There are some things barbecue champions have that home cooks don’t: years of experience on the competition circuit; proprietary recipes and secret ingredients; and fancy, commercial equipment. There’s not much we can do about the first two, but we can show you how to get your charcoal grill to behave like a commercial smoker.
Commercial smokers have fireboxes set away from the smoking chamber, so the meat is never too close to the fire. This indirect cooking allows the meat to retain moisture while it slowly tenderizes and soaks up smoke flavor over multiple hours. It’s the key to irresistibly tender long-smoked beef ribs, pork ribs, barbecue pork, and—the holy grail of smoked meat—Texas-style brisket.
The charcoal grill you have in your backyard doesn’t have a smokebox. In order to replace the coals while your slow-smoking meat is on the grill, you’d have to open the grill, letting out all the heat in the process and making it difficult to maintain a steady temperature inside the grill.
This is where you should take a cue from those barbecue champions. There’s a grill setup used on the competitive barbecue circuit that you can replicate on your home grill. It’s called the “charcoal snake,” and when it comes to slow-smoking meats at home, it’s a game changer. (After grilling 497 pounds of beef, Cook’s Country grilling expert Morgan Bolling found it was the key to unlocking Texas-level smokiness in her Texas Barbecue Brisket recipe.)
A charcoal snake is a C-shaped array of briquettes that slowly burns from one end to the other. With wood chunks on top, it provides hours of low, slow, smoky heat without the need to open the grill or refuel. Precisely configuring the briquettes and wood chunks into a snake provides about 5½ hours of slow, gentle heat without having to open the grill to refuel.
Here’s how to set it up on a standard 22-inch charcoal grill:
1. Count out two piles of 58 briquettes. Arrange one pile of briquettes, side by side, on the outside of the bottom grate to form a C shape along the perimeter of the grill; there should be about 8 inches between the ends of the snake. Arrange the second pile of briquettes on top of the first layer (see photo, above left).
2. Evenly space the wood chunks on top of the second layer (see photo, above right). A disposable pan of water fits neatly in the middle.
To start the snake, pour 10 hot briquettes from a chimney starter over one end. This creates a domino effect. The coals will smolder slowly from one end to the other, creating a steady temperature of 275 degrees inside the grill. Most of our recipes that use a charcoal snake also call for placing a disposable aluminum pan in the center of the grill and filling it with water, which helps regulate temperature and provides some moisture.
You may not have the title of barbecue champion, but with this grill setup, you can cook like one.