The barbeque world is a competitive space with tons of outdoor cookers and appliances to choose from. But even amidst the plethora of options, the offset smoker stands a shoulder tall above its peers for strong reasons. It’s the value and functionality that this unit combines and with the right tactics, your smokes are nothing short of exquisite.
If you just bought an offset and are still fumbling on how to operate it, you’re in luck! Being a premium cooker, it does take a bit of learning and patience to get the hang of it. But not to discourage you, with a few test runs, you should be up to speed with the formalities. The most important thing is to get familiar with your smoker because again each unit is different from the other.
Enough said, let’s jump right into the gist of it.
Parts of an Offset Smoker
Before you start testing out your brand new smoker, it’s important that you understand its anatomy and what each part does. Depending on what kind of smoker you have, the features may slightly vary but at the baseline, these are the universally common specs.
- Main cooking chamber– it takes to a round metal barrel and is where the cooking actually happens. Inside the barrel is fitted with grill grates which hold the meat in place while barbecuing.
- Firebox– as the name suggests, fire is housed inside this pit. The firebox requires regular tending to maintain the temperatures at peak. So you’re likely going to frequent this area a lot during a cook.
- Vents– as we’ll see further along, building and maintaining a fire is arguably the most technical part of the equation when working with an offset. And to get it right, ventilation chambers play a big role. The two critical vents include the smokestack and the fire pit damper.
- Smokestack– also commonly referred to as the chimney and is where the smoke escapes. If you’re burning your fuel right, you should notice thin, light whips of smoke billowing through.
Other components you may find include an inbuilt temperature gauge and storage shelf.
Quick disclaimer, the quality of the smoker you invest in, directly impacts what kind of smokes you get. You want to invest in a brand with thick ceramic and proper engineering all-round. Very thin casings do not do well in retaining heat and you’ll have to use more time and effort in revamping the heat mid-cook.
One piece of evidence with mediocre cookers is when you begin to notice smoke leaks around the lid doors or connection points. Only the chimney should escape the smoke. Similarly, a quality offset shouldn’t have an exaggerated difference in temperature from end to end. A standard variation of about 50 F is fairly okay, but figures far above this should be alarming.
That said, if you’re thinking of purchasing a durable horizontal smoker set to part with a pretty sum otherwise you might be frustrated with inexpensive versions.
How to Operate an Offset Smoker
Unlike other traditional smokers, an offset is going to be hands-on every step of the way. For most people, the challenge comes in starting a fire and maintaining the required temperatures for the cook. Of course, different meats will need different temperature points but at the standard, a BBQ is best done slow and steady. You’ll need to keep the temperatures contained if you want to end up with a juicy piece of steak at the end of your smoke. So it goes without saying that stabilizing temperatures is perhaps the most vital aspect to avoid a dried-out result.
Also, with smoking, the rule is less is more. Just a little bit of smoke goes a long way in seasoning your food. Whatever you do, aim to keep the smoke under control. Too much and you’ll have an ashy meal bitter to the taste.
Lighting up the Fire
So here you are with your fire materials, what next?
First things first, start with a clean hot charcoal bed. Pitmasters advise using charcoal and wood as primary fuel sources but in case you have a gas or electric smoker consider using pellets or wood chips to work up the smoke.
With charcoal, use a chimney starter to get the coal lumps heated. Until the lumps turn red hot can you proceed to lay them out into the fire pit? Ensure you use enough to avoid a situation whereby you exhaust your coal bed before time.
The trick with this step is to position your hot coal to the backside of the firebox. Why so? It helps conserve energy whenever you open the lid door. Remember each time you open the smoker; you’re losing substantial heat energy. But in such a case where it’s almost impossible to avoid it, having the charcoal facing opposite the door helps preserve against excess energy loss.
Apart from this, it creates room for warming up logs while simultaneously being a protective measure. The last thing you’d want is to catch a burn from reaching across the fire.
Preheating wood chunks is handy for speedy ignition. Unlike cold wood, warm timber stays on longer and smolders easily without putting out that dense white smoke.
Back to the procedure, once your coal bed is ready; roll the logs into the fire one at a time at regular intervals. Be sure to warm up a fresh log every time you roll one into the fire. At the start, crack the fire door and damper open to allow as much oxygen in. Keep it this way until the fire flames up nicely and temperatures begin to close in at the expected range.
Stabilizing the Temperature
This is where the real work is. As mentioned earlier, to keep your smoker running smoothly, you’ll have to tend to the fire every once in a while. And while at it, have a reliable digital thermometer that can register accurate temperatures in an instant. Unless you trust your inbuilt thermometer (which is often not advised) you should have a sturdy backup plan- a smoker thermometer.
On a side note, experts advise that you calibrate your smoker beforehand with a few dry runs before setting on the cuts. Smoking right away as a first-timer will likely spot unforeseen challenges, something you could have avoided had you taken the time to understand and fine-tune your smoker. If you can practice in advance the better.
Now that your fire is lit and your smoker is slowly coming up to heat, here are a few pointers you should work with to achieve a consistent flame;
- Begin to narrow the vents as you go
If kept wide open, the temperatures will skyrocket and ruin your BBQ. You want to leave the fire vent about 1/3 open as the chimney stays ½ open. Some space is required to free surplus smoke or else your meat will get sooty.
- Check on the smoke every 10-15 minutes
The whole point of this is to rectify any setbacks early. When you notice heavy smoke whips coming off the chimney or a drop in temps, it’s an indicator that your fuel is not burning correctly. You may need to poke around, drain off the ashes so that smoldering is controlled. Like we said, it’s an involved procedure.
- Have your thermometer probe set right at the grill grates
It must be placed precisely at the grate level to read true internal temperatures. This way you know exactly at what degrees the meat is cooking, and whether any adjustments need to be made. Usually, it’s going to take a couple of hours to smoke so don’t rush the process.
- Adjust one component at a time
Bear in mind that maintaining a consistent range is not so far from a guessing game. Whatever is causing a drop or spike might as well be a problem with the wood, briquettes, chimney, or the main barrel itself.
Therefore, approach the matter systematically. Adjust one variable at a time, and give time for the smoker to respond. If no improvement is detected, move on to the next and observe.
- Watch the weather
The weather although being a third-party influencer has a huge impact on how your smoker performs. Chilly climates can quickly impair the flame thus requiring more effort and fuel to keep the cooker working at optimum. The opposite is also true. So keep an eye out for outdoor conditions and have an extra bag of charcoal and wood on standby during the winter.
With the above guidelines, fire management should become a more feasible task. To give you somewhat a bearing, each fresh log of wood you feed into the fire should last on average 45 minutes to one hour. So have your timer close so you know when next to visit the firebox and add more wood.
Pro Tips on How to Cook with a Stick Burner
There’s not a one size fits all formula when it comes to using an offset. You could smoke using a ton of different techniques and still achieve impressive cooks. But for best results, the following tips have been tested and tried.
- Low and Controlled Fire
You can hardly go wrong with this approach. It does an excellent job of diffusing heat evenly to all parts including the center of the meat. And by allowing water to gradually vaporize, you end up with a crusty gold-brown bark. Wood and charcoal are an unrivaled combination in conducting slow cooks.
A good brand to use is Pecan wood. It comes already split so you do not have to do it yourself.
- Use a water pan
A water pan is useful to regulate humidity. Sometimes even the best of us could end up with a dried lump of meat despite having stuck to the rules. Not with a water pan. It introduces sufficient moisture levels and again combines with the gases to impart a more soulful flavor. Preferably introduce a top rack in the firebox and have the pan placed here.
- Use two digital thermometers across the barrel
Why this is important is because of the temperature fluctuation from one end of the barrel to the other. With two temperature gauges, you are better placed in deciding what zone your meat should go in.
The end closest to the firebox tends to be higher than the one next to the smokestack, so you can switch between these two areas at different times depending on how you want your meat done. Inserting the gauges is a DIY job and will only cost you a few hours.
- Turn your meat
Midway through the cook, it’s good that you rotate your meat so that both sides cook evenly. If need be switch positions to either the left or right side of the grates. Nevertheless, open the main lid door only when absolutely necessary. Too many turns and you might end up with a temperature disaster.
- Do some dry runs
Dry runs do not need food. You can do without and still get a solid idea of how best to use your specific smoker. The best part is you can calibrate your cooker in advance such that it becomes less murky when you actually have to do the real cooking.
- Don’t overload the smoke
Only a small amount is more than enough. To avoid too much, have some kind of air outlet going on. Also, go easy on the wood quantity. About 4 ounces at a time is enough to produce the required smoky flavor.
Whether you are a brand new user or an old-time offset consumer, hopefully, the information above spots some handy tips that you can apply for an amazing smoked BBQ. Get started, and let us know how you fare!