How to Use an Offset Smoker – Tips and Guidances

There’s a statement to be appreciated when you see someone making the most delicious-smelling favorite meats to smoke with an offset smoker. It’s in the space it takes up, the focus it requires, and the look it sports.

Whatever you choose to call it – stick burners or barrel smokers – offset smokers demand a level of expertise that says a lot about your ability to smoke meat.

Buying an offset smoker is only half the battle. You need to learn how to use it, how to move with it, how to dance with it. It’s definitely not like electric smokers where you can just set the temperature and walk away.

It’s that steep learning curve that usually prevents people from getting their offset smoker. If you’re looking at this article intending to reach the bottom, then we commend you, and we’d like to help you. We hope that you’ll find joy in smoking meat with an offset smoker with these easy-to-follow explanations and simple steps.

Understanding How an Offset Smoker Works

Illustration how an offset smoker works
Illustration how an offset smoker works

Before you jump into learning how to operate a horizontal offset smoker, you need to understand how it works. Here’s a fun fact: the name “offset” is actually a description of what the smoker looks like.

It’s a substantial cooking chamber with a firebox attached to the side of the cooking chamber and a little below.

Aside from the firebox, an offset smoker is also equipped with air intake vents and exhaust vents that make it possible to control heat and smoke.

The best offset smokers in the market are even equipped with reverse flow technology – a topic that we’ll delve into in the next section.

Offset smokers work by cooking your meat the moment you’ve stoked the fire. The heat from the fire is then transferred to the cooking chamber, where your meat lies in wait. You control the amount of smoke by tinkering with the chimney and by adjusting the air intake vents.

The labor and skills part of the process comes into play when you try to control the temperature and the smoke.

So, really, despite its intimidating size and the work it requires from you, it’s relatively straightforward to smoke meat with an offset smoker.

Reverse Flow Smoker vs. Offset Smoker

Reverse flow smoker
Reverse flow smoker

If you’re looking to get an offset smoker, you might be confused when your search also yields reverse flow smokers. As we previously mentioned, reverse flow is a type of technology or feature that some offset smokers have.

You’ll find the difference in heat distribution. In a standard offset smoker, the heat in the smoker varies depending on the area in the cooking chamber. There are some areas where the meat might cook faster, while others, like the spot farthest from the firebox, could cooking your meat slower.

Meanwhile, an offset barrel smoker with reverse flow technology utilizes a sheet metal that is angled away from the surface. This plate directs the heat and smoke downward before being guided to the surface at lower cooking temperatures.

The benefit of the reverse flow design is that it allows you to maintain a consistent heat level without having to periodically and regularly check the temperature.

Step-by-Step Guide to Use an Offset Smoker

1. Choose an offset smoker

Vertical offset smoker

The first step to getting that smoky, meaty goodness on your table is to find the best offset smoker that suits your needs.

Take a look around the area where you want it to be. Do you think a horizontal or vertical offset smoker suits the space best?

Think about how you want to smoke your meat. Will you benefit more from a standard offset smoker, or do you need reverse flow functionalities?

Check out the smoker you have your heart set on. Is it big enough for how much meat you think you’ll regularly smoke?

These are only some of the questions you should consider before choosing an offset smoker. Other considerations should also be made when it comes to whether or not it includes a water pan or a temperature gauge or even a thermometer.

There’s a lot of options out there regardless of whether or not money is an issue. All you need to do is spend time on your research and on the decision-making process. But, if you’re looking for the best offset smokers under $1000, we’ve got some recommendations.

2. Research the fuel source

charcoal or wood
Charcoal or wood

So you’ve got your offset smoker waiting in the shed or in the garden or wherever it is you chose to place it. The next step is to research the fuel source.

Considering how one of the advantages of an offset smoker is how it can use wood or charcoal, this is a step you’d want to spend some time in.

If you’re wondering which one is the best to use, the answer is simple: it’s both charcoal and wood.

Using charcoal as a fuel source is the best way to achieve that highly-coveted smoke flavor. On the other hand, using wood is how you improve the flavor of the meat with added taste dynamics. There’s a science in choosing specific wood for certain types of meat. For instance, there’s a smoking wood for turkey, beef, pork – each meat’s chemistry must mix well with the proper wood to bring out their character.

Choosing to use one exclusively can lead to sub-par results. For example, a wood-only fuel source requires a level of expertise that you might not have. This means that you’ll likely end up with bitter-tasting meat.

In comparison, charcoal-only setups lack the enjoyment that comes with eating smoked meat that adds a taste of maple or oak or hickory that wood chips or chunks can offer.

Both are the way to go. You just need to find out what type of wood chips fits your tastes the best.

3. Prepare the fire

At this point, all your research about the offset smoker should be over and done with. You’re ready to light it up and start smoking your meat. To begin, you need to prepare the fire.

The general rule is if you chose to use both charcoal and wood as your fuel sources, you need to light the charcoal first then add the wood later.

Here’s what you need to do:

  • Fill the firebox with the untouched charcoal straight from the sack. Don’t light it.
  • Put the other half into a chimney starter or any separate container.
  • Light the second half of the coals using the chimney starter.

If you don’t have a chimney starter in your household, then what you can do is take the entire bag of lump charcoal or briquettes. Put it in the firebox in a pyramid shape. Light the topmost layer and let it spread to the bottom. This arrangement will serve as your charcoal kickstarter.

Once it’s hot and burning, you can rearrange it to make sure that the whole pile is on fire.

4. Get the fire into the firebox

firebox smoker
Get the fire into the firebox

While you’re waiting for the charcoal to catch fire, you need to prepare the smoker for cooking. This is something you can do with the temperature gauge that you can usually find on the chamber lid.

Always check on the batch of charcoal you’re burning. If the fire is holding, you’re ready to transfer it into the firebox.

Keep in mind that you should always be careful when a fire is involved. Look at your surroundings, and remove anything that might be flammable. Consider what could happen if burning charcoal fell out and act accordingly. Use protective gear, like barbeque gloves, if need be.

When you’ve got your fire management under your belt, go ahead and pour the burning charcoal into the firebox. Pile this batch of charcoal on one side so that you can start the burning of the other side without having to stoke it.

Once it’s in, take the wood chips or chunks you want to use and put them straight into the firebox without soaking it.

This ensures that when it burns, the wood will produce just the right amount of smoke to infuse the flavor into your meat. Close the lid.

5. Adjust the airflow

As soon as your firebox is all set up and ready to go, the next thing you’ll have to do is adjusting the heat by changing the airflow.

You’re going to have to make use of the airflow vent on the side, also known as the damper.

Opening up the damper fully means that more air is being taken into your firebox, which would make your charcoal and wood burn brighter, faster, and hotter.

Check the temperature gauge or, better yet, use a thermometer and see if you’ve reached the desired temperature. If so, then you’re essentially done with the process of preheating the smoker.

It’s important to remember that at this point in time, the cooking chamber lid should be kept closed so as to contain the hot air where the grill grates are.

The only thing left to do is to go back to dampers and close it at least halfway through to stilt the burning and reduce the heat. Doing this makes sure that you’re able to maintain the temperature you’ve already achieved.

If you haven’t gotten to the right temperature yet, keep the dampers open but keep your thermometer close for regular checking.

6. Control the smoke

Before you put the meat in, take the time to look at your chimney. Aside from being the heat and air exhaust, the chimney is also a great way of determining if you’re getting the good kind of smoke.

If you see a thick, black cloud of smoke coming out of the chimney, then that means that your fuel source is still going through the initial stages of burning.

It can also mean that you’re running low on the fuel source, in which case, you might want to take the meat out and add charcoal and/or wood.

Provided that you’ve achieved the good kind of smoke, then the next thing you need to do is control it. Base the amount of smoke on how much the meat needs to take on the flavor.

Too much smoke would prompt you to partially or fully close the dampers, which will not only reduce the heat but also the smoke. For your first time, this might be touch and go process. But after a couple of batches of smoked meat, you will definitely start to get the hang of it.

7. Rotate the meat

This is arguably the easiest part of the process if a bit tedious. To ensure that you’re cooking all the sides of the meat evenly, you’re going to have to rotate it.

The responsibility of rotating the meat periodically is applicable regardless of whether you got a reverse flow offset smoker or a standard offset smoker.

In the former, what you need to do is slide the metal plate according to how much hot air and smoke you need. Then, open the cooking chamber an rotate the meat.

If you have the standard offset smoker, you’re going to have to keep your thermometer or temperature probe somewhere close. It’s harder to maintain constant heat in this type of smoker. Harder, but not impossible.

What you have to do is open the lid, use the thermometer or probe, adjust the dampers accordingly, and rotate the meat to cook evenly.

Recommended Offset Smokers

Offset Smoker Tips & Tricks

Here are some tips and trick you can follow to maximize the smoking process with an offset smoker:

Use wood chips

wood chips

If you want to make the most out of an offset smoker, use wood chips. This can come in many form factors: chips, chunks, or even logs.

As we’ve discussed before, adding wood chips adds that bit of flavor that smoked meat needs. But another advantage of it is that it functions as another fuel source. In the long-run, using wood chips and charcoal is not only wonderfully tasteful but also cost-effective.

Use or add a water pan

Water pan

Using a water pan is one of the most well-known secrets of smoking meat. It’s the simplest and most effective way of achieving smoked meat that is flavorful and, more importantly, moist.

Most manufacturers include a water pan with an offset smoker. But if your unit doesn’t have one, you can easily add a water pan by taking a non-flammable container and filling it up with water.

Place the container atop the firebox by using any grill grates you might have lying around to keep it from touching the charcoal and wood directly.

Use a thermometer

 ThermoPro TP20

Aside from a water pan, another thing you might want to use is a thermometer or temperature probe. The one current gripe that most smokers have with any unit is that the included temperature gauge or control doesn’t always seem accurate.

So, while manufacturers are attempting to solve that problem, you might want to visit the store and pick up your thermometer or temperature probe. It’s a tool that will always come in handy, especially if you’re smoking meat. Think of it as an investment instead of an additional cost.

Leave it alone

Another tip we’d like to give you is something more of a requirement. Don’t open the cooking chamber lid too much. Leave it alone, and let the meat cook in its own time.

If you keep opening the lid, you’re substantially slowing down the entire cooking process. It makes it harder to keep the heat up, so let alone the smoker and maintain a specific temperature.

You can also do a test run with the meat you want to smoke. It’ll help you a lot to know when you really need to open the lid, and when it needs more time.

Check the weather

Perhaps the most notable disadvantage of an offset smoker is the fact that it isn’t as insulated as other smokers. As such, you may encounter problems when you try to smoke when it’s raining, windy, or cold.

What you can do to compensate is to adjust the amount of charcoal and wood you’re going to use. Remind yourself that it’s going to need a little extra to achieve the temperatures it can easily reach on a normal, sunny day.

Clean your smoker

The next tip is essential. Once you’ve served and eaten your smoked meat, it’s easy to forget about cleaning your smoker. Or it might be that you find it such a hassle and you’d rather delay doing it.

If you want to keep your smoker for more than a year, then take the time to clean it. This means that you’re not only doing your part in the maintenance and upkeep, but you’re also ensuring that your next batch won’t taste bitter and ashy.

A good rule to follow is to clean your offset smoker after every batch of meat.


Congratulations! You are now armed with enough knowledge to start using your offset smoker. It’s a steep learning curve, but we hope that this article helped level it out a bit.

Don’t stress if you make some mistakes along the way or if your meat isn’t up to par. Instead, be proud. You’ve just managed to use the coolest smoker anyone’s ever seen on the street. Enjoy your meat, and know that you’ll get better at it in time.

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