When is a smoker not a smoker?

“Hey, you seem like a pretty OK person, but sometimes you can be a real elitist when it comes to BBQ. What’s up with that?”

Oh hey yourself! Thanks for asking. Well see, Texas (and all other smoker style) BBQ is so hot right now in both the Merican and international food scenes, which means there are lots of virgin BBQ eaters trying their first taste of smoked meats in one of the many BBQ trailers/pop ups/restaurants that have opened around the globe. As this trend grows, it’s nice to understand a little more about what you’re eating and how it’s being prepared.

While many Americans have grown up understanding what smokers are and how they work, most of those in the BBQ diaspora aren’t even aware that what is collectively termed “BBQ” can actually produced in a variety of ways.

Not all smokers are created equal. 

I grew up in a household where steak was only ever served well done. For years it was the only way I had ever had steak, and I still really liked it. Because, steak is delicious, and I knew no better. Then one day, I had my first quality medium rare steak, and I never ate well done again.

Really, eating properly cooked BBQ is the same experience; once you’ve had it done right, you can never go back to accepting the “meh” version.

There are two main type of smokers used in restaurants selling BBQ; the offset smoker and the oven smoker.

Offset smoker

offets2

Variations include a brick pit, converted LPG tank, UDS (ugly drum smoker) etc. The meat sits in the main chamber of the unit, while a firebox to the side provides the smoke and indirect heat. Woods used are usually hickory, mesquite, post oak and many fruit woods. There is no electricity, gas or other power source other than the fire, and the temperature is regulated solely by the use of vents, doors and dampers.

It takes a great deal of skill and practice to end up with a final product that is moist and tender on the inside with a dark crust on the outside, as opposed to an undercooked or dried out hunk of flesh. Wind is a huge challenge with these smokers, wreaking havoc with fire temperatures and cook times. Meat cooked on these smokers will have an intense red smoke ring around the meat, and also (when done right) a dark, crisp crust on the outside known as bark (which should primarily come from fat and smoke, not just a heavy rub).

IMHO: this is real BBQ.

Oven ‘smoker’ 

Includes brands like Cookshack, Southern Pride, Bradley etc. These are ovens first, smokers second. They are combination ovens that run on electricity or gas, and have a small unit built within to impart the smoke from wood chips into the meat. The primary cooking and heat comes from the oven, with the smoker portion contributing to flavor. There is usually no smoke ring, nor bark on the finished product. In city settings, it’s often difficult for a restaurant to use anything but this type of smoker, as most urban regulations would prohibit the fire and excessive smoke an offset produces.

The number one issue I have with these ovens is the taste of the finished product. Nearly all BBQ I have had out of a combi oven smoker has been inferior to meat prepared with an offset. They require no skill, no thought, no expertise. Just switch it on, load up the chips and walk away. Someone eloquently summed up the problem with oven smokers as ‘the meat lacked “character” that you get by burning fuel for heat’. Oh, and Josh Ozersky sums up the rest of the mediocrity nicely in this article, calling it ‘the barbecue equivalent of the Easy Bake Oven’.

The second problem I have with them is that they belittle the skill of real pit masters. Those men and women who wake while the rest of us are sleeping to start their fires, get splinters in their hands, charcoal on their faces. Those pit masters who know how hot a fire is just by looking at the color of the flames, or who have identified the hot spots of their smoker through years of trial and error. Those incredible talents who battle the elements to keep their fire at temperature, knowing that in just a few hours come hell or high water, there will be customers expecting to eat who will not accept “it was windy” as an excuse.

Pellet Grill/Smoker

For all intents and purposes, this is an offset smoker without fire. A hopper on the side of the unit is filled with compressed wood pellets which are available in a range of wood species/types. An electric ignition heats a rod which ignites the pellets, which are moved through the unit via an auger. The unit self regulates via a thermostat and blower, which moves air into the chamber to maintain the set temperature.  So effectively, fill up your hopper, set your temp, walk away and check occasionally.

These grills are extremely popular for competition BBQ, though many people feel that the finished meat is not as smokey as BBQ produced on an offset smoker. This is a great option for backyard enthusiasts without a spare 8 hours to babysit a fire, but as far as commercial enterprise goes, I still feel its cheating a little bit.

 

Need another example of the difference between offset BBQ and oven smoker BBQ? How about this: would you rather eat a pan fried or flame grilled steak?

All I’m saying is, I wouldn’t eat a pan fried steak. I would honestly prefer to pass it up until I had the opportunity to eat it the way I know tastes way better.

And for me, the same goes for BBQ.

Full power to those who want to eat BBQ under any circumstances, that’s the magic of a society with such a wide variety of consumer choice. I just want to make sure y’all know all of your choices.

Now, go forth and eat your meat!

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Posted on May 29, 2013

5 Comments

  1. Very informative! I never really knew all this stuff about the ‘Q ;)

  2. ozegg says:

    You forgot Kamado smokers!!! I have a Big Green Egg and it’s amazing!

    • BurgerMary says:

      Dang! I did too. Well, there are a number of different types that I omitted, mainly wanted to point out the difference between stick burners and gassers.

  3. Dante says:

    Great. I learned lot.

  4. Warren says:

    Awesome post! I love the detail that you went into for all the different types of smokers.

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