The first grill I ever received was the Weber Kettle. My 22-inch kettle is so old, it doesn't even have the new features like a thermometer or heat shield for your handle; I digress.
While the kettle grill makes for a wonderful apparatus for grilling, making it into a smoker can be a learning curve. However, through the use of strategic charcoal arrangements - like the charcoal snake - low and slow cooking is achievable.
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The charcoal snake method is a charcoal arrangement used for smoking inside a kettle grill. It is also referred to as the S" or "C" shape method as well as the "fuse" method (lighting the fuse at one end).
In the Weber kettle, charcoal briquettes are arranged around the perimeter of the grill. The most common arrangement is in a 2:1 layer (2 rows on the bottom and 1 row on top). However, 2:2 or 2 rows on the bottom and 2 rows on top can add a longer cook time.
After you've arranged your charcoal, you remove 10-12 briquettes and place them in a charcoal chimney and allow them to ash over. You then put the lit briquettes back at the start of the snake and "light" the fuse.
Learn More: How to Light Charcoal Without Lighter Fluid
You then place either wood chips or wood chunks along the un-lit perimeter. As the fuse continues to light, the wood chunks and/or chips will also combust. Chunks usually work best for longer cooks, where-as chips (or even pellets) work better for short cooks - this is due to producing more "smoke" in short bursts.
Through vent adjustment, you then work towards achieving smoking temperatures of 225 - 275 F.
Oxygen control in a charcoal smoker is important. On a Weber kettle, if you were to completely deprive the coals of oxygen (close the intake vent), you effectively choke the fire and cause the coals to burn incompletely which results in gray soot that will get on your meat/food-stuff - this soot is acrid and is not very palatable.
Note: Depending on the size of your kettle, you can also place a water pan in the middle of the snake. The water pan will help to maintain lower temperatures and also add humidity.
Factors like ambient (outdoor) temperature can play a big role. The length of the snake also matters - the same could be said for the 2:1 or 2:2 arrangements. Meaning, more charcoal results in a longer smoke time.
Some sources report run-times as long as 12-14 hours. However, I've never had a charcoal snake last this long.
On average, my 22" weber kettle with Royal Oak briquettes in a 2:1 arrangement lasts for 8 hours maintaining temperatures between 225 - 250 F.
There are a number of factors at play though. Again, ambient temperature, elevation, type of charcoal, the smoker itself, etc.
This can depend on the brand you use for charcoal (size of the briquettes) as well as how big your kettle grill is.
I own and use a 22" weber kettle.
I don't really have a preference for charcoal and typically grab whatever is natural (lacking lighter fluid and additives) and is on sale. However, I tend to use Royal Oak and Kingsford often.
You should always start with a base of two rows arranged along the perimeter of the grill. This will usually result in ~50 briquettes. You then can do one row on top or two; Assuming you do one row, that's another ~25 briquettes, if you do two, it's ~50 briquettes.
Meaning you'll use roughly 75 - 100 briquettes on a 22" kettle grill.
Absolutely. However, there are some important notes to make about lump charcoal.
The main reason briquettes are used for charcoal arrangements like the minion method or charcoal snake is because they're uniform and predictable. Where-as lump charcoal will come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
A website I really like for lump charcoal is Naked Whiz - who has essentially reviewed all brands of lump charcoal. If you go to any product in his review, he'll dump out he entire bag and sort by size. He even qualifies the pieces as "large, medium, small, and dust/chips."
These shapes and sizes are not uniform and as you might expect a piece that's "small" will ignite and combust and may cause the temperature to spike.
To echo thoughts from my article that compares briquettes and lump charcoal:
Lump charcoal is:
For some reason, not many people mention alternative ways to do the snake method. However, there are products specifically engineered to act as a "snake" or "fuse."
The most popular is the "Slow N' Sear" made by SNS Grills. The same sort of methodology is followed, place unlit charcoal to one side and put a few charcoal briquettes on the other. The lit charcoal will slowly ignite the unlit briquettes and fuel the fire. You can then add your wood chunks along the fuse so that they are used throughout the cook.
SNS Grills also engineered the product to add a "water pan" or as they put it, a "reservoir." They note that the reservoir can hold one quart of water and it can last 5 hours at 225 F. The reservoir also functions as a thermal barrier between the direct and indirect cooking zones.
The basket itself they note will hold enough charcoal to smoke for 8 hours at 225 - 250F.
However, is the Slow N' Sear entirely necessary? No.
For some reason this is a big point of contention in the Weber Kettle community. The biggest gripe seems to stem from how much the Slow N' Sear costs or, used to cost.
The regular version is $69.99 and the deluxe is $109.99.
Is it expensive? Yes, but it's more affordable now.
The steel is 18-gauge 430 stainless steel and the welds are nicely done. The "Deluxe" version is $30 more and the reservoir and bottom plate are vented. The regular version does not include the bottom plate and relies on the bottom grate of the kettle to contain the coals.
Technically, Weber engineered baskets to function in a similar manner as the Slow N' Sear. However the setup requires you to create a "bridge" that connects the two baskets to even last as long. However, they also only cost ~$20.
As the saying goes, there is more than one way to skin a cat.