How to Smoke on a Charcoal Grill: 3 Methods Explained

By Dylan Clay
Last Updated 
July 20, 2022

The Weber Kettle charcoal grill is the grill I use the most - however, for some reason, not many people think they can smoke meat on it.

There are two primary ways that you can smoke meat on a charcoal grill: the charcoal snake method or the minion method. Both of these methods work based-on the same premise - you add lit charcoal onto unlit charcoal. The lit charcoal passively self-ignites the unlit charcoal for low and slow barbecue.

There are also products specifically engineered to make smoking on a Weber Kettle possible like the Slow N' Sear, Weber's Char-baskets, or the Smokenator.

How to Smoke on a Charcoal Grill

There are two main methods used to smoke meat on a charcoal grill, they are the Charcoal Snake Method and the Minion Method.

There is also a third method involving additional equipment like the Slow N' Sear or using char-baskets.

1. The Charcoal Snake Method

Of the two methods, the charcoal snake is my preference. In my opinion it's more consistent than the minion method and the results are repeatable.

The charcoal snake method is also referred to as the S or C-shape method or "fuse" method.

charcoal snake method

The snake method works by strategically arranging charcoal briquettes along the perimeter of the grill.

The most common orientation is a 2:1 setup - 2 rows on the bottom and 1 row on the top. However, a 2:2 arrangement will add to the cook time.

Assuming a standard 22" Weber kettle and a 2:1 arrangement. You'll use roughly 50 briquettes on the bottom rows and 25 briquettes on top. If you had a second row on top, that's another 25 briquettes. Meaning you'll use anywhere from 75 - 100 briquettes.

After you've arranged all of your charcoal, you remove 10-12 briquettes, light them, and then return them back to the snake to "light" the fuse.

weber kettle snake method

Along the unlit perimeter you place your wood chips or chunks. As the lit charcoal ignites the unlit charcoal, it will also light the wood.

Through the adjustment of the intake and exhaust vents you can easily achieve smoking temperatures of 225 - 275F and have a fire that lasts 8 hours. However this number is greatly affected by ambient temperature, elevation, type of charcoal, even the smoker.

2. The Minion Method

In the barbecue world, the Minion Method is one of the most popular ways to achieve low and slow barbecue temperatures.

minion method

The concept behind the minion method is fairly simple, you place lit charcoal on top of unlit charcoal - that's it.

The Minion Method was founded by Jim Minion on his Weber Smokey Mountain(WSM). However, the method can be used in any number of grills, including kettle grills.

Technically the charcoal snake is a "type" of minion method only it's strategically arranged.

The difference between the WSM the Weber Kettle is that WSM has the charcoal contained in a basket as apposed to the kettle which is entirely open. Meaning, you have more control of the charcoal as the briquettes ash out.

While you can definitely do shorter cooks with the minion method on a kettle grill - like for chicken or ribs - using the minion method for longer cooks - like brisket or pork butt - can be troublesome.

Namely with having to add more charcoal as the coals will likely fall away as they ash out.

This problem can be resolved through the use of accessories like the Slow N' Sear, Weber Char-baskets, or the Smokenator. These devices contain the coals and make adding more charcoal much easier.

3. The Slow N' Sear

The Slow N' Sear is an accessory for kettle grills that can be used to both smoke (slow) and (n') sear (fast).

The Slow N' Sear features a contoured charcoal basket, a water reservoir, and is manufactured from 7 lbs of 16 gauge 430 stainless steel.

slow n' sear weber kettle
Slow N' Sear Deluxe in my Weber Kettle

Essentially the Slow N' Sear creates a quintessential two-zone fire; Meaning it can create the ideal setup for smoking inside a kettle grill.

If anything, you can think of the Slow N' Sear as a way to apply the minion method without the need for a strategic charcoal arrangement, like the snake method.

Due to the basket shape and the ventilated bottom plate (on the Deluxe version), it makes retention of briquettes easier. It's also manufactured from Steel which also radiates heat.

In my opinion, one of the biggest benefits of the Slow N' Sear is that it has a dedicated water reservoir.

slow n' sear brisket
Water reservoir with boiling water

An issue with the charcoal kettle grills is that they have limited available cook space. As a result, having a dedicated water pan isn't really as feasible.

For example, the drip pan placement in the charcoal snake (illustrated above) is technically a drip pan and a water pan. This is less than ideal as the dripping fat could impede evaporation - the point of a water pan.

The reservoir above is easily refilled and lasts for 4-5 hours on average. Water pans make maintaining lower temperatures easier and it also creates a thermal barrier between the food and the fire.

While I don't own Weber Char-baskets or the Smokenator, the premise behind them is the same. You can strategically place charcoal in order to apply the minion method and to make smoking easier.

Do You Need to Soak the Wood for Smoking?

No.

A lot - and by a lot, I mean almost all websites on the internet will tell you to soak the wood chips or chunks in water before using them to smoke with; This concept doesn't hold water.

I mean that both metaphorically and literally.

To prove this, I took a hickory wood chunk as well as hickory wood chips and submerged them in water for 24 hours.

Keep in mind, the people and products will tell you to soak the wood in water for 1-2 hours - talk about a waste of time.

After 24 hours, I took the wood chunk and wood chips out of the water and then split the wood chunk - there was very little, if any water penetration.

soaked wood split

The wood chips weren't even worth splitting as they already have very little surface area.

wood chip soak

The reason people say to soak the wood is to prevent the wood from combusting. However, all this does is cools down the fire. Any water that does penetrate, needs to be cooked off (water will vaporize at 100C or 212F) which results in steam.

Meaning, the wood needs to dry out before it can even start producing smoke.

In order to produce smoke you need dry wood, oxygen, and a hot fire. If you're super concerned with the wood (especially wood chips) combusting, you can wrap them in a tinfoil boat.

Charcoal Briquettes or Lump Charcoal for Smoking?

My preference for smoking are charcoal briquettes. Briquettes are manufactured to be uniform in size and shape meaning you get a consistent, repeatable temperature.

It's also usually cheaper than lump charcoal.

Lump charcoal comes in all shapes and sizes and is typically more expensive than briquettes.

When I have both types on-hand, I'll use the lump charcoal for when I need high heat - like searing a steak and I'll use briquettes for both smoking and all-purpose grilling.

With all that said, regardless of fuel type, charcoal is fueled by oxygen. The temperature of your kettle grill is then regulated by opening and closing intake and exhaust vents.

Meaning, both lump charcoal and briquettes will work perfectly fine for smoking on a charcoal kettle grill.

Open vents allow more airflow and a hotter fire; Closed vents allow less airflow and a cooler fire.

Dylan Clay
I've grilled and smoked meat for roughly half my life. While i'm not a professional Pitmaster, I've worked with nearly every cut of meat. Not everyone has a hands on guide to teach them BBQ. It's my hope that Barbecue FAQ can be that helping hand.

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