When you join the world of competitive barbecue, you learn that there are a few things that the big dogs rely on to take home those grand champion trophies.
They swear by their grills, their meat and their fuel.
I’ve been competing for a couple years now. My meat and fuel are on lock, but I was going back and forth on smokers.
I’ve tried everything from a kettle to a barrel to a pellet grill. I’ve had some luck on all of them.
But after attending a competition in West Wendover, Nevada, where I had my butt handed to me, I made up my mind that I wanted to invest in a drum.
What is a drum smoker?
A drum smoker is simply a 55-gallon steel barrel that’s retrofitted to function as a smoker. Oftentimes, people refer to it as an Ugly Drum Smoker or UDS because they are made from old barrels people find lying around.
There are tons of websites out there devoted to teaching people how to build their own UDS. Ultimately, it comes down to creating a vent and an exhaust so the air flows through the barrel. Then, you can add on bells and whistles like wheels, handles, grates, etc. It also helps if you know how to weld.
The Hunsaker, in my opinion, is a PDS – a Pretty Drum Smoker. It’s got a beautiful glossy paint job and all the pieces and parts pre-assembled by a skilled welder.
If you still like building things, Hunsaker actually sells DIY smoker kits, ranging from $199-$599. The kits vary from an unpainted drum to the bare bones where you supply the drum.
While I’m pretty crafty, I’m no grill maker, so I went with the fully assembled and painted Hunsaker Vortex Smoker, which starts at $799.
Is a drum smoker better than other smokers?
Honestly, if you’re a pitmaster, you can turn out killer barbecue on any smoker, even an inexpensive backyard kettle, but when you’re in a competition, consistency and reliability are important.
And if possible, it’s nice if you don’t have to nurse the smoker to maintain the right temp all night and day, especially when it comes down to crunch time.
A lot of people like pellet smokers because you can push a button, go back to bed and come back a few hours later and find pretty good barbecue. I can actually do the same with the Hunsaker.
It is totally set it and forget it
I’m not knocking pellet smokers. I have four in the backyard. But when it comes to competition barbecue, I find that cooking on charcoal gives me results that the judges respond to positively.
The other charcoal cookers I’ve used have turned out good results, but they seem to require a lot more of my attention.
Either I have to add a $300 electronic device to control the heat, or I have to add coals mid-cook, or I have to check and adjust the vents every 30-60 minutes.
When I’m at a competition, my time is valuable. There are moments when I don’t have time to fidget with those added nuances.
Plus, I like to socialize. When people are walking by the trailer, I enjoy saying hi, taking selfies and sharing BBQ tips. The Hunsaker allows me to do that.
How the Hunsaker works
First, you’ll need to remove the grate, so you can reach inside the drum. Then, lift out the charcoal basket.
It has a handle that folds up and down, so you can pull it out.
A rod on the Vortex slides into a pole in the charcoal basket. Below the basket is a round pan that collects the ash as it burns.
To get started
Remove the vortex, and fill the basket with your favorite charcoal. Blend in a few wood chunks, too. Slide the pan out from the bottom, and add a couple of lighter cubes.
Return the vortex to the top of the basket, light the cubes, and place the whole unit back into the drum. Be careful doing this because the cubes are on fire, and some flames may sneak out the side.
On the outside bottom of the drum, you’ll notice a metal lever. Mark and Ryan Hunsaker made this foolproof. You have three options: Start, Run and Stop. Slide that baby to start.
This will open the hole in the bottom of the drum, allowing the air to flow through.
Leave the lid open for about 10 minutes, until the coals start to ash over. You won’t be able to see this happen, because the Vortex covers the coals, but trust me, it’ll be ready in 10-15 minutes.
You’ll notice that there is a metal bar that slides down to help keep the lid up. It works pretty well, but we get some crazy winds in Las Vegas that have still blown the lid closed. So just keep that in mind.
At this point, you can add the grate back inside, and close the lid.
Slide the lever to run, and adjust the cap on the exhaust. I like to cook around 250F degrees, so I only leave about 1/4-inch open.
You can monitor your heat and adjust the exhaust as needed to maintain temp. The thermometer is very reliable and right on top of the lid, so it’s easy to keep an eye on it.
I’ve found that the smoker will maintain heat without a refill of coals through an entire competition.
Prepping your Hunsaker for your first cook
Before you cook on your Hunsaker Smoker, you’ll want to do a burn off. This allows any production residue to cook off, so it doesn’t interfere with the taste of your meat.
Spray your drum and grates down with cooking spray, fill the basket with charcoal, and let it burn for a few hours. This sets the base for a seasoned grill.
My first cook
Some people think I’m crazy, but I’ve been known to try a grill for the first time at a competition. The Hunsaker was one of those times.
When my Hunsakers arrived, I didn’t have time for a practice cook. I only had time for the burn off, but I had heard so many great things about it that I knew as long as I could maintain the temp, I could probably cook something worth turning in.
I was beyond impressed, and apparently so were the judges.
I rolled the beautiful custom-painted orange drum out of my BBQ trailer, lit the coals and threw on a couple pork butts.
The color and bark were unlike anything that I had developed before. It was completely instagram-worthy.
I knew when I wrapped her that she had a chance.
I was competing against 40 teams, including top teams like Iowa Smokey D’s and legends like Johnny Trigg.
In the end, that pork – cooked for the first time on my new Hunsaker – got a 6th place call with a 174.8456. That was my best pork score, to date.
My next competition was a rib cook-off
I pulled out one of the Hunsaker Smokers again. This time, I used the rib hanger.
I dropped six racks on the hanger – and had room for a few more.
After a couple of hours, I wrapped the ribs, removed the hanger and placed two heavy-duty cooking grates inside. This allowed me to cook three ribs flat on each rack.
Again, I could have added another grate to cook even more.
The Hunsaker adjustable rack system, allows you to add five layers of grates. Each grate has three pins welded on the outside.
You grab the grate by the handles, twist it counterclockwise, and lift or lower it. Just turn it back clockwise to catch it back onto the support beams.
In the end, these ribs earned me a Grand Champion.
Benefits of the Hunsaker Smoker
Hunsaker prides itself on its Vortex technology. The metal vented cap on top of the charcoal basket is engineered to promote circular airflow throughout the cooker.
It also collects meat drippings and steams that flavor back into the cook.
Some pitmasters prefer to add a second grate with a drip pan to keep the dripping from hitting the vortex. This does make cleanup a lot easier.
Speaking of cleanup, that is one of the best features of the Hunsaker.
Remember that lever on the bottom that goes from start to run to stop? That lever is revealing the hole in the bottom.
When it’s cleanup time, all you have to do is move the lever to start, which opens it all the way. Then, using a long spatula, just scrape any BBQ build up through the hole.
That’s it. There’s no need to tip it upside down or to send your youngest kid inside to scrape the walls.
You’re not going to have to worry about ash inside either because the ash pan under the basket collects all of that.
Barbecue competitions involve so much maneuvering. We roll the grills in and out of different trailers all the time, so having a drum smoker with good mobility is important to me.
Other drums have basic wheels on the bottom, but the Hunsaker wheels are a game-changer. They’re 8 inches wide and sturdy.
I’ve rolled them over my Las Vegas desert landscape (AKA backyard covered in one-inch rocks) with ease.
Because of the way it’s engineered with an extra-large handle, it’s easy for me to push and pull it around, even though it’s 110 pounds.
My only wish on this feature is that the handle on the rear was as comfortable to hold as the spring handle on the top.
There’s also a front caster wheel that locks in place, so once you’re set, you can lock it down and get cooking.
The customer service is beyond incredible. Mark and Ryan are there for each and every customer. When I was thinking about buying a drum smoker, Mark actually scheduled a call with me, so he could answer all of the questions I had.
A couple weeks later, I had the opportunity to meet Mark and Ryan at the American Royal. While they were there, they walked around to talk to all of the competitors cooking on Hunsakers to say hi and talk to them about their cooks.
They’ll help you with your order to make sure that you get exactly what you’re looking for.
They even offer custom paint and logo plates, which is awesome for pitmasters who are trying to maintain a brand image (guilty).
Their five standard colors (red, blue, silver, gloss black and flat black) will suit the needs of most teams, but if you want a little more pizazz, just let Mark and Ryan know. I had mine painted orange, of course.
The logo plate is a gloss black plate that mounts to the rear. You can add a sticker or magnet to it, to help your branding even more.
For now, I cover mine in small Girls Can Grill magnets that I share with people who walk by.
How many Hunsakers do you need?
Before I bought my Hunsakers, this was the first question I asked. Most of the big dogs have 3-4 drum cookers.
I contemplated starting with one to see if I liked it, but the cooks I spoke to told me that to perform well at a competition I should go with at least three.
This allows me to cook brisket on one, pork on one and ribs on one. Then, the chicken can go on once the brisket or pork are pulled off.
Join the family
While the grill in and of itself is rock solid, the people in the Husaker family are equally amazing.
Some of the folks in the group will even give you their coveted cook timelines. It’s a great group that cheers each other on.
Other accessories I found helpful
I definitely recommend buying extra cooking grates. I find I like to have at least two per smoker. That way, I can put a drip pan under the meat for less cleanup.
For rib competitions, you’re going to want the rib hanger, too.
Because there is a hole in the bottom of the smoker, a little bit of residue can drip out from time to time. I picked up an oil drip pan from an auto parts store. It works perfectly to collect any grease.
To help with the cleaning, I use an extra-long spatula to help me reach inside to push the residue through the hole.
The last thing you’ll need is some tasty meat. Happy smoking.
As always, if you have any additional questions about this smoker, reach out to me on social media, or post a comment below.