I still remember the first time I knowingly ate good, delicious barbecue. Eric, the man responsible for instigating my passion for the smoked grub, smoked a pork butt. I was blown away by the flavor in each bite. I couldn’t believe how good it tasted. The rub, the smoky essence, the tenderness and rich flavor of the meat itself. I thought he must have smoked that pork butt in a $5,000 smokehouse machine, but no — he used an old horizontal offset Brinkmann (a company that isn’t even in business any longer) smoker.
I have to admit my ignorance. Before then, I didn’t know squat about barbecue. Being from southwest Virginia, we have a local barbecue joint in this tiny town, but when I heard the word ‘barbecue’ I thought about potato chips, not things like brisket, pork butt or ribs. What a shame, right? However, after this genuine smoky introduction, I was hooked and wanted to learn more.
So I received an old vertical offset Brinkmann Trailmaster smoker as a gift. This is the smoker I learned how to barbecue on. When I received it, it had received a nice, new paint job, but this pit did not come without pitfalls. It leaked smoke, had trouble maintaining temperatures and was a pain in the butt to use, but I loved it. It was a labor of love to use, and all the hard work paid off judging by the finished product (the food) being delicious. The only reason I quit using it is because it rusted and developed holes. Again, this was an older smoker that had been left out, uncovered, in the elements for years. Its demise was inevitable.
Today, you can buy certain smokers that take the guesswork out of barbecue, from pellet grills offering set it-and-forget it temperature settings and expensive offset ($1,000+) offset smokers that feature heavy gauge steel that works to ‘lock in’ the smoke and maintain temperatures better than cheaper cookers, but let’s face it: both pellet grills and those offset pits tend to be expensive, and not all of us have thousands of dollars to throw at a smoker, and if you do, that’s great. However, if you aren’t down for splurging, you should never fear, because the barbecue you create from a cheap cooker can be just as delicious as any barbecue from an expensive one.
Using a Charcoal Grill as a Smoker
You can use a gas grill as a smoker, but I have no experience in that side of things, as I prefer charcoal grills any day of the week. I have used both a STOK drum grill and a Weber kettle grill to achieve smoky barbecue deliciousness, and they have both worked out for many cooks. Unless you are always cooking for a large crowd, you don’t need a big smoker for the job; you can simply use your grill with some charcoal and a couple of chunks of your favorite smoking wood to do the trick.
Grills can often be overlooked in the realm of barbecue. I know that almost sounds silly to say, but in a world where a lot of people are trying to ‘keep up with the Joneses’, the elephant in the room that is in the guise of a $100 grill is often ignored despite the fact that the barbecue produced from said grill is truthfully just as good as the barbecue created from a $2,000-$5000+ heavy duty smoker, you know, as long as the pitmaster slinging the meat is adept at what they are doing.
Here is a rack of ribs I made on my Weber kettle. Just as good as ribs from an expensive pit:
So, how do you create barbecue using a charcoal grill? You can either shuffle all of your charcoal to one side of the grill, emptying a big ol’ batch of unlit coals onto the charcoal grate while lighting 8-10 briquettes to dump onto the unlit ones for low’n’slow smoking as the unlit coals catch heat slowly over time, with the intake and exhaust vents adjusted accordingly (barely leave the intake vents open), or you can use my favorite method: the Snake Method.
The snake method involves creating a line of unlit charcoal briquettes around the edges of the charcoal grates, and it is called the snake method because the look resembles a snake. You simply add your wood along some of the briquettes, and just like the previously mentioned method you only light a few briquettes to add — when adequately ashed over and hot — to the unlit coals to begin your cook. Afterwards, you simply add the meat to the middle of the cooker to get things going. I have smoked ribs, pork butts and briskets using the snake method with my Weber kettle, and it has never failed me. It only takes patience and a little bit of trial and error to do it.
But what if you have a bigger crowd to feed and a charcoal grill won’t cut it?
Cheap Offset Smokers
There are cheap offset smokers that are available to be purchased, from bands like Char-Grill and Oklahoma Joe offering them. However, what you should understand is that these smokers likely won’t be tremendous right out of the box. They will leak smoke and cause a myriad of frustrations. I recommend picking up a gasket kit to seal off the smoke leaks that occur.
Even with these cheap offsets, much like with a charcoal grill you can create barbecue that is just as good as the expensive ones that may be marketed to you when you are browsing for a pit online. There will be more labor involved — vs. a charcoal grill, too — because with these cheap offsets you have to almost constantly be tending to the fire, making sure your temperatures are being maintained and that the wood is burning cleanly and not creating dark gray smoke. This may sound like an inconvenience to you, which is understandable, but again, it is a labor of love and something I genuinely enjoy.
My old Brinkmann may have died and rusted out, but a buddy of mine gave me his old horizontal offset smoker last summer. He moved on to an electric smoker (no thank you) for the ease of use, and rather than selling his offset — which he could have done — he gave it to me, and I guess a motivation for that is that he knew it would be in good hands. It leaks smoke and has its issues, but smoking burgers, wings, chicken thighs/leg quarters and ribs on it have been a blast.
Offset smokers, or stick burners as they are often called, will offer a different, more pronounced smoke flavor to the barbecue you create with them, and the reason for that is because you will find yourself using logs of wood vs. chunks (most of the time), and the larger pieces of wood is going to create a larger, more pervasive amount of smoke. I have actually met a fair amount of people who prefer a more subtle flavor of smoke (looking at pellet smoker aficionados and their ilk). That isn’t me, though. Give me all the smoke you got.
Bullet Smokers and Drum Smokers
I have a Weber Smokey Mountain (bullet smoker) and two Barrel House Cookers (drum smokers), and I barbecue with them more than any of my other cookers. I am clearly biased in this camp, but what can I say? They produce delectable barbecue and they are virtually effortless to use once you get the hang of them.
The thing is, what do you consider ‘cheap’/economic for your wallet? A 22.5″ Weber Smokey Mountain is around $400 while drum smokers range in price (I paid $250 for the bigger Barrel House Cooker, which is now $300). For the price and the ease of use, I find these types of cookers to be of extreme value. I can fit between 60 to 80 lbs. of pork butt in my Weber Smokey Mountain, so there is plenty of room in there for a large cook. If I were to use both of my Barrel House Cookers in one cook session, I can smoke around 12 to 14 racks of ribs (by hanging them) at a time. Keep these types of cookers in mind when you searching for a pit.
The bottom line is this: you don’t need an expensive smoker to create amazing barbecue. I don’t care what is being marketed towards you as you browse online. If you have the cash to afford it, I say you should go for it, but if you don’t, then you don’t, and there are alternatives, as mentioned above. Yes, all these expensive smokers are nice, but that is simply because of how well built they are. That is not a knock on them, because who doesn’t want a well-built pit? But you can doctor up a cheaper smoker to make up for any deficits and disadvantages that you perceive from it. There are people who win barbecue competitions with grills, bullet smokers, drum smokers and cheap offsets against guys using expensive cookers like Lang, Yoder and pellet grills. It happens every year, all the time. It will continue to happen, because great barbecue is more dependent on the person cooking it rather than the smoker used.
With that said, I want to shift gears to this
Expensive Seasonings and Rubs Are Not a Requirement for Great BBQ
This has admittedly been driving me crazy lately, especially in the realm of the barbecue side of things on social media. Let me expound on that.
Let’s say you are browsing the barbecue community on social media and you encounter one of the more popular ‘players’ in the game, someone who has over 15,000 followers and appears to be a brand ambassador for multiple companies. All their posts feature food mentions where they got their meats from (Porter Road has been the latest flavor of the month, it appears), what particular rub and/or sauce they used, and sometimes they will throw in a photo of an expensive chef knife they used, especially if they are being handed a little cash for posting about it.
Ignoring the meat side of thing for a moment, notice how the rubs and sauces (if applicable) they recommend always seem to be from an online company. Both the rubs and sauces are on the expensive side in comparison to what you can buy from your local grocery store, have you noticed?
I will always be down to support small businesses if I like their products in the barbecue side of things. This goes for some of my favorites, as it pertains to seasonings/rubs: Caribeque, Reload Rub, The Killer Cook, Grill Your Ass Off and Meat Church. I will recommend the rubs and seasonings from those companies to anybody who is interested in grilling and barbecuing. However, using those particular aforementioned rubs and seasonings is not imperative to create incredible barbecue. Some of my favorite seasonings are from the Weber brand itself, featured for $2-4 at my local Wal-Mart (garlic habanero seasoning is excellent)!
I just mentioned The Killer Cook in the above paragraph. Their Chow Khan Pan-Asian rub is incredible on chicken wings and in stir-fry, and their Mediterranean Spice blend is the only thing I will use on lamb, but let’s face it: their products are expensive. For a 10oz. shaker of seasoning, it will run you $25 ($20 for the rub and $5 for the shipping in the United States). This is a small company that is using fresh ingredients, but still, it is a steep price, especially when you could buy a seasoning from your local grocery store for 1/8 the price and spend the rest of the money — that you otherwise spend on a bottle of seasoning — on meats to barbecue. I’m not knocking The Killer Cook, because I love them dearly, and I will be an advocate for them until the end, but not everybody can afford to justify spending that much money on a bottle of ground-up spices. I certainly can’t, at least not all the time. I find myself using both the Chow Khan Pan-Asian and Mediterranean Spice rubs sparingly, unfortunately.
I was talking to one of my good pals in the barbecue community in the social media side of things the other day, and we were having a good laugh over some of the product peddlers and lackluster pseudo-marketers in the community and how many of these guys won’t post about using more economic, affordable seasonings from big brand companies because they won’t ‘receive a pat on the head’ for posting about them.
If you are a consumer, a caveat I must offer you is to be very wary of what is being marketed to you at every turn, especially in this hobby. You might be pitched the idea that a $20 rub is automatically better than what you can buy from the grocery store, and that is simply an egregious notion. The expensive rubs/seasonings may feature products that are advertised as being fresh or ‘without MSG’ (even though MSG’s negative health effects are greatly exaggerated and false), but at the end of the day, when it comes to a great flavor, cheaper seasonings get the job done just as well, if not better at times pending on what you are using, than the expensive niche ones.
Heck. If you want to be even more economical, you could always either grind up spices yourself, or you can gather a variety of different singular spices and create your own rub. I actually have a rub of my own that I’ve been experimenting with for a while.
I definitely recommend picking up a high quality thermometer (the one I use from Thermoworks, the Thermapen Mk4, is the best money I have ever spent as far as value is concerned) for not only food safety purposes but for checking what your meat’s internal temperatures are during a cook so you can follow along (important, especially, if you are cooking a brisket and want to wrap it in aluminum foil or butcher paper when it hits 160 degrees).
If you are just beginning your barbecue journey, it is important to not overthink what you are doing. Stick to the basics, because the option to delve into the more advanced side of things is always available to you in the future. Don’t worry about trying to keep up with the big wigs. It is easy to fall into having the mindset, which is like a trap, of trying to have the ‘biggest and best everything’ but it is unneeded. Great food is created by the person behind it.