Offset Smoker Fire Management (The key to good BBQ)

I wanted to share a few things I’ve learned about managing a fire on my offset smoker. It is the most challenging part of the smoke really. I have a Chargriller Smokin’ Pro offset smoker/grill and have been able to smoke some good BBQ with it. However, the design of this thin metal smoker is like a barrel cut in half, with an attached firebox, which means that it is poorly insulated and I can’t seal the door to prevent smoke from leaking out of the cooking chamber. It is also bolted together, rather than being welded, so smoke leaks from just about every corner. I smoke most everything at 225 to 250 degrees, and with so many leaks, it can be a challenge to keep that temperature steady. The heat leaks out so rapidly that the temp can drop quickly if you get distracted. A smoker with thicker metal, welded parts and a sealable door will insulate the heat much more effectively and keep the smoke from escaping anywhere but from the stack where it’s supposed to. This will result in better air flow, a more steady temperature, using less fuel and, most importantly, more smoke flavor. That’s not to say you can’t get good BBQ with a lesser product, however, you just have to be a little more diligent.

The Chargriller, still going after 6-7 years.

I recently started cooking with log splits and everything seemed to click. I have been much more able to manage an even temperature as a result, and the flavor on my BBQ has been amazing! I used to use mostly hardwood lump charcoal with wood chips, but found it much more difficult to maintain a steady temperature. Somedays there would be wild temperature fluctuations and others I wouldn’t be able to keep the temperature up. Sometimes this was due to the weather, but not always.

I spent a long time thinking that soaking wood chips and letting them smolder was giving the meat a good flavor. Recently, I smoked my second Texas style brisket ever and used wood log splits instead of charcoal (except for the initial light). I was able to maintain a fairly steady temperature of 225-250 degrees for about 13 hours with much less headaches. Truth be told, the variation was more like 215 to 260 degrees, but that was due to my getting distracted (especially at 4:00 in the morning when I accidentally fell asleep) and not choosing the proper logs, rather than a problem with the smoker itself. That brisket, however, was the best BBQ I’ve ever made. I also learned recently that the thick white smoke the soaked chips give off can leave a bitter taste. Since I usually smoke ribs, and they only get the smoke flavor for about 3 hours, I never really noticed a bitter taste before. Clean “blue” smoke gives the meat a much more intense flavor. You get that smoke with flames, not smoldering wood. You should barely be able to see the smoke. My first brisket, I had significant difficulty maintaining a steady temp. It had a lot of wild flare ups (upwards of 325 degrees at times) and I couldn’t keep the temperature even, so the brisket turned out very dry. I was also using smoldering wood chips so it was a little bitter. It didn’t taste bad, but it was nothing compared to the flavor of my second brisket. 

Firing up the smoker for my last brisket.

Here’s what I’ve learned since. For my smoker, the Chargriller Smokin’ Pro, a little less than half a chimney of hardwood lump charcoal and a small log split got the smoker up to about 275 degrees right off the bat. After it came down to about 225, I put another, smaller log on and it went up to about 260. When I started using even smaller log splits, the temperature would only spike to about 250-255, which is ideal for my purposes. Splits that were about 2-3 inches in diameter and 10-12 inches in length seemed to be just right for my smoker. One thing to keep in mind is that the smaller the log, the more frequently you have to replace it. So, as per usual, you need to keep a close eye on the fire. Check it every 20-30 minutes or so for temperature and quality of smoke. Having a digital thermometer at grate level makes this much easier. This is a really good one. You can monitor the temp while inside your house if you have the kind with a remote, which can be a plus when smoking in inclement weather or in winter. And, as I stated in my last post, you can’t trust the analog thermometers mounted on most grills. They are almost never at grate level, so they can be 50-75 degrees off the readings at grate level. That much of a difference can ruin the meat! You can install analog thermometers at grate level yourself if you like, but I find it’s just easier to use a digital one.

This log was a little big.

I would still have the occasional flare up that would shoot the temp up to around 275, but opening the firebox lid and letting some of the heat escape that way seemed to be effective. Because my smoker is so poorly insulated though, I had to be careful not let the temp in the cooking chamber drop too much. I also had to do this a couple times when the log was too big and started to smolder, producing that thick, white smoke I didn’t want. Just open the firebox door and let the smoke out that way while you rearrange the coals and help the log catch fire again (or take that big log out and put on a smaller one). Now, a little white smoke isn’t going to ruin your cook, so don’t stress too much. Just try to minimize it and your food will taste better. Another tip is to keep the next log you plan to put on the fire resting on top of the firebox. Logs have a tendency to smoke a lot until they fully catch fire, which can be a few minutes. You will have the firebox door open during this time to let in as much air as possible and the temp in the cooking chamber can start to drop, which is a problem. When the log has been resting on the firebox for 45 minutes or so, it will expel any excess moisture and its temperature will rise, causing it to burst into flame almost instantly when you put it on the coal bed. This, obviously means the firebox door needs to be open less and the temp in the cooking chamber will stay more even. The weather can also have an influence on the amount of wood you use. The more moisture in the air, the more fuel you will need. Not a lot more in my experience, but there is a difference. Just monitor closely and you will be fine. Placement is also a factor. An offset smoker in the wide open is going to be subject to more wind, which will affect the fire. Irregular wind blowing into the firebox will make the fire burn hotter at times, creating an unpredictable environment and burning more fuel. It’s best to try and block the wind from blowing into your firebox, and keeping your smoker out of the elements will also help it last longer.

Every smoker is different. You have to get to know yours in particular. I’m hoping to get the Old Country BBQ Pits Pecos smoker in the spring. I would rather have their Brazos model, but it is $1,000 as opposed to $400, and that is out of my price range. It’s the same design as the Pecos, but 1/4 inch thick steel rather than 1/8 inch so it is much better insulated (1/8th inch thick steel is still better than the sheet metal I have now). A lot of pitmasters use the Old Country BBQ Pits in their backyards, including the ultimate pitmaster, Aaron Franklin. Unfortunately, they don’t sell them in the Northeast, so I will either have to drive down South to pick one up or hope that they can ship one to me. The problem with having one shipped, however, cost aside, is that I hear their quality control isn’t the best. You might get one that has imperfections you aren’t willing to live with and returning a 250 pound smoker to a store 900 miles away isn’t that simple. I would rather pick one out myself.

Why do I want that smoker in particular you might ask? In addition to the sturdier steel construction, and welded seams, the smoke stack is at grate level. Most smokers have stacks that are on top of the smoker, which means that without after market baffle plates installed, the smoke travels along the top of the smoker, largely missing the meat on the grate. Having the smoke stack at grate level helps the smoke travel across the cooking chamber at grate level, which is obviously better since that’s where the meat is. It is one of the very few mass produced smokers that have the stack at grate level (I personally don’t know of another one). Now, you can have one custom made for thousands of dollars that will be much nicer and more effecient, but I can’t afford that. The downside to this smoker is that it is just a smoker. While you can use the grate in the firebox to grill on, it is only 16 inches x 16 inches so you can’t fit very much meat on there. I like the way my Chargriller grills though, so I guess I’ll have to use both!

Fire going and brisket almost done.

The reality is that you can manage a steady fire in just about any offset smoker, you just have to pay closer attention to a cheaper one. Most of us, I imagine, don’t buy an offset smoker for the ease of use though. We expect to have to do some work to achieve the amazing flavor you can get from a “stick burner.” Some people recommend keeping a journal of your smokes, which is a great idea, but the most important thing is to just stick to it. Get to know your smoker and practice, practice, practice; smoke lots of meat (not a bad thing, right)! I know that there are other smokers out there that can get good smoke flavor on the meat, but in my opinion, the offset smoker is the pinnacle of meat smoking tools. That is why all the pros use them. I plan on doing a short post about wood selection soon, where to get it (for those of us who are not professionals and don’t need cords of post oak or applewood delivered), what kind to use for what meat, etc. Feel free to reach out if you want to have a more in-depth conversation about any aspect of smoking meat. I’m no expert, but it’s a discussion I love to have!

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