They say that a great charcoal grill is just a so-so smoker. But do you really need to buy a $600 smoker to give your brisket the delectable flavor you seek? Weber's all-in-one chef, cookbook author, and food blogger Jamie Purviance says you don't have to splurge or hack apart your grill to make it a smoker. You just need to know the snake method.
"Innovations are happening in barbecue all the time," he says. "The snake method is one the more recent innovations, and it is just now going mainstream."
The method involves building a stacked wall of briquettes leaning against each other like dominoes in a semicircle. Light the charcoal on one end and let it burn like a fuse down the path of briquettes over the course of half a day. Snake method works on any circular charcoal grill, like the one you might have at home or the small one you take on camping grills. It'll hold a steady temperature all day and slow-cook ribs, brisket, pulled pork, fish, and whole turkeys and chickens. By dinner you'll have tender, fall-off-the-bone barbecue.
"It's good for meat that you want to smoke for several hours at low temperatures without having to add more charcoal," says Purviance. "It is not good for anything you want to grill over direct heat."
Be the first on your block to learn snake method by following these steps, courtesy of Purviance:
Building the Snake
Use charcoal briquettes for the main body of the snake. Lay two rows of briquettes around the perimeter of half the charcoal grate (the lower grate), one row inside the other, making sure to neatly pack them against one other. Stack another layer atop each, so you end up with a semicircle two briquettes wide and two briquettes high. Because the snake is essentially a charcoal fuse, the longer you build it, the longer it'll burn. Now take four of five chunks of wood (for flavor) and stack them next to each other on top of one end of the Snake. Leave four or five inches of space from the very end before you place the first piece of wood.
Lighting the Snake
Don't go for lighter fluid; if meat were supposed to taste like a parking garage smells, then people would marinate with this stuff. Instead, use a chimney starter. It looks like a Thermos with a wire rack inside. It's going to get hot, so find your insulated glove or mitt.
Fill the space under the rack with drop the rack in place, and put ten or so briquettes on top of it. Light the wax cubes, then watch for the briquettes to ash over and turn light gray. When they do, remove them with tongs and pile them atop the head of the Snake where you left space next to the wood. Now you've got a fire, even if it doesn't look like it. It's slow, but it's there.
Setting Up the Water Pan
Place a disposable foil water pan three-quarters full of water on the charcoal grate inside the semi-circle of the snake, as shown. "The water will help to keep the temperatures steady, and it will create a nice, moist environment for the meat to cook," Purviance says. Set the cooking grate in place over the charcoal grate, pan, and snake, and close the lid. Upper and lower vents control the airflow, and therefore the temperature, of the fire. Open the lower vent fully, and half-open the upper vent. Hang around until the temperature hits 250-300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Adding the Meat
Place the meat in the center of the cooking grate. Make sure none of it is directly above the Snake. Unlike hamburgers and thin cuts of meat that you cook directly over burning charcoal (direct grilling), you want to slow-smoke thick cuts of meat by placing them away from the charcoal (indirect grilling). Trying to cook a rack of ribs or a turkey like you would cook a steak turns it into a mess burnt on the outside and raw on the inside.
Maintaining the Fire
"The beauty of this method is you shouldn't have to do much adjusting," says Purviance. Check the thermometer every hour, and keep it between 250 and 300 degrees. Manage the fire as needed by opening vents to raise the temperature and closing them to lower it, but never close the vents completely. Leave the lid on as much as possible. Every time you open it for a look, you let all that perfectly heated air escape. If you need to extend the life of the fire, add unlit briquettes to the tail of the snake.
"People ask me all the time, 'How long should I cook meat and when will I know it's done?'" Purviance says. For slow-cooked barbecue items, like pork ribs, tenderness is a better guide than temperature. For example, with ribs, the meat should tear when you push the tips of exposed, adjacent bones in opposite directions. The other way to check is with the bend (or bounce) test. Lift a rack at one end and let it bend (or bounce) in the air. If the meat in the middle tears open, it's done.