There really isn't anything that compares to the flavor of smoking meat on a charcoal smoker. The meat takes on a unique smokiness and you can mix and match different types of hardwood and fruit wood to develop nuanced flavor profiles that are impossible with an electric smoker or a pellet smoker. Charcoal smokers come in all shapes and sizes and each design has advantages and disadvantages. We are going to take a look at two designs in this article that are similar but not the same – offset smokers and reverse-flow smokers.
Reverse Flow vs Offset Smoker – How They Are Different
At a glance, both of these designs look pretty much the same. The most common style is a barrel, laid on its side and cut in half to make the cooking chamber. On one side, a smaller cylinder is welded or bolted on that also has a door. This is the fire box, and its location outside of the main cooking chamber is what gives these smokers the name offset smoker.
A reverse flow smoker looks almost identical, except for one detail. Reverse flow smokers have an upright exhaust vent tube on the same side of the main cooking chamber as the fire box. A traditional offset smoker has a vent on the far side away from the main cooking chamber.
With the door of the cooking chamber open on both designs, the firebox will have a large rectangular opening allowing the heat and smoke to enter the cooking chamber while preventing direct heat.
With an offset smoker, the fire box opens directly into the cooking chamber. Smoke enters, accumulates, and is then drawn out the vent on the far side of the smoker.
A reverse flow smoker has a fire box that opens beneath a baffle plate that runs along the bottom of the cooking chamber. Smoke must enter and pass beneath the baffle plate before rising into the cooking chamber. The smoke then accumulates and is drawn out the vent on the far side, giving these smokers their name.
Which is Better – An Offset or Reverse Flow Smoker?
Even though these two designs look similar, they work differently and there are subtle differences in the results from each type. There are a few key elements and techniques for using a traditional offset smoker that are essential to getting good results.
First, the smoker must be able to maintain a stable, controllable temperature. Part of this process is up to the design of the smoker, the other is up to the cook.
Learning the tricks to operating an offset smoker takes time and practice. Getting the hang of controlling the vent openings, when and how to add charcoal, and the effects of using a combination of lump charcoal and wood chunks to get desirable results takes trial and error.
These are skills that are necessary regardless of where you fall on the reverse flow smoker vs offset smoker argument. Once the basics of the charcoal smoking process are mastered, there isn't a huge learning curve.
Key Differences and Similarities
Both of these types of smokers will produce rich, deep smoke flavor using hardwood lump charcoal, raw wood chunks, or even pellets in a pellet box. For most people, the two types of smokers are going to be more similar than they are different, both in terms of the way they are operated and the results that the two smoker designs produce.
The Subtle Difference
In order to really appreciate the differences between a reverse flow smoker vs offset smoker, it helps to compare them side-by-side. This gives an opportunity to test out what they are capable of doing. But the main differences between a reverse flow smoker vs offset smoker come down to heating time, burn time, and flavor.
The first thing that is different is the amount of time that it takes for the smokers to come to temperature. A reverse flow smoker is going to take several minutes or longer to reach the same internal temperature as the offset smoker.
This is due to the need for the heat to circulate below the baffle and rise into the chamber in the reverse flow design. A standard offset smoker isn't as efficient, though.
Once the smokers are at the same temperature, the reverse flow smoker will allow the vents to be closed somewhat more than a standard offset smoker, which conserves the charcoal by burning it slower to keep the same temperature. A standard offset smoker uses more fuel to hold the same temperature.
This happens for the same reason it takes longer to heat; the reverse smoker holds a more consistent temperature due to the baffle design.
The reverse flow design also gets the most flavor from the smoke. This happens because the smoke is moving slower and spending more time in the cooking chamber where it is enhancing the flavor of the meat.
Some people notice a difference, others don't, but speaking strictly on the way that reverse flow smokers work, reverse flow smokers offer a more uniform cooking environment.
When to Use a Reverse Flow Smoker vs Offset Smoker
In almost all cases, these two designs are interchangeable and can be used for exactly the same cooking process. What we've noticed is that a standard offset smoker works better when we are smoking something that requires humidity because it is easier to add a water pan.
We prefer using a reverse flow smoker when trying to get the maximum smoke flavor. They work particularly well for cold smoking processes like when smoking salmon or cheese. They also work great for really low and slow cooking.
The reverse flow system also provides more consistent cooking temperatures because the heat distribution is more dispersed. A standard offset smoker will have a higher temperature on the cooking racks closest to the fire box.
Things to Consider Before Buying
Offset smokers are more readily available and are often more affordable than reverse flow smokers, but not all designs are equal – even though they might look the same. Some things that indicate a good quality smoker applies to both offset smokers and reverse flow smokers.
The biggest difference between good smokers and junk is the thickness of the metal body and the cooking chamber door. Thicker metal will retain heat better and give a more consistent cooking environment, regardless of whether the design is reverse flow or offset. Thicker metal is heavier and more expensive to make but results in a better smoker.
A lot of the mass-produced smokers out there today are designed to be shipped in boxes and assembled by the buyer. The problem is that many designs don't have good connections and seals between the fire box and the body or even the cooking chamber door and the body. Sealing leaks in these areas makes for a more manageable internal temperature. Look for products that use fire-proof seals in these areas for a better product.
The other construction element to consider is specifically for reverse flow smokers. Many designs have the baffle plate welded in place. This prevents the area from being cleaned and will eventually lead to rust and decay in the bottom of the smoker. We always recommend designs that allow the baffle plate to come out so that it can be cleaned or even replaced when necessary.
It is even possible to find designs of smokers that allow for a baffle and reverse flow or can convert to a standard offset smoker design.
FAQs About Reverse Flow Smokers
Q: Is a reverse flow smoker easier to use than an offset smoker?
A: Both designs require attention to cooking temperatures throughout the process. Some people find that reverse flow smokers are harder to dial in, but easier to maintain temperature.
Q: What makes a reverse flow offset smoker different from an offset smoker?
A: Reverse flow offset smokers uses a baffle to force hot air to one side before allowing the heat to vent from the far side, reversing the flow of smoke in the process.
Q: Can you use a reverse flow offset smoker for different heat zones?
A: No. A reverse flow smoker will have fairly even smoke distribution and uniform heat distribution across the cooking grates.
FAQs About Offset Smokers
Q: What is the purpose of an offset fire box?
A: By offsetting the fire box, heat and smoke are drawn into the smoker to provide indirect heat. A regular offset smoker allows the airflow to move from the fire box side to the other side where it vents.
Q: Can a regular offset smoker be converted into a reverse flow smoker?
A: While it is possible to convert an offset smoker to a reverse flow system, it isn't really practical. Some people experiment with adding baffles to regular offset smokers to create more even smoke distribution and to create different heat zones.
Q: Can an offset smoker be used for grilling steaks?
A: Grilling a steak isn't the job for a smoker, but some designs have a cooking grate that fits in the fire box. This is useful for grilling a steak, or our favorite use, roasting corn on the cob.
The differences between a reverse flow smoker and a standard offset smoker are fairly minimal, but can make a difference in the results. We like the idea of a reverse flow smoker, but typically use a regular offset smoker around the house. Either design will give good results, but it really comes down to the amount of time and attention it takes to ensure the cooking temperature stays consistent, the smoke volume is appropriate, and the smoker is well-built.
What really makes an offset charcoal smoker fun to use is the ability to combine different fuels to enhance flavors and create interesting variations. Both reverse flow offset smokers and standard offset smokers offer tons of versatility when it comes to using the imagination. Charcoal smoking is an ancient cooking style that combines the depth of flavor from natural hardwood with low and slow cooking that results in flavorful, tender, delicious meals your family will love.