Eat & Drink

Can cookers smoking meats in a fraction of the time and winning big at BBQ contests

Do you want barbecue faster? Learn how

Loren and Cheryl Hill of Overland Park have won 19 grand barbecue championships and the American Royal in 2015, partly with the help of their can cooker, which allows pit masters to cook hotter and faster. They’ll be back to tackle the American Ro
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Loren and Cheryl Hill of Overland Park have won 19 grand barbecue championships and the American Royal in 2015, partly with the help of their can cooker, which allows pit masters to cook hotter and faster. They’ll be back to tackle the American Ro

If there were a late-night TV infomercial for Gateway Drum Smokers, the sales pitch might go something like this: “A revolutionary way to cook brisket — in just four hours!”

Sounds too good to be true? Brisket takes 14 to 15 hours, right?

“The can cooker is revolutionizing not only backyard barbecue, it’s truly revolutionizing competition barbecue,” says Jeff Stehney, founder of Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que and a 2017 Barbecue Hall of Fame inductee.

The 55-gallon metal can — referred to as a can cooker, trash can or drum smoker — creates a hotter fire to cook meat faster. The result: The time-honored barbecue mantra “low and slow” is turned upside down. And while barbecue purists in the crowd may see red, the hot and fast approach is winning rave reviews.

Many of the top teams at The American Royal Barbecue Contest at the Kansas Speedway this weekend will use the cookers, like Loren and Cheryl Hill of Overland Park. The husband-and-wife team, The Smoking Hills, compete in about 40 contests a year, strapping their trusty cans to the back of their RV as they crisscross the country.

Since 2015, when the Hills transitioned to cooking on four spiffy looking Gateway Drum Smokers, they’ve been winning big. That first year they won $100,000 at the World Food Championships and were named grand champion of the American Royal.

But at first, Cheryl admits, “I wasn’t a believer.”

Then one night for dinner Loren fished a forgotten brisket from the freezer to practice cooking on a can. Cheryl — aka the “tastebuds” of the team — proclaimed the brisket delicously tender. Then she got mad: She assumed her husband had wasted a precious waygu brisket, easily a $200 piece of meat they invest in only for competition.

“But after tasting the difference, why would you ever use anything else?” Cheryl says. “There are a lot of teams that have sold their old cookers or added a can to their arsenal.”

As word gets out, Gateway Drum Smokers are likely to attract a wider following because they are simple to use: Start a fire in the metal basket using lump charcoal. Add three or four chunks of wood and cover with the lid. Adjust the flaps on the two intake valves until the temperature gauge hovers around 300 degrees.

Inside, the vortex created makes it easier to maintain a constant temperature; off flavors and strange textures are a result of temperatures fluctuations. Then, with the meat on a metal grate about 3-feet from the flame, the fat of the brisket drips down, perfuming the smoke for more flavor.

Everything is cooked on a grate, except for ribs, which hang vertically from a hook.

“It’s not rocket science, but I think there’s something to the intakes that draws really hard and creates air movement,” says Dan Hathaway, manager of The Kansas City BBQ Store who also competes as Old Style BBQ using a can.

Fast cook times — brisket and pork shoulder in four hours, ribs in two hours and chicken in 30 minutes — mean competitors have more free time to drink beer with their buddies, or catch a good night’s sleep instead of keeping a watchful eye on the fire.

In 2011, Tim Scheer “couldn’t really create a rib to save my life.” Looking for a fix, he took an ugly drum, tweaked the design and painted it to look hot rod cool.

The next year Scheer’s team Shake ’n Bake BBQ placed first in ribs at the American Royal. Other teams couldn’t quite believe what they were witnessing: They said, ‘You cooked that brisket or those ribs in that trash can?’ 

Clearly onto something, Scheer forged ahead with a marketing plan while continuing to rack up more wins, including first place in brisket at last year’s Jack Daniel’s Invitational.

“There’s nothing new about cooking meat over live coals. The beauty is in the simplicity of the design,” says Scheer, whose company is based out of Washington, Mo. “As in all barbecue contests, there’s a bit of luck involved, but the drum works.”

A $799 price tag — which is more expensive than a Weber Smoky Mountain but half as much as a Big Green Egg — means backyard barbecuers are likely to soon count themselves among Scheer’s “Insane Can Posse” — a blog and Facebook group for drum diehards.

Some of the cost of a drum smoker is offset by using less charcoal and wood. But you can also make your own for a fraction of the cost using directions from Popular Mechanics. “Everyone and his brother who has a shop or is a welder is making these in his garage,” Hathaway says.

But, he adds, “if you want to be the cool kid in competition barbecue, you buy a Gateway. It’s like having a pair of Jordans.”

To reach The Star’s James Beard award-winning food editor Jill Silva: 816-234-4395, @kcstarfood

American Royal

The American Royal World Series of Barbecue will be held Aug. 31-Sept. 3 at the Kansas Speedway. Go to americanroyal.com/bbq for details.

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