Every now and then a new toy comes around that I must have. I've had my eye on the Pit Barrel Cooker for a while now. I've followed them on Twitter and seen some of my grilling blog buddies use them with great success. I couldn't wait to test this bad boy out. The Pit Barrel cooker is a 30 gallon drum that has two steel rods across the top. The cooker comes with hooks where you hang the meat directly over the fire! What a cool concept. A grill grate is also included if you choose not to hang the meat.
The Pit Barrel cooker is a 30 gallon drum so it is not too big. This comes in handy. I have visions of using this at a tailgate as it could easily fit in the back of an SUV. The smoker is delivered to your door with almost zero assembly required. Literally all I did was slide the steel rods through the holes and put the charcoal basket inside. Easy as pie.
The cooker comes with a gorgeous charcoal basket. If you've followed this blog you'll know that I made my own charcoal basket for my Ugly Drum Smoker. It's comical to compare the two! The Pit Barrel Cooker has a professionally welded charcoal basket. The one I built required about 5 hours of fighting with and bending expanded steel only to end up bolting it with a few washers and bolts. Mine works just fine don't get me wrong but it sure is cool to see what a professionally built charcoal basket looks like.
This smoker is so easy to use because there is only one air intake. The air intake only needs to be adjusted according to your altitude above sea level. This makes for a pretty much no fuss temperature setting.
I filled the charcoal basket with Kingsford charcoal and then removed about 1/4 of the charcoal in the basket and placed it in a charcoal chimney for lighting. Kingsford is the recommended charcoal for the Pit Barrel Cooker. The most consistent and appropriate smoking temperatures will be observed when Kingsford original charcoal (the typical blue bag) is used. For instructions on lighting the Pit Barrel Cooker I think the smartest thing to do is to check out the Pit Barrel Cooker Video Page where the owner of the company, Noah, demonstrates two methods to light the cooker. One with lighter fluid and the other with a charcoal chimney. It's very easy to do but lighting the smoker correctly is key to maintaining the perfect BBQ temperature. So pay attention and watch the videos a few times.
Once the flame started showing over top of the charcoal I dumped the lit coals over the unlit coals in the charcoal basket. One thing to note is that I used no smoke wood. I spent about an hour chatting with the owner of the Pit Barrel Cooker company. I told him I wanted to add apple wood. He said, "John, just try it once with no smoke wood. I swear you'll be happy with the results." I was shocked that he wanted me to "smoke" ribs with no smoke wood. He said that the cooker generates enough smoke just by the fat dripping on to the charcoal. So no apple wood for me!
The Pit Barrel Cooker comes with some free dry rubs. I used one of the BBQ rubs and put it all over two racks of spare ribs. I counted down 2 rib bones and inserted the Pit Barrel Cooker hook in between the 2nd and 3rd rib. Next I simply hung the ribs on the steel bars. I was having so much fun hanging the ribs I was using the hashtag #hangtheribs on Twitter. Yes I'm a twitter nerd for sure.
The ribs took about 3.5-4 hours and required absolutely no work. There was no mopping, no foiling or anything. All I did was let the ribs hang. During the cooking time I was really thinking about the magic of hanging the ribs. Think about it. All the fat and juice from the higher portion of the ribs will slowly run down on the rest of the rack for the entire cook. This is sort of like constant mopping. I was also thinking that maybe the weight of the ribs hanging could slightly expand the intercostal rib muscles (meat between the bones) and possibly increase the tenderness of the meat as it cooks. Just an idea.
I was initially concerned that the portion of the ribs closest to the fire would be completely overcooked while the top portion (near the hook) would be underdone. I was shocked to see that this wasn't really the case. The rib bone closest to the fire was a bit charred* however the rest of the rack was magically delicious. I did a quick test of the doneness on the rack immediately after the ribs were taken from the cooker. I used my superfast Thermapen to test three portions of the rack. The top, middle and bottom. I was very happy to see that there wasn't too big of a temperature difference. The difference between the top and bottom of the rack (oriented with respect to the fire) was only about 7 degrees. That's not much.
*You'll see in the photo above that the 1-2 rib bones closest to the fire are pretty black. This is because I didn't trim this rack at all. The black ribs were pretty much in contact with the fire. I should have trimmed these bottom few rib bones off prior to cooking as they were really boney and fatty and not servable anyway.
I'm not just saying this, I promise. These were the best ribs I've ever had. They were tasty and most importantly they were "competition tender." When I say that I mean that you could take a bite of meat without pulling all of the meat right off the bone. Each bite was so tender that I was completely shocked that the meat didn't pull right off the bone. They also had a nice smoke ring and a nice smoky flavor. This is even more impressive considering barely any work went into this. No mopping, no foiling, nothing.
I'm very impressed with this cooker. It was simple to light, there was no hassle at all in maintaining temperature and the ribs were perfect. This seems too good to be true. The only logic I can think of is that the smaller 30 gallon size of the barrel makes this a really efficient cooker that maintains steady temp, especially because you don't have to open and close the lid all the time. Also the constant vertical dripping of fats compounded with the nature of hanging meat might be the reason for this simple success. You might have noticed there is no thermometer. I decided to stick a digital thermometer probe into the Pit Barrel Cooker just to see what the temperature was during the cook. It held at about 260-270 degrees about 5-6 inches from the top of the lid. You couldn't ask for anything better in my opinion. The key here is you have to light it correctly. If you follow the instructional videos you will have a perfect cooking temperature. If you have too many lit coals, for example, then the fire will burn hotter and you'll end up with a higher temperature.
If you are interested in checking out a Pit Barrel Cooker please visit the Pit Barrel Cooker website. You can get a PBC delivered to your door for $299. Shipping is even included. The Pit Barrel Cooker company is totally based in the USA. This is an American made smoker. One additional perk of buying this cooker is that you have a direct line to the owner of the company. Noah, the inventor of the Pit Barrel Cooker, told me that he is happy to talk to anyone who needs assistance with the cooker. In fact his phone number is written on the side of the cooker! How's that for service?
As a disclaimer, Noah sent me a cooker for free to test out. That said, I specifically told him that I wouldn't review this if I didn't think this was a outstanding cooker! It is! In fact, please check out part two of this review where I assess smoking a turkey in the Pit Barrel Cooker and also an easy trick to put out the fire in the Pit Barrel Cooker to save charcoal.
Disclaimer: I have been a friend of the Pit Barrel Cooker company for a few years now. Now they have an affiliate program where I can make a few bucks if you buy your Pit Barrel through this link: Buy a Pit Barrel Cooker here. Buying your PBC through this link is no extra cost to you but it gives me a few bucks for typing all this stuff up and running the blog. Also, the PBC company makes more profit if you buy directly through them, vs buying it through Amazon or another company. If you like what I have presented here, please buy through this link. And certainly I stand behind this product. If it was garbage I would not be discussing it so highly. It's a great product and a great company.