Beauty from the beast
Anyone who knows us is aware that we are purely results driven. With that thought we put the Pit Barrel Cooker (PBC) to the test. You may recall that we did extensive work on a DYI Ugly Drum Smoker (UDS), from build to buffet, and it has some characteristics we really like. The Pit Barrel Cooker Company took over the build phase, and the beast they have created delivers some beautiful smoked food for you and yours to enjoy.
While on the topic of the company that makes the PBC, they are the kind of organization that you will be happy to work with. Veteran, family owned, they make their PBC here in America. That, the support they offer, and some other perks of dealing with them, certainly helped get them atop our list as one of the best smokers under $500.
Meat meets heat
This whole cooked meat thing started with a chunk of meat on a stick over open flame. A little experience showed that farther above the flame created a curative affect from the smoke to help preserve the meat in a non-refrigerated world. Another step was to enclose the flame and smoke for a more efficient process. And here we are with a steel drum, metal hooks, smoldering flames, smoke, seasoning and great food.
Nature also doesn’t put much stock in the shape of a square. Circles and curves are the most natural of shapes. From water vortices to cyclones to tree trunks, circular is the most prevalent. So it makes perfect sense that a circular container is the ideal one to use.
Heat rises. Smoke goes along with the currents of convection created by the heat. This vortex of flavor is evenly distributed as it moves upward through the cylinder that is the PBC. Even heat, even smoke, great results.
Take it easy
From the outside looking in, there are those who say that all the time and effort that goes into smoking meats hardly seems worth it. Setting aside their obvious blasphemy in that thought, yeah, it is a labor of love. So when the opportunity comes to take a step easy, we can be convinced to go with that. The PBC is as close to ready to go as you get.
Okay, you got us…we had to use two screws to attach the handle to the lid. Now it is completely ready to go. We even can check the man card of assembly, as in some (very little!) assembly required.
The Pit Barrel Cooker Review 2021
This is what you will get when you receive your own PBC:
- The Pit Barrel Cooker + Lid
- 8 Stainless Steel Hooks
- 2 Steel Hanging Rods
- A Charcoal Basket
- Standard Grill Grate
- A Wooden Hook Remover
- Barrel Stand
- A couple packs of Pit Barrell Cooker Co. Rubs (Beef, Game, All-Purpose)
- A couple of screws
The Pit Barrel Cooker comes neatly and secured packaged in a large box shipped straight to your door for free. Unboxing is easy; just pop open the box, remove the instructions, lid and packaging on top, and pull the Pit Barrel Cooker out of the box. It’s that easy.
Why a 30 gallon drum?
Why 30 gallons instead of the traditional 55 Gallon Drum? Ugly Drum Smokers have traditionally been made from 55-gallon drums, but the Pit Barrel Cooker opts for a 30-gallon size. It turns out that 30-gallon drums are the perfect size and shape for smoking; downsizing from the larger 55-gallon drum to the smaller 30-gallon size means better and faster barbecue every time.
The Pit Barrel Cooker Company didn’t stumble upon this revelation by accident: they tested over 29 different barrel designs and sizes to find the perfect one. The 30-gallon drum won out – creating the most even and consistent temperature and airflow – the core reason you use an ugly drum smoker in the first place. They also make a smaller size in their Pit Barrel Jr., here’s a comparison video.
Is it a cooker or smoker?
Yes. No, we’re not being sarcastic, this time anyway, it is both a smoker and a cooker. The cylindrical shape of a drum creates the perfect environment for even, convection cooking; heat rises from the coals at the bottom until it bounces off the lid on top. In a wide or irregularly shaped smoker, like a gas grill or offset smoker, there’s a lot more room for heat and air to roll around, and things may cook more inconsistently as a result.
But the narrow, round shape of a drum means air flows evenly, and there’s less room for heat to rise or radiate inconsistently – and 30-gallon drums find the sweet spot of height and width to maximize that even-heating potential. As a result you get quicker results cooking, with the same attributes you are seeking in your delicious smoked foods.
A message from the pros
We pulled this graphic from the Pit Barrel Cooker Company website because it clearly illustrates some of the differences between your equipment choices in the market for smoking foods at home.
We’ve already mentioned Price and Assembled, but we want to spend a bit more time on Cook Times (Brisket). The PBC seems to settle out right about 245 degrees, just a slight bump higher than our usual 225 degree smoking temperature. The thing is, you do not lose anything in terms of quality. Juicy beautiful smoked meat with good bark and visible smoke ring, in half to two thirds of the time. We are more than okay with that result.
And just an aside, we respect these guys shifting the name to “Cooker” instead of “Smoker”, which they do because of the higher temp and faster cooking times.
Better than a sharp stick…
Yes, as a smoked meat geek there are those who might call us a Neanderthal. But we can evolve, moving easily into the steel age. One of the best features of the PBC is that it lets you hang your meat in the center of the barrel, with stainless steel hooks. Hanging barbecue can take full advantage of the consistent convection heat and airflow that the PBC offers. Suspended directly above the fire and right in the middle of the smoker, your meat – whether it’s a brisket or a turkey – is exposed to convection heat evenly, all the way around. No one side is cooked more than another, and it’s juicy and tasty all the way through.
Hanging meat also lets you take advantage of the juices dripping directly onto the hot coals – which doesn’t happen with an offset or pellet smoker. The juices burn, creating what PBC calls a “smoke fog”, and giving your meat an even smokier, juicer natural flavor that other smokers lack while maintain some of the humidity that makes smoking more effective. The PBC does come with a standard grill grate which delivers this style of convection cooking – but hanging meat maximizes its drip potential.
Let’s talk logistics
Back to that grueling assembly idea, after you’re done with the lid, handle, and two screws. Just place the charcoal basket inside, put the barrel on the stand, and either slide the hanging rods in or place the grill grate on top.
Pit Barrel Cooker has done all the hard work for you; if you were making your own, you’d have to drill holes yourself – which requires a heavy-duty drill, a bit of elbow grease and making sure you’re putting all the holes in the right places.
The KISS rule in action
The Pit Barrel Cooker is almost stupidly easy to cook with; the convection heat and airflow, and the way it burns smoothly through charcoal, are so consistent that this is probably the closest thing to automatic smoker you’ll find – aside from a pellet grill perhaps. When you’re ready to fire up the smoker, the first step is to adjust the intake vent at the bottom of the smoker so that it matches your elevation.
If you live between sea level and 2,000’ elevation, slide the cap to leave it ¼ open. Between 2,000’ and 5,000, it should be half open; at 5,000’-8,000’, ¾ of the way open, and at 8,000’+, go ahead and open it all the way. This seems like a minor step but it is crucial; too much air and the coals burn too hot. Too little and they run too cool. In fact, the ventilation is so precise that, if you don’t have the rebar rods in place or if the lid is offset, temps can climb to +300° quickly.
Thinking about temperature
You do need to think a bit and pay attention. No smoker is 100% foolproof – no, not even a Traeger – and there will always be the need to adjust your smoker and practice with it in order to find the exact temp you’re looking for. The number of coals you light in the chimney to get things started; how much moisture the meat contains; elevation, humidity, and high winds can all affect the smoker’s ambient temperature.
The PBC is built for consistency; if you’ve piled the charcoal evenly and lit the right amount of charcoal, it should be able to hold things at 240°F to 265°F for hours on end. We did have some problems with it running hot, sitting closer to 250°F to 265°F, but we are in a warmer environment. The PBC would hold that temp for hours, so it’s very possible that’s the result of our environmental factors, or possible human error, rather than a fault of the actual smoker design.
Flame and spikes
When you first light a fire in the Pit Barrel Cooker, you might notice it spikes of 350°F or even hotter, before dropping and settling down to around 245°F. This spike is short-lived and many BBQ experts think it’s actually beneficial to creating the perfect bark. It is similar to the classic way of putting a turkey or roast into a very hot oven, then dropping the temperature by 100 degrees for the roasting period
Running a bit hot is common with the PBC, it seems, so we think it’s worth withholding judgement until the food is done. Which, by the way, is a lot sooner than in larger smokers or one sitting at a steady 225°F. This reinforces our recurring mantra “Monitor the Internal Temp”. At all times. Real flame can be imprecise, it is up to you to bring precision to the process where it matters, at the core of your cooking food.
Fire in the hole
First, fill up the charcoal basket with charcoal till its flush and level with the top. Then remove a quarter of the charcoal, put it into a chimney starter and light it up.
The manufacturer recommends letting it burn 12 minutes, then spread the lit coals on top of the charcoal in the basket. Immediately hang your meat, put the lid on, and get cooking. The burning charcoal will provide enough heat, igniting more charcoal evenly as you burn through, and keeping a consistent temp the whole time.
PBC says that a full basket of charcoal can last up to 12 hours of consistent burning. We usually get about 9 hours on average. This could be from not filling up the basket entirely, or because we found our cooker to run at a higher temperatures than the standard 225°F, which naturally burns through more fuel. If you stay at a very consistent 225°F, easier during cool outdoor temperatures, you could likely get those 12 hours.
Pro-tip; be sure to spread the lit coals evenly on the bed of unlit charcoal. This will give you a more even burn across the coals, and the best longevity throughout your cooking period.
We get used to speedy delivery, and in this case the meat comes out just as juicy and tender as it would if were smoking at 225F for longer. Pork and briskets have the crispy bark and delicious juicy flavor we’re looking for, ribs are easy to pull off the bone, and there’s a perfect smoke ring. That’s another place where the PBC excels – creating smooth, consistent smoke. There’s enough ventilation to keep smoke from building up and giving the meat too much of a harsh or acidic flavor.
Instead, the smooth-burning charcoal creates a steady, light smoke that lasts the whole cook time.
That, combined with hanging the meats gets even results, despite one end sitting just above the hot coals. We actually expected that end to be drier and stringier than the top end. It turns out that dripping juices keep that lower section cool, slowing the cooking down and creating consistent doneness all the way across the food.
All in all, the results speak for themselves.
Bonus points you should know
- Want to go camping with it? No problem – this thing is portable and light, considering it’s made of solid steel. You can easily put it in the back of a truck or SUV and bring it to the beach or campsite. Another advantage of a 30 gallon drum versus 55.
- The lid handle and side handles are made of steel which, while sturdy, gets very hot. Use a pair of BBQ gloves!
- If you want to smoke a whole turkey, PBCC sells a stainless steel turkey hanger you might find useful. If not, you’ll be fine without it.
- If you’re smoking a lot of meat at once, especially briskets or pork shoulder, the ambient temp may drop 10°F-20°F when you hit the Stall due to all that evaporating moisture.
- We highly recommend using some type of temperature reader; you need to know exactly how hot this thing is running, and how close your meat is to being done.
- The barrel could benefit from installing additional pins at the bottom of the cooker, about 4 inches above the coals. That way, you could rest the cooking grate directly over the coals for high heat sears and more efficient grilling. If you’re handy, you could easily do it by drilling / welding in a bracket on your own.
All things considered, the Pit Barrel Cooker is an awesome ugly drum smoker and we have no problem backing it 100%. And we’re not the only ones who feel this way; the PBC checks most of the boxes per Amazing Ribs list of things to look for when buying a smoker.
It comes with almost-zero assembly required, is simple to use, and perfectly capable of holding a consistent temperature thanks to the ideal 30-gallon drum design. It’s American made by a Veteran, family operating team of owners, who’re just as serious about great tasting BBQ as you are. To prove it, their website is filled with endless videos and tutorials, and unlike Traeger Grills, they even have a phone support hotline.
The PBC may run a bit hot and will certainly take a bit of practice to get exactly right. But that doesn’t stop barbecued meats from coming out perfectly soft, smoky and juicy, usually in much less time than on other smokers. The $350 price tag is just icing on the cake. The Pit Barrel Cooker can’t be beat at its entry level price. This is our top pick as the best smoker under $500.