If you want to cook like the pitmasters you see on TV, or you dream of winning serious cash at a barbecue competition then you’ve probably lusted after an offset smoker.
Buying an offset smoker can be risky though. The cheap models are notoriously unreliable and leaky, while expensive ones can set you back several thousand dollars.
We’ve researched the best offset smokers to suit every budget and level of experience.
The top offset smokers for your backyard
Best Overall – Oklahoma Joe’s Highland Reverse Flow Smoker
For the vast majority of folks, dropping $1000-$2500+ on an offset smoker isn’t an option.
Unless you decide to mortgage the house to buy a smoker which is probably not the soundest investment.
Unfortunately, the budget end of the spectrum is full of cheaply made, poorly insulated smokers that attract people with their authentic looks, only to leave them frustrated with poor results.
The Oklahoma Joe’s Highland is the best offset smoker we recommend for anyone with a sub $500 budget.
Unlike a lot of cheap offset smokers, Oklahoma Joe’s have used heavy-gauge steel for better heat retention and stability.
The grill grates are porcelain-coated and provide 619 square inches of cooking space in the main chamber with an additional 281 square inches in the firebox chamber you can use for grilling.
If you need more cooking space the same company also sells the similar Longhorn which comes with 751 square inches in the main chamber.
The Highland gives you the option to configure it as a reverse flow offset smoker, which means the heat from the firebox has to travel under a baffled flue to the end before it reverses back and drafts through the main cooking chamber.
We’ll go through why this is a good thing in more detail in the second half of this article, but for now, all you need to know is this helps food cook more evenly and creates a better-tasting product.
What we like:
- Value for money – The construction quality from the steel used to the individual welds and the way everything fits together snuggly is way ahead of any other budget-priced offset.
- Heat distribution – The four baffles do a good job of evening out the temperature with a variation of around 5 – 15°F across the cooking chamber.
- Firebox grill adds versatility – It’s nice that the Firebox can double as a grill or warming rack, although I would only recommend using this after you’ve finished cooking in the main chamber, otherwise the extra oxygen from leaving the firebox lid open will cause your temperatures to go crazy.
- Looks & practicality – We love the traditional look of the Highland. The large bottom shelf is handy for storing cooking utensils and extra wood, and the large wagon-style wheels make it easy to move.
What we don’t like:
- Leaks if you don’t use a sealant – Cheap and easy to fix, but if you expect it to work perfectly out of the box you might be disappointed.
- Heat distribution isn’t perfect – Food closest to the firebox still manages to get cooked faster due to radiant heat; the heat plates are too thin to completely prevent it.
To get the best performance from this smoker, you’ll need to make some minor modifications to seal up the cooking chamber and heat box.
A high temp gasket kit like this one from LavaLock will do the job.
With that simple hack, the Highland can perform as well as offset smokers that are two or three times more expensive.
If you ask a serious barbecue geek if the Oklahoma Joe is a good smoker you’ll probably hear mixed answers.
So long as you know what you are getting into, and aren’t expecting to get the same results as someone who spends $2000 on a competition smoker, we think you’ll be pleased with the Highland.
Best ‘affordable’ custom built offset – Meadow Creek SQ 36
The Meadow Creek SQ36 hits the sweet spot of value to performance and build quality.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find another smoker that is custom built in the United States after you order it at this price point.
While you can certainly use this as a backyard smoker, the SQ36 can feed 50-75 people.
The main grate can hold 5-6 pork butts or two whole briskets, and if that isn’t enough you can double your space with an optional second tier grate.
This is a heavy duty smoker made out of 13 gauge steel. With proper care this will last a life time.
Unlike a lot of the cheap offset smokers you can get at big box stores, the Meadow Creek is well insulated and easy to maintain a steady consistent temperature.
What we like:
- Made to order in the USA – This smoker is cheaper than a lot of other grills that get made offshore. Because it’s made to order you know you’ll always get the latest model.
- Customizable – If you want to cook for more people add the second tier grate or rib rack. You can also add a charcoal pan to convert the entire cooking area into a charcoal grill.
What we don’t like:
- Expensive shipping and slow delivery – As you would expect with a 310 lbs offset smoker. Lift Gate Delivery will set you back $485, and there is a 4-8 week lead time while they build your smoker
So long as you don’t mind waiting for your smoker to be made, this is a great entry point into the custom offset smoker market for under $2,000 (including delivery).
The best offset smoker for serious enthusiasts – Yoder Wichita Loaded
This is a really tough choice. Companies like Yoder, Lang, and Horizon all produce outstanding offset smokers in the $1000 – $3000 price range so it’s really hard to go wrong.
That said, if you put a gun to my head I would have to pick the Yoder Wichita.
With 1,600 square inches of cooking area, the Wichita is a great choice for a top of the line backyard smoker, while still being able to perform in competitions or for catering larger events.
That is split up between two 19.75″x19″ cooking grates in the main chamber, second 14.5″x36.5″ slide out shelf and finally a 19″x18″ Cooking Grate in the firebox.
Unlike the vast majority of smokers, the Wichita is made in the USA from 1/4″ pipe and plate steel.
This provides excellent insulation for better temperature control and even heat distribution.
Yoder has built a strong reputation in the barbecue community for their craftsmanship.
The smoker weighs in at a hefty 591lbs, although the large wagon wheels make it possible to move.
The loaded model comes with two built-in thermometers so you can make sure your temperature isn’t hotter on one side, and the lid has a counterweight to make it easy to open.
One of our favorite barbecue YouTubers T-Roy Cooks has a video review of the Yoder which you can check out to see everything up close.
What we like:
- Build quality – As you would expect from a high end offset, all the 1/4 steel is heavy duty and the welds are top notch resulting in a tight fit.
- Slide-out rack – Adds a lot of extra cooking real estate, and can be removed if you are cooking large items like a turkey.
- Even temperature from end to end – Yoder has a clever system to manage the heat coming in from the firebox. The heat plate has small holes on the firebox end so less air gets through, then as you get closer to the far end the holes get bigger.
- Optional extras – You can opt for a charcoal grate which lets you convert the main cooking chamber into a full charcoal pit and a propane log lighter for easier ignition.
What we don’t like:
There really is nothing to even nitpick. Obviously it would be nice if it didn’t cost as much, but considering the construction quality, we can’t blame them.
Even the warranty is a rediculous 75 years.
Best budget offset smoker – Char-Griller Smokin Pro
First off let’s get some disclaimers out of the way.
Ask just about any barbecue geek and they will tell you to avoid a cheap offset like the Smokein Pro from Char-Griller.
You should definitely ignore the name in this case, it’s not designed for the pros.
This unit doesn’t seal tight, the material could be thicker and construction could be better.
With all that out of the way, if you enjoy playing with the fire and don’t mind making a few minor modifications this can be a perfectly good smoker.
You get 580 sq/in of primary cooking area with an additional 250 sq/in for grilling or warming in the firebox.
In terms of modifications, you’ll want to use BBQ silicone to seal inside the grill, especially where the firebox and grill are joined.
The built-in thermometers are especially bad on this unit, so ditch them and use proper bbq thermometer.
You can also improve temperature distribution by creating your own baffle out of scrap metal.
What we like:
- Budget price – Compared to the other offset smokers we’ve looked at this smoker is affordable and can perform OK with a few cheap mods.
- Makes for a great grill – You can use this as a full charcoal grill, with an adjustable charcoal tray to control the heat level.
What we don’t like:
- Very leaky without modifications – If you don’t take time to seal the smoker up you’ll struggle to control temperature, especially in windy conditions.
- Paint peeling – You’ll probably experience some wear and tear after only a few uses.
- Built-in thermometer quality – Usually a low point on budget smokers, this one is especially unreliable.
If you’re the kind of person that needs to have the best model, or you want to compete with the pros this isn’t for you.
If you want a traditional style smoker on the cheap and don’t mind making some modifications then the Char-Griller is a perfectly good option.
Other offset smokers worth considering
There are a lot of different models of offset smoker out there, ranging from cheap trash you can buy for under a hundred dollars on Amazon to trailers that can cost close to $10,000.
We’ve selected a few of the best options for different people above, but there are a lot of other great choices if you have your heart set on a stick burner.
- Pit Barrel Cooker – OK so this isn’t even an offset smoker, so you might be wondering why we recommend it. If you want a cool looking smoker and don’t want to spend a lot of money, an ugly drum smoker (UDS) like this is a great alternative. We have a full Pit Barrel Cooker review if you want to learn more.
- Broil King Smoke XL 32-Inch Offset – This is another good option to consider if you are stuck in the middle range between a cheap offset and top of the line model. The steel is 13 gauge which is a decent improvement over cheap models and you get 955 square inches of cooking space.
- Dyna-Glo DGO1176BDC-D Charcoal Offset Smoker – This isn’t your typical wood-burning offset smoker as it has a cabinet configuration with a firebox that’s more designed for charcoal. It’s a popular model with 784 square inches of cooking space, and a 15,000 BTU cast iron burner for fast ignition. The steel construction is pretty thin and you’ll need high temp silicone to seal it up.
- Anything from Yoder, Lang, Horizon, Meadow Creek – These companies all produce great models that you can regularly see winning on the competition circuit.
How offset smokers work
An offset smoker consists of a large chamber in which the food is cooked and a smaller firebox where you burn wood and or charcoal, which is usually attached below and to the side or back of the cooking area. Hence the name “offset.”
The fire built in the offset firebox creates heat and smoke, which flavors the food and cooks it using indirect heat.
To control the level of smoke and heat in the central chamber, offset smokers have a chimney, generally attached at the opposite end to the firebox, and a vent on the side of the firebox.
The vent and chimney can be opened or closed to control the atmosphere in the cooking chamber.
The main chamber of an offset smoker often looks like an oil drum, because that is what they were initially made from.
In fact, the well known Pitt’s & Spitt’s brand got their start converting unused oil drums into offset smokers and grills.
Who should buy an offset smoker?
Owning a huge offset smoker is every pitmaster’s dream.
They are the iconic image of a traditional smoker, they’ve got the volume for you to provide smoked meat to the entire neighborhood, and they look so damn cool.
However, like any piece of cooking equipment, you need a smoker that matches your needs and, as cool as they are, offset smokers aren’t without their drawbacks.
So, to help you decide if investing in an offset smoker is the right choice for you, here are the main pros and cons of using one:
Offset smoker pros:
- The large central cooking chamber makes offset smokers ideal for cooking large amounts of food.
- Because the firebox isn’t a part of the cooking chamber, you can open it up and add more fuel without letting the heat and smoke escape during the process.
- Despite being called stick burners, offset smokers work best when fuelled with a combination of wood and charcoal. Cooking with a combination of wood and charcoal is far less fiddly than cooking with all wood, producing a smoky flavor without the risk of excess ash, soot, or creosote ruining the meat.
- Some models come with a grill grate fitted over the firebox, giving you a two-in-one direct grilling and smoking option.
Offset smoker cons:
- Offset smokers are not lightweight or portable. They can weigh hundreds of pounds and, while maneuvering them isn’t impossible, it is impractical, especially if you are trying to do it on your own.
- They are also traditionally very large, so if you don’t have a lot of outdoor space to store and use one, you might be best opting for a more compact smoker.
- Cooking on an offset smoker is not a quick process. They can take up to an hour to preheat, and they are only suited to low and slow style of smoking.
- You need to take the climate into consideration. Offset smokers do no function at their best in very cold climates, and their performance can also suffer in high winds and heavy rain unless you opt for the most expensive, well built models.
- Getting the best results from your offset smoker means practice and patience. One of the reasons they appeal to pitmasters is that getting the perfect smoke in an offset smoker is a bit of an art form. When they work well, they work very well, but you’ll have to work hard to get the best from one.
To sum it all up, an offset smoker is best suited to a pitmaster who has the space to fit a large and heavy piece of equipment on a sheltered part of their property, coupled with the time and patience to learn how to get the best from a not particularly novice-friendly smoker.
Beware of cheap offset smokers
One of the major issues with buying an offset smoker is that the market is flooded with cheap, poorly constructed models.
The problem with buying cheap is that construction quality is the key to getting an offset smoker to work well. Poorly built offset smokers have bad heat retention, badly sealed fireboxes that leak oxygen, and faulty food chamber doors that dry out your food.
The core of the problem, as Meathead Goldwyn, points out, is one of physics:
“Heat and smoke want to go up, not sideways. So heat and smoke exit the firebox on one side and try to go up making the side of the cooking chamber next to the firebox much hotter than the side next to the chimney.Meathead Goldwyn – amazingribs.com
In practical terms, this means that some things will be cooked sooner than others unless you rotate throughout the cook.
A well-built offset smoker forces hot air to travel the length of the cooking chamber, keeps the oxygen and heat levels stable, and evenly distributes heat.
What to look for in an offset smoker
Regardless of which model you choose, good offset smokers share some of the same traits, so when you head out to buy one, here is what to look for:
Build quality and insulation
As we mentioned earlier, buying a low-quality model made from thin metal will result in you having little control over the amount of heat, oxygen, and smoke in the cooking chamber, and where the smoke is being distributed.
When buying an offset smoker, you’ll want it to be constructed of a minimum of ¼-inch thick steel, with well-made vents and food chamber doors. Unfortunately, that isn’t going to come cheap.
Are reverse flow smokers better?
Regular flow offset smokers draw the heat and smoke from the firebox over the meat once, on its way out of the chimney.
Reverse flow offset smokers use a baffle system that draws the heat and smoke under the cooking chamber before it is pulled back over the meat again on its way out of a chimney mounted on the same side as the firebox.
This system essentially uses the heat and smoke twice and enthusiasts of the design claim that, by using the ‘over and under’ method, the meat being smoked becomes more tender and more flavorful.
If you’re not sure which is which just remember that in a regular set up the chimney or smokestack will be on the opposite end to the firebox and on a reverse flow offset smoker it will be on the same end.
A good way of avoiding falling into the trap of buying a cheap (see “useless”) offset smoker is to use the cost as a guide.
A well-constructed offset smoker will cost you around $800-1000 for an entry-level model. While that certainly isn’t cheap, the extra money is being spent on better build quality which, as we explained, is vital to getting your smoker to work correctly.
Think of it as spending money now to significantly reduce you frustration level later. If that $200 offset smoker deal in Home Depot looks too good to be true, it’s because it is.
This one really is key. Before you head out to buy you new offset smoker, measure the area in which you are planning to place it.
Remember, the reason it is called an “offset” smoker is that the firebox and potential grill gate protrude from the side or back of the main chamber, so you’ll have to take that into account.
As we mentioned, offset smokers can weigh hundreds of pounds. So, if you are planning on trailering your offset smoker to events, or even just maneuvering it around your property, it is best to invest in a model that has wheels.
Using an offset smoker
To help you get the best from your offset smoker, we’ve written a detailed user guide for you to follow. But, to give you a head start, here are some solid tips on using an offset smoker:
1. Cook with a charcoal/wood combo
Just because they are sometimes called “stick burners” doesn’t mean you can only use wood in your offset smoker.
You can see this method in action in the video below.
Using a combination of charcoal and wood will allow you to get the smoky flavors from the wood while still taking advantage of the easier temperature control of using charcoal.
To get your offset smoker started, fill the firebox with fully lit coals from a chimney starter and then periodically add the wood to keep the temperature steady.
2. Use a digital thermometer
The temperature in your offset cooker can vary by up to 75°F from one end of the cooking chamber to the other.
In order to make sure your meat is cooking evenly, and to pre-empt any problems developing in your firebox, you’ll need to check the temperature at both ends of your smoker about every 20 minutes.
The best way to do this is with a digital thermometer inserted into holes you’ve drilled at both ends of the cooking chamber
3. Go easy on the smoke
If you are using a combination of wood and charcoal to smoke with, you’ll want to adopt a ‘less is more’ approach to the amount of smoke you are generating inside the cooking chamber.
You don’t need to soak your wood chunks, just add 4 ounces of them, at about 10-minute intervals, once the temperature has reached 200°F.
If you want to level up your barbecue game, Aaron Franklin has an excellent Masterclass series where he teaches a range of topics from fire management to wood selection, which is especially useful for folks cooking on an offset smoker.
Wrapping it up
Offset smokers take time and effort to learn how to use correctly, which means it’s probably best to take a few practice runs to make sure you have your technique down before trying to show off to friends and family.
And remember this golden rule:
“Cook one slab at a time until you have mastered the cooker and don’t invite company over until then. You should get it under control in one or two more tries.”Meathead Goldwyn – amazingribs.com