Our best smoker under $500, the Pit Barrel Cooker (PBC), now has a scaled down version, the Pit Barrel Jr. (PBJ).
Is this offspring the new heir to the inexpensive smoker throne, or just a pretender?
What Is a Barrel Smoker?
A barrel smoker is a great way to get smoking meat without shelling out a fortune. The idea started as a DIY project, where enthusiasts worked out that a 55-gallon drum, a charcoal basket/stand, and some strategically placed air holes produced an amazing smoker. You could be one of those enthusiasts, and build your own Ugly Drum Smoker, but if you’re better with a credit card than a propane torch, it’s easier to buy one.
The barrel smoker’s best feature, besides the price, is the amazing airflow that wraps your meat in smoke.
It’s also extremely straightforward to operate. Load it right, and it will just go until your meat is done, no fussing necessary.
Who Is Pit Barrel Cooker Co.?
Pit Barrel Cooker Co. is the top choice for buying a premade drum smoker. Founded by Noah Glanville after he returned from military service in Iraq and Afghanistan, the company is family-run out of Louisville, KY. Glanville and family worked on the barrel smoker design to turn a fiddly hobby project into a consistent, repeatable product that anybody could use for a great meal.
Backstory: Why the Original Pit Barrel (PBC) is Our #1 Pick
The Pit Barrel Cooker is our #1 smoker under $500 because it works astonishingly well. Set it up like the directions instruct and let it go. You’ll get an all-day cook at a steady 275° or so, depending on elevation, without any messing around with extra fuel or louvers. The price is right too – just $350 for the basic package.
What Is the Pit Barrel Jr. (PBJ)?
The PBJ is the new model from Pit Barrel Cooker Co. As you’d expect from the name, it’s pretty much the same as the Classic version, except smaller. The height is about the same, but the diameter drops from 18.5” to 14”, giving about 60% as much cooking area. The weight drops by about 20 pounds for a similar reduction. The price gets cut down too, with the basic model coming in at $250.
Tale of the Tape – Summary of Differences
The obvious difference is capacity. The Classic can hold two whole pork butts or two turkeys while the Jr. can only hold one.
The sneaky difference is the distance between the hanging rods. The Classic measures 7” center-to-center, while the Jr. is just 5¼”. Why am I making a big deal out of this? Read and find out.
Our test here is straightforward. We split a pork butt in half and smoked it in both the Classic and the Jr. models to see what was the same and what was different.
What Are We Looking for?
We’re looking for the best possible pulled pork. It should be tender and juicy all the way through with deep smoke flavor. The outer bark should be substantial with amazing flavor and a nice chew. We’re also looking at how easy the Jr. is to use compared to the Classic, plus any other differences worth mentioning.
The Testing Process
The process starts with an ordinary supermarket pork butt. We trimmed the outside fat down to a reasonable level, then cut it in half. We seasoned it with our basic down-the-middle rub of brown sugar, white sugar, salt, and spices (mostly paprika). From there, it’s time to prepare the smokers.
The Pit Barrel Jr. comes almost entirely assembled. You’ve got to mount the top handle on the lid, but it’s otherwise ready to go. The barrel is preseasoned, so you don’t have to do anything to it as you would a homemade barrel smoker. It comes with just four hanging hooks as opposed to the Classic version’s eight hooks.
We loaded up both the Pit Barrel Classic and the Pit Barrel Jr. baskets with charcoal, then transferred the amount called for in the instructions to a chimney starter and ignited them. After the prescribed time, we put the hot coals in both smokers and loaded up the pork butt pieces and thermometers, then put the lids on.
That 5¼” distance between the rods I mentioned earlier? Here’s the first place that came up.
The half butt didn’t fit between the rods, so we had to pull out one rod partway, get the pork butt under, then reinsert the rod.
That was possible for two people, but would be real tough working alone. It caused us more problems down the road too. We had another problem that wasn’t the smoker’s fault: there wasn’t enough room in the half with the bone to get the thermometer in well, so it took extra time getting the lid on.
The Pit Barrel Classic just rolled down the smoke highway like a champ, holding around 270° for the seven hour cook. The Pit Barrel Jr. had some issues.
All the extra work we did to get the pork butt hooked on gave the charcoal a chance to really get going. Instead of the 270° we expected, it rocketed up to 325° and we couldn’t get it down.
We closed the vent from ¼ open to closed (which still has a little offset), and that brought it down in about an hour.
All that extra fire burned through the charcoal a little too much, and the temperature dropped under 250° after about 4 hours, falling down to 200° around the 5 hour mark. We added another handful of briquettes and reset the vent to ¼ open, which brought it back up towards 300°.
Once our meat got up to 203° it was time to get it out.
Both pieces of meat looked absolutely beautiful, with a dark tasty-looking bark. The half in the Pit Barrel Classic came right out, but those closely-spaced rods in the Pit Barrel Jr. got us again. To get the meat out, we had to hold it up while pulling one of the rods out. It was much harder this time around since the rods are good and hot. It’s definitely a job for two people and two sets of gloves.
Delicious. Both smokers made excellent pulled pork. The meat was lip-smackingly tender and the bark tasted just as good as it looked.
The only complaint is that the meat from the Pit Barrel Jr. was a little less tender. The high-temperature start must have pushed it a little bit too far, even with the insulating effect of the bone.
We wholeheartedly recommend both of these smokers, but which one should you choose? You’ll be happy either way, but here are some factors to consider when making your choice.
Why Choose the Pit Barrel Jr. (PBJ)?
$100 buys a lot of pork. The price on the Jr. is substantially lower.
Ease of Use+
One of the downsides of a barrel smoker is that it’s big and awkward, and you have to flip it over to dump the ash out. That 50 pound Classic can be a beast to hump around, so if you’re not feeling that workout, the Jr. version moves a lot easier.
Tailgating is a place where the Pit Barrel Jr. really shines. It’s much easier to take on the road than the Classic, and the capacity is just right for a tailgating group.
Fits Your Needs +
When was the last time you needed to do two whole turkeys or eight racks of ribs? If you’re not cooking for an army, the Pit Barrel Jr. might be your better fit. You can do enough food for a medium-sized family, no problem.
Why Choose the Pit Barrel Cooker (PBC)?
The limiting factor when smoking meat is time. If you’re spending all day smoking something, why not get as much out of it as possible? The Pit Barrel Classic might be your choice if you commonly smoke for a party. That extra size also makes it easier to work. You’ve got room for your hands and your food at the same time, which is nice.
More Room for Error +
The smaller size on the Pit Barrel Jr. makes it more responsive to changes in fuel and airflow. Most of the time, though, you don’t want that in a smoker. The point is to just get it rolling at let it cook.
The Pit Barrel Jr. handles like a racecar, while the Classic works like a big truck. The extra momentum gives you room to make mistakes and changes without hurting your cook.
So, is the Pit Barrel Jr. a value buy for a Meat Geek? Yes! It’s a great value for $250 – you won’t find a better smoker for that price anywhere. You’ll get great food as quickly as great BBQ can happen, and it’s all but automatic once you get it going. It’s the kind of sufficiently advanced food science that feels like magic.
Of course, the Pit Barrel Classic is a good value buy for a Meat Geek too. It stays our Best Smoker Under $500 with the Pit Barrel Jr. a close second.