What is a Charcoal Smoker Grill?

Ron Marr

There is a long-running battle amongst outdoor-cooking aficionados over the definition of barbecue. Each side claims that its manner of preparation, either smoking food over wood or grilling over charcoal, is the proper method. In fact, grilling and smoking are as different as baking and broiling. The primary difference between the two is that, in grilling, the food is cooked over direct heat. With smoking, the heat source is indirect.

Charcoal is often used to provide the heat in a smoker.
Charcoal is often used to provide the heat in a smoker.

To either clarify or confuse the issue, many people purchase a combination charcoal smoker grill. This device comes in several shapes and styles, and permits the backyard chef to barbecue his steaks, ribs, chicken, fish, and vegetables in whatever manner he sees fit. Consider the charcoal smoker grill a compromise between warring tribes, and the barbecue version of the Treaty of Versailles. It is the perfect machine for both grilling and smoking.

Charcoal smoker grills can be used to cook ribs.
Charcoal smoker grills can be used to cook ribs.

The least expensive type of charcoal smoker grill – beginning at around $30 US Dollars (USD) – is often referred to as the “bullet” design. The body is a metal cylinder, and the top a rounded dome. Generally, inside the cylindrical body, one will find grilling grates at the top, in the middle, and near the bottom. Also included are several metal pans. These pans can serve several uses.

If one wishes to grill, a pan is filled with charcoal and placed on the middle grate. The food to be cooked is always on the top grate. The charcoal is lit, burns down to white-hot ash, and grilling begins. All one must do is flip the food on occasion, and make certain that grease does not drip into the charcoal and flame up.

To use the bullet-style of a charcoal smoker grill as a smoker, a pan full of wood or wood chips is placed on the bottom grate. The wood is burned down until white-hot, and a pan of water is placed on the middle grate. The pan deflects the heat from directly reaching the food on the top grate. As a side benefit, the food takes on a bit of the flavor of whatever kind of wood is being burned. Cooking time when smoking with a charcoal smoker grill is lengthy, whereas cooking time is relatively quick when grilling.

The other predominant type of charcoal smoker grill features an offset firebox and a horizontal cooking chamber. The cooking process is the same as with the bullet version, but the arrangement is slightly different. For smoking, wood is loaded into the offset firebox, which is located at one end and slightly lower than the main cylinder. The wood is burned down, and heat and smoke enters the main cylinder via a cutout or hole. The raw food, placed on a cooking grate that runs the length of the horizontal chamber, cooks slowly at a temperature of around 225 degrees Fahrenheit (107 degrees Celsius).

This machine easily doubles as a grill. Charcoal is placed into the bottom of the cylinder itself, set ablaze, and allowed to burn down. Food is then placed on the horizontal grate. This type of charcoal smoker grill is a bit more expensive than the bullet model. Prices usually begin at around $100 USD, but large versions – costing as much as $20,000 USD and more – are available for commercial use.

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