What is going on inside a smoker

Cooking with direct and indirect heat

When there is a social gathering and food is cooked outdoors, you may say you will have a “barbecue.” However, if you want to be accurate, you probably should say you’re having a “grilling.”

No wait, that isn’t exactly right, not all grilling involves fire and delicious food. A grilling in that sense is what you get when your spouse wants to know why you were out all night. Maybe that is why folks always call outdoor cooking a barbecue. “Hey, I am going to a grilling, want to come? – No thanks, I already had one today from my boss!”

The thing is, there is a BIG difference between BBQ and Grilling. If you are cooking burgers, chicken, steaks, fish, or corn on the cob, you will be grilling. Grilling is cooking on a grate over a high-temperature heat source from 500 to 700 °F for a fairly brief time, around 5 to 25 minutes.

Now BBQ, that is a whole different method. We’re talking about the “low and slow” way of preparing your favorite meat. The process that Caldwell County BBQ is all about.

‘Low’ means a low temperature around 225 to 275 °F, a much lower temperature than grilling. The ‘slow’ is the long cooking time that gets the fibers in the meat to loosen and break down, creating a very tender and juicy meat. (See “The Science Behind Texas BBQ”)

Types of BBQ Smokers

There are several types of smokers you can use to make BBQ with the low and slow method. These are:

  • Offset Smoker
  • Vertical Smoker
  • Water Smoker
  • Drum Smoker
  • Smoker Oven
  • Pellet Grill
  • Electric Smoker

A good smoker maintains low cooking temperatures for extended periods of time while producing smoke and circulating it around the meat for absorption. For home BBQs, any of these types can do a decent job of smoking meats and seafood if they are made well. If you’re an aspiring backyard pitmaster, the offset smoker is what you will want to use. Nothing does the job like an offset smoker.


It’s called an offset smoker because the smoke comes from a firebox attached (offset) to one side. The fire and heat are not directly under the meat. This is one advantage over grilling, where you can easily burn your food if you are not watching.

As the fire burns in the firebox, heat and smoke flow through a portal to the main cooking chamber and circulate around the meat and go out a chimney. This flow of smoke and hot air is what creates smoke rings and briskets with a crisp “bark” (crust) that is so desired in BBQ.

The low and slow way requires that the temperature is kept low and controlled throughout the process. Flavor and tenderness depend on the temperature. Wood doesn’t burn at one temperature. It will change as time goes on and reaches different stages, so the pitmaster must closely monitor the temperature.

The heat and smoke flow in an offset smoker can be controlled by adjusting the air intake and exhaust vents and adding wood to the fire. Temperatures vary inside the cook chamber, with the end nearest the firebox being the hottest. One must manage the airflow to avoid uneven cooking.

At Caldwell County BBQ we smoke our briskets for 24 hours to make tender, smokey perfection. This means we really have to watch Max carefully so he doesn’t get all fired up. Now if you know us, you should know that Max is not one of our pitmasters, but Max Woodruff is the name we gave to one of our huge offset smokers!

The Smoke

There are wood smokers, charcoal smokers, gas smokers, electric smokers, and pellet smokers. But all of these are “wood smokers” because all we’re talking about here is the heat source.

  • Charcoal is made from wood but doesn’t produce a lot of smoke. It adds flavor, and additional smoke and flavor are created through the use of wood chips.
  • Electric smokers and gas smokers don’t produce smoke on its own, wood chips are needed to create the smokey flavor.
  • Pellet grills use wood pellets as fuel, which are compacted all-natural hardwood sawdust made into small 1/4-inch round pieces.

Did you know?

Smoke, the VISIBLE gaseous by-products of wood combustion, comprises about 100 compounds. Some are solids, some are gases, and others are liquids such as oils.

Most of the bark color comes from the visible smoke, but combustion also produces INVISIBLE gases like syringol and guaiacol. Most of the flavor and aroma comes from the invisible gasses, and nitrogen oxides produce the smoke ring.

The exact makeup of the smoke depends on the wood being used, the temperature of combustion, the amount of oxygen, and the humidity. This is why different types of wood produce different flavors in the meat.

The wood

Since wood is the source of smoke flavor, a discussion about the best wood for BBQ is needed.

There is a whole science behind how wood burns and flavors meat. Some mad scientists who were BBQ lovers really went all the way in analyzing what is going on in a smoker! You need not know all that it entails, but some knowledge will help you make a better BBQ when you are in your backyard.

Did you know?

Wood is made from sugar!

Wood is made of cells that are 40–50% cellulose and 15–25% hemicellulose. Cellulose is a form of carbohydrate, which has 1500 GLUCOSE rings chained together. And glucose is sugar! The rest is lignin, which acts as a glue to hold the cells together. Seasoned wood is 20% water, so the rest is dehydrated sugar and glue!

When it is burning in the firebox, cellulose produces few flavor molecules, mostly burnt sugar flavor. Lignin is the source of BBQ flavor that everyone loves. Hardwoods have the most lignin, so now you know why wood such as post oak, a common tree in Texas, was the traditional standard for Texas BBQ.

At Caldwell, we use a mixture of hardwoods, mesquite, and pecan. The type of wood we use is our flavor signature that helps us stand out from the traditional crowd.

Basic wood for the perfect BBQ

People have debated for years what’s the best wood for smoking meat. The answer is there is no one wood that is the best. It all depends on what flavor you’re trying to get, what type of meat you’re cooking, and also what is available.

  • Mesquite – Unique for its intense flavor
  • Pecan – Adds rich and nutty flavor
  • Oak – Adds medium to strong flavor
  • Hickory – Known for its sweet bacon-like flavor

Central Texas BBQ Rules!

Using an offset smoker for low and slow BBQ is what makes Texas-style BBQ the hit it is around the world. Now that you know the difference between BBQ and grilling, the different types of smokers, and some of the basics about what’s going on inside Max Woodruff, mosey on over to Caldwell County BBQ! You’ll have a little more appreciation of what it takes to prepare our delicious oh so tender brisket and other Central Texas BBQ favorites.