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Cooking Tips

Don’t Be Afraid of Snakes—Charcoal Snakes, That Is

A charcoal snake can help turn your backyard kettle grill into a professional-grade smoker.

Published June 16, 2022.

Yes, smokers are great. They can hold the consistently low temperature needed to make top-notch, meltingly tender Texas-style barbecued brisket or shreddable, smoky pulled pork. But, with the right technique, a humble charcoal kettle grill can provide comparable results.

Introducing the charcoal snake. This is not a reptile that lives in the depths of BBQ pits, but rather an arrangement of charcoal briquettes that allows a backyard kettle grill to mimic the low, slow burn of a smoker. More specifically, charcoal briquettes are arranged in a C-shaped formation on the bottom grate of a grill so that they can slowly burn from one side of the "C" to the other.

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You place wood chunks on top of the briquettes for added smokiness and a water pan in the center of the grill to help moderate and stabilize the temperature. With this setup, your grill can hold a consistent 250- to 300-degree temperature for upwards of 6 hours without the need to refuel. 

How to Build a Charcoal Snake

  1. Open the bottom vents of your charcoal grill completely. This maximizes airflow so that the charcoal and wood chunks burn cleaner, producing a cleaner smoke flavor.
  2. Arrange 2 rows of briquettes around the perimeter of the bottom grill grate, overlapping slightly so the briquettes are touching to form a "C" shape. Be sure to leave at least a 6-inch gap between the two ends. The exact number of briquettes is determined by what you’re smoking and how long you want the fire to burn. For something like a brisket or pork butt, start with 60 briquettes. 
  3. Top each of those rows with a second layer of briquettes. (The completed arrangement should be 2 briquettes wide by 2 briquettes high.)
  4. Place wood chunks at even intervals on top of the charcoal. These will smolder to infuse the meat above with smoke flavor. 
  5. Place a disposable aluminum pan in the center of the grill, running lengthwise into the arc of the C. Pour 6 cups of water into the pan. This will keep the temperature more consistent in the grill. 
  6. Light a chimney starter filled with 15 briquettes. When the top coals are partially covered with ash, pour them over one end of the charcoal snake. Set the cooking grate in place. Add your meat, cover the grill with the lid, leaving the top lid vents completely open, and let time, low heat, and smoke do the rest of the work.  

Then all you need to do is dream about the possibilities of what you will smoke on it. Perhaps some Kansas City–Style Barbecue Ribs. Or Texas Barbecue Brisket, or Texas-Style Smoked Beef Ribs. The charcoal snake can help you smoke anything that requires the low-and-slow treatment. 

Kansas City–Style Barbecue Ribs

These lacquered, tender, sticky ribs check all the boxes.
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If you want to impress your friends, consider smoking a prime rib using this method. It takes this already grand cut of meat to a whole new level with a rosy interior, peppery crust, and plenty of deeply smoked beef flavor.

Texas Barbecue Brisket

The challenge: a whole, hulking 12-pound brisket cooked to juicy tenderness completely on a backyard charcoal grill. Could it be done?
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To be clear, we are fans of smokers—professional pitmasters use them for a reason, and they can often handle much more meat than your kettle grill can. But we’re here to tell you that you can make truly magnificent barbecue on a kettle grill, too, with the help of a charcoal snake. 

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