How To Use An Offset Smoker In Under 5 Minutes – Step By Step Guide

It wasn't that long ago that smoking meat was pretty alien to me. I'd loved barbecuing while living in Australia, but smoking was something I'd never given a lot of consideration to. I was determined to learn how to use an offset smoker so, after hours or browsing the 'interwebz' and YouTube, I finally learned how.

I've been offset smoking for a couple of years now, and it's an amazing way to cook meat, the dangers or scorching your expensive brisket or chicken are pretty much mitigated as the offset smoker keeps the heat source well away from the meat.

Most people usually find it hard to get perfectly cooked meat out of offset smokers. This is because they have not mastered its mode of operation and temperature control which is very important. using an electric smoker can be a lot simpler to master, but the charcoal smoker, once understood is pretty easy to use.

This article is going to take you through a complete step by step guide to using an offset smoker.

If you're totally new to this, as I was, I think it would be useful to start by answering a few of the questions that you may well have. If not, check out the table of contents and go straight to the instructions.

Learning how to use an offset smoker

An offset smoker is a type of smoker that resembles 2 barrels, a main one where the meat is placed, and a smaller, 'offset' barrel where the fire is built (aka the firebox). If you're not aware of the design, head on over to Amazon and check them out.

Offset smokers have been around a long time, and although there are design variations, the basics are the same. The construction of this type of smoker, often referred to as horizontal smokers, stick-burners or offset barrel smokers is simple. There are also vertical offset smokers, which I'll discuss in a future article.

A cooking chamber is housed in the main barrel, which has a hinged lid. A firebox is located to one side, and offset a little below the height of the main cooking chamber, hence the name 'offset'. Some models will have a firebox at the back of the smoker, but side mounted fireboxes are the traditional look. Here's the traditional offset barrel style smoker.

Traditional offset barrel smoker in use

The Traditional Offset Barrel Style Smoker - Main cooking chamber to left, firebox on right.

A wood or wood/charcoal based fire is built in the base of the firebox. As you can see from the picture, the fire is beside the cooking chamber, not underneath it as as in a typical barbecue or grill. The heat and smoke enter the cooking compartment at the bottom right-hand side (in the example above) and circulate around the meat which is placed on the offset grill (see image below).

The hot gases exit through the chimney, which can be seen on the left. This hot air flow and the smoke from the wood are one of the most defining features or horizontal offset smokers. The deep red appearance of the meat is typical of this form of smoking.

Can You Use An Offset Smoker For Grilling?

The offset cooking chamber can't be used specifically as a grill, as the main firebox is not underneath it. It is of course, possible to just start a fire under the cooking grill, but many horizontal smokers have a grate that can be placed atop the firebox, giving you the ability to grill.

Meat cooked on an offset smoker

The red appearance of the meat is a distinguishing feature of offset smoking.

How Do I Control Temperatures Inside The Smoker Cooking Chamber?

Heat and smoke control is always important when you're smoking or grilling. The control mechanism on this type of smoker revolves around an adjustable air intake and an exhaust vent (which allows smoke and heat to exit via the chimney).

Much the same as a normal barbecue, allowing more air to be drawn into the firebox will increase the heat.

The end of the cooking box closest to the fire will always be hotter, this is the end to place the thicker portion of meat, as it is able to withstand more heat without being cooked to a crisp. For evenly sized meats, turning the meat is a good idea, or at least, placing it furthest away from the offset firebox area.

A larger grill will result in a higher temperature range between the two ends. some offset barrel smoker manufacturers have overcome this with the use of a technology know as reverse flow technology.

On some models a perforated plate called a convection plate is used, with smaller holes close to the firebox outlet, and larger holes at the far end of the grill.

This is designed to increase heat flow at the end furthest from the heat source, while limiting it closer to the fire. This type is known as a reverse flow offset smoker and are becoming popular. You can always do your own offset smoker mods and build additional accessories yourself. 

This image demonstrates the convection plate, the fire box is to the right side.

How To Use An Offset Smoker - Step By Step

Step 1 - Meat Preparation

Preparation of your meat of choice should be the first step.

I always like to trim surplus fat from the meat when I'm smoking a brisket, leaving just a 1/4 inch layer of fat to help lubricate and moisten the meat as it cooks.

Rub the meat with any seasonings you choose. It often pays to put it into the refrigerator for at least an hour, or even overnight to allow the seasoning to permeate into the meat.

Step 2 - Get The Fire Started.

Put your choice of fuel in the fire box.

It is always advisable to use charcoal as the main source of heat.This is because charcoal does not have a big effect on the taste of meat after it has been smoked. You should also be sure that it is dry. ​

Adding wood to the firebox will increase the smokiness in the cooking chamber and impart flavor to the meat. Wood is not essential though. There are many flavored wood chips you can purchase online to add flavor to your meat.

Open the intake and exhaust vents fully. The exhaust usually stays at least partially open through the entire cook.

You can now fire up the charcoal. Once the charcoal turns red, you can add the wood or wood chips to generate more heat and increase the smoke.

Placing the remote temperature probe at grate level will give you a great indication of how you need to manipulate the vents. When the temperature reaches 200 degrees F, it's usually safe to close the intake vent half way. If it continues to climb, close it to 1/4 open.

Then make small incremental adjustments to get the temperature maintaining around 215-250 degrees. It can take 10 to 15 minutes for the changes to take effect and the temperature to stabilize.

Practice makes perfect!

Step 3 - Controlling the Heat

As I mentioned in the earlier part of this article, being able to control temperature is very important to smoking, and cooking in general. Use a remote BBQ thermometer if you can, you can pick them up on Amazon. I like this one a lot.

Your offset smoker needs oxygen to create heat. A simple way of controlling the oxygen intake is through the dampers. The best offset smokers have two dampers, one at the fire box and another at the end of the smoke stack. Make sure that the dampers are fully open when you light up the coal. You will get to adjust the dampers later after the smoker heats up.

Make sure that the fire box and cooking chamber's doors are closed. Opening them triggers temperature changes and will allow the heat and  smoke to escape.

Tips To Maintaining The Temperature.

If you are an amateur then you are prone to encounter temperature problems when you are using the offset smoker. As i mentioned to you earlier, the ideal temperature for offset smoking is between 215 Fahrenheit and 250 Fahrenheit.

In case you are having low temperature problems. May be you are not able to get it above 200 Fahrenheit. The first thing you will need to do is make sure that the fire has not gone off. If the fire is okay and you have a good flame, have a look at the damper on the fire box.

If it is closed, it means that there is little to no air flow. To increase the temperature, open the damper, the temperature will rise pretty quickly. 

Basically, the key to temperature control is adjusting the dampers, both at the fire box and smoke stack. More airflow, hotter fire and higher temperatures. Less airflow, cooler fire and lower temperatures. Simple!

Step 4 - The Cooking Process - Give it Time.

Smoking meat takes a lot of time, especially if you are looking to have tender meat. So you will need to give it time, but keep turning it from time to time. Patience is key to good smoked meat. It is usually given time so that the inside of the meat is well cooked. Keep checking on the temperature until the meat is ready. 

The length of time to smoke meat is really dependent on the type of meat, and the thickness of it. Sausages won't take anywhere near as long as a chicken, or a 15 lb brisket. This guide may help.

Offset Smoking 101 (video)

This video does a pretty nice job of explaining how to use an offset smoker.

Hope this article has been useful to you? I really enjoy smoking. The process is simple, but there is a learning curve until you become fully confident in how to set things up. It's like driving a car, everything seems awkward at the start, but soon it becomes second nature.

Good luck, and I hope you really enjoy this type of outdoor cooking, just as I do.

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