If you’ve been meat smoking for a while, you’ve probably heard of the Minion Method and used it many times before. If you’re new, you’re in for a treat. And no, it has nothing to do with the minions from Despicable Me, although it’d be cool to have a smoker that looks like one of them.
The Minion method is a fire building approach where hot coals slowly ignite unlit coals, resulting in a long and stable burn that is perfect for smoking meat low n slow.
However, there’s more to it. In this guide, I’ll show you the basics of setting up the Minion Method. I’ll then go into the details of each step, from choosing your fuel to different ways of spreading lit coals.
After that, I’ll dive into factors that can affect the burn time of the minion Method. And some common problems people have when using it.
But first, let’s meet the man behind the minion method.
What Is The Minion Method?
Jim Minion. The man. The myth. The legend.
Back in the 90s, Jim was at a BBQ competition somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. The Weber Smokey Mountain (WSM) was his smoker of choice and it was also his first time using it. In a hurry to get things started, Jim put the cooker together, filled up the charcoal ring, and poured a handful of hot coals (Ouch!) on top of it.
The man didn’t even bother to read the lighting instructions from Weber. Jim’s WSM ended up going on for hours at a steady temperature. He took first in chicken and second in ribs that competition.
After that day, a new method of “set and forget” fire management was born and named after its inventor – The Minion Method (MM). Backyard pitmasters everywhere would be forever grateful for that. Thank you, Jim!
The idea behind the MM is to arrange lit and unlit coals in a way that extends the burn time of the charcoal pile at an even, low n slow temperature (up to 18 hours, depending on various factors, at 225F – 275F). By doing so, you don’t have to keep checking and adding fuel every so often, which saves you time for other important tasks.
The only caveat of this method is that it isn’t applicable for grilling or cooking with direct high heat (over 310F). In fact, the Minion is only meant for barbecuing or indirect heat smoking.
Type Of Grill/Smoker
Because the MM was invented in a WSM, it is mainly used in water/bullet smokers (WSM, Napoleon Apollo, etc.). You can also use the Minion in ugly drum smokers (UDS) since they are similar to the water smoker in terms of structure (vertical and upright). Some folks get it to work in offset smokers as well as kettle grills, but with some extra accessories and modifications. I have a section regarding those grills later in this article.
As long as your cooker has a deep and large firebox, you can utilize the MM. The depth of the firebox allows the fire to be away from the food, where you can put a diffuser to create indirect heat.
A large firebox makes it easy to load more charcoal. That way, you don’t have to replenish every two hours. Also, you can reuse any leftovers if they haven’t been burned down yet.
Minion Method Tutorial
Here are step-by-step instructions on how to set up the Minion Method on a WSM.
Step 1 – Make Your Charcoal Pile
Take apart your WSM. We’ll start from the bottom at the charcoal bowl.
Fill up your bowl, inside the perforated ring, with charcoal of your choice. Depending on what you’re cooking, it can be all the way to the top or just a couple of layers deep.
With the MM, briquettes are usually the preferred option. You can use lump charcoal, but with extra efforts. The reason is that lump burns at a faster rate.
Place some wood chunks on top of the pile. You can bury them if you like.
Step 2 – Light A Few Starter Coals
Either briquettes or lump, light a couple of pieces using a charcoal chimney. The amount varies depending on the ambient temperature. More for colder days while less for warmer ones.
Once your initial coals are covered in white-gray ash, they are ready.
Step 3 – Dump The Hot Coals
Proceed to dump the lit coals on top and right at the center of your charcoal pile. You can either spread them out evenly or just leave them in the middle.
Step 4 – Reassemble Your WSM
Put back your cooker. Fill the water pan or leave it empty (in between the firebox and the cooking grates). Open all the vents, top and bottom. Set up your thermometer’s probe. And close the lid.
After this point, there are two ways to proceed. Chris from the Virtual Weber Bullet recommends putting the meat on the WSM right away. The reason is that cold meat will slow down the temperature climb inside the cooker. That way, it’s easier for you to hit the target temp and start cooking relatively quicker.
However, the downside is that there is still thick billowing smoke coming from burning charcoal and wood. Some people are OK with that while some aren’t.
The second way is to preheat the grill and wait until the smoke coming out of the top vent is thin and faintly blue. It can really take 30 to 45 minutes before you can throw the food on. When you add cold meat later on, the internal temp obviously drops because of meat being a heat sink. As a result, it will take another 15 – 20 minutes to readjust the vents system.
Tip: If you fill your water pan while waiting for the smoke to clear, steam (sorta looks like white smoke) will come off the exhaust vent instead of blue smoke. There is nothing wrong here. But to avoid this confusion, only fill the pan with hot water (so no temp dives) after the charcoal and wood’s white smoke is gone.
With this second option, you won’t be able to start cooking right away. But the white smoke won’t be there to leave an off-taste on your food.
Experiment with both and see which one you like better.
Bonus – WSM’s Vents System & Water Pan For The Minion Method
Whether you choose to put your meat on right away or wait until the smoke clears out, you need to get your WSM up to the desired temp range and stabilize there before the heat can do its magic. You accomplish that by adjusting your vents system and filling your water pan.
The WSM has four vents. One on the lid, which is the exhaust vent. It allows smoke to escape the cooker and coat your food with that barbecue flavor. If you close it completely, the smoke will choke your fire.
The other three vents are in the bottom charcoal bowl a.k.a intake vents. This is where you really control your fire. Keep in mind the fire triangle: air – fuel – heat. Closing down the intake vents means less air to the fuel, resulting in lower heat. Opening up the intake vents equals more air to the fuel, resulting in higher heat.
The vents system is your friend. Get to know it well.
Tip: Only make small adjustments with your bottom vents. Everytime you make one, wait at least 15 minutes so the charcoal can catch up. Please be patient with it.
Using the MM, your temp range will be from 225F to 275F for most cooks.
Picking up from Step 4 where you open all the vents. You have to leave the top vent wide open at all times. In the event your WSM gets too hot (over 300F) and the bottom vents are already closed, you can then adjust the top vent.
Once the temp hits 200F, close one bottom vent. It will slowly climb up to 225F. When that happens, close the second vent and the third one to half. The temp will then go up to 250F and stabilize there. Adjust the third vent if needed.
If you want to run hotter (275F – 300F), leave the third vent wide open and adjust the second one accordingly.
Now, if it is a windy day, close the vent where the wind flows to. You might also need to close the adjacent vent and only adjust the remaining one, depending on what temp you want to hit. Likewise, you want to tinker with only one vent during hot summer days while opening an extra one for cold winter nights.
If your WSM loses its temp mid cook, you have two options. First, open more bottom vents. Second, knock out some ash by tapping on the legs of the cooker. If neither works and you still have a few hours to go, it’s time to refill the charcoal bowl.
This is just a general guideline. Please use it as a framework and make changes according to your cooker and choice of food.
One last thing, always use a thermometer to keep track of the internal temp at the cooking grate level. WSM has a built-in thermometer on the lid. However, it only measures the temp at the dome level. Keep in mind that heat rises so the temp at the grate will be about 20F – 25F lower than the top of the lid.
Speaking of the lid, opening it will create an influx of oxygen, making the fire hotter. If you happen to do that at some points, lift it straight up and don’t tilt it. It will trap much of the heat and make recovery faster when you close it again.
In conjunction with the vents system, using the water pan inside your WSM is another way to manipulate the internal temp of the cooker. The water pan is a heat deflector that creates a barrier between the fire and the grates. What you end up with is indirect heat cooking your food.
Moreover, the fire uses energy not only to warm the water up but also to keep that water’s temp constant. As a result, it lowers and stabilizes the overall internal temp of the WSM, creating gentle and even heat throughout the cooker.
Another benefit of the water pan is the humidity from the steam it generates. That will keep your meat moist and wet, which attracts more smoke for better flavors. It also slows down the cooking, which allows time for collagen and fats to melt, making the meat tender.
Tip: Besides water, sand or lava rocks are also popular choices.
When preheating the WSM, start with cool water so it tames the fire, making it easier to control with the vents system. After 3 – 4 hours, add hot water to avoid any temp drops as the pan runs low. Don’t let the pan dry out or the internal temp will spike (air heats up faster than water).
You can also cook without the water in the pan. It results in longer burn time because the fire doesn’t spend any energy warming up the water and maintaining its temp. Renowned pitmaster, Harry Soo, doesn’t use any water in his WSM. He prefers squirting his food with a hot sprayer. If you choose to cook waterless, cover the pan with foil for easy cleanup later on.
Pros & Cons
To quickly sum up the Minion Method, here are its pros and cons.
- Good for beginners
- Easy to use and understand
- Long burn time. Perfect for overnight low n slow meat smoking
- Can reuse fuel if it hasn’t been burned down completely. Save on fuel
- No need to refuel often
- Works on any smoker/grill with a deep and large firebox
- Not suitable for high heat cooking/grilling
- Use briquettes as the main fuel. Off taste associated with burning briquettes
- Requires extra efforts when using lump charcoal
Now that we understand the basics, let’s dive into more details regarding the MM. Starting with charcoal.
Lump Vs Briquettes
As I mentioned earlier, briquettes are the better choice than lump charcoal when setting up the MM.
Reason being burning briquettes are predictable and steady due to their uniform shape and size. They also burn slow but not as hot as lump. They are cheaper as well, although they produce acrid smell and a lot of ash.
On the other hand, lump charcoal, being all-natural, burns cleaner with less ash. They’re generally more expensive and random in their shape and size. They burn hot but die down quickly so you have to refuel more frequently. Though you don’t need much lump to get started.
Either one will get your fire going for the MM. With briquettes, keep an eye on the ash content since it can choke the fire well into a long cook. If you’re uncertain of the off taste briquettes may impart your foods, buy the ones with natural additives instead of the regular Kingsford Blue.
With lump, break bigger pieces into consistent smaller chunks. That way, you can stack them close together to make the heat spread across easily. Don’t forget to give your charcoal bowl a shake to minimize any empty space between the lump pieces. Doing so will ensure the stability of your fire.
Tip: Any cook that needs 5 hours or less of smoking, like ribs, use lump. More than 5 hours, use briquettes.
In both cases, it’s always wise to choose one brand of charcoal and stick with it for a while. Not all charcoal are created equal. Your WSM might react differently to different brands. Master one before moving on to others.
Also, don’t use lighter fluid or instant-light briquettes to start the MM. Petroleum taste isn’t something you want on your meat, especially after 10 plus hours of cooking and waiting.
Wood Instead Of Charcoal?
Not a great idea!
First of all, wood requires time to be burned down to charcoal before you can start any cooking. Then you need to add new wood as the old wood burns away. That will cause dramatic temp swings in your WSM.
Secondly, certain regions only have certain wood species. Thus, it makes some species expensive to get, not to mention shipping fees. Burning the wrong type of wood is another concern. You don’t want to cook food with softwoods like pine or, even worse, lumber scraps.
To sum up, skip the wood if you set up the MM on your WSM. Too much work and money to make the MM worthwhile. Use charcoal instead. Less effort and cheaper.
That being said, you can still include some wood chunks in your charcoal pile for that flavorful smokiness. More information in the next section. Read on, please!
Adding Smoking Wood
Type Of Wood
There are three types of smoking wood – chunks, chips, and pellets. You can use all three of them. However, chunks are more preferred since they burn longer and smolder slowly. Chips and pellets tend to burn faster and don’t produce as much smoke as chunks.
If you go with chunks, pick the fist-sized ones. On average, you need 3 – 4 pieces per cook for the MM. Use more if you need to.
Where To Add?
There are two different opinions on where to place your wood on the charcoal pile for the MM.
On one end, people put their wood on top of the charcoal. They believe that meat only takes in smoke at the beginning or first half of the smoking process. Essentially, you smoke your meat for the first 3 – 4 hours if the cook is 6 – 8 hours long. After that, it’s the remaining charcoal that provides the heat to cook the meat.
Placing wood on top also allows any initial white, billowing smoke to burn off. The kind that is only OK for quick foods like burgers, but not for cooking thicker meats low n slow. Remember that wood catches on fire first before generating any quality thin, blue smoke.
On the other end, people advocate burying wood inside the charcoal pile. They don’t believe in meat stops taking in smoke after a few hours.
Their reasoning is that once the bark forms, the surface of the meat gets dry. And as I mentioned earlier, wet meat attracts more smoke. Therefore, new smoke doesn’t want to stick to that dry exterior. So it’s essentially because of the meat surface, not time.
To combat that, people fill their water pan or spritz their meat, keeping it moist and humid. And as long as they have fresh wood underneath the charcoal, the dry meat, now wet again, will continue to absorb more of that barbecue smoke.
If you worry about the white smoke from burning wood, the hot coals will slowly warm up the wood before igniting it, thus reducing the bad smoke. You still get it but the amount is small that it won’t affect your food.
In conclusion, it’s up to you to choose which way to follow. You can even combine both. Experiment and practice. To each their own.
Soak Wood Or Not?
No, you shouldn’t. Water will cool the fire and slow down the burning of the wood. Besides, water won’t soak through the wood, especially if you have big chunks.
Different Ways To Spread Starter Coals
The MM first started with Jim dumping the hot coals on top of the unlit pile a.k.a the Top Down. Over the years, however, the MM has evolved with numerous ways of spreading the starter coals. Each one has its pros and cons and can be used at different times.
Below are some popular ones. Let’s start with the old-school Top Down.
Make layer(s) of charcoal. Then pour hot coals on top. Spread them out evenly across the surface. Or just leave them in the middle.
- The original Minion Method
- Works every time
- Burn down slowly
- Even temperature
- Gradually choke the fire with ash as it burns down
Donut/Harry Soo’s Donut
Originated from Harry Soo. Create a hole in the middle of your charcoal pile, making it look like a donut. Pour your hot coals in the hole and voila!
- The fire spreads from the center and inside out
- Doesn’t choke the fire with ash
- Longer burn than the Top Down
- Easier to collect unburned charcoal
- Zero. Nada. Zilch
Modified from Soo’s Donut. Get a metal can (coffee, beans, etc.) and cut off both lids. Place it on the charcoal grate of your WSM. Dump your charcoal around the can. Light your starter coals. Once lit, pour them into the can. With a BBQ glove, remove the can using pliers or tongs.
- Similar to Soo’s Donut
- Sorry, I can’t think of anything
I picked this one up from a couple of members in the Virtual Weber Bullet Forum. Here it goes.
Get your charcoal pile ready. Make a hole in the corner near any of the three intake vents. You can also place a coffee can there instead. Ignite your starter coals. Then dump them into the corner hole/can.
Tip: You don’t even have to make a hole. You can just use a Looftlighter or a propane torch to light one corner.
To make the fire light faster, open the intake vent, where you put hot coals close to, wide open. The up-draft from the exhaust will pull more oxygen through that intake vent, igniting the surrounding unlit coals quicker. To slow down the fire, close that intake vent and open the adjacent one(s).
Placing the starter coals at the perimeter of the pile will significantly prolong the burn time. The fire radiates out in 180 degrees instead of 360 degrees if you start from the center.
- Longer burn time than other methods
- Still can’t think of anything.
Factors Affecting Burn Time
Burn time is the most crucial element that makes the MM effective. Do it right, your WSM can go on for hours on end with minimal attention from you. The MM is “set and forget” fire control after all.
So what factors can really affect your burn time?
Picking up from the last section, the amount of starter coals and how you spread them is a factor. Too many hot coals in the beginning can ignite the fire too fast. However, if you place them in the corner instead of the center of your unlit coals, you might be able to save the day.
The type of charcoal is also a factor. We’ve already gone through the differences between lump and briquettes. Another factor is the model of your WSM. The 22” WSM has more cooking volume; therefore, it needs more fuel to maintain its burn than the mini 14” WSM.
Don’t forget to consider wind, elevation, and outside weather temperature. Not to mention how often you open the lid and, obviously, what type of meat you have for dinner. Smoking a brisket requires more burn times than a rack of ribs.
As you cook more using the MM, pay attention to these factors. Document every success and failure. They serve as good reference points if you ever run into any issues with the MM in the future.
Common Issues With The Minion Method
My Smoker Get Too Hot. It’s Impossible To Get The Temp Down.
One of the most common problems people have with the MM is that it gets their WSM too hot. Yet, they can’t seem to bring it down to their target temp.
The first thing to look for is whether the WSM is new or not. Oftentimes, new WSM tends to overheat thus you need to “season” it before any serious cook. Click here for some useful tips on how to do so from Harry Soo.
If your WSM isn’t new, the next thing to do is, of course, adjust your vents system. Close all bottom vents and partially shut down the top vent. If that still isn’t working, fill your water pan with cold water or ice cubes. You might even need to remove some of the burning charcoal.
If all fail, your WSM might have a leak(s) somewhere. Common places are the access door and the joint between the midsection and the charcoal bowl. Leaks allow more air to enter the cooker thus bringing the internal temp up. You might want to install some gaskets around those areas for a better airtight seal.
Nevertheless, one preemptive way to ensure your WSM doesn’t overshoot its temp using the MM is to light only a small amount of initial coals (6 – 8 briquettes). The truth is, it’s easier and less time-consuming to bring the cooker up to temp than to choke it down.
Is Burning Unlit Briquettes Affecting The Flavor?
Another common issue with the MM is the off-taste associated with burning unlit briquettes inside the WSM.
Personally, I can’t taste or smell anything funny in my food at all. Only the smoke flavor. Now, we can all agree that briquettes smell pretty bad when first lighting. In fact, I smell it in my clothes just by standing there waiting for them to ash over in my chimney starter.
But can that smell really be infused into your foods, given that the lit coals continuously ignite the unlit ones over many hours? According to Jim Minion himself, as the top layer of coals lights off the bottom layer, it also acts as a catalytic burner burning off any bad smoke or gases coming from the bottom coals. You can see his full answer here.
Straight from the horse’s mouth. Now, some folks might suggest not to use the MM and only cook once the briquets are completely ashed over. But the center of those coals isn’t igniting because briquettes burn outside in. So you’re always gonna have unlit briquettes waiting to be lit.
This is one of those things that we all have to decide for ourselves. If the smell is a nuisance, simply switch to lump or natural briquettes. If it doesn’t, continue to enjoy what you’re cooking.
At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong in BBQ.
Modified Minion Method For Other Grill And Smoker
The Weber Kettle is different than the WSM in terms of structure. It’s more horizontal and shallow than vertical and deep. Because of that, the fire will be close to the food, making it hard to create indirect heat.
To solve this problem, we can push the coals to one side and place our meat on the other side of the grill. Then put a barrier between the two. This setup is called a two-zone fire.
Now, the firebox of the Kettle isn’t that small compared to the WSM’s. However, because we only use half of it, it reduces the coal capacity. That leads to the second problem where we have to refuel more often for the MM, resulting in extra efforts and longer cook times.
It’s the structure of the grill and we have to work with what we have. That said, there is another low n slow method that is designed for the Kettle. It combines the concept of the MM and two-zone fire. It is the Charcoal Snake.
Here is a video to show you how to set up the MM on a Weber Kettle.
I don’t personally own any offset smoker. So I don’t really know how to use the MM on one. But I found a helpful video that can demonstrate that. Enjoy!
That’s it – everything you need to know about the Minion Method. It’s easy to understand and beginner friendly. Try it out and let me know how it goes for you in the comment section below.
Until next time, take care and smoke on!