Control Cooking Temperature On The Pit Barrel Cooker

Table of Contents

No Knobs Here

Pit Barrel Cookers have been helping home BBQ’rs to put out incredible smoked food for well over a decade.  But there is a learning curve to using them and controlling temperature in the Pit Barrel Cooker can be challenging, particularly for someone used to cooking on the gas grill.   There is no temperature control knob, wifi feed, or digital controller.  How do you regulate temperature on the PBC?  Here are some methods on how to get to your target temperatures.


The keys to maintaining temperature on the Pit Barrel Cooker are to limit the amount of charcoal to start and control the air flow throughout the cook.  More hot coals or more air flow will heat up quickly, while trying to cool down temperatures will take longer. 

Fire It Up!

Most BBQ’rs will use a chimney starter.  If you’re starting your charcoal grill with a chimney starter, you fill it up as full as you can, light the charcoal with crumpled newspaper underneath, and when it’s glowing orange its ready to dump in.  If you’re using your PBC for grilling, you can use the same technique.  But what if you want to cook low-n-slow?  You’ll need to tweak your method. 

Cooking Low-N-Slow on the PBC

For low-n-slow cooking, you want a lower temperature to start, but you need enough charcoal to get at least a few hours of cook time.  To do this, fill up the basket in the PBC with charcoal.  In the chimney starter, put a very limited amount of charcoal (like 6 briquettes) and light using your normal process.  After a few minutes the charcoal in the chimney should be glowing at least around the edges.   Dump the 6 briquettes on top of the charcoal in the basket, and distribute them even distance apart.  Next add your hardwood chips or chunks, and you’re PBC is ready to smoke! 


Control The Air Flow

Next we need to get control of the air flow.  If we leave the lid off and air vent wide open, you’ll have a blazing hot fire in minutes!  Great for burgers or searing steaks, but not what we want for low-n-slow smoking.  To keep the temperatures in check, we need to check 3 points of air intake and outflow:

  • Air Intake Vent
  • Lid
  • Bar Holes

The air intake vent is the obvious air flow control, and it works, but not great.  My experience has been that with time, the cover for the air intake vent is less effective.  For better control, insert a piece of cardboard between the air intake port cover and the PBC body, leaving just a small gap for air to flow in fresh oxygen to the burning coals.  The smaller the gap, the less airflow, the less heat. 

Even with the air intake vent wide open, if there is no place for air to flow out of the PBC, the charcoals will not be able to burn effectively.  Smoke and heat flow up, so the next place to look is the PBC lid.  When your PBC is new, there is no “seasoned” buildup, and it may be difficult to get your lid to seal.  For this reason, I suggest doing a few cooks of something forgiving, like a whole chicken, for your first few cooks.  This will help season the inside of the PBC, including the lid, giving you a better seal with the lid closed.  When closing the lid, giving it a twist of an inch or two also seems to help lock it in place.   For low and slow cooking you want the lid on tight. 

The other area you’ll pick up some air flow, and heat, is the holes for the hanging rods.  The PBC is designed to cook at about 275F with the lid closed and the rods in.  But what if you want a more traditional low-n-slow temperature of 225F?  If you’ve got the air intake closed up fairly tight (you do want SOME air flow) and you’ve got the lid locked down tight, your next point of control is the holes for the hanging rods.  If you’re cooking with the rods in, wrap a little foil around the rods against the hole to limit the air flow even more.  If not using rods, you could stuff the holes with foil, or if you have some magnets, just cover the holes. 

Ribs And Chicken Cooking Machine

For something like ribs or a whole smoked chicken, duck, or turkey, you may want to lock things down for an hour or more to give the meat time to absorb that amazing smoke flavor, but you still want a crispy golden brown skin.  This is an area where the Pit Barrel really excels!  Start out with the lid locked down tight, and the hanging bars in place to get that amazing smokey flavor.  Then crack the lid an inch or two to build up the heat and get that crispy skin cooking.  I’ve had absolutely incredible results using this method.

Blazing Hot To Sear That Steak

What if you want high heat?  What if you want to sear a steak or roast?  What if you’ve been smoking a pork belly for a couple of hours, and you want to get some crisp on the outside or burnt ends?  The PBC will quickly get blazing hot if you let it!  Just do the opposite of what you did for the low-n-slow cook.  Remove any magnets or foil from the hanging rod holes.  Crack the lid and nudge the air intake open a bit wider for a nice grilling temperature or remove the lid completely to get a blazing sear. 


It’s been rare that I’ve experienced flame-ups in the PBC, but it has happened—something greasy like bacon wrapped fatties or pork belly with the lid wide open can quickly flare up.  Locking down the lid will usually take care of the flames quickly, but it takes a little longer for the heat to lower.  In a pinch, you can pour or spray some water onto the over-heated coals but be aware that this will kick up some ash and a minute or two of dirty smoke.  If you’re hanging a brisket, ribs, or roast, nobody is going to notice.  If it’s something mild flavored like fish or vegetables, you should probably remove them from the PBC before squirting.  When you use water, be especially safety conscious.  Grease fires can flare up, or even hot steam can cause some pretty serious burns.  

That's How You BBQ

There is a learning curve to controlling temperatures in the PBC, but with just a little experience and knowledge you’ll be impressing friends and family with incredible professional quality BBQ in no time.  Just remember the PBC heats up quicker than it cools down, so start your cook by lighting just a few charcoals briquettes and spreading them across the top of the full basket. 

Control air flow at 3 critical points :

  • Air Intake Cover
  • Tight lid for low temps; Crack the lid an inch for grilling temps; Remove the lid for blazing sears
  • Cover up the hanging rod holes for REALLY low temps


These are simple low-tech methods that anyone can use to cook some of the best tasting food you’ve ever had!  As Tim says: “That’s how you BBQ”

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