Gateway Drum Smoker Review by Harry Soo
For Memorial Day 2015, I thought it might be a nice change to do a product review of an exciting new smoker instead of my traditional annual Memorial Day recipe. I loved cooking on this new pit in my very first outing with it at the Long Beach West Coast Classic in May 2015.
Most folks know that drum smokers have been around for a long time and there are more variations of this classic design than you can shake a stick at. Many pitmasters swear by them, including Tim and Terri Scheer of Shake n Bake BBQ who are tearing up the competition scene with their uniquely designed steel cans. This barbecue super couple who owns Gateway Drum Smokers and Blues Hog Barbecue Sauce companies have many barbecue teams joining their Insane Can Posse whose self-proclaimed members post contest wins on social media whenever someone wins on their Gateways.
So what makes Gateway’s Drum Smoker so unique besides their snazzy graphics and shipped-to-your-door price of $649 (30-gal) and $799 (55-gal)? My friends Tim and Terri sent me one of their 30-gal drum smokers to find out. After a couple of test cooks at home, I decided to take it with me to the Long Beach West Coast Classic contest in May 2015. Apparently, word is out in barbecue circles that I’m experimenting with hot-n-fast cooking using drum smokers. As a result, I’ve fielded many questions from my fellow pitmasters and fans so for those who want to know, the answers are in this Memorial Day FAQ.
- After cooking on a WSM-18 for 8 years, why are you using a drum smoker now?
I actually have been cooking on drum smokers since 2012 when Sterling Ball from Big Poppa Smokers (BPS) sent me one of their beautiful 55-gal models. It’s one of my fav go-to smokers at home. For example, when I was privileged to cook a Wagyu A-5 from Japan, I used the BPS drum. I haven’t used the BPS 55-gal drum in competition because I can’t fit two 55-gals drums in my minivan.
My first time using a drum smoker was at the 2013 King of Smoker (KOS) Invitational contest in Palm Desert. In that contest, I used a small 14-inch BPS drum which was an “award” smoker that I had won 1st in Ribs at the prior year’s 2012 KOS.
What is unique about my Gateway 30-gal drum is its size and 18-inch diameter which matches my WSM-18. This drum fits in my Honda minivan and was light enough for me to load and unload myself so I decided to try it out in an actual contest. Since my sweetheart Donna was cooking Long Beach with a WSM-18 and WSM-14, I had room to shoehorn her pits and another WSM-18 and Gateway drum for myself in the same minivan.
- What drum smokers do you have?
I now have four drum smokers. Three from Big Poppa Smokers (one 55 gal and two smaller 14-inch KOS award pits) and one 30-gallon from Gateway.
- Is the drum a full replacement or to be used in addition to your WSM?
In my first drum comp outing, I used one 30-gal Gateway drum and one WSM. I cooked all 4 meats in the drum and then transferred them to the WSM after my meats were foiled to continue my cook.
- Does using the drum increase or decrease your cooking time?
In general, cooking on a drum requires less cooking time as you are cooking over direct fire without any deflector or waterpan. Further, I used a Hot-n-Fast approach (290F – 325F) on the Gateway drum so all four meats cooked much faster. Brisket was done in about 6 hours (versus 11+), Pork in 3.5 hours, Ribs 2:15, and Chicken in 90 minutes
- What motivated you to cook Hot-n-Fast since you’ve cooked Low-and-Slow all these years?
In February 2015, I had a chat with Sterling Ball of Big Poppa Smokers about Hot-n-Fast cooking at his Guinea Pig 2 contest at Palm Desert. Sterling mentioned that Tim Scheer of Shake n Bake was an awesome hot-n-fast pitmaster who starts his entire KCBS cook around 6:30 am Saturday.
I had previously met Tim and Terri at the Sam’s Club National Tour Championship in Bentonville in August 2014. Tim, who was at Guinea Pig 2, gave me a rundown on how he cooked hot-n-fast on his three 55-gallon Gateway drums.
I was intrigued when he told me he started his 4-meat cook on Saturday morning. My low-and-slow method requires me to start on Friday. Consequently, on contest weekends, I have to take a Friday vacation day to compete. Being able to start my cook on Saturday morning would mean I could avoid losing vacation days due to contests. So I could finally use my vacation days to go on vacation instead of using them up for barbecue contests. Besides, it’s getting harder and harder for me to take Fridays off due to the growing workload in my day-job so this Saturday morning approach might work better for me in the long run.
- Is the flavor cooking on a drum better than a WSM?
The $10,000 dollar question is “will the barbecue judges like the flavor?” Food cooked in a drum has a different flavor profile because the fat from the meat drips right onto the fire. The fat and drippings will sizzle, vaporize, and season the meat. In the WSM the fat does not come into contact with hot coals as it is caught by the water pan. I took 3rd ribs and 8th pork at Long Beach, so I’m convinced that the hot-n-fast method has a lot of potential. I will find out over time as I get more experience cooking on the drum and more contests under my belt using the hot-n-fast method. In this article, I share some tips I came up with as you read further down.
- Is the drum easier to use than the WSM?
The drum takes more effort to clean as you have to lean and reach into the can as opposed to the WSM that comes apart. It’s also a little trickier to refuel a drum in mid-cook as you have to remove your meat and drop your charcoal and not miss the firebox. Besides these minor differences, in the hands of a skilled pitmaster, they are IMHO equivalent.
- Can you cook all 4 meats on one drum like you do on a WSM?
There is only one cooking grate so I have not yet figured out how to do so on one drum. I’ve cooked an entire KCBS contest on one 14-inch mini WSM made out of a tamale pot and a Weber Smokey Joe but that had two grates. Stay tuned as I try to crack the code.
- How much does it cost?
$649 for the 30-gal and $799 for the 55-gal. This price includes your team graphics and shipping.
- Why don’t you see many teams on the West coast cooking on drums?
The popularity is growing so I expect more teams will start using drums.
- Do you think it’s an option for being home smoker? Is it a first, second, or third choice for a home smoker?
Yes, it definitely will make a fine home smoker. It would certainly be a contender as a first-choice pit in my home.
- Are you making any changes to the amount of sugar in your rubs and sauces since you’re cooking hot and fast on the drum?
I’ve heard that some folks think high sugar rubs will burn using the hot-n-fast approach. I don’t think so and the amount of sugar is the same in my rubs and sauces when I cook hot-n-fast on the Gateway drum.
- Do you think the drum works well for all four meats?
Absolutely. Once you get to the foil stage, it doesn’t matter and the meat is covered so you could switch to a pellet cooker, WSM, or continue in the drum if you have space.
- Is the temperature of the drum hotter in the center since there is no deflector and the firebox is in the middle versus the temperature around the edge of the drum?
From my experience, in a conventional drum, it seems hotter in the middle. The remedy is simple as you rotate your cooking grate every 30 minutes as you cook your meat.
In the Gateway Drum, however, the hot-spot middle typical in drums is minimized because the unique dual intake air tubes are designed swirl the hot gases in the pit. The 90-degree angled venturi tubes appear to create a vortex convection current of hot air in the pit. You can see the swirl as the hot air and smoke exits through the exhaust vent. It’s still a good idea to rotate your cooking grate every 30 minutes to ensure an even color on your meat.
- How did you season your new Gateway Drum?
I followed the instructions in the Gateway User Guide and sprayed cooking spray on the insides of the barrel and ran the pit at 300F for several hours. I repeated this twice and this method worked very well.
- What’s the easiest way to light a Gateway Drum?
Tim showed me how to start the Gateway Drum and his method worked like a charm. Fill the fire basket half full with charcoal. Place one lit starter cube (I used Weber’s 7414 cubes) on top of the charcoal. Leave the lid off and the left and right venturi vents fully open for 10-15 minutes. Once you see about a tennis sized area of charcoal is lit by the starter cube, put the cover back on.
- Is it easy to maintain temps on the Gateway Drum?
My 30-gal purred like a kitten at 275F or at 300F depending on how big of crack I set the Left and Right venturi vents. About 1/4 inch open vent is good for 275F and about 1/2 inch open vent is good for 300F. The top vent is left full open. I suggest you let your temps come up slowly as it’s easy to spike and over temp. I found it harder to bring it down if I let my 30-gal get over temp. After a few cooks, it’s easy to get a hang of it. Once set, the temp stays constant.
- How long does one load of charcoal last?
On my 30-gal, a 2/3 full fire basket of Ozarks Oak charcoal lasted over 6 hours and was enough to cook a brisket.
- Are there any good accessories for the Gateway drum?
Tim has come up with hanging grates to cook ribs hanging vertically in the drum. He also makes a round metal deflector the diameter of the drum with holes cut into it. The deflector softens the direct heat of the drum hitting your meats. I didn’t try the hanging grates or deflector yet but I saw Tim use it and he took first in ribs.
- Do you need an automated blower systems like the Stoker on a drum?
Not really as the drum is easy to use without a blower system. The WSM is also easy to run manually. I need my sleep so I use my Stoker to sleep on Friday nights as I have to start around 10 pm using the low-n-slow approach. With the hot-n-fast approach, I can get a good night’s sleep and start early on Saturday morning.
- Did you come up with any helpful tips and tricks in using your Gateway Drum?
- Run with the top vent open. This will help ensure a good draft in the drum and clean barbecue gases
- When you place the lid on the drum, be sure to point the exhaust vent on the opposite direction away from the middle of the two venture intakes.
- Don’t keep the lid off when you foil meats as your drum will shoot up to 500F and potentially ruin the paint. High temperature paint, designed to withstand up to 450F, is used and the bottom quarter of the drum is double walled with an inner metal ring, so the sides of the pit are not blazing hot. But if you exceed 450F, the gorgeous paint job may be in jeopardy. Here’s my tip: Before you lift the lid, close off the intake venture vents first. I found that this worked whenever I needed to leave the lid open for longer periods to move meat or to remove meat for foiling. The lid sequence is as follows: 1) close venturi vents, 2) open the pit, 3) hang the lid on the rim of the barrel using the hook on the inside of the lid, 4) do what you need to do with your meat, and 5) close the lid immediately.
- Keep the bottom of the barrel, fire ring, and bottom of the lid clean. Since it’s a drum, there is a tendency for old oil to accumulate at the bottom of the drum. The old oil may affect the flavor of your comp meats so be sure to remove old oil (a pet scooper works well) and scrape your fire ring and bottom on the barrel. Clean out the fire ring if it’s gunky. If a lot of old oil has accumulated on the bottom of the lid, wipe it off periodically to avoid the “old oil” flavor impacting your comp cook.
- Use good charcoal. Ozarks Oak or Hasty Bake is good (I heard they are having manufacturing problems at the time I wrote this article). Royal Oak is also good.
- Be aware that there may be hot spots around the area where the venture intakes enter the pit. Just rotate your cooking grate every 30 minutes and you’ll have no problem.
- Wrap some foil around the side handles of the drum so the handles won’t get black and oily when you hang your lid on the rim of the drum and the inside of the lid touches the side handle.
- Use crushed beer cans to level out the drums.
- Shut the venturi intake valves down more than you expect and let the drum slowly come up to temps you want. I found it harder to bring down temps that it was to bring up temps.
- There are indentations to hold another grate (you have to purchase one) under the cooking grate so if you wanted to deflect the heat a bit, you could place a sheet of foil on the bottom grate. Tim also sells a deflector shield for his 30-gal and 55-gal pits.
- To minimize oil caking and pooling under the fire ring, place a sheet of foil under so the gunk does not stick to the bottom of the drum.
I love cooking on my 30-gal Gateway Drum and will bring it when I compete. It’ll take me time to fine-tune my new hot-n-fast cooking techniques. Stay tuned for updates as I gain more experience with my Gateway Drum. Thanks again to Tim and Terri Sheer for letting me try one out and for joining the Insane Can Posse. Gateway Drum Smokers are awesome so go check them out yourself!