Smoke Meats Like the Pros: Oklahoma Joe’s Bronco Drum Smoker Review

Oklahoma Joe’s built a reputation on sturdy, competition-style offset smokers. The new Bronco, a more compact drum model, brings an efficient, heavy-duty, easy-to-use design to your backyard.

Big-time BBQers who are seriously into smoking meats often choose an offset smoker, which is what Oklahoma Joe’s started out making in the late ’80s. These types of smokers have two sealed chambers: one in which the fire burns to produce smoke, which then goes into the other chamber to heat and flavor the meat. But they can be complicated to set up and use properly as well as big, bulky, and hard to move around.

drum-smoker-lifestyle_199

Most budding backyard meat wranglers want something smaller, lighter, and easier to use. They usually start off trying to smoke something by using a simple charcoal kettle grill, adding some soaked wood chips to one side and sticking a pan of water in to keep the overall temp low for a long, slow smoke. Or they graduate to one of the various models of dedicated smoking cylindrical BBQs out there.

Traeger Ranger Portable Wood Pellet Grill Review
Traeger Ranger Portable Wood Pellet Grill Review

Traeger grills are renowned for home use. A new model, the Ranger, gives tailgate chefs a portable pellet grill option. Read more…

But these common types of smokers are inefficient and can be tough to keep at a steady temperature for many hours. You end up having to fiddle with and adjust charcoal levels and mess with various hard-to-turn vents in many locations.

Oklahoma Joe’s new Bronco is a compact, efficient drum smoker that builds from the brand’s knowledge and experience building competition smokers. Its efficient design lets you better control temperatures without having to mess with a firebox or scramble around to constantly mess with airflow.

Oklahoma Joe’s Bronco Review

This heavy-duty steel drum smoker has an 18-inch-diameter cooking grate (made from porcelain-coated steel) and is 43 inches high and about 30 inches wide, counting the handy side shelf. It’s about the same size as other popular brands of cylindrical smokers and comes with big steel wagon wheels for easy relocating.

19202089_okj-bronco-drum-smoker-lifestyle_10001

Most of the other components that make up the smoker — heat diffuser, charcoal basket, and ash pan — are also porcelain-coated steel, so they should last for a long time in the outdoors. The Bronco comes with three stainless steel arms that can hold the nine included stainless steel hooks. These give you the ability to hang meats, like ribs, vertically so you can pack more in during each smoking session.

But the real key to the whole system is the intake pipe that attaches to the very bottom of the smoker and the exhaust pipe on the top. Each has a numbered adjusting plate that you just slide open incrementally to regulate airflow, and both are within easy reach while standing upright in front of the smoker. And the lid has a seal around the lip to increase heat and airflow efficiency.

Access Concerns

Coming from using some of the more popular brands of smokers, we were a little concerned about the lack of access to the burning charcoal. You would have to pull the cooking meat, grate, and diffuser plate out of the top opening to get to the charcoal basket. It would be a pain to add more wood for more smoke or put more charcoal in for long, 12-hour smokes for cuts of meat like brisket.

But for our 7-hour smoke of boneless pork butt (also known as a pork shoulder), my anxiety over not having a small panel to access the burning charcoal ended up being unfounded. As Dan Corso, product manager at Oklahoma Joe’s, explained to us, “Because you have such good control over the airflow in the Bronco, you’re not burning anything you don’t want to. We’ve had the smoker maintaining 225 degrees [optimum smoking temperature] or so for over 12 hours without having to adjust the temperature much.”

Lighting the Charcoal

There’s also a trick to getting the most out of the charcoal. When we set it up for the pork butt, we lit the full charcoal basket in two spots, which made the fire burn a bit hotter and faster than needed. The Bronco maintained 225 degrees for the whole cook until the pork hit 203 degrees inside and was falling apart. But there were only a few coals left over after 7 hours, making us suspect the necessity of refueling for a longer smoke.

drum-smoker-lifestyle_293

So, Corso recommends instead using a firestarter on one area. “The trick is to not light the whole basket at once. Pack the charcoal basket, and then you only want to light a portion of it, then let that burn through the charcoal. That’s how you get extended performance.” This method also precludes using a charcoal chimney for starting the fire — instead, use Oklahoma Joe’s (or any other brand’s) firestarters.

Oklahoma Joe’s recommends lighting two spots if you want a hotter fire, mostly for occasions where you want to use the smoker as a charcoal grill. To do that, just flip the diffuser plate upside down and put the charcoal basket on top so it’s close to the cooking grate.

The diffuser plate, which we used for smoking the pork, is kind of analogous to the water pan you’d find in other smokers. But because the dynamics inside the Bronco — airflow and heat-retaining efficiency — are better, you don’t need a big bowl of water sitting in there. Getting rid of that component also adds to the simplicity of set up. But for extra moisture or flavors, you can add a pan of wine or broth or beer to the top of the diffuser.

Pro Performance, Great Price

Though we were initially skeptical about the Bronco’s lack of charcoal access, it turned out to be easy, fast, and delicious.

And the high-quality materials and durable, versatile construction make the Bronco a great value at only $299. Popular smokers made from inferior components and materials cost as much or even more.

For experienced cooks, Oklahoma Joe’s also offers the Bronco Pro at $699, which is pretty much exactly the same, just a bit bigger. It has a 21.5-inch cooking grate and a charcoal basket that will hold 17 pounds of fuel, compared to 8 pounds for the regular version.