Some debates in the outdoor cooking world will never be truly resolved, and the vertical Vs. An offset smoker is one of those.
It ranks with the coal vs. gas vs. pellets debate.
But, we will take an intense and profound look into each type of smoker and then see which one would be best for you.
Vertical smokers stand upright and use the natural thermodynamics to move heat and smoke through the cooking chamber and over the meat.
Offset smokers are horizontal and utilize a firebox offset to the cooking chamber for the heat and smoke needed to cook meat.
Arguments about which is more efficient, easier to control, manages the heat better, and produces the best smoke flavor for your meat will all be addressed.
Still, other factors like space and time would also come into play, so, without blowing any further smoke, let’s get into it!
What Is A Vertical Smoker
A vertical smoker is any smoker that stands upright and where the firebox is at the bottom of the smoker.
As the fire burns, heat and smoke rise to move through the cooking chamber and infuse the meat with the flavor.
Vertical smokers create the smoke and heat flow by drawing it through the cooking grates and to the chimney at the top of the smoker.
To enhance the flavor of the meat and avoid it drying out, vertical smokers often have a water pan sitting below the cooking chamber but above the heat source.
Typically, vertical smokers use wood or charcoal placed in the firebox at the bottom of the cooking chamber.
In the case of vertical offset smokers, the firebox is separate and joined to the cooking chamber via an internal damper.
As you can see, the term ‘offset’ is used to describe the position of the firebox in the smoker, so a vertical offset smoker has the firebox offset to the main cooking chamber.
This is still classified as a vertical smoker because of the smoker’s upright orientation.
Types Of Vertical Smoker
As with offset smokers, vertical smokers can operate using a variety of fuels from charcoal to wood, gas, and electricity.
Electrically operated vertical smokers are very popular in the city, where limited outdoor patio space and smoke volumes could annoy neighbors or HOA members.
Most vertical smokers use charcoal as a fuel source and then have a pellet or wood tray where the wood chips are placed and exposed to rising heat from the fuel source.
This causes them to smoke and release the flavor into the cooking chamber.
Some gas-powered vertical smokers use propane as the fuel source and utilize the wood and water trays to affect the flavor and prevent the meat from drying out.
They operate similarly to charcoal and wood smokers and draw heat upwards to the top chimney.
What Are Electrical Vertical Smokers
Instead of coal or wood as the fuel source, these use an electrical element to generate the heat.
Because of this, they require virtually zero interference in the cooking process.
These types of smokers are straightforward to use.
These types are set-and-forget types of smokers where you can set it up to the temperature you want, place your wood chips or pellets and then your meat.
Then, enjoy a drink while the smoker does the rest.
Unlike coal or wood-based vertical smokers that require temperature monitoring, smoke control, and airflow management during cooking, vertical electrical smokers are relatively effortless.
This is one of the reasons they are trendy.
Traditional smokers frown on the electrical smoker.
They argue that the lack of management during cooking somehow diminishes the experience of smoking and detracts from the overall enjoyment.
Those who own electrical smokers would disagree.
While you may not have the temperature range of a coal or wood smoker, there is no doubt that the flavor of the meat from an electrical smoker does not differ substantially from a coal or wood smoker – but that debate continues…
Vertical Smoker Comparisons
If you consider a vertical smoker, you should know that smokers’ different fuels have pros and cons.
Electricity As a Fuel Source
As mentioned before, the electrical smoker is a plug-n-play smoker.
Simply set your desired cooking temperature, load your water and wood chips for smoking flavor.
Place your meat and other foods in the cooking chambers and come back and enjoy the mean when it’s done.
Because there is no ash or soot from the combustion process, vertical electrical smokers are much easier to clean than their fossil fuel cousins.
If you don’t want to spend hours removing grease and grime from your smoker, electrical is the way to go.
Remember, though, that electrical smokers do consumer power, and as they are operating for a few hours at a time, the cost of electricity will add up after some time.
But, if you compare this to the cost of wood, coal, or propane, you will probably find little difference between them.
Gas Powered Vertical Smokers
With this type of smoker, the fuel source is propane, and this can be connected via the home’s gas supply or a cylinder placed next to the smoker.
Gas is cleaner than coal or wood but not as clean as electricity from a clean-up perspective.
It does, of course, get very hot, and any fossil fuel source smoker will burn hotter than an electric one.
But one of the drawbacks of a vertical smoker vs. an offset one is that you cannot grill on a vertical smoker; they don’t have this option.
If you want to have both grilling and smoking capacity, you need to get the horizontal offset smoker.
Coal And Wood Fueled Vertical Smokers
Most vertical smokers use coal, but you can use wood as the primary fuel source if you so choose.
The reason for using coal is that it burns hot and long and lends itself to good temperature management, and it’s pretty cheap and available everywhere.
Finding an extension cable for your electrical smoker at a campsite or hunting for propane can be frustrating.
Still, coal and wood are abundant and cheap, hence their popularity.
For the traditionalist, nothing beats a coal-powered vertical smoker for heat and flavor.
But there are some drawbacks to using this fuel source, and the first one is that you will need to top up your fuel every so often.
To maintain a consistent temperature, which is critical to smoking successfully, you must add coal throughout the cooking process, especially if you are smoking a big meal.
This will take a good couple of hours, and your coal will burn out and need to be topped up.
Many people will add wood logs to the fire to add some extra flavor or boost the temperature quickly.
Then add the coal to maintain optimum cooking temperature.
The Formation Of Creosote In Wood Smokers – Vertical And Offset
The other consideration when using wood or coal is the effect of creosote.
This is a by-product of burning wood and usually occurs when the combustion conditions create too much smoke or the wrong type.
Yes, there is a wrong type of smoke!
When using wood for smoking, the blue smoke ideal indicates a good combustion quality with the proper airflow through the smoker.
But, when combustion elements aren’t at the right level, thick white smoke is the result, and that’s when you get the creosote on your meat.
This can happen with vertical and offset smokers and will occur if the wood is wet or there is insufficient ventilation through the cooking chamber.
This cause the wood to burn slowly or not.
It can be so bad in cases that your meal can be ruined, and a call to the takeaway may be your only solution for a meal.
This is where smoke and temperature management and some experience come into play, so opt for the electrical smoker if that all seems like hard work!
Vertical Smokers Are Space Efficient
When looking at the pros of a vertical smoker, the one area where they win over an offset smoker is space.
By design, they take up less space than an offset smoker will, and if space or lack of it is a consideration, then the vertical smoker will be the better option.
They can also be stored away easily without taking up a lot of space.
So, urban apartment dwellers can still enjoy the luxurious taste of smoked meats while not worrying about building on to store their smokers.
Vertical Smokers – Cleaning And Maintenance
Unless you have an electric smoker, you will have to clean and maintain your smoker. With coal or wood smokers, the process is similar to that of the offset smoker.
You need to remove and clean the grill grates, clean the grease trap and wipe off any excess grime and food debris after a cooking session.
You also need to remove the ash from the bottom, and you can do this with a vacuum.
Just don’t use the same one you would for cleaning the house, or you may find yourself on the wrong side of a dressing down!
The water and wood chip trays would also be cleaned, any ash and remaining water removed from the trays, and the doors and glass wiped down.
This can be done with a quality food-safe degreaser or using a homemade mixture of vinegar and baking soda that acts as a degreaser.
Ensure that the vents and chimney are clean and clear from ash, so the airflow is clear.
Deep cleans involve removing all the components and soaking them in a solution of degreaser, whether dish soap or otherwise.
You would need to wipe down the smoker’s interior and remove any creosote build-up you find.
Once the smoker is clean and the components are dried and replaced, you need to season it.
This can be done using cooking oil that is wiped over all the steel components to form a corrosion-proof layer.
Some folks will light the smoker and wait till the oil has burned off, and others will simply brush the seasoning on and then leave it until the next cook.
Vertical Smokers – Pros And Cons
Let’s consider the pros and cons of the vertical smoker before we move on to the offset smoker.
Vertical Smoker Pros :
- Space and fuel-efficient, they will use less of both compared to an offset smoker
- They can be set up anywhere and are more portable
- Have a large cooking capacity
- Set-and-forget makes them convenient to use
- Faster cooking times as the design is more heat efficient
- Cheaper than offset smokers
- Better suited to colder climates than an offset smoker
Vertical Smoker Cons :
- Don’t have grilling capacity as a rule
- Moving food around during cooking is more complicated than an offset smoker
- Adding fuel may require moving the meat if there is no dual door option
- Cooking larger cuts may require hanging
Who Would Buy A Vertical Smoker
If you live in an apartment where space is tight, and you don’t want to fuss constantly over your heat and smoke, then the vertical smoker is a good choice.
Similarly, if you only want a smoker and want to spend a little less than you would on an offset, plus use less fuel, the vertical smoker is good to use.
If you opt for an electrical smoker, have very little maintenance and cleaning up after each cook, the vertical is the way.
Now that we have dissected every possible aspect of the vertical smokers let’s move on to the offset smoker.
What Is The Offset Smoker
These barrel-shaped smokers were born from the Texas oilfields as workers looked for a way to cook food using available materials.
Cutting an oil drum in half and creating a grill base gave birth to the concept.
These smokers are also known as side firebox smokers, pipe smokers, stick burners, barrel smokers, and horizontal smokers.
When most people hear the word ‘smoker,’ this is the image that comes to mind.
These smokers have a firebox that sits next to the cooking chamber.
The smoke and heat move through the chamber to the chimney that is usually positioned on the far side of the firebox.
Usually, the firebox is at a lower height than the cooking chamber, giving the smoker that ‘offset’ appearance.
Of course, this position helps the heat and smoke to rise and flow when burning.
Offset smokers can run only on coal, wood, or both fuels for some additional flavor.
As with the vertical smokers, the offset has another version called the reverse flow offset smoker.
What Is A Reverse Flow Offset Smoker
There is an additional baffle plate in this configuration that sits below the main cooking chamber.
It is a thick steel plate with holes in it, and this functions to distribute heat through the cooking chamber and acts as a heat sink during combustion.
Its second purpose is to filter smoke through more slowly and evenly so that the food is exposed to equal levels of heat and smoke during cooking.
This makes the cooking that much easier as you then don’t have to move your food around to ensure even smoke and heat exposure.
How To Tell A Reverse Flow Smoker From A Regular Offset Smoker
This is pretty simple as the reverse flow smoker’s chimney will be closer to the firebox than regular offset smokers.
This is because the heat and smoke will flow back over the meat instead of just one way as they would with a conventional offset smoker.
Offset Smoker – Cooking Management
Unlike their vertical counterparts, offset smokers require more effort to ensure proper and consistent temperature and smoke and smoke quality.
We looked at how creosote can form in smokers when the combustion conditions are less than ideal, which applies to offset smokers.
Coal and wood will burn down quicker in an offset smoker than in a vertical one.
The coal and wood and wood chips need to be monitored throughout the cooking process.
Don’t get an offset smoker if you want to sit and have a beer with your buddies and think the smoker will handle itself.
This is also why most beginners opt for vertical smokers to start with and then graduate to the offset once the smoking bug has bit.
These smokers require more effort and experience to achieve a wonderful smoked meal, and while this can be learned, it still requires patience.
So if you want a fast-cooked smoked meal, the offset smoker is not for you.
However, the one aspect that most people agree on is that the offset smoker delivers the very best smoked flavor and meals of all the smokers.
This is because of the time taken and the precision in managing temperature and smoke density, and quality.
The offset offers superb temperature and smoke control with the vents, and meat and food are easy to move around during cooking.
Good quality offset smokers are made from thicker steel, and the hood is well made to reduce any leakage of heat or smoke to maintain consistency throughout the cook.
Adding fuel, whether wood or coal, is easy compared to a vertical smoker.
Of course, you have the lid you can open or keep closed as you need to distill or increase the heat and smoke density.
Your control over your cooking variables is far greater than with a vertical smoker.
This is why many competitive cooks prefer the offset to the vertical smokers when involved in competition.
Plus, the offset smoker offers a grilling option.
So if you simply want to grill instead of smoking, your offset smoker can handle that with consummate ease and get hot enough to sear meats properly.
Offset Smoker – Cleaning, And Maintenance
Offset smokers make a mess, and they do require proper cleaning after each smoke and deep cleaning every so often.
While this can entail some solid cardio and plain old muscle, it can also be messy, so you need to prepare properly before cleaning your smoker.
You will need to clean the grills, the grease trap, and the sides of the cooking chamber to remove fat and food residue.
If you have used the top as a grill, you may find bits of food stuck there that need to be scraped off.
With a maintenance clean, you can use a good degreaser or mix of vinegar and baking soda to remove debris or grease remaining.
You will also need to ensure that vents and chimneys are clean and any accumulated creosote is cleaned away before your next cooking session, or it can affect the taste of your food and make it bitter.
You also need to clean the hood or the cover and wipe away any greasy remains from the last cook.
Once the grill grates have been washed and dried and the smoker cleaned out, you will need to season the smoker as you would with a vertical one to create a protective layer inside to stop corrosion from setting in.
When seasoning, you need to ensure that all the internal steel parts are covered to ensure that there is no exposure to moisture inside the smoker.
This seasoning also adds a little flavor to your food as it builds up over time and is a critical element for ensuring your smoker’s longevity.
Most people take the smoker apart with a deep clean and soak the individual components in a degreasing solution or dish soap and warm water.
The hood, chimney, grill grates, heat baffle plate, grease trap, drip trays, and burners are cleaned.
The interior and exterior of the smoker are cleaned and seasoned, and once dried, the components are seasoned and then fitted back.
Some like to fire the smoker to burn the seasoning in, while others will leave it until the next cooking session.
Offset Smoker: Pros And Cons
Let’s look at the pros and cons of offset smokers.
Offset Smoker Pros :
- Large capacity for food
- Option to grill using the base as a coal firepit
- The best flavor from smoking
- Adding fuel is easy and won’t disrupt the heat or smoke levels inside the smoker
- It can be run on wood alone
- No power is required and can be used anywhere
- Cost-effective and cheaper than vertical smokers
- Fuel available everywhere
Offset Smoker Cons :
- Requires frequent attention during the cooking process
- It takes time to learn how to use it properly
- It uses more fuel than a vertical smoker
- It doesn’t retain heat well in cold climates
- Can experience significant temperature differences between each side
Who Would Buy An Offset Smoker
Offsets are the quintessential American smoker.
They are for those that seek that intense depth of smoky flavor and the time spent tending to the fire while enjoying a leisurely day with friends and family.
If you don’t have issues with proximity to neighbors, enjoy the hands-on experience of cooking and smoking.
Perhaps want to smoke competitively, then the offset smoker is the way to go.
The choice of vertical vs. offset for you mostly comes down to how hard you want to work when cooking and the quality of the smoked meats you want to experience.
Whether you opt for the vertical or offset, the fact remains that you have decided on a smoker, and that is the first step into a bigger world of taste, flavor, and time-honored true American pastime!