Drum Smokers are considered a vital BBQ kit by many professionals. In this article we examine what they are, how they work and what you can expect from some of the best models on the market.
Anyone who has a heart for the great American tradition of barbecuing knows that the best tastes are created using a combination of the best equipment and the best fuel source. Drum Smokers present some of the best taste variations available and can both preserve and accentuate your meats.
Read on to find out more about this fascinating piece of technology, and learn how the drum smoker works.
What is a ‘Drum’ Smoker?
So that we make sure to start from the beginning, let’s talk about what a drum smoker actually is. Obviously it is used to smoke your meats, but there are a variety of ways in which this can happen.
Sometimes called the Ugly Drum Smoker (or UDS, Barrel House), the drum smoker takes its name from the fact that early, basic and DIY models are built using an old drum as their base. This makes for a fire in the bottom, usually using charcoal or wood, and the distance of the long barrel between the fuel and the grill, which is placed over the top of the open barrel with the aim of slowly smoking the meat.
A 55 Gallon drum is the preferred receptacle for those building the drum smoker at home for themselves – but we always caution safety in any DIY projects involving a heat source. If it isn’t safe don’t do it… and certainly don’t go connecting any gas pipes or messing with electricity unless you are fully qualified to do so.
Instead keep reading and we will talk you through some of the best models – including budget ones – at the end of the article.
If you really must DIY your own UDS then we found this 7-step guide through Instructables that will help you out. For now let’s take a brief look at other types of smoker.
Not to be Confused with the Vertical Smoker…
The vertical smoker is what happens when someone takes a traditional, time-tested and historically renowned method of meat preservation like the drum smoker and applies some modern technology. The fire box that produces the smoke is at the bottom of the device and the meat goes into a metal closet above. It slowly filters upwards, fills the closet and disperses through a chimney (Kingsford).
Or the Offset Smoker…
Sometimes called a Barrel Smoker, the offset smoker works similarly to the vertical, except it is in a horizontal format. Smoke is created in a box off to the side and allowed to circulate.
The Drum Smoker is an American Staple!
Although other types of smoker developed from the drum, the drum smoker is the original favorite. It is cheap to make, easy to handle and can be put together from parts found in the average junkyard. But how does it work? Let’s find out!
How Does a Drum Smoker Work? (The History)
Back in ancient times, before we had discovered refrigeration or had any concept of how to store our foods; food preservation was a tricky task. The plentiful days of summer were fantastic for game – but once winter rolled around all of the animals went into hibernation, and hunter-gatherers were left hungry.
There were ways that they could make the food that they caught in the plentiful seasons last through until the summer returned… and one of these methods was to smoke the foods.
The practice of smoking food for preservation is so old that it pre-dates recorded history, although Britannica estimates it originated shortly after the discovery of fire. In those days humans were still living in caves, so it is possible that this was an accidental discovery.
When we discovered that drying out the meat made is last longer, as well as adding flavor to it, it was only a matter of time before it became a favorite!
Smoking lost its popularity through the ages as advances in Chemistry brought more and more preservatives to light. However, according to Wikipedia, it was revived again in the mid 20th century when the Torry Kiln (Grills Forever) was invented in Scotland. This massive kiln was able to take smoked meats and fish to a commercial level – and the smoke-revolution began afresh.
How Do Drum Smokers Work? (The Science)
There is a little thermodynamic energy at play here but it is fairly straightforward and easy to understand. There are three main ways with which heat is used to cook food – and since a drum smoker is what we call a ‘hot’ smoker (that means it depends on heat as a smoke source so that it cures as well as cooks) – conduction, convection and radiation (Amazing Ribs). A drum smoker relies upon convection in the same way that a fan oven does.
Heat is produced in the base of the drum smoker. This heat and smoke travels up the barrel and cools a little as it goes. By the time it has reached your grill plate atop the barrel it is mainly warmed smoke. The drying effect of the warmed smoke slowly and gently cooks the meat while the juices soak up the smokey flavor. The heat transfer method used is convection, since the circulation of the warm air is what cooks and smokes the meats.
However, when using a metal barrel there is some conduction too, so make sure not to touch any metal parts with your bare hands!
But How Do You Regulate Temperature?
The good old fashioned way! By adding fuel, changing what source of fuel you use or by taking some away! Of course, nowadays it doesn’t have to be that way. Electric drum smokers retain the shape but add some modern technology to the barely safe drum smoker.
These are not highly regarded by professionals since they require added wood chips, charcoal or flavor pellets in order to produce any smoke at all.
Gas Drum Smokers are an updated modern alternative that will smoke without issue, as are combined electric pellet burning smokers. All of these are available in drum variety so you have lots of options if you have your heart set on a modern drum Smoker.
Nowadays some models combine the best of both worlds, having a BBQ grill with a smoker attached to the side is becoming more and more commonplace in professional circles. Gas and electric smokers are very much easier to control than home-made ones, since they have temperature regulation and control built in.
If you have a DIY drum smoker then follow the advice found at BBQ Brethren regarding temperature regulation, if not, your purchased model should have an in-built function.
Combination Barbecue Smokers
Drum Smokers can be purchased as a combination of BBQ grill and smoker. Although most of these tend to be of the barrel variety, you do come across the occasional refined drum shape. Combination BBQ Smokers seek to offer the best of both worlds in terms of smokey flavor and cooking times; but there is only so much you can speed up a smoked meat before it becomes simply barbecued.
Combo Smoker Grills are often electric and require briquettes, vaporizer bars or some other flavoring additive to smoke well and produce quality taste. However, electric models have the cheapest running costs otherwise and are considered the safest, so the option is still good in other ways. For more on combined BBQ Grill Smokers see this article from the Outdoor Mancave.
The Gas Drum Smoker
Gas drum smokers generally rely upon propane (man-made gas) or Methane (natural gas) to operate. This fuel source is supplied to the base of the barrel where a fire box will contain wood chips, pellets or charcoal. Using gas allows for ease of ignition and temperature control; but once again you must provide flavorsome smoke on your own.
If you happen to be invited to a meal at someone’s home and they have a gas smoker that has been DIY rigged you should probably just excuse yourself and go home… for safety reasons.
The Electric Drum Smoker
These generally work in the same way that a conventional fan assisted oven does. Airflow moving around the drum is what creates the slow curing while flavor and smoke must be added as with the gas smoker. The electric model is the cheapest to run long term and often has a good low initial price – but they are generally not made for outdoor use.
The electric smoker has it’s own place on the kitchen counter, or as a portable model for tailgating events. They tend to be much smaller and do not rely on the length of the barrel for cooling and smoke, but rather on temperature controls you can preset.
Brands and Models we Love!
One of the biggest names in Drum Smokers are Gateway Drum Smokers. They took the concept of the old-fashioned, DIY model and took it to a new and fairly innovative level. They occupy a fair chunk of the market in their own right and their website even contains a few tutorials to help you get started.
Competitive and professional models
We added an honorable mention category for competitive and professional models just so we could tip our hats to Hunsaker Smokers. Awarded the Best Value Gold Medal from Amazing Ribs, the Hunsaker Vortex Smoker heats quickly, smokes as long as you want it to and will last you for years to come… and as a bonus you can use it in competitions! Additionally it carries a smaller price tag than the Gateway Drum Smoker range and is perfectly suitable for back yard use.
For professional use customers tend to favor the Pit Barrel Smoker. Coming in at under $300 it is also a great value product for what you get. Of course this can’t be kept in the garden all year; but it does give you an 18.5 inch drum that you can place your corporate logo on. Lovely.
Best Combination BBQ Grill and Smoker: Pit Barrel cooker Barbecue and Smoker Grill
For a grill that does both and doesn’t cost the same as a mortgage try the Pit Barrel BBQ and Smoker. It is bigger than the electric, professional model that they supply, can be kept outdoors if you like and takes charcoal as it’s main fuel source. This particular set on Amazon comes with everything you need to get started straight away.
Best Electric Smoker: Masterbuilt 20060416 Charcoal Bullet Smoker
This nifty little number sits on your counter and provides ample cooking space for any smoke addict! The bullet smoker uses charcoal for its fuel source, but relies on heat provided by a ceramic enamel water bowl which heats to produce the smoke. It is an affordable model with the double benefit of carrying the Masterbuilt reputation for quality.
Best Smoker for Beginners: Weber Smokey Mountain
Weber are world famous for producing some of the best grills out there. They are also known for being in the higher price range. Luckily the Smokey Mountain range has three sizes of smoker and all are lower than $500. Weber also provide a huge range of accessories and extra parts to this set so you can grow your smokey collection over time. If you have the money and the will to learn with an easy product then this is the model you need.
BBQ Smoking: The World is Your Oyster!
Once you get into the smoking game you soon start to realize that there are infinite taste combinations, techniques and skills that you can develop to aid the process. It becomes addictive when you understand just how succulent, tender and juicy smoked meats can be. Similar to applying a marinade; pre-smoking your food for a few hours can elevate a simple meal into an extravagant luxury… and with a smoker all of your very own you can do so whenever you like!