If you are a BBQ newbie considering the purchase of a cheap offset smoker, or are about to use one for the first time, be sure to read everything below as well as my article about pits and cooking temperature.
Offset smokers are a style of smoker with the firebox located off to the side to provide indirect heat. Several major manufactures produce inexpensive versions. For many newbies, these cheap offset smokers are their entry into the world of smoking. However, cheap offset smokers present their own set of challenges. Regardless of the style of cooker used, the outside temperature, wind, rain, (etc.) can have a real impact on your cooker’s temperature. Inexpensive offset smokers are very vulnerable to temperature loss due to lighter gauge steel and loose-fitting parts. A cold wind can rob heat from the cooking chamber of a leaky offset smoker, dramatically impact the cook, and use significantly more charcoal in the process. These challenges and difficulties can be disheartening. A newbie can prevent discouragement and frustration by considering the following:
Factors to Consider
- One of the advantages of an offset smoker is that the side firebox creates an indirect cooking environment by design. However, cheap offset smokers usually suffer from highly variable temperatures within the cooking chamber (from the side closest to the firebox and the side furthest away) unless modifications have been made to “tune” the cooker. Better quality units come with tuning plates or a baffle that is designed to distribute heat from the side firebox more evenly. In the absence of a baffle or tuning plates, avoid placing meat directly above the entrance from the firebox. This means you won’t be able to utilize the entire grill surface for cooking so take surface area into consideration.
- Heavier gauge steel provides more mass for heat retention which is helpful. Before you buy, do some research and compare materials. Heavy gauge steel isn’t necessary, but it is easier to cook with once heated to temperature.
- When and where you cook would be helpful factors to consider. If you are only going to be smoking or barbecuing on warm summer days, then cold wind is less of an issue for air leaks with a cheap offset smoker. However, even the cool winds of Spring and Fall can really have a negative impact on a cheap offset smokers. Will you cook in a very sheltered (but safe) location?
- Compare and select a unit with the tightest fitting lids and components. When examining the fit of the lid to the body, you will be surprised that many name-brands have gaps so wide you can see clear across the cooking grate with the lid closed (see below at :30 seconds). Avoid these and avoid the frustration and expense of ruined meals. A tight-fitting lid also applies to the side firebox door where direct heat loss could be a problem.
Many name-brand manufacturers produce cheap offset smokers with gaps so wide you can see across the cooking grate with the lid closed (see video at :30). This makes controlling and maintaining temperature quite difficult. Video courtesy of youtube user OvertheArcOutfitters
- Before you experience temperature loss problems due to a leaky cheap offset smoker, spend some time (& additional money) modifying your cooking chamber to safely seal up leaks. This can be as simple as aluminum foil to plug up gaps or as complex as applying high-temp gasket material. Evening out temperature differences with tuning plates while you are at it will also help immensely. Whatever you do, make sure it is food-safe. Modifications beyond the simplest will take some workshop know-how, research, tools, time and materials.
If you are considering or have already purchased a cheap offset smoker, don’t be disheartened by what you’ve read here. For the value, I think it is hard to beat the Char-Griller for cheap offset smokers. I’ve cooked some fantastic barbecue on them. However, they benefit greatly from stopping up gaps and evening-out temperature variations. Follow my lead and I’ll show you how to successfully smoke and BBQ some fantastic food on a cheap offset smoker without busting your bank account.<