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.)

Friday, March 4, 2016

Familiar Standbys and Joints You Haven't Tried Should Both Be Part of a Texas BBQ Road Trip

When we start thinking about a BBQ road trip, the logistics of trip planning go beyond just picking places on a particular route. We spend time reading reports and reviews by others, checking opening and typical sellout times, and asking questions of those who may live nearby or who have been there before us. We also strive to mix in new places with some that we've been to before, especially if we've had some memorable bites at those prior visits.

Surprisingly, we often find the best BBQ on these trips doesn't always come from the places that are popular or get the most press. Nothing is more rewarding than discovering a hidden gem along the way, with a particular cut of beef or pork that is so well-executed that we can't wait to tell others about it (cue the real-time social media blasts). Sometimes it's a new place, just starting out, but just as often it's an older established business that maybe isn't that well-known.

On this particular run we set out to hit 8 to 10 places, with some options to add, time permitting. We check media feeds along the way to see if any of our planned stops sell out so we can adjust our itinerary accordingly. Joining HoustonFed, BBQBryan and I on the trip this time was Greg Mueller, Midwest Southern Region Sales Rep for World Casing Corporation, worldwide supplier of natural sausage casings. Greg had just been on a BBQ run the day before with a certain other reputable Texas BBQ dignitary, so we were a little suspicious of his ability to keep up for his second meat feast in as many days! We shouldn't have worried; he was right in-step with us the whole day.

Our first target of the day was in Gonzales, Baker Boys BBQ, who we just visited a couple of months ago. We definitely needed to get confirmation that our first experience was as good as we thought it was.

Baker Boys BBQ - Gonzales, TX

Baker Boys BBQ has been open in Gonzales for just 6 months, but owner and pitmaster Wayne Baker is already delivering BBQ that demands attention. Well-seasoned brisket, house-made beef and pork sausage, and pork spareribs are worthy of making this a destination. A unique item here is the jalapeno-stuffed boneless chicken leg, lightly seasoned and smoked, and just $2. Baker Boys is a tremendous value as well--brisket price here is only $13/lb, other meats $12/lb or less, and sausage at $2.50 per link.

This was our second trip to Baker Boys in two months, and we wanted to give them a confirmation visit before we broadcast our admiration publicly. At our first visit, we knew we had stumbled onto something special, though we picked up on an overly-liberal use of table salt in the seasoning. It was still there in this recent visit, but used much more sparingly allowing the pepper and other seasonings to come through. If they can get the salt level dialed in, Baker Boys has the capability to be a solid TMBBQ Top 50 contender for years to come.

Brisket and ribs on the cutting board at Baker Boys BBQ

Brisket, ribs, sausage and stuffed chicken leg

Kolacny Bar-B-Q & Catering - Halletsville, TX

Kolacny Bar-B-Q and Catering got a lot of attention after Daniel Vaughn's TMBBQ review in September 2015. We had driven through Halletsville before, and even stopped for BBQ there, but were generally unaware of Kolcany prior to the buzz generated by TMBBQ. Ervin Kolacny and his wife Carolyn serve from 11:00 am til sold out on Saturdays and Sundays only, so plan your trip accordingly.

Daniel Vaughn raved about the pork steak here in his review, so this was our main target. We were too early for brisket, but picked up pork spareribs, a half chicken and sausage as well. All the meats here are cooked on their big direct heat pits, and mopped with a traditional Texas stock and vinegar mop sauce. The pork steak was delicious, lightly-seasoned with salt and pepper, and just a hint of smoke from its short time on the pit. The direct heat pits allow for a quick sear on the outisde over oak coals, and space to finish slowly using an indirect method, which locks in the juices for maximum flavor. Chicken was done in much the same way, and was by far one of the juiciest chicken examples we've encountered on any of our trips. Sausage is a typical pork blend, slightly coarse grind, and seasoned according to a family recipe.

Its not surprising that Kolacny's has escaped notice for as long as it has, given that its located several blocks south of the 4th Street in Halletsville in a residential neighborhood. Despite the challenges of its location, a visit to Kolacny's should be placed high on your priority list. It's hard to find product of this quality and value still being delivered using the traditional direct heat method.

Coal bed pit, sheet of tin siding for a screen, fire stoked with a box fan #oldschool

Ervin Kolacny checks on his ribs and chicken

Pork steak, ribs and sausage

Smithville Pit BBQ - Smithville, TX

Smithville Pit BBQ recently opened in the building formerly occupied by one of our favorites, Zimmerhanzel's, which closed at the end of last year after more than 35 years in business. The new owner is their former neighbor, Cliff Burns, owner of Smithville Food Lockers. We were anxious to see what changes might have been made to the meat selections. We were also hopeful that the incredible sausage recipe carried over, since it was reported in a February Austin American-Statesman article that the former owners had use of Smithville Food Lockers to make sausage and process meats.

New walk-up, take-out window at Smithville Pit BBQ (formerly Zimmerhanzel's)

The all-beef sausage at Zimmerhanzel's had been one of our best all-around BBQ bites of 2015. Our first crack into the Smithville Pit BBQ version gave us pause. The clear-running juice and moisture content just wasn't there this time. The blend seemed to match the previous version in texture and spices, so there's hope for improvement if that moisture level can be brought back up to where it used to be. Pork ribs were good, and definitely had a different rub that what we experienced before. The brisket was well-seasoned but needed some more time on the pit and a rest.

The parking lot was full of cars at mid-day on a Saturday, and the new walk-up window had a brisk business. Cliff Burns said in his interview with the Statesman it wouldn't be the same, but they "hope to offer something just as good if not better." It was good, but they've only been open a couple of weeks. Maybe it's not better just yet, but it was good enough to keep Smithville Pit BBQ on our list for future visits to see how they develop.

A little brisket, pork spareribs, and sausage at Smithville Pit BBQ

Valentina's Tex Mex BBQ - Austin, TX

We had not been to Valentina's before, but it was high on our agenda of places to try this year. We were able to meet our friend Jimmy Ho and his wife Amber here. At Valentina's you place your order at the trailer window, take a number, and claim your territory at one of many picnic tables while you wait. It didn't hurt that they're located in the parking lot of a convenience store, so there are plenty of options for ice-cold beverages right there. 

Plenty of outside seating at Valentina's

Jimmy has been here many times, so he provided some guidance on what to order. We settled on brisket tacos, a sausage link and a couple of pork spareribs. They jalapeno-cheese sausage they brought was okay, but not particularly remarkable. The ribs were seasoned and cooked well, but once we saw the brisket tacos, we knew we were onto something special. Served on their own homemade tortillas, with guacamole, salsa and a wedge of lime to squeeze, these were a highlight of the day. My only regret is that we didn't order them with sliced brisket so we could have had a better feel for the overall quality of the beef product, but the chopped was excellent anyway. We will definitely be including Valentina's on future BBQ runs in the Austin area based on these tacos alone!

Brisket tacos, pork spareribs, and jalapeno cheese sausage

The brisket tacos are served on homemade tortillas, with fresh guacamole and salsa

La Barbecue - Austin, TX

The queue for La Barbecue at 4:00 pm
We had been to La Barbecue in the past, but all independently. Given the recent departure of pitmaster Esaul Ramos, and the elevation of Dylan Taylor as the new pitmaster, we wanted to see how the transition is working out. At this point in our trip, we were way behind our planned schedule, having lingered a little to long at some of the previous stops. So it was after 4:00 pm before we made it to the line, and noticed several items already sold out.

Brisket was still available, and knowing that La Barbecue delivers some of the best in Texas, it was an easy choice for us. With a little potato salad and homemade pickles on the side, we settled comfortably into a feast of this sublime brisket. Every bite was memorable and spectacular, and even more so given that this was 4:00 pm brisket! If you've never been to La Barbecue, you're missing out on some of the Top 10 BBQ in the state in my opinion. And generally speaking, the lines are never terribly long, so you're assured of getting quality product.

The relocation last September to the Aztec Food Park at 1906 E. Cesar Chavez seems like a good fit. The vibe is great, and we had a good time visiting with several local regulars. And with the barely-21-year-old pitmaster Dylan Taylor at the helm, it was comforting to see they remain in good hands and the quality hasn't declined one bit.

Ready for your close-up, beautiful?

Moist brisket, potato salad, and homemade pickles

Freedmen's - Austin, TX

Smoked jalapeno pimento cheese spread, house-made focaccia

It's almost impossible for us to make a trip to Austin without including a stop at Freedmen's Bar. Our last trip in August just confirmed what we had already come to believe--Freedmen's is destination BBQ, and not to be missed. With Evan LeRoy at the pit, they deliver the best brisket in Austin on a consistent basis. As a testament to their pit management skills, we arrived this time after 6:30 pm, and the brisket we received with the thick, flavor-filled bark matched the high quality we've previously had on mid-day visits.

I couldn't pass up the opportunity to hit them up for a tray of their smoked jalapeno pimento cheese and homemade focaccia either. After an all-meat day, it's a fantastic change of pace in both flavor and texture. But beware, if you're a guest of mine, you might need to order your own. It's so good, I'm not that inclined to share!

Moist brisket and sausage sampler, nighttime BBQ in Austin

I hope the recollection of our trips via this blog inspires you to get out and embark on a Texas BBQ adventure of your own. I'll continue to try to provide useful and comprehensive information to help you decide on where to go. If you have any questions or need more details, you can always contact me via the multiple options I've provided on the right sidebar of this page. As always, I welcome your comments, and suggestions on places we still need to try!

Fill your gas tanks, check your oil and tires, and hit the road.

- Scott

A 14-hour day this time (we lingered longer than we typically do at several places),
and traveled just about 500 miles total round trip.

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

Baker Boys BBQ, 1404 Sarah DeWitt Dr., Gonzales, TX 78629, (830) 519-4400.
Hours: Monday through Friday, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Saturday 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. Closed Sunday.

Kolacny Bar-B-Q & Catering, 100 S. Russell St., Halletsville, TX 77964, (361) 798-4400. 
Hours: Saturday and Sunday only, 11:00 am until sold out.

Smithville Pit BBQ, 307 Royston St., Smithville, TX 78745, (512) 237-4244.
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10:00 am to 3:00 pm. Closed Sunday.
Valentina's Tex Mex BBQ, 7612 Brodie Ln., Austin, TX 76574, (512) 221-4248.
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 8:00 am to 10:00 pm (or sold out). Monday, 8:00 am to 6:00 pm (or sold out).

La Barbecue, 1906 E. Cesar Chavez, Austin, TX 78702, (512) 605-9696.
Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 11:00 am to 6:00 pm (or sold out).

Freedmen's, 2402 San Gabriel St., Austin, TX 78705, (512) 220-0953.
Hours: Tuesday and Wednesday, 11:00 am to 10:00 pm. Thursday through Saturday, 11:00 am to 12:00 am. Sunday, 11:00 am to 10:00 pm. Closed Mondays.