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Great barbecue is more than well-seasoned food tossed on a grill—it’s wielding power over the elements and bending them to your command. Nowhere is that more on display than with a stick burner smoker.

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What Is a Stick Burner Smoker?

Stick burner smokers, or offset smokers, are BBQ smokers that rely solely on wood as their fuel, as opposed to gas, charcoal, or electricity. High-quality offset smokers are often custom made with heavy-duty materials, like thick stainless steel, and are quite expensive. Stick burners are designed with the firebox hanging low and off-set from the main cooking chamber, with a smokestack on the opposite end.

A stick burner smoker is a departure from the more approachable backyard smokers like pellet smokers, propane smokers, charcoal smokers, and electric smokers—some of which rely on starter fuels like lighter fluid and propane and feature thermostats for easier temperature control. Many pitmasters, like Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue, firmly believe that the best smoked meats are cooked on smokers that generate both their smoke and their heat exclusively from burning wood.

How to Use a Stick Burner Smoker in 5 Steps

Building and maintaining a fire that produces clean, flavorful smoke is the key to great BBQ. Aaron Franklin’s philosophy is simple: Let the wood burn the way it wants to burn. In practice, there are a number of unpredictable variables that can make this simple philosophy more challenging than it sounds—anything from sudden changes in weather to logs that aren’t as dry and seasoned as you might have thought—but barbecue is about adapting to these conditions as they arise.

The only way to learn how to properly work a fire is to do it as often as you can. When you’re first getting to know your smoker, it’s a good idea to do trial runs where you’re burning wood and generating smoke without meat in the cooker. Practice during the hottest part of the afternoon and the coolest part of the morning to see how your smoker reacts to differences in external temperature. Try it on days where the weather is calm and pleasant, as well as days that are rainy or windy.

Step 1: Pile Your Wood

In the early stages of the fire, your only real concern is getting the smoker up to temp and establishing a solid bed of coals that will continue to fuel the fire for many hours. You don’t need to worry about the quality of your smoke until there’s actually food in the smoker, so hold off on using heftier pieces of wood that will burn longer and produce more flavorful smoke.

When building a fire, you want to combine thinner, drier pieces that will quickly catch with denser logs that will burn slower and generate heat over a longer period of time. The arrangement of your logs should maximize airflow. Start by placing two dense logs on either side of your firebox as a foundation, then three drier pieces of wood perpendicularly across the top, leaving at least an inch of space between each piece. Place another dense log across the thinner ones and a lighter piece on either side, again with an inch of space between. You should now have three distinct layers forming a basket weave-type pattern.