Smoking meat is a great hobby. But a good and functional smoker is a costly investment. Not to mention that some of them are bulky and can take up a lot of space in your backyard.
What to do, what to do? Well, have you heard of the Charcoal Snake method?
It is an effective fire building technique that turns your everyday charcoal grill, i.e. the Weber Kettle, into a decent smoker.
In this article, I’ll get down to the nuts and bolts of this method, starting with its concept and names. I’ll then walk you through the process of making and lighting a charcoal snake, followed by its pros and cons. I’ll finish up with factors affecting the burn time, different ways of using lump charcoal, and finally some FAQs.
Let’s get fired up, shall we?
What Is The Snake Method?
Basic Theory & Names
The two methods share the same concept where you place burning coals next to unburnt ones. The lit coals will gradually light the unlit ones, resulting in a low and steady fire (225F to 275F) over the course of 10 hours or more.
With the Minion Method, you make a charcoal pile then pour the hot coals on top. With the CSM, you arrange your coals in a half-moon circle (like a snake) around the inner wall of your grill. Each one leans against the next one like toppled dominoes. Ignite one end of the “snake” and voila!
The CSM is essentially a stretched Minion. Same basic fire science but way cooler looking.
This fire control technique also has many names: the Train, Chain, Fuse, Coil, C-shaped, and U-shaped Method. Nobody knows who invented it. But pitmasters everywhere, from backyard regular to Interwebs famous, all agree on the name Charcoal Snake due to the shape of the coals configuration.
Type Of Grill
It’s best to use this method in any round and spherical grill, like the original Weber Kettle. It also works in the rectangle firebox of the offset. With the water smokers (Weber Smokey Mountain and Napoleon Apollo), the Minion is more favored than the CSM, although some folks combine the two methods together.
For a kamado, the CSM won’t work because of the grill’s narrow and tapered base. And, obviously, no bueno for gas and electric grills as well (we’re talking ‘bout charcoal grilling here!).
So long as you have enough room for the semicircle of coals in your grill, you can adapt the CSM to work.
What Do You Need?
- The grill – your Weber Kettle. Since the CSM is mostly used in a kettle-style grill, I will be referring to it as the main example throughout the rest of this article.
- The fuel – either briquettes or lump. Generally, briquettes are a better choice than lump. They are uniform and consistent so they’re easier to arrange and maintain a steady burn. Lump, on the other hand, is uneven and burns hotter. Therefore, it’s harder to build the “snake” and control its temp. Lump has its uses which I’ll address later.
- Smoking wood – chunks or chips. There is no need to soak the wood. Your charcoal will waste energy burning off the water first before the wood.
- Charcoal lighter – a charcoal chimney or a Looftlighter. Use either of those to light your starter coals or one end of the “snake”. Please don’t use lighter fluid to ignite anything.
- Aluminum foil – to create a heat deflector or wrap the meat using the Texas Crutch.
- Disposable foil pan – also acts as a heat diffuser and drip pan. You can add some water, preferably hot, to stabilize the internal temp of the grill as well as provide some moisture to the meat.
- Thermometer – instant and probe. These are the best tools to accurately check the temp of your grill and foods. Don’t depend solely on the lid’s built-in thermometer. The ThermoPro TP 08 is an affordable yet reliable one.
How Do You Do The Charcoal Snake Method?
Step 1 – Before
It’s a good habit to get your meat ready in advance. Depending on the size, dry brine it with your favorite BBQ rub a couple of days earlier. Salt alone works fine too. Marinate if you have to. Doing these will help tenderize your meat and enhance its flavor.
The next step is to clean out the ash, grease, gunk, and all that nasty stuff inside your grill. This will ensure it runs smoothly for the next 10 plus hours or so. After everything is in order, it’s time to build that charcoal snake.
Tip: If you’re new to this method, I’d recommend trying it without the meat a few times. Just so you’re getting familiar with its setup and temp control.
Step 2 – Make The Snake
Remove your cooking grate. Pour a load of briquettes onto the charcoal grate of your Kettle.
Following the inner wall of the grill, begin laying your first row of charcoal. Each briquette overlaps the adjacent one. Leave a gap between the two ends, forming a semicircle.
Similarly, build your second row inside the first one. Make sure that it touches the first row. What you have now is a bottom layer of two briquettes wide.
Start running your third row on top of the existing layer. Pay attention to the way the briquettes are leaning. It has to follow the same direction as the bottom ones. This is to guarantee the fire burns continuously throughout the cook.
Now, you can keep laying the top layer charcoal until it reaches the other end of the bottom layer. The alternative is to stop about five briquettes from the end. Either way works. These are where you’re gonna light the fuse.
Congratulations! You just made your first 2 x 1 charcoal snake. This is the standard for the CSM. However, you can customize the dimensions depending on what you’re cooking. Let’s talk about it then.
Snake Length & Size
There are two elements when it comes to a charcoal snake’s dimensions – length and size.
The length dictates the duration of the fire. If you’re cooking a chunky cut of meat, e.g. brisket, you obviously have to build a longer snake for a longer burn, and vice versa.
However, what I’d recommend is to always make your charcoal snake as long as possible. The fire only burns a few briquettes at a time as it slowly works its way through the fuse. Once your meat is done, you can snuff out the fire and save the unburnt coals.
Another reason is that it’s a hassle to add more briquettes during a cook unless you have a hinged cooking grate. If you don’t, you have to remove everything, including the meat, which can be messy. Besides, the grate will be literally hot and heavy.
With the Weber Kettle, one trick I have is to use the four tabs that hold the cooking grate as markers. Whenever I do my charcoal snake, I always start at one tab and build it all the way to the tab on the opposite side. Also, I lean my briquettes a bit more upright rather than lying flat. That way, I can stack more for even a longer burn.
Tip: If you use the tabs as markers, you should take note of how long your fuse burns from one tab to another. Doing so will give you future reference for the burn time and the location of the fire relative to the cook. For example, it takes a 2 x 1 approximately 2 hours to burn from tab to tab at 225F – 230F in my 18” Weber Kettle. Keep in mind that the size of the charcoal snake is also a part of this equation. So a bigger one, say 2 x 2, might yield a different result. Temp-wise.
The size dictates the heat output of the fire. Therefore, the bigger you build your snake, the hotter the burn. One briquette generates about 50F. And there might be 5 to 6 briquettes burning at a time for a 2 x 2. So the temp will sit around 300F.
Now, this is just a rough estimate. The exact temp will vary depending on many factors such as the amount of airflow, ambient weather, and the size of your Kettle.
If you have a big grill, like the Weber Ranch, you might need to build a larger snake. It is because of the extra heat needed to warm up the extra internal air volume and metal. But you also have to consider that the larger, and perhaps longer, the snake, the less space you have for the meat and water/drip pan.
Building a charcoal snake is a part-art and part-science. 2 x 2, 3 x 2 x 1, 2 x 2 x 1 or even 3 x 3 are all possible outcomes. However, the right configuration for your grill and what you’re cooking comes with trial and error. Experiment, take notes, and learn.
Once your snake is set up, let’s add some flavor to it.
Sprinkle smoking wood on top of your charcoal snake for flavor. You can use either chunks or chips.
If you’re planning to wrap the food later to cook through the stall, just put wood on the first half of the snake. Meat takes in smoke at the beginning when it’s still cold and wet. After wrapping, it won’t absorb smoke anymore.
Sprinkle wood all the way if you’re not wrapping. Be careful though as more smoke doesn’t equal better flavor. It might impart a bitter taste to your meat.
Whichever way you choose, be aware that wood generates heat too. It also burns faster than briquettes. As a result, leave a gap between two pieces of wood. If you place them close together, the first one will ignite the second one, which consequently lights the briquettes nearby. What you end up with is a hotter grill than you intend it to be. Or temp spikes that you have to deal with.
Step 3 – Light The Starter Coals
Light 8 to 10 briquettes using a charcoal chimney. Every now and then you come across a couple of odd-shaped briquettes (that does happen sometimes), don’t throw them away. Instead, use them along with some normal ones as your starter coals.
After the briquettes are ashed over, use a tongs to carefully place them on the empty space you created earlier, making sure they lean against the unlit briquettes. You can also just dump the lit coals on top. However, using a tongs is better for precision. Otherwise, your snake might not catch on fire.
I would immediately put another piece of wood on top of the burning end to get some smoke going right away.
Alternatively, you can light one end of the snake with a Looftlighter, if you don’t make any space for the starter briquettes. Aim the nozzle of the Looftlighter at the spot where the top and bottom layer meets and just let it rip. A few minutes later, you’re ready to rock and roll.
Some folks might suggest using a propane torch since it’s another way to light charcoal. That will get your coals roaring hot. It’s great for searing but not so much for the CSM. Remember that it’s a low n slow cooking technique. Be patient and gentle with it.
Step 4 – After
Now that you’ve got yourself a fire. Place a disposable foil pan with hot water in the middle of the grill. Don’t use cold water because the fire will waste energy heating it up. I’ll touch on the pan usage later in this section.
Put back your cooking grate. Close the lid. Then allow the fire to warm up the metal as well as the air inside your grill.
I’ll let the temp come up to at least 275F if not 300F. The reason being once you put the cold meat on, it will bring the overall temp down instantly. So by having your Kettle over the target temp range, which is around 225F – 250F, it will make up for that temp drop or Cold Meat Factor (CMF).
Tip: The size of your Kettle can also affect the CMF. It’ll take longer for a 26” to stabilize its temp after the CMF than the 22”. That’s because of the larger air area inside the 26”. The fire needs to spend extra energy to heat up that extra air volume. Whereas on a 22”, the air area is more compacted, making it easier and quicker to regain the heat.
After your meat is in the center of the cooking grate, on top of the foil pan, and indirectly away from the fire, it’s time to insert your thermometer probe inside it. Another probe at the grate level. Close the lid again with the exhaust vent opposite from the burning end of the snake.
With the charcoal snake method, you need to rotate your meat as you cook it. If you don’t, the fire will cook one side of the meat faster as it travels across the perimeter of your grill. The solution for this is to put a sheet of foil under and around the meat. The foil acts as a shield and protects the meat from direct heat, cooking it evenly.
One last thing is to hover your hand over the grill bowl once in a while to find the hot spot (better if you have an infrared thermometer). That is the location of the fire relative to the snake. Then turn the lid with the exhaust vent across from the fire. More on this later.
Disposable Foil Pan
The foil pan has several purposes.
- Heat diffuser – blocks the cold air coming from the bottom intake vent. Instead, the pan helps direct it towards the burning charcoal, separating it from the hot convection air that cooks the meat.
- Drip pan – catches all the juices and rendered fats dripping from the meat above. These make a great addition to a BBQ sauce. The pan also makes it easy to clean the grill after.
- Heat sink – the hot water soaks up some energy from the fire. As a result, it keeps the internal temp inside the grill steady.
- Moisture – steam from the water also keeps the meat moist. That allows more smoke to stick to it, which in turn enhances its flavor. Moisture also helps cook the meat more uniformly.
Besides water, you can also use sand or no water at all. Some people even use a couple of firebricks as a substitute for the pan.
Depending on the number of the lit starter coals, you will see a sudden heat surge at the start of the CSM. After the fire moves along the snake, your grill settles as the temp stabilizes. Well, that is an ideal scenario.
In reality, the grill sometimes drops down in temp or stays hot after the initial heat surge. However, you do have full control of it. There are two elements to manipulate – the amount of burning coals at one time and airflow.
The first element is essentially the size of your charcoal snake. As I mentioned above, the fatter the snake, the more heat it will produce. Knowing how big to build will come with experience.
The second element is airflow. You control this through the vents system (exhaust and intake) of your grill.
The exhaust, which is on the lid, is where the smoke escapes. After the smoke is gone, it creates suction inside the grill, which pulls more oxygen into it through the intake. The intake is where you allow air to enter the grill. The more air you let in, the hotter the fire gets and vice versa.
If you’re a beginner, I’d recommend only adjusting the intake and let the exhaust open all the way. It’s easier to just worry about one thing rather than two when you first start out. As you gain more experience, you can then play around the exhaust. Besides, opening up the exhaust to the max will prevent any stale smoke from dwelling inside the grill. Your fire will be cleaner that way.
Tip: When it comes to the intake vent, a good way to make your life easier is to mark the opening of it. Check out this video below.
Speaking of smoke, having the exhaust opposite from the fire will help draw the smoke across your meat and impart it with that BBQ flavor. If you have the exhaust above the fire, you will get less smoke sticking to your meat. That’s why you have to adjust your lid accordingly as the fire burns through the snake.
Another concern about airflow control is to allow at least 20 minutes for the grill to react to any changes in the vents system. Oftentimes, people make a change and expect the temp to adjust right away. Maybe with an electric grill but it’s never the case with charcoal grilling.
The last thing is to not overthink. Don’t get caught up in maintaining exactly 225F for 10 hours. It’s a-OK to just stay within the low n slow temp range (225F – 275F). It will cook your food eventually. Instead, focus on the more important thing that is to live, learn, and have fun barbecuing.
Pros & Cons
That’s the complete breakdown of how to make a charcoal snake. To sum it up, here is a video demonstrating it, followed by the method’s pros and cons.
- Low cost. Little briquettes wasted
- Set and forget
- Perfect for low n slow barbecue, up to 10 plus hours
- Turning the Weber Kettle into a charcoal smoker
- Time-consuming to set up
- Not suitable for hard searing
- Only use briquettes
- The larger and longer the snake, the smaller the cooking area
- Adding more fuel is tedious
How Long Will A Charcoal Snake Burn?
Burn time is an important consideration in any low n slow technique. The CSM is no exception. A charcoal snake can burn up to 12 hours but it depends on many factors.
As mentioned earlier, the length of the snake is one factor. Obviously, the longer it is, the longer the burn time.
The next factor is the charcoal itself. Sometimes charcoal absorbs moisture from the air, especially after some rain. Where you store your charcoal can also play a key role here. A damp storage box can lead to a short and sluggish burn.
Pay attention to the size of the charcoal as well. A Weber briquette is way bigger than a regular Kingsford Blue. That can definitely affect the burn time depending on which brand you choose.
Your grill wall’s thickness is another concern. The Weber Summit has a thicker wall than the regular Weber Kettle. During the wintertime, the Summit will certainly be more efficient at keeping the cold air out and hot air in.
Weather and elevation can also affect the burn time of your charcoal snake. Chilly air and higher elevation mean that the charcoal has to work harder to maintain temp, thus they combust quicker and shorten the duration of the fire as a result.
Keep these factors in mind for future cooks.
Using Lump Charcoal
Lump charcoal does have its uses in the Charcoal Snake method.
If you have some small chips of lump laying around, sprinkle them throughout the snake. Every now and then the snake will not catch on fire at some point along its body. By placing some lump, you will prevent that and ensure a stable and continuous burn. There will be some temp spikes but so long as you stay within the temp range, you should be fine.
Another way to use lump is to put some medium-sized chunks towards the second half of the snake. Oftentimes, some folks decide not to wrap their meat and just power through the stall, which usually happens after the first 2 – 3 hours. It’s also roughly the time that the fire burns through the first half of the snake. By having some lump there, you will crank up the heat, beat the stall, and shorten the cook.
Off-taste From Burning Unlit Briquettes
To hold their shape and prolong their burning, briquettes contain some extra additives besides charcoal fine. When those additives are lit, they give off smoke that can impart an off-taste to your food. The conventional wisdom tells you to wait until the outside of the briquettes is covered in white-gray ash before cooking.
Well, that’s not the case with the snake method since lit briquettes gradually ignite any nearby unlit ones. And it happens inside your grill.
Even if we wait until all the briquettes are ashed over, the center core of them isn’t lit yet. That means we’re still gonna get some acrid smoke. I personally never taste anything at all.
My best advice is to never close the exhaust vent on your grill. Let it open all the way and allow the smoke to escape. Another thing is to stay away from instant-light briquettes that are coated with lighter fluid.
Finally, use briquettes that only have natural ingredients and none of the chemical additives. Weber briquettes are a good one.
Variations Of The Snake
There are some variations of the charcoal snake.
The first one is to build the snake bigger towards the second half of it. This is very similar to the second method in the “Using Lump Charcoal” section above. Instead of placing lump, you will build a 2 x 2 or 2 x 2 x 1 for the second half and a 2 x 1 for the first half. Again, the purpose is to cook through the stall without any wrapping.
The second variation is to have two snakes going at the same time. You essentially place your meat in the middle with two snakes burning on both sides. This will cook your food evenly because of the surrounding heat, eliminating the need to rotate your cooking grate often.
The downside is that it’s only applicable for cooking something small over the course of 4 – 6 hours. I actually learned this from Whisky & BBQ. Check out their video below for more details.
Shutting Down The Vents
This is the end of this article. Please use the information here as the framework to build upon. It might take a bit of time to get used to setting up and running the Snake Method. But once you master the basics, it will be smooth sailing from there.
Then it’s just a matter of adjusting and adapting to make the charcoal snake work better for your grill. Remember that a method is just a method and you’re also a part of that equation. Have fun and enjoy the process.
And don’t forget to spread the BBQ love. If you have some time, please share or forward this to your friends and family. That would help out this website a lot.