Snake Method Or Minion Method: The Best Charcoal Lighting Techniques

by Matt

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When firing up your smoker, how you light and manage your charcoal is key to maintaining a steady temperature for that perfect low and slow cook. The Snake Method and the Minion Method are popular charcoal lighting techniques known for their simplicity and effectiveness.

They help manage the burn rate of charcoal, providing a controlled, steady heat, which is ideal for long smoking sessions. In this guide, we'll break down the Snake and Minion methods, offering step-by-step instructions to help you get the most out of these charcoal lighting techniques and improve your BBQ smoking game.

The Snake Method

The Snake Method is a favorite among BBQ enthusiasts with smaller smokers. It's designed to maintain a low and steady heat, ideal for smoking meats to juicy perfection. Unlike methods that generate high heat, the Snake Method uses a trail of charcoal briquettes arranged in a snake-like pattern, perfect for kettles or vertical smokers.

It’s not the best fit for large smokers, as it doesn’t produce the high heat needed to warm large areas, but for the at-home pitmaster, it’s a reliable way to achieve that slow-cooked taste.

In the next sections, we'll cover how to set up your briquettes and manage your smoker's temperature effectively.

Choosing Charcoal:
Opt for good quality briquettes as they burn longer and more consistently compared to lump charcoal

Snake Charcoal Method

After smoking Salmon fillets for 2 hours, I had only used 1/2 of the briquettes. Snake method also is very economical.

Charcoal Arrangement:
Arrange your charcoal briquettes in a semi-circle or snake formation along the perimeter of your grill. A 2x2 stack (two briquettes wide, two briquettes tall) is a common setup. The length and thickness of the snake determine the burn time.

Lighting the Charcoal:
Use a chimney starter to light about a dozen briquettes. Once ashed over, place them at one end of the snake.

Adding Wood Chunks:
Place a few wood chunks along the snake for a smoky flavor. Woods like hickory, apple, or cherry are excellent choices.

Airflow Management:
Control the temperature by adjusting the vents. Open vents will increase the temperature, while closing them will decrease it.

Monitoring the Cook:
Keep an eye on the temperature using a reliable grill thermometer. Adjust the vents as necessary to maintain your desired temperature.

Amount of Coals Used in Snake Method

Extending the Burn:
If you need more cooking time, add extra briquettes to the unlit end of the snake and ensure the vents are properly adjusted.

This method minimizes the need for intervention during the cook, making it a reliable choice for slow-cooking meats to perfection. Just remember the snake method does not produce a lot of heat. Its best used in kettle grills or smaller vertical smokers. 

The Minion Method

The Minion Method, coined by its creator Jim Minion, is the go-to strategy for those looking for a hassle-free setup with reliable temperature control throughout the cooking process. It's ingeniously simple: You start with a pile of unlit charcoal and then add a few lit coals on top.

This setup slowly ignites the rest, maintaining a steady temperature for hours without constant babysitting. Perfect for long smokes, this method allows you to enjoy the gathering without fretting over the flames. In the following sections, we’ll walk you through the specifics of the Minion Method, from arranging your coals to the moment you’re ready to serve up that succulent, smoky BBQ.

Minion Method

Choosing Charcoal:
Opt for high-quality briquettes as they provide a longer, more consistent burn compared to lump charcoal.

Charcoal and Wood Placement:
Fill your firebox with unlit charcoal, creating a hollow center. Place several wood chunks on the charcoal for added smoke flavor.

Lighting the Charcoal:
In a chimney starter, light about 12-15 briquettes. Once they're ashed over, pour them into the hollow center you created.

Temperature Management:
The lit charcoal will ignite the surrounding unlit charcoal gradually, providing a steady temperature. Adjust the vents to control airflow and maintain the desired temperature.

Water Pan Usage:
Place a water pan in the smoker to help with heat distribution and to keep the meat moist. Fill it about halfway with water.

Monitoring Your Cook:
Keep a close eye on the temperature using a reliable grill thermometer and adjust vents as necessary to maintain the desired heat level.

The Minion Method is particularly useful for long smokes, making it a dependable choice for a variety of BBQ dishes. This method does require some experimenting to find out how much charcoal you need to fire up first. It all depends on the size of your smoker. Like everything with BBQ experimentation and practice is key. Better Grills have a great article on these methods which you can read here.

Other Charcoal Lighting Techniques

Besides the Snake and Minion Methods, here are a couple more techniques to light your charcoal:

Traditional Method:
Stack charcoal in a pyramid shape, apply lighter fluid, and ignite. Once the coals are ashed over, spread them out evenly.

Chimney Starter:
Fill a chimney starter with charcoal, ignite the bottom using newspaper or fire starters. When the coals are ashed over, pour them into your grill or smoker.

These methods are quicker but may require more attention to maintain a steady temperature throughout your cook.

The minion method is what I use about 90% of the time. I use my vertical smoker for most of my BBQ, and I find the snake method doesn't produce enough heat. When cooking in a kettle charcoal grill I will use the snake method every time. It is far easier for the snake method to produce a nice constant temperature in a smaller smoker or grill. Read more about different types of smokers.

Mastering charcoal lighting techniques is essential for achieving BBQ success. Whether you prefer the slow and steady Snake Method, the set-and-forget Minion Method, or the quicker Traditional and Chimney Starter methods, understanding these techniques will elevate your BBQ game. Feel free to experiment and find what works best for your setup. Happy grilling!

About the Author

Matt Barrell

Hi, Matt Barrell here. A BBQ and Smoked meat enthusiast. I love grilling and smoking meat, it is not just my hobby its my passion. My goal is to share my passion with as many other like-minded people as possible.