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A long-time contributor to SeriouslySmoked. Jim has had a lifelong relationship with the art of grilling, passed on from his father and grandfather to him.
Doug is a hardcore barbeque enthusiast and connoisseur. While he spends most of his time on editing and research,
he sometimes moonlights as a product tester for particularly interesting things he comes across.
There are a variety of ways to grill outdoors, and in recent years, grills have gotten fancier in an attempt to give meat enthusiasts even more options. However, one of the best methods for grilling smoky meats doesn’t require a top-of-the-line grill with precise controls.
1. When to Use Charcoal Snakes
Charcoal snakes are great for attaining a smoky flavor on a variety of meats. Since they burn a little more slowly when arranged in this way, they maintain a lower temperature, making the meat take longer to cook. A snake can cook up to 15 hours if you make it long enough and use new briquettes.
It’s possible to use a shorter, hotter charcoal snake, but this takes some trial-and-error and can be influenced by a number of variables. It’s better to use a charcoal snake when you have enough time to monitor the meat closely and possibly make adjustments to it midway through.
2. Laying Out Your Charcoal Snake
Start your charcoal snake by leaning a line of briquettes along the bottom of the grill wall. Your snake can go halfway around or up to about 80% of the way around the wall. Lay a second line of briquettes against the first, making sure not to cram them too tightly together and block airflow.
Ensure the lid’s vent is opposite to the end of the snake you will be lighting first. Most round kettle grill lids can be rotated freely, but double-check this before starting to lay out the snake. The positioning of the snake will be very difficult to adjust after it is lit.
After the first layer is done, add a single line of briquettes on top of the first two layers. Then add a few pieces of wood for smoking above the briquettes, taking care to concentrate them on the starting end of the snake. Lean them against the wall to place them more easily without them falling over.
Place an aluminum pan with at least 1.5 liters of water in it in the center. This water will help generate smoke, moderate the temperature inside the grill, and serve as a drip pan.
3. Starting the Fire
Once you’re ready to start grilling, add about 10 lit briquettes to the starting end of the snake. Cover the first few briquettes of the snake, so they catch fire fully. You can use your preferred method for lighting the briquettes and then move them into position afterward with tongs if you prefer.
You can also light one of the pieces of wood for smoking at the beginning, especially if you have at least four or more pieces inside. However, be careful to light the one closest to the beginning of the charcoal snake.
4. Overall Burn Time
Like all grilling, your meat needs to reach a certain minimum internal temperature to be safe for eating. The charcoal snake method works best if you use a meat thermometer to monitor your meats’ status to avoid overcooking. Take extra care with pork, as the USDA has reduced its recommended temperature to 145°F as long as it has a 3-minute rest period afterward.
When using the charcoal snake method for the first time, you may find that your briquettes burn slower or faster than expected depending on the amount of space between them, how much smoking wood you use, and how much ventilation the grill has. Monitor the meat closely and be prepared to adjust the temperature with some trial-and-error.
You can remove a few hot briquettes if you need to in order to drop the temperature. However, avoid leaving the grill uncovered for too long, as this can reduce the temperature too much and make it difficult for the meat to cook evenly.
It’s not easy to add more briquettes to the end of the snake once the meat is in position, so it’s better to have too many than too few. Once the meat is done cooking, just remove it and cover the grill so the remaining briquettes can go out on their own and be reused later.
5. Using the Right Grill and Bricks
One of the keys to using this method well is having the right heat sources and oxygen flow. Although the method can still work with lower-quality bricks or an inefficient grill shape, you’ll have to experiment even more to find the right method for you.
A simple kettle-shaped grill works great with the charcoal snake method. The round shape helps keep oxygen flowing equally around and under the briquettes, which reduces the smoldering that can add an aftertaste to your meats.
Use new briquettes in an even, consistent shape to keep your snake burning evenly. Older or uneven briquettes can easily have inconsistencies in temperature. Newer briquettes can also help you avoid the charcoal aftertaste that can affect your food’s flavor if the briquettes burn too harshly.
Final Thoughts: Charcoal Snake Method
To have an enjoyable grilling experience you don’t need a high-end grill but a charcoal grill with the right construction and shape. The charcoal snake method is one way to maximize the range of possible uses for your grill and make charcoal a more straightforward method. It can bring out a full range of flavors in many types of meat, even if they aren’t prime cuts.
Practice using different types of meats and smoking woods like apple, hickory, and oak. You can even try smoking turkey or chicken meat in addition to traditional smoked meats like pork and ribs. By smoking your meats, you can add unique and new flavor profiles to traditional recipes, making your backyard barbecue the talk of the neighborhood.