If you’re new to low and slow BBQ smoking and unsure where to start, then learning the Snake Method is a great entry point to efficient charcoal lighting.
It’s easy to do, and makes efficient use of coals and wood so that waste is limited. In this guide I’m going to walk you through why the Snake Method works so well and how to do it.
Ideal smoking temperature often sits at around 225°F (107°C). If we go too low then your meat will never reach a safe enough temperature to eat, and if we go too high then you’ll risk drying out your food.
For newcomers, controlling your smoker or grill to sit at that 225°F for hours is a challenge, and is something that even more seasoned grill-heads struggle with.
The Snake Method is a great way to answer two of our most pressing concerns as grill masters. One is it helps arrange our coals in a formation that helps keep temperatures steady over a long period of time without needing constant attending to.
The other is it gives you the best bang for your buck in terms of fuel efficiency. It doesn’t require you to use pile after pile of lump charcoal, but returns hours of cooking fuel.
What is the Snake Method?
The method was conceived with Weber charcoal grills in mind, namely their Kettle and Jumbo Joe models. The domed shape of their main chambers lend themselves perfectly to the method, but you can easily tweak this to accommodate the method if you have another model of charcoal grill.
The theory of the method works by laying down a ring of charcoal briquettes around the perimeter of your grill grates, effectively creating a ‘snake’ shape.
You then place just a few lit coals at the end of the snake. By allowing these coals to have a (slow) domino effect on the other coals, these will help keep a consistent level of heat going for hours.
How to use the Snake Method on a charcoal grill
If you’ve ever thought that not having a BBQ smoker is a barrier between you and making your own homemade BBQ smoked food then you needn’t worry.
With careful arrangement of your coals, you can turn your regular charcoal grill into your very own fully functioning barbecue smoker.
This is where the Snake Method comes in. It can provide indirect heat for a long period of time while ensuring that temperatures stay low and consistent.
It leverages the smoke from wood chunks to permeate your food with fabulous smokey flavors, and there’s virtually no waste.
Here’s what you do.
Place 15-20 charcoal briquettes around the outside edge of the charcoal grate. Line them up so they are touching, but not overlapping. You’ll have one long line of briquettes that resembles a black snake! Make another “snake” right beside the one you just did, and be sure both snakes’ sides are touching each other.
Now place a line of briquettes on top of each “snake” you’ve made — the end result will be two lines of charcoal that are each two coals high.
Place two or three wood chunks on top of the charcoal starting about 5 inches from the end of the snake you plan to light first. The wood chunks should be several inches apart, depending on when you want the smoke to kick in during cooking. I like to use wood early in the smoking process because the flavor penetrates best at that stage. The amount and type of wood you use will depend on what you’re cooking.
Place a disposable aluminum pan the middle of the grill. Fill the pan halfway up with tap water, being careful not to splash it on the coals. This will provide moisture and heat regulation during cooking.
Light 8 to 10 charcoals in a charcoal chimney. If you don’t have one, use the part of the charcoal grate that is opposite the snake. (If you use the charcoal grate, you’ll have to add the water pan after the snake has been lit.) Let the coals heat up until they’re covered with light gray ash and glowing red inside. Using long tongs and grilling gloves, place the lit coals at one end of the snake, making sure to cover the first few unlit coals with the hot ones.
Put the cooking grate on the grill, and you’re in business!
Place the meat on the cooking grate, but don’t put it over the snake. We are going for indirect heat here. Keep the lid closed as much as possible, and check the heat periodically to make sure it stays between 225 and 250℉. (If you’re cooking poultry, the heat should be between 275 and 350℉.) Make adjustments to vents as needed.
The lit coals will slowly ignite the unlit coals like a long fuse. The wood chunks will also light, burn, and give you that delicious smoky flavor. Remember, longer snakes equal longer cook times, and visa versa.
In my opinion, using all natural briquettes is the best choice for the snake method. Lump charcoal burns hotter, so keeping the temperature low may be more difficult.