Winner for the Best Smoker Under $500 is the Pit Barrel Cooker
We’ll explain why we’ve selected it as our winner for the best smoker under the $500 price point. Below is our complete review covering what we’ve learned from creating our own Ugly Drum Smoker (UDS) and barbecuing with the Pit Barrel Cooker.
The Pit Barrel Cooker from Pit Barrel Cooker Company is the ‘Original Vertical’ Style Smoker
The Pit Barrel Cooker (PBC) is a versatile charcoal smoker and grill, whose design has been perfected upon the concept of the Ugly Drum Smoker (UDS). This barrel style vertical smoker has been celebrated in the meat smoking and BBQ industry with its backyard, cult like following. It doesn’t get more manly than yielding the best tasting brisket from a barrel that could very well be a trash can. While this isn’t the reason we’ve selected the PBC as our winner, it didn’t hurt.
Over the years the design of the Ugly Drum Smoker has remained the same: a barrel with ventilation, charcoal basket and a lid – in short, that’s it. But, Pit Barrell Cooker Co. has taken things a step further in the barrel smoker evolution with the invention of the PBC. And while one of the best parts of an Ugly Drum Smoker is constructing your own, the PBC ships ready to go out of the box. Click below to view the Pit Barrel Cooker on the Pit Barrel Cooker Co. website.
While some would consider a mostly pre-assembled drum smoker a man-card infraction; we won’t tell. Here’s why we chose the PBC as our #1 value smoker under $500.
The Pit Barrel Cooker Review 2019
When it comes to ease-of-use, convenience and sheer smoking power at a great price, nothing beats the Pit Barrel Cooker.
It’s a classic Ugly Drum Smoker, but one that comes (mostly) pre-assembled, ready to go out of the box and shipped straight to your door for free. The design makes holding a consistent pit temperature for hours on end easy, and smoked meats come out juicy and perfectly done – much better than in an offset smoker and rivaling most other smoker styles with a more efficient, quicker, and even cook throughout.
All this and, it comes in at about $300 – another reason why we’ve selected it as our favorite Smoker Under $500 and why it made our Gift List for BBQ Lovers. Keep reading to find out why the Pit Barrel Cooker has us putting away the gas grill, selling our offset smokers and embracing the UDS life.
The Pit Barrel Cooker, At A Glance:
What We Love
- 30-Gallon Drum Smoker Design – the ideal size for smoking
- Smooth-burning and consistent heat
- Easily-adjustable vents control airflow
- Hanging hooks for even cooking on all sides
- Rapid cook times
- Ready to go out of the box – almost no assembly required
- It’s portable – good for camping, beach parties, and more
Unboxing & Assembling
The Pit Barrel Cooker comes neatly and secured packaged in a large box shipped straight to your door for free. Unboxing is easy; just pop open the box, remove the instructions, lid and packaging on top, and pull the Pit Barrel Cooker out of the box. It’s that easy.
What You Get
When you’ve removed everything from the box and laid it all out in front of you, you’ll see:
- The Pit Barrel Cooker + Lid
- 8 Stainless Steel Hooks
- 2 Steel Hanging Rods
- A Charcoal Basket
- Standard Grill Grate
- A Wooden Hook Remover
- Barrel Stand
- A couple packs of Pit Barrell Cooker Co. Rubs (Beef, Game, All-Purpose)
- A couple of screws
You shouldn’t need that user manual too much, because this this smoker requires very little setup; you can have it ready to go in under 5 minutes.
Just place the charcoal basket inside, put the barrel on the stand, and either slide the hanging rods in or place the grill grate on top.
Pit Barrel Cooker has done all the hard work for you; if you were making your own, you’d have to drill holes yourself – which requires a heavy-duty drill, a bit of elbow grease and making sure you’re putting all the holes in the right places.
But with the Pit Barrel Cooker, the only real work you’ll need to do is attach the handle to the top of the lid, which takes all of 30 seconds with the included screws and screwdriver. It’s that easy – you’re ready to smoke.
What About Build and Quality?
For the most recent model, the Pit Barrell Cooker has upgraded from a 20-gauge steel to an 18-gauge steel. So, it’s thicker, sturdier and traps heat in more efficiently. The new model also features a steel coating upgrade from the previous powder coating to an enamel-based coating.
This enamel coating is the same coating you’d find on that classic Weber grill in your backyard; it’s high-quality and durable, protecting the steel from rain, rust and corrosion for…pretty much forever.
You don’t need to season it, either; the steel and enamel are ready to cook out of the box.
Air Flow, Heat, and The Science Behind Ugly Drum Smokers / PBC
Why 30 gallons instead of the traditional 55 Gallon Drum? Ugly Drum Smokers have traditionally been made from 55-gallon drums, but the Pit Barrel Cooker opts for a 30-gallon size.
It turns out that 30-gallon drums are the perfect size and shape for smoking; downsizing from the larger 55-gallon drum to the smaller 30-gallon size means better and faster barbecue every time. This is also nice because it makes it easier to handle and ship.
And the Pit Barrel Cooker Company didn’t stumble upon this revelation by accident: they tested over 29 different barrel designs and sizes to find the perfect one. The 30-gallon drum won out – creating the most even and consistent temperature and airflow – the reason you use an ugly drum smoker in the first place.
See, the cylindrical shape of a drum creates the perfect environment for even, convection cooking; heat rises from the coals at the bottom until it bounces off the lid on top. In a wide or irregularly shaped smoker, like a gas grill or offset smoker, there’s a lot more room for heat and air to roll around, and things will cook more inconsistently as a result.
But the narrow, round shape of a drum means air flows evenly, and there’s less room for heat to rise or radiate inconsistently – and 30-gallon drums find the sweet spot of height and width to maximize that even-heating potential.
If you find some of those technical details confusing – don’t worry about it. Just remember that 30-gallon drum smokers are most consistent and often easiest ways smoke meat. Here’s a video created by Pit Barrel to some things up with a little help from our tasty friends:
Hanging Meat vs Smoking With The Grate
One of the best features of the PBC is that it – in addition to the standard grill grate – also lets you hang your meat in the center of the barrel, with stainless steel hooks.
Hanging barbecue can take full advantage of the consistent convection heat and airflow that the PBC offers. Suspended directly above the fire and right in the middle of the smoker, your meat – whether it’s a brisket or a turkey – is exposed to convection heat evenly, all the way around. No one side is cooked more than another, and it’s juicy and tasty all the way through.
Hanging meat also lets you take advantage of the juices dripping directly onto the hot coals – which doesn’t happen with an offset or pellet smoker. The juices burn, creating what PBC calls a “smoke fog”, and giving your meat an even smokier, juicer natural flavor that other smokers lack.
You can get this style of convection cooking on a grate, too – but hanging meat maximizes its drip potential.
This isn’t an either/or decision, either; if you plan on smoking a lot of food for a large group of people, you can use both hooks and the grate simultaneously by picking up their Hinged Cooking Grate, which lets you hang your meat while smoking your veggies at the same time.
Putting it to Work: The Pit Barrel Cooker in Action
The Pit Barrel Cooker is almost stupidly easy to cook with; the convection heat and airflow, and the way it burns smoothly through charcoal, are so consistent that this is probably the closest thing to automatic smoker you’re gonna find – aside from a pellet grill.
When you’re ready to fire up the smoker, the first step is to adjust the intake vent at the bottom of the smoker so that it matches your elevation.
If you live between sea level and 2,000’ elevation, slide the cap to leave it ¼ open. Between 2,000’ and 5,000, it should be half open; at 5,000’-8,000’, ¾ of the way open, and at 8,000’+, go ahead and open it all the way.
This seems like a minor step but it’s crucial; too much air and the coals burn too hot. Too little and they run too cool. In fact, the ventilation is so precise that, if you don’t have the rebar rods in place or if the lid is offset, temps can climb to +300° quickly.
Next, fill up the charcoal basket with charcoal till it’s flush and level on top. Then, remove a few handfuls of the charcoal, put it into a charcoal chimney with some fire starter, and light it. Once the charcoal is burning white hot, dump them back on top of the charcoal in the basket.
Now – immediately hang your meat and get them cooking. The burning charcoals will provide enough heat, igniting more charcoal evenly as you burn through, and keeping a consistent temp the whole time.
PBC says that a full basket of charcoal can last up to 12 hours of consistent burning. We usually get about 9 hours on average; this could be from not filling up the basket entirely, or from running the smoker at higher temperatures than the standard 225°F – which naturally burns through more fuel. If you stay at a very consistent 225°F, you could likely get those 12 hours.
Temperature and Control: Does the PBC Deliver?
This thing is known for its consistency. If you’ve piled the charcoal evenly and lit the right amount of charcoal, it should be able to hold things at 240°F to 265°F for hours on end.
We did have some problems with it running hot – sitting closer to 250°F to 265°F. But it would hold that temp for hours, so it’s very possible that’s the result of human error or environmental factors – rather than a fault of the actual smoker design.
No smoker is 100% foolproof – no, not even a Traeger – and there will always be the need to adjust your smoker and practice with it in order to find the exact temp you’re looking for. The number of coals you light in the chimney to get things started; how much moisture the meat contains; elevation, humidity, and high winds can all affect the smoker’s ambient temperature.
Note: It is so important to use a good smart meat thermometer whenever you’re smoking meat – so you know the exact ambient temp your smoker sits at and to monitor any heat spikes or dips to adjust accordingly.
When you first light a fire in the Pit Barrel Cooker, you might notice it spikes of 350°F or even hotter, before dropping and settling down to around 245°F. This spike is short-lived and many BBQ experts think it’s actually beneficial to creating the perfect bark.
Running a bit hot is common with the PBC, it seems, so we think it’s worth withholding judgement until the food is done. Which, by the way, is a lot sooner than in larger smokers or one sitting at a steady 225°F.
How Does The Meat Come Out? Tastings and Results
If you’re monitoring your meat’s internal temp with a thermometer, you’ll immediately notice that it’s rising much faster than usual. You might be able to crank out an 8-10-pound pork butt or brisket in 3-4 hours; PBC says you can crank out a 16-pound brisket in about 6 hours. That’s 2-3x faster than any old smoker.
Surprisingly, the meat comes out just as juicy and tender as it would if were smoking at 225F for longer. Porks and briskets have the crispy bark and delicious juicy flavor we’re looking for, ribs are easy to pull off the bone, and there’s a perfect smoke ring.
That’s another place where the PBC excels – creating smooth, consistent smoke. There’s enough ventilation to keep smoke from building up and giving the meat too much of harsh, acidic flavor. Instead, the smooth-burning charcoal creates a steady, light smoke that lasts the whole cook.
Surprisingly, hanging meats come out evenly – despite one end sitting just above the hot coals. We expected that end to be drier and stringier than the other. It turns out that dripping juices keep that end cool, slowing cooking down and creating an evenly-cooked piece all the way across.
All in all, the results speak for themselves.
Other Things You Need to Know About The Pit Barrel Cooker
- The lid handle is made of steel which, while sturdy, gets very hot. Use a pair of BBQ gloves!
- If you want to smoke some turkey, PBCC sells a stainless steel turkey hanger you might find useful. If not, you’ll be fine without it:
- Want to go camping with it? No problem – this thing is portable and light, considering it’s made of solid steel. You can easily put it in the back of a truck or SUV and bring it to the beach or campsite.
- Ribs might be too long to hang without cutting in half; the ends can drag in the coals, which isn’t good. You may need to cut long sides of ribs in half.
- If you’re smoking a lot of meat at once – especially briskets or pork – the ambient temp might drop 10°F-20°F when you hit the Stall, due to all that evaporating moisture.
- We highly recommend using a meat thermometer; you need to know exactly hot this thing is running, and how close your meat is to being done.
- The barrel could benefit from installing additional pins at the bottom of the cooker, about 4 inches above the coals. That way, you could rest the cooking grate directly over the coals for high heat sears and more efficient grilling. If you’re handy, you could easily do it by drilling / welding in a bracket on your own.
Our Final Thoughts On The Pit Barrel Cooker
All things considered, the Pit Barrel Cooker is an awesome ugly drum smoker and we have no problem backing it 100%. And we’re not the only ones who feel this way; the PBC checks most of the boxes per Amazing Ribs list of things to look for when buying a smoker.
It comes with almost-zero assembly required, is simple to use, and perfectly capable of holding a consistent temperature thanks to the ideal 30-gallon drum design. If that’s not enough, it’s American made by Veteran family-owned and operated team, who’s just as serious about great tasting BBQ as you are. To prove it, their website is filled with endless videos and tutorials, and they even have a phone support hotline – something Traeger Grills certainly doesn’t.
The PBC does run a bit hot and can take some practice to get exactly right. But that doesn’t stop barbecued meats from coming out perfectly soft, smoky and juicy – usually in much less time than on other smokers. The $300 price tag is just icing on the cake.
Here’s a video recapping the reason PBC is our choice for the Best Smoker under $500 – if you want the best on a budget, this UDS will do the trick.