Sunday, August 14, 2016

Review: How Does the Pit Barrel Cooker Stack up as a Compact BBQ Smoker Option?


My experience with the Pit Barrel® Cooker began when mine arrived this past February. I was anxious to get it out of the box and try it right away, but knew it needed a few months and several test cooks before sharing my thoughts about it. Six months later, after trying it out in both cooking configurations (hanging and grill), I'm ready to share what I've learned about this compact, affordable smoker, made in the USA.



I first developed an interest in the Pit Barrel® Cooker in early 2015 after seeing social media posts and a couple of videos. In November I spoke to the company's founder, Noah Glanville, who suggested they could send one out for me to try* in early 2016 after the holiday rush. Noah is an Iraq war veteran, and founded the company in Strasburg, Colorado in 2010, with the goal being to provide an affordable cooker that "combines the best qualities of smokers, slow cookers and BBQs into one product." It's not necessarily a new idea: the Ugly Drum Smoker concept has been around a while, and stacked vertical smokers have been on the market for decades. The Pit Barrel® combines simple, inexpensive components (a 30 gallon steel drum, horseshoes for handles) with their unique hanging system, resulting in a product that is easy to use even for amateurs. The instructional videos on their website make it a snap for just about anyone to be a successful backyard BBQ cook.

Everything ships in this one box

The Pit Barrel® Cooker Package is shipped with the enameled 30 gal. steel drum and lid, 8 stainless steel hanging hooks, two steel hanging rods, wooden handle hook remover, charcoal basket, a three-point enameled steel stand, a standard grill grate, one bottle (4.7 oz.) of Pit Barrel® All-Purpose Rub, one bottle (4.7 oz.) of Pit Barrel® Beef and Game Rub, and printed instructions. This is the standard package and is is delivered anywhere in the Continental US for $299, including shipping. My unit included the optional removable ash pan ($29.95), which I highly recommend for ease of cleanup. I also purchased their custom-fit cover separately to extend the life of the cooker in the outdoor environment where it lives (also $29.95).

What comes in the box with the drum (removable ash pan sold separately;
standard grill grate not shown)

Regular grill is great for pork shoulders and items not suitable for hanging

A few of the hangers and the hanger rods

Dimensions: The drum is about 19 inches in diameter, and just under 32 inches in height (on stand). Grill grate is 17-1/2 inches in diameter. Distance from hanging rod to top of charcoal basket is about 22 inches. Hanging hooks are 4 inches long. This information turns out to be more important than it seems, and would have been nice to know beforehand. The critical dimension here for you rib and brisket cookers is the 22 inches from the hanging rod to the top of the charcoal basket. The drum appears taller from the outside than it seems; you will want to pay attention here. If you take away the 4 inches for the hook, that means the dimension from the hang point to the fire is only about 18 inches.

Today's average 12 to 14 pound briskets and racks of spareribs are pretty long, and in my first attempt to hang both per the instructions in the videos resulted in the meats resting in the burning charcoal. I immediately removed them, and not being sure what to do to recover, I panicked and trimmed the flat off the brisket and hung it separately, and cut the ribs in half, hanging each half separately. It never occurred to me the meats would be too long to hang in the drum. I've since learned on my own some different hanging tricks than they demonstrate in their videos that keep the meats out of the fire, but it would have been nice to have known this going into my first cook.

It's super easy to set up the Pit Barrel® for your cook. Fill the charcoal basket completely with your favorite briquettes, then remove about 35-40 of them and place them in your starter chimney. Light as usual, and after about 20 minutes, they should be burning well. Dump the contents of your chimney on top of the charcoal basket that you've already placed in the bottom of the barrel and you're ready to begin cooking immediately. There is only one way to regulate airflow: near the bottom of the drum is a round steel plate covering a hole approximately 3 inches in diameter. Rotate the plate until there's about a 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch gap on one side, and tighten the plate with a screwdriver so it stays in place. You likely won't ever have to adjust this once you've started cooking. If you notice the fire dying down, the lid can be left cracked open a little to allow more air into the barrel and it will come right back after about 5 minutes or so.

Pit Barrel® recommends Kingsford® Original charcoal.

My preferred mix: Kingsford® plus oak chunks for more smoke.

When the charcoal is ready, add it to the basket in the bottom of the drum and you're ready to cook!

The first thing you'll notice right away is the Pit Barrel® is a hot cooker. It doesn't come with a thermometer, but its obvious rather quickly that its running pretty hot. Ribs get to 200 deg F in about 1-1/2 hours, a pork shoulder reaches 200 deg F in about 5-1/2 hours, and briskets reach the same temp in about 7 hours. It would be interesting over time to add a thermometer and chart temps over the cook, but that will have to be a future project. Setting up an external thermometer with a probe is easy enough, and its a good idea so you can monitor the internals on large pieces of meat. 

The next thing that will be obvious is the size. True, it has a small footprint, and is perfect for small backyard patios and for portability. Hanging your food from the rods definitely maximizes your ability to cook in volume; there's room for 8 racks of ribs or 8 chicken halves. I haven't tried to cook multiple briskets but I imagine two, three or even four would fit. Chicken halves are by far the easiest. They're small and cook fast, and hard to make a mistake if you have a quick-read thermometer like a Thermapen®. My tip: pull them at 160 deg F breast temperature, transfer to a pan, cover loosely with foil and let them rest for at least 15 minutes. They'll be a lot juicier than they would if you let them get all the way to 170 or 175 deg F over the fire.

My experience with ribs in particular has been interesting. While they reach desired temperature pretty quickly, they haven't achieved that tenderness I really like, probably due to the short cook time. The flavor has been great, but I've had to get creative to hit the tenderness level everyone really seems to enjoy. I've had prior success on other cookers using the 3-2-1 rib method, but on the Pit Barrel® it's difficult to implement this process. The first part of the cook is easy enough in the hanging position, but there's no way to transition to the second phase (wrapped in foil) in the drum, or the final phase. I tried to circumvent the issues by transferring the ribs for the foil wrap phase indoors into the oven, with the intent of glazing and hanging back in the drum for the final stage. Disaster! The ribs were too tender after the foil phase and I lost the first rack in an attempt to hang when the hook pulled through and the whole rack fell into the charcoal basket in the bottom. Another issue is the diameter; while you might consider switching from vertical to horizontal on the grill grate to alleviate the pull-through issue, the 17-1/2 inch diameter is too small for the length of most racks of ribs. My work-around so far is to either transfer to an indirect cook in my large Old Smokey for the final 2 stages of a 3-2-1 cook, or just do the final two stages in the oven. Both options work well, and the hang time in the Pit Barrel® for the first stage provides plenty of smoke for ribs.

Probe wire for the ChefAlarm® by Thermoworks® fits easily through the hanger rod holes.

Chicken halves start their hang time

Half chickens and brisket in the smoke.

I've probably done a dozen cooks with various meats since acquiring the Pit Barrel® this past February. Again, the easiest by far has been chicken, followed by ribs, pork tenderloins, and a pork shoulder. Cooking a pork shoulder on the grill grate was simple and a 10-pound shoulder fit with plenty of room to spare. Cook it directly on the grill until the internal temp reached about 170 deg F, and then wrapped it in foil and return it to the grill until the temp reaches 200 deg F. My experience with briskets has been inconsistent, but the cooker isn't the issue, it's been likely due to trying different sizes and grades of brisket. I'll need to pick one and work the same process repeatedly to be able to provide more definitive guidance for briskets on the Pit Barrel®.

Sausage and boudin is also easy in the Pit Barrel®, but would recommend using the grill grate in the horizontal position for these. One, you don't want to penetrate the casing to hang sausages and lose those precious juices, and two, if you have a double-link and try to hang it from between the links on the hooks, the casing will break as it dries out in the cooker and you'll lose your links in the fire. However, if you have Kreuz Market-style C-rings, where the open ends of the casing are joined by twine, they will work perfectly in the Pit Barrel®, hanging the twine either on the hooks or directly from the rods.

Half chickens seasoned with Pit Barrel® All-Purpose rub come out great!

Pork tenderloins, half chickens, and a small brisket point in the smoke.

Beautiful mahogany color on these ribs right out of the Cooker.

Nice smoke ring and color on these St. Louis spares

Half chickens, brisket flat, St. Louis spares, and a pork shoulder, all from the Pit Barrel® Cooker

The Pit Barrel® Cooker is a great value, and easy to use.

In conclusion, after multiple attempts at different meats on the Pit Barrel® Cooker, I have to say this is a well-made, easy-to-use product for a very affordable price. My recommendation would be to absolutely purchase the optional ash pan attachment, as it will make cleanup much easier between cooks, and will also extend the life of your barrel significantly. It provides a much thicker plate to act as a buffer between the bottom of the barrel and the coals, making it much less likely to corrode and burn out. Don't hesitate to get one of their custom-fit covers as well. It will keep your Pit Barrel® looking nice and prevent deterioration of the finish from exposure to the elements.

A couple of things to remember: it's going to be a hot and fast cook, so pay attention to temperatures if you're used to cooking low and slow on an offset stick burner or cabinet smoker. Also, be aware of the length of brisket and ribs when you insert the hooks for hanging. To keep the meats out of the fire, you will have to place the hooks closer to the middle of your longer meats than they show in their demonstration videos.

My verdict? Get one. You'll be happy with the Pit Barrel® Cooker for it's ease of use and affordable price.

Smoke on, my friends.

 - Scott

My little compact cookery.

All photos © Scott Sandlin, Texas Pit Quest, unless noted otherwise. All rights reserved.




(*Disclosure: the Pit Barrel Cooker was provided to me by the company at no cost in exchange for my objective evaluation.)



2 comments:

  1. great summary - can you use less coals in order to lower the temp and cook a little longer?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You could, but it wouldn't necessarily be using less coals. The size of the coal basket, and the instructions from Pit Barrel to fill the basket with coals, remove 30 to 40, light those in a chimney, and pour them back in, were arrived at after testing multiple methods with the volume of the barrel, area of intake vent, and area of space around the hanger rods for exhaust venting. Their instructions are well tuned to work with all these volumes, dimensions, and fire size considered.

      That being said, it stands to reason that you should be able make a smaller starting fire with less coals to begin with, and decrease the temperature and rate of burn. You may have to fiddle with how wide to open the intake vent at the bottom though, and it would take some trial and error to figure this out.

      Suggestion: Fill your basket with coals per the instructions. When you remove the coals necessary to start the fire, take them from a 1/4-circle or 1/2-circle area of the basket, leaving a void in that space that you will pour the lit coals back into. That way the lit coals in 1/4 (or 1/2) area will slowly light the remaining unlit coals over time. This is similar in theory to the setup for a Weber Kettle setup for smoking, where you arrange your coals (and wood chunks) in an arc and light one end, which then slowly burns thru the arc of unlit coals (aka the "Snake Method").

      Thank you for your interest, and let me know if you have any more questions. I will be more than happy to respond.

      Delete