Offset Smokers: A BBQ Purist’s Dream
Offset smokers come in all shapes and sizes, but for once, size really does matter.
Offset smokers are as traditional as it gets when it comes to the BBQ industry. For those unfamiliar with the name or the format, offset smokers are horizontal smokers composed of very minimal gadgets and components. The vast majority of them are designed with only 3 distinct sections: a firebox, a smoking chamber, and a smokestack.
The way they work is fairly simple. The air draft from the firebox is pulled through the smoking chamber and then released through the smokestack. As for the temperature, it is controlled with the use of 2 damper vents (one on the firebox, and another one on the stack), in the same manner that you would operate a kettle or a kamado-style BBQ.
That said, offset smokers are very different from your typical gas or even charcoal BBQs. While most consumer-grade BBQs are designed to offer convenience and ease of use, offset smokers are made to focus on performance and volume. Indeed, they are a real purist’s dream as they leave very little margin for mistakes.
As much as they require a lot more maintenance and attention (you really can’t leave them unsupervised as they need to be refilled every 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the quality of the wood that you are working with and the temperature that they are running at), they provide you with something no other BBQ manages to really provide: a unique experience. Partly knowledge, partly gut feeling, running an offset smoker will really expose you as a pitmaster, letting you know your strengths and weaknesses in real time.
Not to kid ourselves, offset smokers aren’t beginner-type BBQs, but if you’re growing as a pitmaster and slowly considering acquiring one, here are some things to know and pay attention to as you check your options:
Smoke quality is king in the BBQ world and that’s why most competition-level pro pitmasters only swear by offset smokers. Truly, as much as you can get good smoke with kamado-style or pellet smokers, some would argue that you just can’t get clean and consistent smoke like offset smokers yield. And as you know, good quality smoke emanates from smoldering wood.
When it comes to offset smokers, there are 3 very different stages of smoke as you burn wood: the ramping up, the actual burn, and the phase out. When it comes to the ramping up stage, the smoke that’s generated (as the wood is slowly caught on fire) is often white or denser in wood flakes and debris and has a bitter flavor profile. The smoke from the phase out stage (once the burnt wood is almost done) though, on the other hand, brings only very little flavor, leaving nothing but a surface smoke that’s got almost nothing but carbon in it. The actual burn stage is where the magic happens. Indeed, it is during this moment that you can maximize the wood flavor by managing to keep the fire burning at a certain intensity. (On that note, know that logs tend to yield better results as they are much bigger than pellets, which offers you a much bigger window of opportunity.)
While we are on that topic, know that although offset smokers are fueled preeminently with logs and firewood splits, they can also work with charcoal. That said, be aware that charcoal doesn’t have any specific flavor profile, but that it can be a lifesaver if you are struggling to maintain temperature—don’t expect that good BBQ trademark flavor out of a charcoal cooking session though.
All in all, having an easy and sustainable access to dry hardwood is something to factor in if you’re considering making the jump and investing in an offset smoker.
Good offset smokers are little tanks. Even though they are considered “specialty BBQs”, there’s a wide range of products out there that’s available at all sorts of prices. To get good results with an offset smoker, you need to consider 2 things: the size of the build and the thickness of the metal.
A prime example of textbook BBQ craftsmanship is Hamrforge’s Beast. The biggest, baddest thing you’ll find shopping for offsets. With ¼” thick American metal all around, it’s designed to last a lifetime without ever slowing down on performances. As always, quality comes with a price, but if you’re serious about your BBQ game, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that’s worth considering.
The entry-level offset smokers, on the other hand, are pretty affordable, but they have multiple flaws that make them bad long-term investments. Being massive, they are bound to stay year-round outside, so the quality and thickness of the metal are important factors to look for as they will help them stand the test of time and prevent rusting too early in. Heat-resistant paint and anti-rust treatment are also always keywords to search for in this type of products’ spec sheets.
More precisely, thickness will also help with heat retention, which is key for optimal results. As you cook completely indirectly in an offset smoker, you will be losing a lot of heat when you will be opening the lid. Being able to ramp the temperature back up as fast as possible will then reduce risks of temperature swings, which could otherwise leave you with a drier piece of meat.
Size also matters in the sense that there is a direct correlation between the actual smoking space you have and the distance between the firebox and the smokebox. Even with a deflector plate, the firebox side of the smoker will always run hotter than the other end. Unless you are running a reverse flow offset smoker, know that you may have to sacrifice a significant amount of cooking surface if your offset is too compact. Even as one of the smallest in size in its line, the Sunterra Denali is a great example of not sacrificing key factors to save a few bucks. Made of 3/16” fully welded metal plates (like every other Sunterra offset smoker), you know that it’s going to hold temperatures even in the coldest of environments.
Regular versus Reverse Flow
As mentioned before, offset smokers are fairly simplistic. The only “technical” aspect you might tumble into is the concept of direct (regular) or reverse flow.
Regular offset smokers pull the air and smoke from the firebox directly into the smoking chamber. Reverse flows, on the other hand, are designed so that the air and smoke are pulled to the furthest end of the smoker before actually entering the smoking chamber. There are pros and cons to both designs.
In fact, while reverse flow offset smokers are known to be easier to operate and even out the heat and the smoke distribution, regular offset smokers have a better air draft, leading to cleaner smoke. Therefore, it’s a very tough call to make as it forces you to pick a side: quality of smoke or ease of use?
I always felt like offset smokers were never about ease of use, so I doubled down on me and opted for a regular one. I’ve been running the Sunterra Colossus for nearly 3 years now and although it took me a few runs to master my firewood management skills, I have nothing but good things to say about it.
I’ve had the chance to run reverse flow offset smokers as well and truth be told, I didn’t see that big of a difference in terms of controls. I did notice an increase in moisture retention as the fat renders out on the deflector plates and vaporizes it back over time, but that’s about it.
Once you understand and accept that your regular offset smoker will have different zones, you simply have to make decisions based on that. I actually find it useful as it gives me more options when situations call for it.
In the end, what I’m saying is that reverse flows are nice, but they are not must-haves. If you know how to run a fire, you’ll get killer results either way.
If you like to have people over, cook for the masses, or simply are looking for a reason to kick it back and do nothing for days at a time, acquiring an offset smoker will do you good. It’s a sound investment if you don’t go cheap and it will provide you with countless hours of pleasure, sunshine, and meat to drool over.
Enjoying BBQ’ing with your new beast!