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Using a barrel smoker/bbq with a side fire box

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I posed a question in another thread about this contraption and realized I didn't initially understand how it worked based on the responses I got. I have questions about times to smoke things using this new tool. In the past, we have used a classic Weber grill and have done slow cooked meats like ribs and brisket by starting them in a slow oven and finishing them on the grill with wood chips over natural coals. Now we will be smoking/bbqing them the whole time using the firebox. I looked on the internet, and didn't find much reliable-sounding information. I realize it will take time and experimentation to learn how to boss this new pit, but some ballpark figures as well as any additional tips would be helpful.

First, a question with a probably obvious answer, but just thought I'd ask: if you want to merely grill things like fish, steak, hamburgers, or vegetables without smoking them, I'm assuming you would put your fuel of choice right in the barrel part of the grill, not in the firebox, and proceed as you would with the classic Weber.

Second, some guesses about cooking times using the fire box as both heat and smoke source:

Brisket--10-12 hours, rebuilding the fire once or twice (shooting for internal meat temp of 210).
Ribs--6-8 hours (ditto on meat temp).
Pork shoulder--6-8 hours (ditto on meat temp)
A whole chicken (or more than one), butterflied and splayed out on the grill--2-2 1/2 hours (internal meat temp @ 155).

Third, do you advise tenting any of the above-mentioned meats with foil at a certain point to prevent dryness?

Fourth, wood chips: to soak or not to soak? Pros and cons of each method?

Finally, any advice about managing the ventilation system would be greatly appreciated. From my understanding, the temperature will rise a lot with the vents open wide, and the degree to which you close the vents is how you control the temperature. Tomorrow's 4th of July virgin adventure will involve chickens, with ribs or brisket to follow this weekend.

Thanks in advance for reading and for helping us out.

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  1. I've only had mine a year, so am not an expert, but here are my findings.
    First ?. Correct. Put your coals in the barrel side & use like a classic Weber.

    Second ?. I've only done the first three. Sorry I can't help with the chicken But my best guestimate would be about half that time. I would say an hour, hour and a half if it was butterflied. Brine it if you have time before.
    For the others, I didn't ever tent and they were all very moist. The brisket I do for about 8 hours trying to keep the chamber temp around 275-300. I use a disposable aluminum pan to cook it, basting along the way. Keep cooking until it easily pulls apart.
    Ribs were about 4-6 hours if I remember correct. Same thing, when it is fall off the bone tender, you are good.
    Shoulder was about 6-8 hours.
    Fourth ?. I soak the chips, you get better smoke & they will last a bit longer. If you can find chunks, I usually don't bother.
    The fun, yet tricky part is maintaining the temp. When you add the chips, it will initially cool things off. Fan up your coals to compensate. I'm always adjusting the vents. Especially the first couple hours. Like you said, more open, more heat. Close them down for less. I usually add coals 4-5 times for the longer cooks. Sometimes using the chimney to pre-heat if the temp has dropped too low & I can't get it up very well with fanning. The smoke is what gets the good flavor. Keep adding the chips or chunks when you notice the smoke is minimal. Have fun. I've loved cooking with mine. A great reference I've used is the "Barbecue Bible" by Steven Raichlen. If you have time, pick it up. It will probably be able to help more than me.

    1. a few things quickly. If you cook brisket to 210, it's going to be dry, dry, dry. You want that brisket tender, but moist. If you are cooking it low and slow (pit temperature at 225-250), I find that to be somewhere in the 185-190 range. (usually in the high area of that range).

      With ribs, temperatures really aren't a good measure. The thickness of the meat is too thin to have it be of much value. If you are doing baby backs at a constant 250-275 pit temp, they'll take around 4-5 hours (with no foil). Spares will be more like 6-7 with no foil. I do ribs around 275 pit tem.

      Pork shoulder, depending on size, will likely take longer. I do them around 250. I have two big suckers out on my smoker right now (10-pounders each). They've been there now for 14 hours and still have 3-4 more, I'm guessing. Biggest rule with pork butts is to just keep cooking them until they are done. That's at around 195 degrees for the meat temperature. Pork butts are amazingly forgiving. Much easier to do than both brisket or ribs, since it's hard to not make great pulled pork, so long as you don't undercook. My advice is be patient and cook it unitl it gets to 195. And don't worry if the meat sits at one temperature for a long time. Or even drops a few degrees. That's what folks call the plateau, and it means that the internal fat and connective tissue is being rendered out. Once that's mostly done, it will raise in temps again. (My butts on the smoker right now have been at ~ 171 degrees now for 6 hours). If you want to speed the process, just open your vents a bit and get the smoker in the 275 range.

      Chicken, as you said, is just done when it comes to the normal internal chicken temp. I go for 165 in breast, but I brine so it gives me a bit of an insurance policy against slight overcooking. 150, for me, is a bit underdone. But that's a personal preference.

      About foil... it's a personal preference thing. There's absolutely no need for pulled pork for any foil, unless you are getting impatient. Foiling it will speed up the process. But don't foil until that butt has been on the smoker for at least 6-8 hours or the Q police will come and nab you. As to foil on ribs or brisket, that's liable to get you in the middle of a classic debate between the foilers and the purists. I personally foil for ribs and at the end of brisket. For ribs, after they've been in the smoker for at least 4.5 hours (I'm talking spares here, not BB) I foil for an hour, then take them out of the foil again for the last half hour to get them rub and ribs back to the texture I want. your call. experiment with both options.

      As to wood chips/chunks... now that you are usuing a proper smoker (as opposed to a grill for indirect gril) you need to graduate from wood chips to wood chunks. Chips just don't cut it. Once you are using chunks, which you'll throw on top of or mix into the charcoal in your firebox, you'll no longer need to soak. It doesn't do anything... the airflow controls in your firebox prevent it from flaring like an open fire.

      Ventilation control is the single most important thing to think about when you are smoking. But all smokers (and especially all offsets) are different in how they are controled, how much air will allow it to burn at what temps, etc. My only advice is, don't constantly be fudging with the vents. Make small tweaks to the vents and the temps will eventually come around. Smoking isn't sauteeing. Temp changes occur over time.

      To some of your other questions... I don't know what kind of offset smoker you are using, so can't say for sure, but if you want to grill, I don't think I'd put coals directly in the meat chamber, unless it's designed for that. Many of them have small grills you can put directly on the firebox to grill over the firebox. Usually not a big space, but still works.

      As for a resource. Without any doubt, I find the most valuable resource for newbies or others alike are the folks at www.virtualweberbullet.com. It's not just for folks with a Weber Smoky Mountain smoker (though most of them have them). Check out the link to :Discussion Forums" at the left, and click on the "Barbecuing board for a forum where you can ask any question possible. http://www.virtualweberbullet.com/ind...

      2 Replies
      1. re: adamclyde

        Thanks for the replies. I've found that I need to cook brisket to the same degree as pork shoulder to get the connective tissue to break down. I guess I don't actually take the meat's temperature, I'm just going by what I've read about what happens at different temps to fatty meat and taking it from there.

        1. re: diva360

          yeah, then definitely go by feel. 210 is going to be dry for either pulled pork or brisket. But sounds like you are going by feel, which is the true art of Q anyhow!

      2. Go take a look at the FAQ for the BBQ mailing list that was put together a
        number of years ago. It will answer many of your questions.

        Available here and other places: http://www.eaglequest.com/~bbq/faq2/t...

        3 Replies
        1. re: Lilbug

          Lilbug speaks the truth here, the FAQ is almost everything you NEED to know. You may want to seek out more, though.
          The real bottom line to barbeque is breaking down the collagens that make meat tough. Slow Q-ing of the meats does this without charring the outside. In my experience, the internal temp hangs around 160 or so while the collagens melt, kind of like ice water hangs around 32 until the ice melts. Once the tough collagens melt, you have achieved tenderness. Wood or lump charcoal choices, meat, rub, and sauce choices, and everything else become a matter of personal style.
          If you check the internal temperature with an instant read thermometer you will get almost as much information on what it feels like when it penetrates the meat as you will by reading the numbers.
          Take the time to learn and play with your food, and the results will be quite 'houndly.

          1. re: Phood

            Thanks for all the replies, especially the link to the BBQ mailing list. I read through a bunch of the postings there, and there is some great advice. Mr. Diva hogged the new cooking toy for today's cookout while I was relegated to being the indoor cook making side dishes, but I did get to run outside several times to check on how things were going (I think he also has a "man=fire" thing going on, so I'm going to have to fight for time with the smoker). He does get credit for spending time seasoning it for a few hours this morning.

            I had wanted to cook all the chicken we had slowly at 225-250, using only the firebox as the heat source, but when I went out to check, Mr. Diva had put some lump charcoal in the cooking chamber as well as the firebox to get things moving along quickly for our guests who were arriving in half an hour (our smoker allows for this option). In the end it turned out great, as the smoke aroma (we did get a hold of some hickory chunks) was heavenly, chicken doesn't really require slow cooking, and with the higher heat, we probably got crispier skin on the chicken. We actually gave a couple of pieces of chicken to our next door neighbors who were lured outside by the smell. We also put some poblanos, a variety of bell peppers, sliced zukes, and red onions on the grill in the cooking chamber, and I made potato salad, baked beans, and quick cucumber and onion pickles for side dishes along with the grilled vegetables. Ice cold slices of watermelon rounded everything out, and I'm saving the rinds to make watermelon pickles this weekend. Everyone ended up lazing around the living room holding their stomachs in food comas.

            Based on what you guys have said, before trying trickier things like brisket or ribs, I think I'll try a pork shoulder first to practice maintaining the ideal 225-250 temp, and then an actual slow-cooked smoked chicken using only the firebox for heat. I'm thinking the pork shoulder will be pretty forgiving, and I'll go easy on the wood until I kind of know what I'm doing to avoid creosote. I hope all of you had great food for your fourth of July parties!

            1. re: diva360

              My tips for what there worth.

              Don't be afraid to try ribs. They are in some ways easier because they take less time. I did a rack of baby backs on the fourth and it took about two hours. They had a temperature of 160 -170 deg when I took them out of the smoker. Use a small fire and keep adding lump charcoal to it to maintain it. Small, hot and constantly going. I BBQ at about 240-250 degrees. I personally think 225 is too cool. Takes forever. The worst part about doing a roast is that it takes so darn long. When I do one for myself, I try to find a small one, 3 lb or under. I smoke it as long as I feel necessary and then wrap in foil with some cider vinegar and finish rendering any fat by steaming. It could also be transfered into the house and put into a low oven, say 225 deg, at this point. For wood I like pecan the best, but use hickory, lilac, and maple chips. I never soak the wood in water. Just put it right on, even if they are small chips. I think most beginners, if using charcoal, tend to over apply their flavoring woods. For my vertical smoker, just a small chunk or two at a time. A larger horizontal smoker you can use more and even go with all wood, starting out possibly with a small load of lump charcoal.
              Here is a tip I received from a long time BBQer from the BBQ list.
              To prepare ribs for cooking, the night before, remove the skin on the bottom side of the ribs. Lightly apply your rub and hand rub it in. Then paint on some vegetable oil. Follow that up with a liberal amount of the rub. Don't rub in the second coat. Put in a large plastic bag and refrigerate until ready to BBQ. Applying rub this way keeps the ribs moist until they warm up and begin to render their own fat. I usually only need to baste them once with a vinegar / oil 50 /50 mix. After that they take care of themselves, unless they are exceptionally lean. Don't do real lean ones. One last tip. If you have a temperature gauge on your smoker, and say you are smoking at 240 deg, don't let the temperature drop too far before adding more charcoal or wood. With my smoker, I find that I maybe maintaining a temperature of 240, open the door up and find almost no fire at all. After while you will be able to gauge just when to check it. If you build about the same size fire each time you can let previous experience be your guide as to when to check and see how your fire is doing.

        2. for roasts amd the like I invested in a good meat thermometer - have not done brisket yet but it does seem most say it is by senses of touch however when I try it I will still have the thermometer in there.

          I definitely soak - I do this twofold - one the moisture in the smoke helps keep things moist. Also for the long smoked items I do use a mop/baste to also help keep things moist -

          In terms of venting - get a thermometer for the smoling chamber that way you can control the cooking temp -

          You are correct about if you want to use this as a grill - I actually keep my offset barrel smoker just for smoking and have a seperate weber for gilling

          1. First of all, internal meat temperature is too high! Many cooks mean well but they nurder meat when it is cooked too hot and too fast. For beef a well done item is 145-160 and is still moist and juicy. For fowl 180. Fish cooks very fast so don't leave it more than 3 minutes or until the meat turns white then remove it. A great book you need to find and read is called Sublime Smoke. It will express the ambient and internal temps and other finesse techniques. You do need more than meat thermometer and a long one is good to have many times. Enjoy the experiments!

            1 Reply
            1. re: TXBBQman

              On another thread you suggested that a BBQ smoked brisket should be cooked to temp of 145 degree.........the end result of this would be like eating leather....might have flavor but VERY tough. Conective tissue in the brisket does not even start to break down until 185- 190 degrees. And I thought with a name like TXBBQman you would know better

            2. I realize this thread is ancient, but can anyone give me an idea of how many coals to put in the offset box to get started at 225ish?

              4 Replies
              1. re: j8715

                I really depends upon the size of your smoker if you want to get up to and hold 225. Are you using lump charcoal or briquettes? Are use using a "pellet pooper" type smoker or does it take standard chunk or chip smoke wood in the box?

                There are 6 to 12 good meat smoking forums out there to answer what you need but will still need the info above.

                ---------

                From www.amazingribs.com:

                1) Cook with charcoal, not wood. Wood fires are too hard to manage in a COS, and they can easily spoil the meat with too much smoke, creosote, soot, or ash. A common question: "How much charcoal should I start with?" There are too many variables for a pat answer. It depends on how hot a day it is, how windy, how tight your cooker is, how heavy the metal is, how much cold meat is inside, and where the meat is in the cooking chamber (it can vary as much as 50°F from side to side). This is the craft of BBQ and it will take a few cooks for you to get the feel of your machine. Start with about 1 chimney of lit charcoal and a good thermometer and a cooking log.

                2) Preheat the cooker. Start your coals and wait until the cooking chamber is up to temp before putting the meat in. This will help prevent bitter creosote from forming.

                3) Add fully lit coals. Use a chimney to start the coals before you start cooking. Then, when the temperature begins to decline because the coals are fading, add only fully lit coals from the chimney.

                4) Use good thermometers on both ends. Beware of the fact that the heat near the firebox can be 50°F higher than by the flue. Use two good thermometers to monitor the temperature on both sides of the cooking chamber. Mount a couple of bimetals as indicators, but use a digital next to the meat for real accuracy.

                5) Don't soak your wood chips or chunks. The wood absorbs only about 5% of its weight in water and the water just cools the coals when you add it. This can cause yo-yoing temperatures.

                6) Keep the lid closed. Here's an old shibboleth: If you're lookin' you ain't cookin. Opening the doors, either on the firebox or the cooking chamber, upsets the delicate balance of heat and moisture; it can take 30 minutes or more to get it back under control. Opening the door can also add to cooking time. If you must peak, open the door slowly so you don't suck all the heat out and pull cold air into the firebox, and close it as soon as possible. Don't bother spritzing or mopping your meat. Read this article on the subject of basting and spritzing. Yes, you heard me, don't bother. Messing up the oven is worse than the small loss of moisture that a spritz or mop may or may not replace. Besides, mopping and spritzing just cools the meat, and the purpose of this whole exercise is to warm the meat. It's called cooking.

                7) Rotate the meat. If you have meat on the left and meat on the right, they will need to be switched halfway through the cooking.

                8) Learn one vent at a time. Most COS have an intake baffle and a chimney baffle. Begin by controlling the temperature with the intake baffle only and leave the chimney wide open. The intake baffle controls oxygen flow to the coals and has the most impact on cooking temperature. The chimney controls smoke in the cooking chamber (somewhat), and the temperature differential from one side to the other (somewhat). Start with the intake wide open until the chamber is up to temp, and then close it half way or more until the temp stabilizes in the 225-250°F range on the hot side. Never close the intake all the way or the fire can starve and produce creosote. Don't touch the chimney until the cooking chamber is stable for 30 minutes or more.

                9) Go easy on the smoke. It is easy to ruin meat with too much smoke. Use chips, chunks, or pellets. Add about 4 ounces at a time in 3-4 doses every 30 minutes, starting as soon as the cooking chamber gets over 200°F.

                10) Beware of the weather. The ambient temperature will effect the cooking temperature, and rain (or snow) and wind can significantly affect cooking temperature.

                11) Pull up a chair. Bring a book, a beer, and some tunes, and stay near your cooker.

                12) Protect your investment. Your COS will rust. When it is not in use, use a cover or park it in the garage. Put your car on the street. It won't rust. Sand out rust and repaint with heat resistent paint. If you use it on the interior, let it dry thoroughly before cooking. The fumes are poisonous.

                13) Use a water pan. Put a grate above the coals and put a water pan on the grate. This will add humidity to the smoke and help the flavor and moistness. Don't bother putting water pans under the meat, and don't waste money on apple juice in the pan.

                14) Practice. Practice. Practice. Remember the old joke about the tourist who asked the street vendor how to get to Carnegie Hall? His response was "Practice. Practice. Practice." Nothing could be more true for owners of COS. Practice without meat. Set it up and run througha cook so you can see how it behaves.

                1. re: jjjrfoodie

                  yeah i found this and it is somewhat good advice. my cheap charbroil is a decent grill, but just isn't heavy duty enough to regulate heat easily. it's been a battle and i am burning through more coals than i think i should be. i think the lesson is cook with a chimney (mine is small) of coals and a handful of chips for 2 hours til it starts losing heat, then finish in the oven.

                  pork shoulder is big and fat and forgiving, i'm sure it will turn out fine.

                  1. re: j8715

                    Don't fall into disparity yet. LOL.

                    It's a labor of love.

                    I use the Traeger a lot, but also keep a Brinkmann electric smoker around that I love.
                    Plug and play with elec. plug and you only need to add wood chunks and water to the basin. Old girlfriend of mine that works for a NASA contractor hooked me up with an ISS level thermo wrap for it that I can cook and hold temp when it's way cold or variable temp out.

                    Smoking for 8 to 12 hours and then oven finisihing is no crime (although called the "crutch" method-LOL)

                    Sounds like you need to master your smoking device. Cheech and Chong would be sad. Me, on the other hand, still say it takes a lot of time and love to master BBQing and smoking---meat.

                    1/3 cubic ft. bags of both mesquite and hickory chunks these days are under $4, so it is really cheap. Read up on how to upgrade what you have to work. It's prolly pretty simple.

                    1. re: jjjrfoodie

                      i'm starting to think the water pan over the fire is what was keeping the temp too low. i had no trouble pre heating to 225ish, then later i couldn't get over 200. i would have been eating dinner at 1am or something if i kept trying to cook at 200

                      i ended up with 4 hr in the barrel 2.5 in the oven and it was very tastey pork. nice pink ring from either the smoke or the rub not sure. i don't know if 4 hrs in the barrel was needed. anyway, i think pork is going to be fine with this system. brisket not so much.