Tuesday, May 17th, 2022

Learn About Barbecue – What is a Vertical Barbecue Smoker

Have you heard the term  vertical smokers and scratched your head and said, “Huh.” Basically, there are three types of barbecue smokers for making real smoked barbecue. The first is what is called the offset smoker. With the offset smoker, the firebox of the smoker is off to the side of the smoke chamber. A fire is built in the firebox, smoke and heat from the firebox travel into and through the smoke chamber, and out through a chimney ventilation system at the top of the smoke chamber. The meat that is to be smoked (and eventually, eaten) is placed on grates inside the smoke chamber. As the smoke and heat pass around the meat on the way to the chimney vents, the meat is flavored by the smoke. This is what makes for great smoked barbecue.

The second main type of smoker category is the kettle cooker (think Weber Kettle.) A kettle cooker can be set up for smoking by building the fire off to the side of the kettle, and placing the meat not directly over the heat source, but off to the other side. When the lid is closed, smoke from the charcoal and any added wood chips will flow around the meat giving it that great smoke barbecue taste before exiting the kettle lid through the vents. The third major type of barbecue cooker is what is known as a vertical smoker. With a vertical smoker, there is only one chamber for everything. The fire is built down at the bottom of the unit, there is a pan with soaked wood chips directly over the fire area, and then there are 2,3, or 4 horizontal racks above the smoke pan where the meat is placed. The smoke will rise in the smoke chamber, go around the meat giving it that great flavor, then exit out the top of the unit. Some of the vertical smokers also have a water pan directly over the smoke pan. This pan will hold water throughout the cooking process and will help the meat stay moist and not dry out.

A vertical smoker can use various fuels. Some burn charcoal or regular wood chunks. Some are fueled by propane, and some even use electricity to create heat, and burn water soaked wood chips to create smoke. The electric vertical smoker is often a good choice for the novice barbecue smoke enthusiast as they are very easy to regulate the temperature, and do not require a lot of attention while cooking.

These three styles of smokers will all have the barbecue enthusiast smoking good quality product, as long as they adhere to the basics of good barbecue preparation.


  1.   Rub the meat with a rub or marinade.
  2.   Cook the meat low and slow (low temperature–long cooking time)
  3.   Apply any sauces at the end of the cooking (last hour or so.)

How to Buy a Barbeque Smoker – My Top Three Tips

Here are my top three tips to save you time and money when deciding what type of barbecue smoker (cooker) is right for you. There are a few different styles of smokers, and various ways to create heat and smoke that must be considered. I have broken this down into three general categories:

  •   Physical set-up of the smoker
  •   Type of fuel
  •   Cost of a good smoker

Physical set up of a offset smokers. There are basically five types of  for cooking real barbecue:

  1. Offset smoker. This is what is most likely to be found used by most competitive teams at a barbecue competition. In an offset smoker, the fire is contained in a firebox set to the side, (offset) from the chamber of the smoker. The smoke enters the smoke chamber, travels around the meat and exits the smoke chamber through a chimney.
  2. Vertical smoker. Several manufacturers make vertical smokers. A vertical smoker has a heat source, usually located at the bottom and a water pan sitting over the heat source. There are two or three levels of grates where the meat is place for smoking above the water pan. The whole unit is covered with vents at the top so the smoke can flow through. These are very easy and convenient to use and the smoke is created by throwing water soaked wood chips on the heat source. These units can be fueled by charcoal/wood, propane or even electric.
  3. Kettle grill. Almost every backyard cook already has one of these. The most popular models are the ones made by Weber. They can easily be set up for barbecue smoking simply by building the charcoal fires off to the sides of the smoker, and placing the meat in a spot not directly over the fire. Very good smoked barbecue can be produced by these type of smoker/grills if set up as a smoker.
  4. Insulated or ceramic smoker. These types of smokers are made of very heavy, insulated ceramic material. They retain heat very well, and can generally cook all day on a small amount of fuel. They are usually egg shaped, and the most popular manufacturer is The Big Green Egg. These will turn out excellent barbecue, but do not have a lot of surface area for cooking. You cannot smoke a whole lot of food at one time on these.
  5. Propane grill used as a smoker. A propane grill can be set up for indirect heat if it has multiple heating elements. Simply set one of the elements to low, and leave the others off. Put water soaked wood chips over the element that is burning to provide smoke, and place the meat on the side of the cooker where the elements are in the off position. Close the lid, keep the heat low and slow, and it’s a barbecue smoker.

Type of Fuel. Smokers can be fueled by various types of fuel. The most common would be charcoal which is really just processed wood. Also, in most offset smokers, the fuel of choice would be wood, and in competition cooking, propane can be use to get the fire going, but after cooking starts, only wood or charcoal can be used. The hobbyist/backyard pit master can use wood, charcoal, propane or even electric to fuel their cookers. The important thing to remember is that you need a smoke source, so you are going to need some types of wood, logs, chunks or chips to provide the smoke for your cooker. Many vertical smokers use propane or electric as a heat source and have an area on the heat source where the soaked wood chips are placed to create the smoke.

Cost of a good smoker. There are various price points for a barbecue smoker. Good ones, although simple, can be had for around one hundred dollars. You can get one for free if you use the kettle type grill or your gas grill which you already own. As with most things though, the sky’s the limit when it comes to barbecue smokers. Some of the units used in competition cost tens of thousands of dollars. The best thing to do when shopping for a barbecue cooker is to first determine what type of cooker you’d like to have, offset, vertical, ceramic egg, kettle or gas grill. Then determine how much you are comfortable spending on this item. After you have your budget, there are many choices within your price range. Many of the large home-improvement stores carry all types and styles of barbecue smoker/cookers. Also, there are many choices for shopping online.

Of course these tips are just the beginning of what could be a whole new cooking life for you. I would suggest that you read as much as you can on smoking meat and everything barbecue related. A good place to start is with an e-book that I have reviewed, Competition Barbecue Secrets, by Bill Anderson. He goes into great detail about what it takes to be a success in competitive barbecue. Of course, his secrets can be used by the backyard barbecue chef to produce drop dead delicious barbecue.

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