How to Use an Offset Smoker to Make the Most of It

Last updated: Aug 11, 2020

An offset smoker goes by a few names, including a barrel smoker, a horizontal smoker, or a stick burner. This is due to its classic design that those in the competition circuit usually picture when discussing their favorite smoking techniques. These smokers are built to create mouthwatering meats that are tender and full of the smoky flavor. Of course, you need to use the smoker properly to achieve those heights of deliciousness. Those dealing with one for the first time may not be sure exactly how to use an offset smoker grill. If you’re one of them, keep reading for our step-by-step instructions.

What is an offset smoker and how does it work?

How to Use an Offset Smoker to Make the Most of It

An offset smoker looks similar to many of the grills on the market, with a few extra features. It is made up of a large chamber with a grill inside to hold the food you’ll be cooking. There is a smaller chamber on one side of the main chamber, though it sits a bit lower. This is called the firebox and is where the actual cooking fire is lit. The heat and smoke travel from the firebox to the main chamber, adding those smoky flavors as the food is cooked. This setup keeps the flames from touching the food, preventing it from burning.

There is a chimney on the other side of the main chamber, as far from the firebox as possible. Vents, also called baffles or dampers, are also located on the firebox as well. The vents and chimney can be opened or closed as needed to maintain the temperature you want during the cooking process.

How to start your offset smoker

Starting your smoker is a bit different than lighting a barbecue, so it will take a bit of extra work to get it burning just right. The following sections offer the proper procedure when lighting your offset smoker.

Start with seasoning

When you first buy an offset smoker, there is one important thing you need to do before you start cooking with it. The smoker must be seasoned first. This will get rid of any of the oil, dirt, shavings, and other debris on the inside of the unit, which may have been left on during manufacturing. This is an easy process, so it shouldn’t take you long to get your smoker seasoned and ready to cook with.

First, use some soapy water to wipe down the whole unit. Then rinse it clean to make sure every last unwanted particle is washed away. Give the smoker some time to dry completely, then spritz some vegetable oil on the inside of the main cooking chamber and the firebox.

Now you need to add some heat. Add some charcoal to the firebox and light it up. You can also light it in a chimney fire starter if you like to get it nice and hot before adding it to the firebox. Close all the lids on the offset smoker, keeping the temperature at about 150 degrees for at least 2 hours. This will bake that oil onto the inner surfaces, which will protect the inside of the smoker when you use it in the future.

Now your smoker is ready to use.

Choose the right fuel

How to Use an Offset Smoker to Make the Most of It

When you’re done seasoning your smoker, it’s time to get it ready to cook, which means you need the right fuel. Most people use charcoal to start the fire since it is cheap and easy to find. It’s also a good idea to use some dry wood in an offset smoker since this is what gives you the right type of smoke to enhance the flavor of your chosen meats. There are several types to choose from, including hickory, maple, mesquite, apple, and many more, so find the right one to match the meat or fish you plan to use in the main chamber.

Light your fuel

When you use an offset charcoal smoker, it’s best to light your fuel outside of the firebox, using a chimney starter. These are metal cylinders with a handle on the side that allow you to build a fire with your charcoal quickly. All you need to do is push some crumpled newspaper into the bottom of the can. Then fill it with your chosen charcoal. Stick a lit match through the vents and light the newspaper in a few spots. Leave the fire to burn until the coals have a coating of white ash. Now they are ready to use.

Load your firebox

When your coals are lit and coated with white ash, transfer them to the firebox. Of course, if you don’t have a chimney starter, you can also light the coals the old-fashioned way by piling them directly into the firebox and lighting them in there. Then spread out the hot charcoal.

Now is the time to add some wood. Place one or two pieces of dry wood on top of the burning charcoal. You do not need to use a chip box in an offset smoker since the wood is added right to the heated charcoal. If you want to use wood chips, you can just place a small amount in the charcoal as you would a larger chunk of wood.

Control the temperature

Some offset smokers use a built-in thermometer for monitoring the temperature but these aren’t always the most reliable pieces. Instead, you may want to get yourself a thermometer with a probe that you can place right in the smoker to keep track of the heat levels. Place the probe at grate level, as close to the cooking area as possible. Some people even use two probes, one on each side of the main chamber to monitor the temperature at both ends. This is because the side nearest to the firebox will always be hotter.

When you have reached your desired temperature, open the vents on the firebox about a third of the way and position the chimney cap so it is half-open. Check your fire again, adding another log if the previous ones have burned to ash.

Also remember that the type of wood you use, the temperature outside, and any wind will affect the temperature. If it is too hot or too cool, make only minor adjustments to bring it to the temperature you want, as these are easier to adjust then large ones.

How to cook in your offset smoker

Once you have your smoker nice and hot, you’re ready to start adding your food. You can use an offset smoker for fish, chicken, beef, and even veggies, so prepare it ahead of time to be sure it is ready to load into the main chamber as soon as the smoker has reached your desired temperature.

Load the food

How to Use an Offset Smoker to Make the Most of It

Once your smoker is ready to go, it’s time to add your favorite meat or fish. Make sure to marinate them in advance to be sure your chosen food items have time to absorb those mouth-watering flavors. Place your foods onto the racks in the main cooking chamber while they are still cold since this will help them absorb more of the smoke. Leave some room between each piece to ensure the air can circulate around them, cooking them evenly. Close the lid of the main chamber when the food is placed to your liking.

You may also want to use a drip pan in an offset smoker. Some models come with one but if yours doesn’t, it is easy to get your hands on one. An old cookie sheet or even some tin foil can be placed beneath the meat. This will catch all the drippings, making it easier to clean up your unit when the smoking process is finished. Do not wrap the grates in foil as this will reduce air circulation.

If you’re concerned the food that you’re cooking will dry out, you can add a water pan as well. Place a metal rack over the charcoal in the firebox. Fill an aluminum pan with water and put it on the rack. This will create steam that mixes with the smoke as it flows into the main chamber.

Adjust the heat

To keep the fire nice and hot, you’ll need to add more charcoal now and then. When the coals have become ash, use a grill hoe to move them aside. Keep some charcoal burning in your chimney starter to add to the firebox whenever needed. You can check the temperature in the firebox every half hour to make sure the fire is still burning.

When you use an offset smoker with wood, you also need to add another dry log when the first ones have burned away. Otherwise, your food won’t be enhanced by that smoky flavor.

How to use the dampers and the chimney?

When cooking your meals, you also need to learn how to use the dampers in an offset smoker. These are found on the side of the firebox and should be opened whenever you add some more wood to the fire. The extra air will help get the fire burning quicker. If needed, you can also open the chimney vent all the way to speed up this process. When the fire has reached the temperature you want, which should only take a minute or two, close the vents again. The chimney should also be adjusted until it is open halfway. If the temperature is getting too high, you can open the main chamber lid for a minute to cool it down.

Use a meat thermometer

How to Use an Offset Smoker to Make the Most of It

After your meat has been cooking for 1-1.5 hours, it’s time to check the internal temperature using a meat thermometer. This will ensure that you aren’t undercooking or overcooking your meals. The side next to the firebox will be hotter than the other side, so be sure to move your food around to ensure all the pieces are cooked evenly. You should also turn each piece around for the same reason.

How to clean an offset smoker afterward

Now that you know how to use a side smoker, it’s time to learn how to clean it up.

  • Clean the offset smoker while it is still warm.
  • Remove the grates from the firebox and remove any large pieces of wood or charcoal.
  • Sweep the ashes into the ashtray and dump the ashtray into a bin.
  • Put the ashtray and the grates back in the firebox.
  • Remove the grates and heat deflection plates from the main chamber.
  • Wipe out the drippings from the bottom of the main chamber and the deflection plates with a paper towel, scraping off larger chunks if needed.
  • Soak the cooking grates in hot water for a few minutes, then scape them with a wire brush.
  • Put the heat deflector plates and the grates back into the smoker.

In conclusion

Those who prefer the classic smokers over the more modern versions will appreciate what an offset smoker has to offer. These units are easy to use, giving you a few options on how to cook your food using charcoal and a variety of wood. They give your food that delicious smoky flavor and are even easy to clean up when the meal is done. Best of all, you don’t have to spend a fortune to get your hands on a decent model.

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