Introduction: Ugly Drum Smoker (UDS) How-to and FAQ
Ugly Drum Smokers are simple smokers to build and operate and yet put out some really good barbecue. This Instructable will answer all your general questions about the UDS and how to cook with it. Then I will show you how to build your own UDS. These FAQs are based on my own smoking and the mountain of experiences of the members of The BBQ Brethren (which has sisters, too). If you want to learn everything there is to know about UDS's then read the Brethren's Mother Of All UDS threads (warning: this thread has over 11k posts). If you have other questions about BBQ then join the Brethren and ask away. It's free! (Frequent posters are encouraged to buy a membership.)
I will keep this Instructable updated with any new questions that seem pertinent.
Step 1: Ugly Drum Smoker (UDS) FAQ, General Questions
A: Yes, really.
Q: How good is a UDS?
A: Very good. You won't find a better general purpose smoker for the casual cook than a UDS. When you also consider the price for making your own (about $100) it's the best option for beginners. But not just beginners: UDS's are used in BBQ competitions and they win. Here are some examples of BBQ teams that use some form of UDS for competitions:
KC Can Crew
Q: What makes a UDS so good?
A: Two qualities stand out for a UDS:
- Simplicity. There is the drum, the charcoal, and your food, nothing more. No water pans, no baffles, no worries about adding more fuel, or anything else.
- Air-tight. Good smokers are controlled by adjusting the airflow and must not have any leaks. UDS's have few openings for air to escape.
Q: How ugly can they get?
A: Decide for yourself:
Q: How does a UDS work?
A: We'll go into more details later but the simple answer is this: burning charcoal at the bottom of the drum produces heat (duh) and smoke, which heats up the air. The hot air rises to the food and cooks it before escaping out a vent at the top. As the air rises it pulls in more air through a small vent at the bottom. The temperature inside the drum is controlled by adjusting the size of the vent on the bottom.
Q: OK, you've convinced me. Where do I get a UDS?
A: Many BBQers make their own—it really is that simple—but you can also buy them online. Big Poppa Smokers has a Drum Smoker kit that supplies everything except the drum but it's about twice as expensive as doing it yourself.
Q: I've seen smokers at Home Depot for less than $100. Why can't I get one of those?
A: The retail smokers are cheap because they are cheap. The bullet smokers are not air-tight and it can be difficult to keep a steady temperature. The off-set smokers look cool but they are not air-tight and are notorious for having hot and cold spots. Meathead at Amazin' Ribs goes into more detail. Just get an UDS already.
The exception is the kettle drums like the Weber One Touch and Smokey Joe. They are better grills than smokers but you can still make excellent BBQ with them.
Q: Is it “a UDS...” or “an UDS...”?
A: I don't know and I use whatever fits my mood at the time. If you don't like it you can write your own &@$%# FAQ!
Step 2: Ugly Drum Smoker (UDS) FAQ, How Does It Work?
Q: How does a UDS work?
A: To get the most out of your UDS you should understand how it works so you can make adjustments. Every UDS performs a bit differently and conditions like weather (temperature and humidity), wind, and how much food you are cooking will create more variation. It will take some practice before you get it right.
The most important thing to know is that the amount of heat generated by the burning charcoal is directly related to the amount of oxygen that enters through the bottom vent. The oxygen is necessary for the charcoal to burn. The more oxygen there is the more heat the charcoal will produce.
See the picture above: air enters a vent at the bottom of the UDS (#1) and supplies the charcoal with oxygen. The charcoal uses the oxygen to burn (#2) and generates heat. Hot air (and sweet smoke) rises from the coals and cooks the food (#3). The hot air continues to rise and escapes out the top vent (#4). When the hot air vents out the top, more air (and oxygen) is pulled in through the bottom vent which continues the cycle.
Enlarging the bottom vent increases the oxygen supply which will allow more charcoal to burn, raising the temperature. Choking the vent down reduces the oxygen which will lower the temperature. Cooking with a UDS normally involves making slight adjustments to the size of the bottom vent until the smoker is running near the desired temperature.
Q: Why should I open the lid as rarely as possible?
A: Once you get your food in the smoker and it starts cooking resist the temptation to open the lid to check on it. When you open the lid a rush of oxygen enters the smoker. If you leave it open too long the oxygen will reach the coals and create a temperature spike. If you need to know what's going on inside buy some remote thermometers.
Q: What does it mean to "catch the temperature on the way up"?
A: It's important to understand this technique if you want steady temperatures. You might realize by now that it's difficult to quickly lower the temperature inside your smoker. You can't open the lid to let heat escape because it lets in too much oxygen. If you close the vent too much you risk your fire going out from lack of oxygen. The best way to lower the temperature is a slight reduction in the vent for a slow, steady decline in temperature. This means that you want to avoid large temperature spikes and that it's easier to raise the temperature than lower it.
When you first light your charcoal you'll have all your vents wide open to get the fire going. Monitor your UDS temperature and start closing down the vent when you're 25-50 degrees below your target temperature. If the temperature stalls (or goes down) you can make small adjustments to get closer to your target temperature. If the temperature continues to climb fast then close down the vent a little more. When your UDS reaches your target temperature the vent should be very close to the perfect size for maintaining that temperature for the length of the cook. This is called catching it on the way up because you're adjusting the vent before the temperature reaches the target.
Step 3: Ugly Drum Smoker (UDS) FAQ; How to Cook With a UDS
Q: What kind of fuel should I use in my UDS?
A: We're going to ignore gas and electric smokers and focus on charcoal. That means you have two basic choices: hardwood lump and briquettes.
Lump: lump is charcoal made from hardwood that has been cooked to remove almost all chemicals except carbon. It burns clean and hot and leaves very little ash, which makes it perfect for a UDS. Because it comes from hardwood a bag of lump will have chunks of charcoal of many different sizes. In an open air grill this can make it difficult to control the temperature but because we regulate the UDS temperature by controlling the air the differing sizes don't really matter.
Briquettes: This is the charcoal familiar to most backyard chefs, with Kingsford being the most popular brand. They are made by taking hardwood lump dust, adding a small amount of filler (which acts like a glue), and pressing into briquettes. Because of the filler they don't burn quiet as hot as lump and they produce more ash. The advantage of briquettes is that they are all the same size and it is easier to control the temperature when using them on a grill. Since a UDS controls heat via oxygen there is no advantage to using briquettes and lump is preferred.
That said, many UDS owners swear by their briquettes and produce great BBQ so neither choice is wrong. There are also other esoteric choices like coconut briquettes. When you become more experienced you can have fun experimenting with different fuels.
Q: What's the best brand of briquettes/lump?
A: Hoo-boy. If you ask a room of 100 BBQers for the best lump you'll get fifty different answers. If you want to do some research the best site is The Naked Whiz's Lump Charcoal Database (despite the name it is completely safe for work.) On the BBQ Brethren the two most popular brands are Royal Oak and Wicked Good Charcoal with WGC having a slight edge.
Briquettes are easier and the choice is clear: Kingsford, either the original or competition line. Stay away from Match Light (see below).
Q: How much charcoal should I start with?
A: The most popular way to start your smoker is with the Minion Method, named after Jim Minion. It is popular because it is easy and by far the most effective method for an UDS. The short description is that you fill your charcoal basket to the top, light a few pieces of charcoal, and drop them on the top of the basket. The lit pieces will ignite the pieces next to them and the fire will slowly burn down to the bottom of your basket. There are more details here.
This works because you are limiting the amount of oxygen that enters your smoker. A slow, steady flow of oxygen means your charcoal will burn at a slow, steady rate. When you are done with your cook, close off all the vents. This will choke off the oxygen, the fire will go out, and you can use any leftover charcoal in your next cook.
For really long cooks you can just start with more charcoal at the beginning. If you build your own UDS make sure you have a nice big basket and then you'll never have to worry about adding fuel in the middle of a smoke.
Q: How do I light my charcoal? Can I use lighter fluid?
A: Don't use lighter fluid! It will produce smoke with a slight taste of petroleum. When you're grilling hamburgers for 5 minutes it's not a big deal. When you're smoking a pork butt for 12 hours it will ruin your food.
Same goes for “match light” briquettes. They have the lighter fluid built right in.
Q: But lighter fluid creates a really cool pyramid of flame! Can't I use just a little?
A: Go away.
Q: Ok, fine. How should I light my charcoal?
A: You have two options. The old-fashioned way is to use a chimney starter. Fill it with a few sheets of newspaper and drop in your pieces of charcoal. Light the newspaper and 5 minutes later pour the burning charcoal on your charcoal basket. The advantage of a chimney is that you have tight control over how much lit charcoal you start with. The downside is who has newspaper any more?
The other option is to use a blow torch or weed burner. It's fast and super easy: just point the flame at the top of your charcoal basket for some seconds. The downside is that it takes experience to learn how long to heat the charcoal. Too long and you start off with too much heat and risk burning your food. Not long enough and it'll take you an hour to light your smoker as you keep applying heat. (Been there, done that.)
Q: How do I control the temperature inside my UDS?
Haven't you been paying attention? You control the heat by controlling how much oxygen enters the drum through the bottom vents. After you start the charcoal open all your vents and monitor the temperature. When you get within 25-50 degrees of your target temperature close off most of the bottom vents. This is called "catching the temperatures on the way up". How much you should close off the bottom vents is dependent on your UDS and will take some practice to learn.
Q: What should I do with the top vents?
A: If you are not using an automatic temperature controller then you should never have to fiddle with the top vents. Leave them all the way open and use just the bottom vents. This limits the number of variables that determine the smoker temperature and you will find it easier to learn.
If you are using a automated temperature controller then you may have to adjust the top vents at times. See the operating instructions for your controller.
Q: Should I use a water pan?
No. A water pan is used to increase water vapor in the smoker and can be important for off-set smokers. In a UDS, however, the foot sits over the coals. Melting fat drips onto the coals and evaporates which adds moisture (and flavor!) into the air. A water pan will only add to the things you need to clean up afterwards.
Q: What is an ATC? Do I need one?
A: An Automatic (or Automated) Temperature Controller is a device that will monitor the temperature of your UDS and control the amount of oxygen by using a blower. They are not needed and most UDS owners do not have one. They are a luxury for long, overnight cooks and for gadget geeks.
Some commercial ATCs include BBQ Guru, PitmasterIQ, and Rock's Bar-B-Que. Or, since this is Instructables, you can make your own!
Q: What should my first cook be?
A: If you're a newbie you want to start by making pulled pork. Pulled pork is easy to prepare and very forgiving; it's ok if the temperature spikes up to 300 degrees or drops to 200. The only downside is that a good pork butt can take 8-12 hours to cook so you need to plan ahead, but this gives you plenty of time practicing temperature control.
Step 4: DIY Ugly Drum Smoker (UDS) FAQ; Build Your Own UDS
Q: What do I need to make an Ugly Drum Smoker?
A: There are many different ways to build a drum smoker. At minumum you need a drum (duh), some grates, bolts, and a thermometer. Slightly more upscale models use a ball valve or steel nipples. Possibly the most difficult part of building a UDS is the lid (although it can also be easy; see below).
Q: What size drum should I use?
A: Almost any drum will do but the two most common drums are 55-gallon and 30-gallon drums. Not only are they the most ubiquitous sizes but by a happy accident (?) the standard lids from kettle charcoal grills fit on them perfectly. If you have an 18.5-inch kettle grill then use a 30-gallon drum. Use a 55-gallon drum if you have a 22-inch kettle.
A 30-gallon drum can easily make BBQ for 20 people and some people have cooked for 50, plus they fit in the back seat of a car. 55-gallon drums can cook for twice as many but it also uses more charcoal.
Q: Do I need to use a food-safe drum?
A: No, and it's probably easier if you don't. Food-safe drums normally have plastic liners that need to be removed. The best drum is one with a clean, bare, interior surface. If you don't know what the drum used to hold you are probably OK but do you want to take the risk?
Q: I got a drum with a liner. What do I do?
A: Some liners can be burnt off or scrapped away with a wire wisk. Other liners are persistent and can only be removed with sand blasting.
Q: Do I need to burn out my drum before using it?
A: Many DIYers will build a large fire in their drum as part of their build. The reason is that it will kill any dangerous bacteria or viruses that might be in the drum. If you know where your drum came from it probably isn't necessary but it doesn't hurt. If you're unsure what the drum used to hold then you definitely should burn it out. Keep in mind, however, that burning out your drum won't purge it of some toxic chemicals.
See the pictures above for examples of burning out a drum. After you drill the holes drop in some dry wood and let it rip. Once the file is out wipe off the resulting soot with soap and water.
Q: How many intake vents should I have?
A: This is another question that has no definite answer. Most smokers have a single vent; some BBQers prefer multiple vents spaced evenly along the bottom of the drum because they feel the coals will burn more evenly. More vents will also enable you to reach higher temperatures (400-500 degrees) for cooking. If this is your first UDS then stick with one vent to keep it simple. You can always add more later.
Q: Should I use a heat diffuser?
A: You don't need one but it might help. The diffuser will "spread out" the heat and make for more even cooking. I've had two thermometers inches apart that measured a difference of 30 degrees. This isn't a big deal if you're smoking a single butt in the middle of your grate but if your drum is loaded up with BBQ goodness a diffuser will prevent your food from being finished at different times. Ryan over at the BBQ Brethren did some great research using crescent rolls if you want to read more.
For a heat diffuser I wrap a grate with some tinfoil and poke holes in it to let the fat drip onto the coals. Other people use aluminum pizza pans, wok grates, or whatever else they can find. Some examples are below and you can find even more examples here.