For the smoker cooking purist, wood burning pit smokers are the only way to go! These smokers isolate the fire from the smoking meat by using a dual-chamber design.
The firebox is mounted on the side of, and below, the meat-smoking chamber, which can be aligned either horizontally or vertically. The temperature is controlled by the fire size, the intake adjustment, and the flue damper.
Pit smokers vary widely in price and quality. I just saw one at Walmart for seventy-nine dollars and change. It was small and cheaply made of lightweight materials.
To the other extreme, smokers costing five thousand or more are common. And with custom-made smokers, the sky (and your bank account) is the limit.
You can get a decent pit smoker for around seven hundred dollars. More money will get you extra capacity and sturdier construction with heavier materials.
You can get pit smokers on wheels, too. With a trailer-mounted smoker, you can take the barbecue to the party. Hook it up behind your Chevy and you're good to go.
Pit smokers can be fired up with wood, or a combination of charcoal and wood. The choice is yours. Most importantly, you have to maintain a clean burning fire. Add just enough wood to create pale blue smoke, while maintaining a temperature of 200 to 225 degrees.
Propane burners are optional on some pit smokers. The burner can be used to light the wood or charcoal, and as an auxiliary heat source.
A pan of water or other liquid placed in the smoking chamber next to the firebox turns your pit smoker into a water smoker. Without that pan, you're dry smoking.
As the hot, smoky air leaves the firebox, some of the heat will be absorbed by the pan of liquid, causing it to simmer or boil. This helps in three ways by
Since the liquid in the pan is absorbing some of the fire's heat, the temperature of the smoke chamber is somewhat regulated.
If you add something flavorful and aromatic to the liquid, those flavors will be gently basting the meat. The vapor from the pan also picks up smoke, and carries that smoke flavor deeper into the meat.
After extolling the virtues of water smoking, I do need to tell you that there's nothing wrong with dry smoking. As long as you maintain a good, steady temperature of 200 to 225 degrees, it'll be fine.
To help the meat remain moist, baste it regularly. A baste with some oil in it will help keep the meat moist. It will also attract and hold more smoke flavor.
You can wrap long-smoking meats in foil after five or six hours. This will hold in moisture...but it'll also stop the smoke from reaching the meat. To save your wood, you could put the wrapped meat in the oven at 220 degrees to finish, and no one would be the wiser.
Operating a pit smoker requires knowledge and regular attention to the fire and to the meat, to the temperature and to the smoke. You have to baby it along.
But that's the fun of pit smoking. The hands-on attention is evident in every tender slab of ribs and every juicy brisket you make.