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Pit Barrel Cooker Review – Ugly Drum it May Be, But it’s a Great Smoker

The Pit Barrel Cooker is an excellent smoker grill combo, and an oxymoron: A beautiful, ugly drum smoker! Find out why we like it so much in our review.

Emma Braby

Last Updated: May 29, 2020 | 7 min read

A few racks of ribs smoking inside a pit barrel cooker
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For many fans of smoked food, the smoker they use comes down to one simple question, and that is: How involved do you want to be?

With traditional smokers, it can be an all-day heavily involved process to cook great food.

Between starting a fire, adding wood for smoke, adding moisture, controlling the temperature, and topping up with fuel, it’s often a labor of love.

If it all sounds a bit much, or you’re a beginner looking for the easy route into smoking, or even if you are a seasoned cook wanting a smoker that doesn’t require major event planning when you fancy some ribs, then this pit barrel cooker review may be for you.

The Pit Barrel Cooker Company’s 18.5″ Classic Cooker is a set-it-and-forget-it smoker that we think you should consider, so let’s take a closer look.

General Overview

18-1/2 in. Classic Pit Barrel Cooker Package

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This smoker is what’s lovingly known as an ugly drum smoker design.

Commonly built by DIY enthusiasts in backyards as a crude vertical smoker, for all intents and purposes, it is an oil drum barrel used as a vertical smoker.

Developing on the basic UDS idea, the smoker that is the focus of this review has been designed by the Pit Barrel Cooker Co. (PBC) for efficiency and ease, and is much better looking too.

Delivered ready to go, all you have to do is light the coals, set the vent, place the lid on it, and it’s ready for your favorite recipes.

It works like a convection cooker by drawing air in at the bottom, fuelling a fire in an elevated charcoal basket, and because the meat hangs vertically in the barrel, it circulates the hot air evenly around the food before the smoke exits via small air vents at the top.

With the 18-gauge steel providing thick walls and the lid creating an airtight seal, the cooking temperature within is designed to be even and consistent without hot spots.

It is purposely not insulated like a kettle grill. Instead, the sides will cool with exterior airflow creating condensed ‘smoke fog,’ which is a mix of evaporated meat juices and smoke from the coals.

This keeps moisture in the smoker to help keep your food moist and negates the need to add a water bowl, such as with designs like the Weber Smokey Mountain.

Note: If you’ve not seen this type of design before, here is a great video overview from Malcom Reed, over at HowtoBBQRight:

Key Features

In our opinion, here are the best features of the 18.5″ Classic Pit Barrel Cooker that set it apart from it’s competitors.

Indeed, we love it so much that we’ve included it not only in our guides for the best charcoal smokers in 2020, but also feature it in our guides to the best smokers for beginners, as well as the overall best smokers available in 2020 in many different categories.

It has Great Capacity

18-1/2 in. Classic Pit Barrel Cooker Package

The barrel’s large 30-gallon capacity allows for a lot of food to be cooked all at once, but vertically.

To put that into perspective, you will comfortably hang 8 racks of ribs, 2 whole turkeys, or multiple other combinations of meat and vegetables.

It only becomes problematic if you wish to use the grate for cooking other meats while your hanging foods are still finishing off.

The Unique Design Makes it Flawlessly Easy

The simplicity of the steel drum design makes it easy to operate and produce consistent results every time.

With its coal basket sized for the exact amount of charcoal you need, you know exactly how long you have to cook, which is up to 12 hours.

So you can treat it like an oven. Just light it and cook for the allotted time, it couldn’t be simpler!

Versatile Grilling Options Allow you to Cook Anything

18-1/2 in. Classic Pit Barrel Cooker Package

It comes with stainless steel hooks to hang your meat plus a standard grate that can turn it into a regular grill ready for your smaller pieces of meat like steak and fish that require grilling and searing.

This means you can use it as a dedicated smoker, or as an easy light grill.

However, if you are looking to grill a lot of food then at 18.5″ and only one grate, the capacity for horizontal grilling is limited. So please do bear this in mind.

Air Circulation and Temperature Control is Straightforward

The unit has a simple twist-and-set vent at the bottom that allows you to set the air circulation based on the temperature you want for your cook.

More air means more oxygen for your fire, and hence a hotter cooking temperature. Less air results in a lower temperature.

You can also make adjustments to negate effects of the altitude at which you live, because how far above sea level you sit will affect your cooking.

The provided instructions give you the setting for your elevation, and their design is so good that they can predict that the temperature will be even for the full cook once you’ve set it.

So, no more constant fiddling with the vents to maintain a consistent temperature.

A Great Portable Travel Buddy

While many smokers can be moved on wheels, this guy, although not pocket-sized, sits at just 56lb.

It can easily be lifted into a car, camper, or SUV and taken with you when you go to the beach or on vacation.

Manufacturers Specifications

  • Dimensions: 21 x 21 x 31.10 inches
  • Capacity: 30 Gallons
  • Category: Vertical Smoker
  • Fuel Type: Charcoal
  • Weight:
  • Grill Racks: 1
  • Material: Steel 18g
  • Portability: Static, but can easily be moved

Ease of Use

This smoker comes highly recommended for its ease of use, and its simplicity is its crowning glory.

PBC has really taken all the guesswork out of smoking with this barrel.

There is no temperature gauge on the barrel because they know that with the settings they recommend, you will get a consistent temperature for the entirety of the cook.

Plus, with its airtight design, the wind will not affect the airflow of the smoker.

However, if you do wish to purchase a thermometer for ease of mind, take a look at our guide to the best thermometers for bbq smokers.

When it comes to lighting this smoker, PBC have incorporated the minion method into their design for easier temperature regulation.

This method starts with a small portion of lit coals that are added to the top of an unlit coal pile, and as they burn down, they light the coals below. This burns the coal slower and gives a more consistent temperature for longer.

The average temperature range is between 275 and 310 degrees, with the hanging rods in place and the lid on.

After initial lighting, the temperatures will run slightly hotter and then settle down. Do not be tempted to fiddle with the vent and lid, just trust it to run as designed.

Maintenance and Cleaning

It’s very similar to other charcoal smokers, in that it will need minimal cleaning that is best done when you finish cooking and the smoker is still warm.

You should brush off the grate and hanging racks after each cook so any debris is removed, and this prevents it from baking onto the grates and becoming stubborn.

Other than that, you just need to empty out the ash and brush it out periodically.

There is no need to clean the grease and meat juice from the inside. In fact, PBC advises against it, as this buildup seasons the barrel and excess deposits will burn off with each cook.

When it comes to maintenance, there are two recommended tasks.

Firstly, oiling your grates and hanging racks will prevent surface rust and prolong their life, plus it prevents food from sticking while cooking.

Secondly is to invest in a good cover for your barrel. Even though it’s made from strong 18-gauge steel and covered in robust porcelain enamel, it will still be susceptible to surface rust if left open to the elements.

Plus, who likes a smoker covered in bird poop?

Design and Build Quality

Two pit barrel cookers on snow against a sunny background
Image courtesy of pitbarrelcooker.com

This barrel is built to last.

With its upgraded steel, that went from 20-gauge to 18-gauge between the 1st and 2nd generation PBC barrel, and it’s weatherproof porcelain enamel coating, it’s well constructed and will put in a good tour of duty for you.

The absence of rollers or wheels makes way for a robust steel tripod base setup that has no moving parts that you need to oil or replace.

Design-wise, it is a love it or loathe it look.

If you like the classic barrel design that’s much more upmarket, then you’ll probably appreciate this look. If you like your cooking goods to have aesthetic appeal, then it might not be the look for you.

Warranty and Support

PBC provides a full 1-year warranty that will replace any defective parts. During this time, the barrel is covered for rust should it rust through, or holes appear, but surface rust is not.

But with the quality coating and thickness of the steel, it’s hardly likely that rust through will be an issue.

PBC expects the lifespan of the barrel to be between 3 to 5 years depending on use, and they believe that you will use it 2 to 3 times more than a regular grill due to ease of use and the type of food it cooks.

Any shipping related damage, missing pieces, or delays, need to be reported within 30 days of receipt, and they will rectify it for you as soon as possible.

The PBC customer support is another reason they have so many avid fans. They are always on hand via their official website for support, as well as providing tips, tricks, and recipes to make sure you get the best out of your barrel.

Final Verdict of Our Pit Barrel Cooker Review

What’s not to love about this design? It will have you up and running with fantastically smoked food in no time at all.

What We Like

  • Efficient cooking with consistent heat
  • Easily adjustable vents
  • Hanging style ensures an even cook
  • Ready to cook straight out of the box, just insert the poles and hooks

What Could Be Improved

  • Extra grate to improve grill capacity
  • Temperature gauge for grill cooking
  • Wheels for easier movement

Value for Money?

We think this is a seriously good value smoker.

It’s well thought out design, and it’s ease of use means you get a smoker delivered that has just 6 steps to setup, and it needs no constant adjustment or observation during a cook.

Is this a Recommended Product?

You betcha!

With such a simple, well-engineered cooking process and less-is-more look, this barrel will be a fantastic addition to your grilling repertoire.

18-1/2 in. Classic Pit Barrel Cooker Package

Check Price on Amazon

Conclusion

If you like an all singing all dancing grill or smoker that you have to learn, tame, and master, then this barrel might be too simple for you because this is as straightforward as it gets…but is also the reason why many world-class pitmasters use it, even in competitions.

The tried and tested design means it gives you consistent cooking temperatures for up to 12 hours at a time with your meat deliciously juicy and tender without hardly any effort.

Easier and more consistent than many higher-priced smokers and grills, it offers fantastic value for money.

So, if you want to add a weapon to your cooking arsenal that can create unbelievable low-and-slow results, we think you won’t go wrong if you decide to make it this one!

 

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