Thursday, March 27, 2014

Pit Barrel Cooker (Review)

"Rob, what time will you be at [the farmers market] tomorrow? If you're interested, I'd really like to let you borrow my PBC for a while."
-- David B, March 7

David sure is a generous guy! Completely out of the blue, that was clearly the best email of 2014 and we were cooking with it the next day.

To back up a bit, I first saw the PBC on our trip to Steven Raichlen's BBQ University last summer. Nestled up against a mountain overlooking Colorado Springs, the coolest patio in America is home to more than three dozen grills & smokers. After playing with them for three days, four particular models really stood out for me and one of those was the Pit Barrel Cooker. With its very reasonable price, it was also the only one I actually planned on purchasing. That still hasn't happened yet, mostly because my wife likes to remind me that BBQ U wasn't cheap and we already have grills and a smoker, but it will happen!

BBQ U Patio.

The PBC is in the smoker section.

We used the Pit Barrel Cooker on the second day of BBQ U to cook some ribs. Steven told us that it was manufactured by a small family business in the Denver area owned by a young veteran & his wife, and that they'd ship one to your house for $269. After seeing some seriously expensive grills on the other end of the patio, the low price really caught my attention. But I was mostly intrigued by the simplicity of this smoker. And of course hanging meat on hooks to cook over fire is super cool! The ribs turned out great that day and at least one guy in class called to order his own PBC after lunch.

A few months after the BBQ U trip, a Farmers Market friend mentioned that he was considering the PBC. All I could say is that it seemed really simple to use and it made some great ribs in CO, and sure enough he ordered one in January. That was David B, and he'd only used it a handful of times before we borrowed it so it was practically brand new here in early March.

Before we get started, I should also mention a couple things in advance:
  • By this point the Pit Barrel Cooker has been reviewed by pretty much every BBQ/grilling authority I'm aware of, and if you go to their website you'll find links to a lot of reviews. I've tried to not read them because I didn't want to be influenced by other opinions. I just wanted to see how this thing worked for myself. And I wanted to use an iGrill to record meat temps and ambient temps to see exactly how it works. 
  • There are some failures pictured below. That's just part of the learning process, right? Right!

Here we go...

March 8, 2014 -- PBC Intro & Baby Back Ribs

Pit Barrel Cooker.
Isn't she pretty?

So, it's basically a 30-gallon drum barrel with a charcoal basket, a grill grate, two re-bar rods, and eight hooks for hanging meat. I dig the horseshoes that are used for the barrel stand, the barrel handles, and the lid handle. There's also a hook removal tool that isn't pictured here.

Could you build your own version for less than $269? Maybe you could, but I couldn't. I know UDS cookers are all the rage, but I've never used one and I'd lose my mind trying to build one. The PBC comes fully assembled so you can literally fire it up as soon as you remove it from the box.

It's versatile in the sense that you can use it to smoke meat on the grate or hang meat from hooks, and you can use it like a conventional grill for burgers, pizzas, etc. It's simple in the fact that you don't make any vent adjustments to control the temperature when smoking. There is one vent at the bottom of the drum, and once calibrated for your altitude it should not be touched. The idea is that you learn how to cook different meats based on timing, rather than spending all day playing with vents to keep your smoker at a certain temp.

Here at an elevation of 500-600 feet, the vent is 1/4 open.
I never touched it.

The PBC website features step-by-step instructional videos showing how Noah Glanville (PBC Co. Owner & President) cooks various items in Colorado at an altitude much higher than ours. The videos provide a good starting point, but different climates and different elevations will require slightly different times to produce consistent results. Once you figure out what works in your neck of the woods, it should work the same way time and time again. So we have a good reason to practice various meats over the next few days!

Charcoal Basket & Weber Compact Chimney Starter.

The Pit Barrel Cooker Co. stresses the importance of using regular Kingsford charcoal briquettes for best performance and consistency. Fill the charcoal basket level, and then remove coals from the basket to the chimney and you should have just the right amount of fuel for most cooks.

Charcoal Basket in place.

Chimney lit on the grill grate.

After about 15 minutes it's time to dump the chimney on the unlit coals and start cooking. I didn't do this quite right on my first attempt. More on that below...

The chimney after about 30 minutes.

Hot coals on unlit coals.

Now it's time to hang the meat and close the lid. I didn't do that quite right, either...

For the first cook we did three racks of baby back ribs, because there's pretty much nothing better than smoked baby back ribs. These beauties were rubbed down and ready to go.

This is a cool way to cook meat!

I didn't add any wood chunks on this first cook.
The drippings provided plenty of smoke and it smelled great on the deck.

An iGrill ambient probe was hanging from one of the rods and a meat probe was in one rack of ribs, but I've never checked the temperature of ribs before so that data really meant nothing to me on this day. In the PBC video for pork ribs, Noah cooks them for about three hours before taking a peek (and at a higher altitude he actually cooked them for about 3:45 before applying sauce). I let mine go for three hours and they looked ready.


Sauced up and ready to hang again for a few minutes.

After adding sauce, we're supposed to let them hang for another 25 minutes or so, but...


While re-hanging the second rack, the first rack broke off the hook and fell into the fire.

Tragedy II!

After retrieving the first rack, the second rack fell off the hook. I didn't even try to hang the third rack.

The obligatory motorcycle or Corvette picture that has nothing to do with nothing.
The National Corvette Museum, two days after the sinkhole collapse.

[Sad story, but the good folks at the museum have turned a bad deal into a not-so-bad deal. I visited the museum often during the recovery process and look forward to posting a lot of pics soon.]

The fallen ribs were more easily retrieved than the Corvettes, so this was a low-magnitude event on the food tragedy scale. Although they were clearly overcooked (fall-off-the-bone tender like so many restaurant-style braised ribs), they had great flavor! My teenager and my neighbor actually prefer ribs that are cooked this way, so we had no problem devouring them and not a single rib was thrown away. Even though it didn't work out exactly as I hoped, it was a great afternoon.

Perhaps not the best presentation after trying to slice the ribs, but the ribs that did cut nicely looked pretty good!
Great flavor, too, even without using wood chips.

iGrill Graph.
Red = Ambient Temperature.
White = Meat Temperature.

So, what happened? The graph offered some insight:
  • The PBC was running hot -- between 300 and 350 for most of the first three hours.
  • The rib temp plateaued or stalled in the 210 range. It looks like we should have pulled them for sauce about 50 minutes sooner.
  • I left the ambient probe in the PBC well after the ribs were done to see how the temperature would fare over time. On this day it stayed above 225 for about 5.5 hours after putting the meat on.
  • Opening the lid for even just a minute causes a considerable spike in the cooking temperature. If you leave it off for several minutes you'll see a big increase -- when I pulled the ribs off it jumped from 300 to 400, and it stayed above 300 degrees for another hour and a half.

Noah includes his cell phone number with each PBC and encourages customers to reach out with questions and provide feedback. I didn't want to bother anybody on a Saturday evening, but I did send an email detailing my experience and asking for any advice regarding where I went wrong.

March 9, 2014 -- Customer Service, Chicken, and Rib Redemption

The PBC's best feature might be the killer customer service provided by Noah and his wife Amber. Even though I made it clear that I am not a real customer, Amber called me on Sunday morning and we talked for twenty minutes. I'd say that's going above and beyond! The phone call was much appreciated and we identified three things I needed to fix for today's cook:
  1. The magic number of briquettes to light in the chimney starter is 40. I probably got this just about right on the first attempt, because the Weber Compact Chimney Starter holds exactly 40 Kingsford briquettes when filled to the top.
  2. The lit coals in the chimney should be added to the basket after 15 minutes -- definitely no longer than 20 -- even if the coals aren't completely ashed over.
  3. The rods should be in place and the lid should be shut as soon as the hot coals are added to the basket, even if the meat isn't ready to hang yet.

With those things in mind, it is understandable why my first ribs were overcooked -- I left the coals in the chimney for about 30 minutes and then left the lid off the cooker for another 15 minutes, so the temp started high and stayed high. This time I followed the instructions to a T -- I wasn't quite ready to hang the meat, but I made sure the rods and lid were in place as soon as I poured the hot coals into the basket, and I added a few hickory chunks, too.

Chicken & Ribs.

The chickens from our CSA basket are raised on a local farm and I just seasoned this one with Dreamland BBQ Shake. These aren't the big plump store-bought birds, but at about four pounds this one was bigger than most at this time of the year. The PBC chicken video says to leave chicken on for exactly two hours, so that's what I did and it came out perfect -- nice crisp skin with juicy meat. Delicious. It was a big hit with the whole family. After looking at the graph I'll probably check it about 20-30 minutes earlier next time, depending on the size.

Whole Chicken w/ Dreamland BBQ Shake.

Baby Backs.

This time I watched the meat temperature on the iGrill and pulled the ribs just when they hit that 210 zone where they stalled last time -- that was just short of three hours. After saucing, I hung this rack with no drama.

Beautiful Baby Backs.
Also, there's the hook removal tool.

PBC Baby Back Ribs w/ Cider Rum BBQ Sauce (from Raichlen's new book, Man Made Meals).

Best ribs of the year! They were absolutely perfect this time, and the graph shows why they cooked so much differently than yesterday's.

iGrill Graph.

  • The PBC temperature stayed steady between 250 and 290 for the first two hours while the chicken was on. Amber said they don't really focus much on temperature readings, but we should probably be in the 270 range, so this looks a lot better. Apparently it is important to follow the correct start-up procedure! Yesterday's ribs cooked 50 degrees hotter from the start, so no wonder they were overdone.
  • This time the ambient temp stayed above 225 for over seven hours so this time, so starting up correctly will also be important for longer cooks.
  • The ambient temp jumped about 50 degrees every time I opened the lid, and when it jumps up it tends to stay up there for awhile. I'll avoid taking any unscheduled peeks or pictures in the future.
  • I switched the meat probe to the ribs when I pulled the chicken -- interesting how the rib meat was the same temp as the chicken breast (yes, for some reason I put the probe in the breast rather than the thigh).

March 11, 2014 -- Smoked Stuffed Pumpkin & ABTs

ABTs & Stuffed Pumpkin.

Today we used the grill grate to cook some ABTs and smoke a stuffed pumpkin. Even though we're not hanging any meat, it is important to leave the rods in place because they help control the air flow. This was my first time doing a pumpkin so I relied on the meat probe to see when the pumpkin flesh hit 200 or when it started to stall. The stall happened around 190 at the 3:40 mark.

Getting the soft pumpkin off the grate proved tricky, so I decided to pull the whole grate out of the barrel. That was a bad idea...

Tragedy III.

The poor pumpkin slid right off the grate and crashed onto the deck. Of course I grabbed a fork to sample a few bites and it was delicious, but in this condition it was dog dinner rather than wife dinner. Bad Rob!

iGrill Graph.

It was a disappointing way to end the day, but we did learn a couple things:
  • I put the food on as soon as I added the hot coals, so the ambient temp started lower than on previous cooks. It was up above 200 after five minutes and it stayed pretty steady at 250-300 for most of the 3:40. 
  • Do not try to remove food from the grill by removing the grill grate itself!

March 15, 2014 -- Pulled Pork

Boston Butts.

I was really looking forward to this and some friends were counting on me to get it right, so the pressure was on. We started these late in the day and I didn't get any good pictures, but it was no problem hanging two Boston Butts in the PBC. I followed the instructions from the PBC pork shoulder video -- we cooked the meat to about 160 before crutching it in foil with some beer to finish.

Nice smoke ring!
This little sample bite tasted great even before being wrapped.

Boston Butt, done.

I finished them in the oven after wrapping them, and we went up to the magical 203 before letting them rest. The bone slid right out, just as it should.

Pulled Pork!

This was the best pulled pork we've ever made and by finishing it in the oven the whole house smelled great. It got great reviews from the four families we shared it with, and it was so easy to make I almost felt like I cheated.

Pulled Pork w/ Grilled Onions & Peppers and Provolone.
Nobody puts cheese on BBQ around here, but I love it.

Carolina Pulled Pork w/ Pig Picker Pucker Sauce & Creamy Horseradish Slaw.
The rub, sauce, and slaw recipes are all from Raichlen's Man Made Meals.
Best sandwich of the year!

iGrill Graph.

I'm not sure why the PBC temperature jumped up to 350 at the beginning of this cook, but it settled down and stayed in the 250-300 range for most of the 5.5 hours required to get the meat to 165. It took longer than I expected it to, and that's just fine because I won't do anything different next time!

March 18, 2014 -- Grilled Chicken

Grilled Chicken, way up high.

This time we were grilling some chicken instead of smoking it, so I tried to build a pretty hot fire. It occurred to me that if the fire was hot enough, you could use a Weber grill grate on top of the barrel to keep the chicken up high, but this fire wasn't that hot and it cooked down on the regular grate where it belongs.

Grilled Chicken in the right spot.

I basted the bird frequently with an Owensboro-style dip and it came out great. I love my Weber kettle grill and I'll never get rid of it, but there are times when it is nice to cook higher above the fire than the typical grill allows.

Grilled Chicken, Chard & Turnip Slaw, and Scalloped Sweet Potatoes & Squash.

March 19, 2014 -- Brisket

Brisket hanging out in the PBC with Meathead's Big Bad Beef Rub.

Of course a brisket was the last thing we absolutely had to try during our test run, and the PBC brisket video was very helpful. It shows how to trim and prepare the brisket in great detail, and it shows how to interlock two hooks to hang a heavier piece of meat like this one. We're basically cooking it just like we did the Boston Butts by wrapping it around 160 and trying to finish up at 203.

Brisket, finished.

Brisket, sliced... but not sliced well.

I screwed up again today, but it wasn't a very bad mistake. After wrapping the brisket I left the house to run an errand and this thing cooked a lot faster than I expected -- I pulled it about 45 minutes and ten degrees late. Bad Rob! I expected it to be dry, but it wasn't. It tasted great with a good smoke flavor and everybody liked it, but it didn't slice very well. So today I was reminded to never leave the house while smoking, and I learned that an overcooked brisket is better shredded than sliced.

iGrill Graph.

I like this graph:
  • The PBC temperature stayed real steady in the 225 - 275 range for almost four hours until the brisket was pulled off the hook and wrapped.
  • This graph shows how wrapping the meat really helps avoid the inevitable temperature stall on longer cooks. Normally we'd see the brisket stall for awhile around 165, but the wrapped brisket finished cooking pretty fast after it went back into the barrel.
  • We once again saw the temp jump every time the lid was opened.
  • On this day the cooker maintained a good temp for a solid eight hours on one basket of charcoal.

March 27, 2014 -- Memphis-Style Baby Backs

Well, we ended up keeping David B's PBC for a little longer than I expected to, and before giving it back we had a chance to make some of my favorite ribs. We cooked these on the grill grate over a hickory fire with the lid off -- they are flipped/basted every ten minutes and they finish up in about an hour. Since they cook hot and fast there isn't really a smoke ring and they are pretty chewy, but we love 'em. The idea came from Meathead's recipe for Rendezvous Ribs and we use Meathead's Memphis Dust instead of the imitation Rendezvous Rub. [We once did eight racks this way with the Memphis Dust, the imitation Rendezvous Rub, and a bottle of the real Rendezvous Rub -- 6 out of 8 people preferred the Memphis Dust.]

Memphis-Style Baby Backs.

I cooked these after dark so I didn't get any pictures of them on the grill, but here's a video showing how we cook them on a firepit and it's the same idea. This is another situation where it's nice to cook higher above the fire and the PBC works better than a kettle grill.

Final Thoughts

Simplicity + Versatility = Winner Winner PBC Dinner.

In summary, I could just say that March was a lot of fun and I like the PBC even better after test driving it for a month. But brevity is not my thing!

My wife is right -- we don't need a PBC. We do have a good grill and a good smoker, and I will still buy one as soon as she lets me. It does some things better than the Weber kettle and it does some things better than the Weber Smokey Mountain, so it definitely deserves a spot on the patio. I kind of think it should line up right between the two.

As a grill, it does just about anything you'd want a grill to do. As a smoker, it operates at higher temperatures than some folks might normally use, but I can't argue with the results. It made my best pulled pork to date. It cooked a 14-lb brisket in 5.5 hours that was every bit as good as a 5-lb brisket that took 11 hours at 225. It made killer ribs when I used it right. In fact, it did everything right when I didn't screw up. The only problems we encountered this month were my fault, but nobody complained* because we ate great food, we got good data, and we established baseline procedures for future chicken, ribs, pulled pork, and brisket. We're good to go!

*OK, fine... she might have complained a little bit about the pumpkin.

Thanks again, David B!

And thanks to Noah and Amber for selling such a great American product at such a great price!

May 7, 2014 -- Update

Here in National BBQ Month, I've been missing the PBC. But I thought I should point out how well this thing really sells itself. I previously mentioned the gentleman from Texas who bought one the same day we used it at BBQ U, and now two of David B's friends/relatives have purchased their own models after seeing his in action.

Speaking of David B, he's been cooking up some great pulled pork, pizzas, nachos, and chicken since he took  my  his cooker back. I didn't make that easy -- he had to steal it off my deck in the middle of the night...

David B's Pulled Pork.
That smoke ring looks familiar!

David B's Breakfast Nachos.



  1. What a great review. I've been eyeing one of these for awhile, but haven't pulled the trigger yet. Maybe someday I will, but like you I've got a wife I've got to get it past first. With two BGEs (large and a mini) she thinks I have enough grill/smokers.

    1. Thanks, man! I've got some info that might be helpful to you. I'll try to send a message to your Facebook page, but if you don't get it feel free to email me at the gmail address on the "About Me" page.

  2. We used the Pit Barrel Cooker on the second day of BBQ U to cook some ribs. Steven told us ...

  3. Really enjoyed the review! I've had some of the same experiences. I learn from each one and just laugh out loud. After all, BBQ is supposed to be fun. ... I'm really impressed with your grate. How do you keep it so clean? Thanks.

  4. Great review! I've viewed dozens thus far and yours provided great temp Data, which I was seeking, and an enlightening food journal that was fun to follow. I kept anticipating each new cook as if I was reading a good novel. Thanks for sharing! Des moines, Ia

  5. Thanks for your beyond belief blogs stuff.

  6. I need someone to recommend the best product among those listed on this site? Best Smoker Grills