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How to Barbeque With a Stick Burner: 4 Tips for Cooking in an Offset Smoker

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 9 min read

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.



Aaron Franklin Teaches Texas-Style BBQAaron Franklin Teaches Texas-Style BBQ

Aaron Franklin teaches you how to fire up flavor-packed Central Texas barbecue, including his famous brisket and more mouth-watering smoked meat.

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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.

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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.


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Step 2: Ignite Your Fire

To ignite, moisten a crumpled sheet of butcher paper with a drizzle of cooking oil (like grapeseed), slide it between the two bottom logs, and light. (If you have a piece of greasy butcher paper lying around from a previous cook, use that.) Newspaper and kindling are also fine alternatives, but avoid using petroleum products like lighter fluid.

As the fire grows and the logs catch, the middle layer of thinner, drier wood should catch first, eventually collapsing into coals with the uppermost log falling on top. (Alternatively, you could light charcoal in a chimney starter and add them to the firebox, followed by pieces of wood.) Whatever tinder you use to start the fire, make sure you add enough to keep the fire burning while you wait for the heftier logs to catch.

Step 3: Create Clean Smoke

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Aaron Franklin teaches you how to fire up flavor-packed Central Texas barbecue, including his famous brisket and more mouth-watering smoked meat.

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The temperature gauge on your meat smoker will indicate how hot the fire is burning, but if you want to know how clean it’s burning, look at the smokestack. To get that perfect smoke, you first want to make sure you have a supply of good quality wood, but you also need to create the conditions where combustion can happen in a natural, organic way.

Wood produces its best, cleanest smoke after it fully combusts and catches flame at temperatures in excess of 600 degrees Fahrenheit. On your way to clean smoke, you’ll be burning off moisture, gases, and oil-soluble chemicals in the wood, eventually reaching the optimum stage where most of your smoke is water vapor. As that vapor moves through the smoker, it settles on the surface of the meat and then evaporates, leaving behind traces of compounds like syringol and guaiacol, which give barbecue its smoke flavor and aroma.

If you have a clean fire, the smoke from your smokestack should look thin and light with a bluish hue. What you don’t want is smoke that’s thick and sooty or gray-black. The heavier and dirtier the smoke looks, the more particles (like creosote) it contains. If you’ve ever eaten a piece of brisket that tasted like the inside of an ashtray, creosote was likely to blame. Meat doesn’t need a lot of smoke. What it needs is the right smoke.

Step 4: Introduce the Meat

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Once your food is on the smoker, your primary job is to keep the temperature steady and the smoke clean. Every time you pick up a new log to add to the fire, try to anticipate its heat curve. How quickly will it catch? How much heat will it generate? And how fast will the heat dissipate?

The heat curve of a thinner, drier piece of wood is steeper than a thicker, denser piece. In other words, a thin piece of wood will catch quickly and burn fast. Ideally, when you add a new piece of wood, you’re timing things such that the new piece will approach the peak of its heat curve just as an older piece is starting to burn out. That will help keep your cooking temperatures level rather than oscillating between too hot and too cold.

The early stages of a cook are the most critical—that’s when the meat is going to take on the most smoke and flavor. Try to use your heftier, denser logs in the first three hours after your meat goes in the smoker—they’ll burn longer after combustion and produce the most flavorful smoke. Save thinner, drier pieces that will burn out more quickly for later, once you’ve wrapped the meat and you’re trying to maintain temperatures rather than add flavor.

Step 5: Keep the Fire Burning

If at any point your fire starts burning too hot, resist the temptation to cool it off by shutting the firebox door. Suddenly choking off oxygen will kill the fire and you’ll end up having to build it back up, creating more extreme temperature variations and dirty smoke. Instead, try removing a log with a shovel and letting the fire cool naturally for a minute.

Leave the firebox door fully open at all times unless the weather turns cold, wet, or windy. If you have no choice but to shut the door, leave it open just enough to protect the fire but not so much that it’s stifled. You can also rake some of your coal bed close to the firebox door so the colder, wetter air outside heats up as soon as it enters.

Conversely, you should never force air into the firebox. If the fire seems to be petering out, a few good puffs of breath are more than enough to get things going again. If one log in particular seems like it’s having trouble catching, make sure there’s room for air to flow between the wood and the coal bed beneath it. Use a shovel to dig a divot under the wood, if necessary. Once the log has fully combusted, you can safely bury it in the coals to make room for new wood.

4 Tips for Using a Stick Burner

Cooking meat in a stick burner is a delicate art that can only be perfected with practice. Here are four tips for mastering this particular barbecue process:

  1. Add water pans. Adding warm water to a container inside the cook chamber under the cooking grates adds moisture and humidity to the environment, which can help keep the meat from drying out. A disposable aluminum pan is all you need.
  2. Use drip pans. Over the course of a long cook, your meat is going to drip grease and rendered fat into the bottom of your cook chamber. It’s messy and can turn rancid if it isn’t dealt with. It’s also a fire hazard. Some smokers come equipped with a drain or drip pan already installed under the grill, but if not, you can add a large, shallow pan beneath the grate of your smoker. Even a disposable aluminum pan will do in a pinch.
  3. Install baffle plates. By installing a steel baffle plate right where the air and smoke enter, you effectively guide the flow of the smoke, forcing it down before it eventually rises up, thus distributing the heat and smoke more evenly. You can permanently install a baffle plate or even just insert a temporary piece of metal at the opening.
  4. Swap the temperature gauge. One of the easiest and most common modifications, this could be as simple as swapping out the factory part that came with your smoker for a dial that’s bigger or more to your liking or even installing a WiFi-enabled device that allows you to keep track of the temperature from inside your house. You may also realize over time that the temperature gauge is situated too close to your fire or too far from where you normally place your meat. If so, drill a hole and install another gauge wherever you want it. Having multiple gauges at different ends of the cook chamber also comes in handy if you regularly cook multiple briskets or racks of ribs at the same time.

Recipe Ideas for Using a Stick Burner Smoker

There are plenty of different cuts of meat you can barbecue to perfection in a stick burner. Here are a few to consider:

  1. Smoked brisket: Over the course of a long cook, brisket’s fat will render and the connective tissue will break down, making this cut of meat an optimal choice for extended smoking. You can find Aaron Franklin’s recipe for smoked brisket here.
  2. Pork butt: The relatively forgiving nature of the pork butt cut of meat makes this a great cook for beginners or anyone who wants to practice their fire-maintenance skills. Aaron Franklin’s smoked pork butt recipe can be found here.
  3. Spare ribs: Cooking spare ribs falls between pork butt and brisket in terms of difficulty. They spend the least amount of time in the smoker and will cook at a consistent temperature throughout. However, because they’re a comparatively thin cut of meat, there isn’t as much margin for error. Spare ribs also need a certain amount of trimming during prep—more than pork butt, but not as much as brisket. Try out Aaron Franklin’s recipe for smoked spare ribs here.
  4. Broccolini or other cruciferous vegetables: Smoking or grilling broccolini has some unique challenges—the crown is delicate and will burn quickly if set over a ripping hot fire for too long. Meanwhile, the stalk is more dense and needs a little longer to cook to the proper doneness. You want both the crown and the stalk to have the same level of doneness with an even char on all sides when they come out. Find our recipe for barbeque broccolini here.

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