Need a sure-fire way to get your charcoal to last for hours? The Minion Method is one of the best BBQ smoking techniques for any budding pitmaster. Learn the elite technique here.
The key to good getting the most out of your smoker is by mastering low and slow cooking. But keeping temperature fluctuations under control isn’t easy, and can make or break the success of your cooking. Thankfully we have the minion method. It’s a smoking technique that we can use to easily control our smoker, and keep good and stable cooking temperatures going for hours.
Today we’re looking at one of the barbecue world’s most popular ways of setting up for smoking: The Minion Method. Not too dissimilar to the Snake Method, this is an approach that relies on careful coal formation and setup to ensure a fuel and time-efficient way of lighting your grill and keeping it running at a good temperature for a long time.
Much like the Snake Method, the basic premise is that the charcoal arrangement allows lit coals to slowly ignite unlit coals. This allows you to leave the smoker undisturbed for far longer without needing to add more coals, disrupting the airflow and heat in the chamber.
Where it differs to the Snake Method is that instead of a long snake formation, it’s closer in resemblance to a pile. Albeit a carefully arranged pile.
This method is most effective in drum or bullet smokers, but can also be used in kettle-style smokers (like the Weber Smokey Joe). If you have an offset cooker, you don’t need this method.
In offset smoker designs, the heat source is set to one side of the food and is already perfectly positioned to cook your meat indirectly. With bullet or drum smokers, the heat is positioned beneath the cooking grates. While this can make everyday use simple, it presents problems with exposing the meat to direct heat, which can leave it dry and charred.
Enter the Minion Method. A fantastic approach to coal setup that makes great use of the small space your smoker offers to allow you to cook indirectly without having to limit your cooking load too significantly.
What is the Minion Method?
Jim Minion, a BBQ competitor, originally invented this method. It’s basically putting unlit charcoal and a few wood chunks in the firebox and adding hot charcoals on top.
The lit charcoal ignites the unlit charcoal and wood underneath, and this gives you a long cook time with steady temperatures and delicious smoke. Not only that, but it means you can use less charcoal. There are two configurations that are most often used: The donut method; and the top-down method.
With some handy coal formation and the use of a simple water pan, we can create the perfect smoking environment.
The water pan helps improve heat distribution, while also keeping overall temperatures steady and at a healthy level. The energy needed to heat the water pan helps keep temperatures low, while the repurposing of the heat for steam helps distribution.
An added bonus is that this steam can also help keep meat juicy as it cooks.
Advantages of the Minion Method
- Perfect for long smokes in excess of 6-8 hours
- Easy and quick to set up (usually ready to cook within just 20 minutes)
- Don’t need to add any other charcoal during cooking
- Easy to maintain a stable and reasonable smoking temperatures
- The water pan makes it easy to ensure even heat distribution
- Not suitable for achieving higher temperatures (e.g. for searing or cooking at at least 350°F)
- Steam from the water pan makes it a challenge to form a bark on meats like beef brisket
The Donut Method
This method involves covering the bottom of the firebox grate with charcoal in the shape of a donut and burying several wood chunks in the charcoal.
The amount of lump charcoal you use will depend on the size of your smoker, but the aim is to have a thick donut shape circling the perimeter of the grates.
With your unlit coals in a donut, light a new set of coals in a charcoal chimney. Once lit, transfer these to the center of the donut and fill the hole. Add two or three chunks of your smoking wood on top of this.
With the coals and wood lit, it’s time to complete the rest of the setup. Fill your water pan to about halfway. Open your vents wide open to allow us to get heat going for startup.
With this setup, your smoker or grill should take anywhere between 15 and 40 minutes to reach an ideal cooking temperature of between 225°F and 250°F, depending on the size of model you are using.
The lit charcoal slowly lights the unlit charcoal and wood chunks, and the fire provides consistent heat and smoke over a long period of time.
You should aim for a two to one ratio of unlit coals to lit coals, so you’ll have twice as many unlit ones when you first start smoking.
If your smoker temperature starts to creep up, adjust your vents. Start by half closing the intake damper at the bottom of the chamber. If this doesn’t have enough of an effect, close it further. Fully closing it should only be a last resort.
If you notice a sudden rise or spike in temperature, there is a good chance that your water pan has emptied. Refill it when this happens.
How to do the Minion Method (Donut Style)
The classic approach to the Minion Method is the most simple. Perfect for beginners, and a reliable go-to for more seasoned pro and pit masters.
You will need:
- Charcoal chimney
- Lump charcoal
- 2-3 chunks of smoking wood
- 30 minutes for setup
- 8 hours for cooking
Create a donut
Form a thick donut shape of thick coals on at the foot of your smoker chamber.
Ignite the center of the coals
Light a new set of coals in a charcoal chimney. Once lit, transfer the coals to the hole in the middle of your donut-shaped arrangement. Add 2-3 chunks of your chosen smoking wood.
Use a water pan
On the grate above, place a half-filled water pan. Close the lid of your smoker and open the vents. Allow the smoker to come to a target temperature of 225°F.
If temperatures creep up too high, adjust vents accordingly. If temperature rises quickly, check if water pan needs refilling.
The Top Down Method
Another configuration is to arrange charcoal and wood chunks on the bottom of the firebox grate, then pour hot coals on top of the unlit ones. The same process occurs; the lit coals will light the unlit coals and wood, producing steady heat, smoke, and a long burn.
The Minion method can cause the formation of lots of ash, so keep an eye on your damper to make sure it doesn’t clog up and put out the fire. I recommend natural briquettes for the Minion method. They don’t have many fillers, so ash is minimized. They also burn cooler than lump charcoal, making it easier to keep the temperature low.
How long does the Minion Method last?
On average, this setup can last for at least 8 hours. Variables include smoker size, vent settings and charcoal quantity.