more. For that, I use an offset fire box charcoal pit that I have modified by adding an extra row of racks below the racks that are installed by the factory.

Footprint. A bullet will only take up a space of about 3' x 3', allowing for a little space around it. That means it will fit on a tiny condo balcony. On the other hand, an offset firebox pit can take up 9' x 4' plus space around it.

Wide enough for long slabs of ribs. Some slabs can run up to 16". If the racks are narrower you may have to trim the slab or cut it in half. If the racks are square or rectangular, measure the diagonal.

Tall enough for large turkeys. You will want enough room to smoke a turkey, so make there is enough headspace between a rack and the top of about 1'.

Wheels. You may want to move the thing when you set it up, so it should have wheels or come apart easily. If it has wheels, how sturdy are they, and are they large enough to roll smoothly on a rough surface such a deck, concrete, pavers, or the lawn.

High heat production and/or well insulated for cooking in winter, rain, or wind. 

BTUs for gas or electric units are an indicator, but they are related to the amount of space to be heated.

Doubles as a grill for Barbecue Smoker/. 

Some cookers can also work as a grill for cooking over direct heat. Some bullets can be easily converted to a brazier by removing the water pan. This is a nice feature. Sometimes I like to put my ribs over an open flame just before serving them to sizzle the sauce. If there is a grill, can you control the heat? Can you move the fire closer to or away from the meat or move the meat closer to or further from the fire?

Moveable shelves. It's nice to remove shelves to adjust the interior configuration so it can handle large slabs of ribs, half slabs, or pork butts and even large objects like turkeys. Removeable shelves make cleanup easier.

Can you add fuel, wood, water, and check the meat without losing much heat. 

Peeking at the meat is bad. It lets out heat. Every time you lift the lid to peak at your meat, to add wood or check the water, you add 15-30 minutes to the cooking time, and you mess with the humidity and smoke in the oven. If you're lookin', you ain't cookin'. So a good smoker should allow you to add charcoal, wood, and water without messing with the oven's environment much. This can be a real problem with bullets and cabinets. Look for units that let you do these tasks without disrupting the cooking environment. For example, the Meco, at right, has a sliding door for water and another for coal and wood.

Water pan. Many smokers, especially bullets, have a pan that is placed above the heat source. You can fill it with water, beer, wine, herbs, and whatever. The liquid moderates the temperature fluctuations in the oven. The moisture raises the humidity in the unit and helps keep the meat from drying out while the aromatics penetrate the meat, adding subtle flavor. The pan can also catch drippings, which can be used to make a sauce. The standard bowl is 5-6 quarts. The bigger the better.

Dampers. With wood and charcoal cookers, we control the heat by cutting back on the oxygen supply to the fire. To do this, we need to have a damper on the fire box and another on the chimney. For electric and gas cookers, a damper on the chimney can help copntrol the amount of smoke in the oven.

Drip pan for Barbecue Smoker/

 Fats and othr fluids often drip from the food. Sometimes it is nice to have these liquids fall onto the heat source and create steam and smoke. Sometimes it is nice to gather the drippings for sauces. Most of the time we just want to get rid of drippings, and a good smoker must have a way to collect them for disposal.

Easy cleaning. Cleaning the exterior is optional. But cleaning the interior is not. If you invest in a shiny stainless-steel exterior, you'll probably want to cover it between uses and polish it so that it shines brighter than Uncle Bill's bald head. If you don't want the hassle, get the black finish and don't worry if there are bird droppings on it. The inside is another thing altogether. How easy is it to remove ash from charcoal units or ash from wood chunks in gas or electric units? When you cook, fat, seasonings, and juices will drip off and splatter. They can become breeding grounds for bacteria. Cranking the unit up will kill most everything, but you still want to clean out all surfaces that come into contact with the meat. That means racks. Stainless is easiest to clean, Plated grates will wear out with time and then rust. See if the grates, drip pan, and water pan will fit in your diswasher. Can you hose down the interior? Will water get into the insulation? I have been known to take my pressure washer to the interior of my offset firebox pit. Before you buy, study the unit and ask yourself how you will clean it and if you are willing to do it. If not, then you won't use it and you'll be wasting your money.

Work surfaces and storage. Some cookers come with built-in tables and other work surfaces. We need these to put tools on, sauces, cutting boards, mitts, etc. The more work surfaces, the better. Some cookers also come with storage bins and cabinets for wood, tongs, etc. Those are also nice.

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