Your heat source, and most importantly a consistent heat source, is undoubtedly the most important part of BBQ. Charcoal needs to be prepared and configured right to create long, low and consistent heat for smoking, with the two most popular methods being the snake method and the minion method.
Here I have outlined how to get both of these methods started. I’ve used Heat Beads® briquettes in the examples below because the uniformity of them creates consistency for me, but equally, you can use lump charcoal for the same purpose. In both cases, once lit, you need to understand how the vents on your smoker work to control airflow and therefore burn time and temperature.
The snake method is the used mostly in kettle BBQ’s, like a Weber, and is designed to use the lit fuel to light the unlit fuel progressively. Depending on how much fuel you use and your vents and temperature, you can get a cooking time of between 7-12 hours in general.
I generally start from the end of the snake (where I want it to burn to) and lay two briquettes flat side by side for my two rows, This will help the rest of them stand upright (but on a slight angle) around the rest of the kettle.
Lay two rows of briquettes, with the flat sides leaning against each other (you want the surface area to light the next ones along), and then a further row on top of these around the edge, in a 2×1 configuration.
Lay a wood chunk on top of the single row so your grill can fit on top. Remember that your food will only take on smoke for a certain time, so place the wood towards the front of the snake. Alternatively, you can also put the chunk on top of the grate above the heat.
Light a dozen or so in a chimney and when they ash over, add to the front of the snake and place your water pan in the middle. This should get you a consistent 250F for 8-10 hours.
What to do with unspent fuel
You may find that you don’t use the entire length of the snake during your cook. If you don’t, remove the grate from the BBQ (use gloves), and break the snake by moving the unlit charcoal away from the lit portion of the snake so they don’t touch anymore. This will stop them from lighting. Shut all the vents to starve the fire, wait until they cool and then store them in a dry cool place for the next cook.
The minion method works best in upright smokers that have a tray or basket for charcoal at the bottom of the unit, like the Pro-Q or Weber Smokey Mountain models.
Much the same as the snake method, you are using the lit fuel to light the unlit.
There are a number of configurations you can use, but my favourite is as you see on the right. Using enough fuel to fill the basket to the top (in this case, Heat Beads® original or coconut shell briquettes), create a ring around the tray with a space in the centre.
Get a dozen or so coals going in a chimney and when alight add them into the centre of the ring and place your smoke wood on top of it. As with the snake, depending on the temperature you’re running at and the airflow, this method will gradually burn down the unlit fuel and maintain a consistent
As with the snake, depending on the temperature you’re running at and the airflow, this method will gradually burn down the unlit fuel and maintain a consistent temperature. Add more fuel as needed if it all gets used up and you start to lose temp, but be careful not to overdo it and spike the temperature too high.
What to do with unspent fuel
Depending on how long you cook for and to what temp, you may have some fuel left over. If you do, shut all the vents on the BBQ to choke the airflow, which will generally stop the process (unless you have huge leaks of air). You can then re-use any unused briquettes of lump. I generally find some pieces that are partially used, I tend to use these in the chimney to start next time.