Snakes are one of the most common fears of Americans — and who could blame us? They’re unpredictable, quick, and not to mention incredibly dangerous.
Now, before you start to wonder if you accidentally clicked the wrong link and landed on a snake site, we’re actually going to discuss a specific grilling method.
The charcoal snake method might sound like a slithering, poisonous technique, but it’s actually an effective method for low and slow smoking — and it just happens to look like a snake, hence the name.
We’ll share what you should know about the charcoal snake method, what it is, and how to do it the right way. So, if you’re ready, then grab those snake tongs and hooks, and let’s get started.
What is the Charcoal Snake Method?
When smoking meat low n slow, you have to create indirect heating zones. Indirect heat will allow the meat to cook for a long time, anywhere between 4 and 20 hours, without burning and charring.
The charcoal snake name describes the pattern in which the briquettes are placed on the charcoal grate. They’re typically arranged in a long line at one side of the grill, with slightly overlapping briquettes in two to three layers.
Once your briquettes are all laid out, it looks similar to a snake chilling in your grill, which is where the name came from.
Heated briquettes are placed at one end of the snake. During the course of several hours, the fire slowly makes its way through the entire “snake,” giving your meat a slow cook. It looks very similar to a slow-burning fuse.
This method should be in any charcoal grillers’ arsenal. It’s one of the only ways you can turn a charcoal grill into a smoker.
Use Lumpwood or Briquettes?
This method requires a progressive low fire that works its way across the snake, and that’s very challenging to achieve with any fuel besides charcoal. But which type is best, lumpwood or charcoal?
Charcoal briquettes are the best type of coal to use for this method. Briquettes naturally burn slowly, making them an ideal candidate.
Lump, on the other hand, is best suited for hot and fast grilling, such as searing a steak or cooking up a dozen burger patties for the cookout.
Using the same size coals is also important, which is another reason why briquettes beat lump. Lump comes in various sizes, which will result in an uneven burn and cook, whereas the uniform size and shape of briquettes will do the opposite — giving you a consistent burn and cook.
There’s quite a lot of debate going on when it comes to lump charcoal vs briquettes for smoking.
One issue many grillers have with briquettes is that it’s becoming more challenging to find natural briquettes free of additives such as sodium nitrate, starch or borax.
Yes, briquettes will create a higher amount of ash — but the snake method doesn’t require as many pieces as a regular grilling-session demand, so you should be fine.
Benefits of Using the Charcoal Snake Method
There’s no need to continually check on your meat when using the charcoal snake method.
Give the area closest to the fire a check now and then, if you feel it’s cooking too fast, fold a sheet of foil and place it underneath as a heat shield.
Additionally, if the weather is optimal (low wind, optimal temperature), there’s no need to keep checking your grill.
This method also turns your charcoal grill into a smoker; therefore, if you only smoke occasionally, you actually don’t need to buy a separate smoker. This will not only spare you the money, but also storage space. There’s also one less object to maintain, clean and learn how to use.
The Snake Method – Video Overview
For a good visual explanation and demonstration of the charcoal snake, check out this video from ‘Aussie Griller.’
The Snake Method – Step by Step
What You’ll Need
- Ready protein — whether you’re cooking beef, fish, pork or poultry, marinade it ahead of time.
- A clean grill – make sure your grill is clean and free of any grime or grease from the previous cookout. Ensure the last fuel and ash are removed — leftover fuel and grease can cause flare-ups and throw off the temperature.
- Drip pan — use a baking pan or aluminum pan.
- Hot water — should be added to the drip pan, make sure it’s heated so the grill won’t have to waste energy to heat it.
- Oil — to grease up the grate.
- Long-handled tongs.
- Fire — use matches or a lighter.
- A way to start the fire — you can use starter cubes or a charcoal chimney.
- Foil — in case you need a heat block for the meat.
- Remote digital thermometer – to keep an eye on your cooking temperature.
- Meat thermometer — we highly recommend an instant-read thermometer to check on the doneness of the meat.
Building the Snake
Think of a snake chilling in the grass, got the picture? Great! Time to build the fuse!
Arrange your briquettes in two rows along the grill’s perimeter, about a third of the way. The two rows should be overlapping; this will ensure the fire keeps going.
Start arranging another layer of briquettes on top of the previous — overlapping them again. It might look more like a woven basket in the shape of a crescent, but it should look like a black snake in the end.
Keep in mind that the main goal of this method is to provide a constant supply of coal to the fire, so overlapping is essential.
Arrange your smoking wood (preferably chunks but chips will do) on top of the briquettes. The wood should be placed where the fire starts because cold meat tends to absorb the smoke flavor more during the first stages of cooking.
Lighting the Snake
Start by heating about 8 briquettes — you can do so by piling them on the grill away from the snake and place a starter cube into it. Or you can place 8 briquettes into a charcoal chimney and light it up.
Assemble your water pan and oil your grate while the briquettes are heating.
Once the briquettes look ashy with a glowing red center, use your long-handled tongs to move the coals to the beginning of the snake (where the wood is). Overlap the unheated briquettes to get the fire started.
Using The Snake
Fill a water pan half or ¾ full with hot water, place it away from the snake.
Place your oiled grate on the grill.
Allow the temperature to rise to an optimal temperature, usually between 225 and 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
Place your meat on the grate, positioned over the water pan.
Close the lid with the vents positioned opposite the fiery snake. This will force the aromatic smoke across the meat as it makes its way out of the vent.
Keep your aluminum block close at hand to quickly slip it under and in front of the meat in case it should cook too fast.
Once you get the snake going, there’s no need to keep checking on it. Try to refrain yourself from opening the lid too often, as this will disrupt the humid cooking environment you created inside the grill.
Go grab a cold one while your meat is smoking low n slow in the grill. If you lined the briquettes correctly, the fire would keep itself moving.
Once the cooking session is over, there should be an ashy snake laying in your grill — or ashy woven crescent basket, depending on what your imagination links it to.
During the final stages of cooking, use your meat thermometer to check your meat’s temperature and doneness.
Once the meat is fully cooked, tender, and utterly delicious, remove it from the grill and serve. Allow the grill to cool prior to removing the water pan, cleaning the great and snake.
Why Use the Charcoal Snake Method?
The charcoal snake method is basically the equivalence of a crockpot — but on the grill. It’s the only way to cook your meat slowly for long hours without a smoker.
It’s a low-maintenance technique that requires minimum attention. In fact, you could easily start it and allow it to cook throughout the day while you’re at work or during other chores around the house.
What’s even better about this method is that it transforms your regular charcoal grill into a smoker. There’s no need to spend money on an additional tool that requires maintenance and storage — simply buy a few extra briquettes and get your snake on.
What Grills are Good for a Charcoal Snake?
The charcoal snake method is most often used in kettle-type grills, such as the Weber Kettle Grill. The round design makes this type ideal for the snake method. In saying that, a smoker or offset grill can also be used.
Bullet or kamado grills are slightly trickier for this method due to the narrow bottom. It would limit the number of briquettes you can fit in the snake as well as limit the size of food you’re cooking. However, any grill type where a semi-ring of briquettes can fit, should work.
Rectangular grills, on the other hand, aren’t suitable for this method. You wouldn’t be able to form a semi-ring, but I wonder what would happen if the coals were in a straight line — we might have to try that out.
The grill quality also plays a significant role in how effective the charcoal snake method will be. You want to sustain heat for hours; therefore, a cheaply-built grill won’t be able to hold up.
Windy or cold weather will make it harder for the grill to retain heat — especially if it has thin walls.
With Which Grills Should You Avoid the Charcoal Snake?
Both slow cooking and indirect heat are easily achievable with a gas grill — but gas grills aren’t as suitable for smoking. Here’s why:
For safety reasons, gas grills are fitted with large vents that prevent lethal gases from building up, resulting in an explosion. Because of the large vents, smoke will escape the grill way before it has time to flavor the meat.
Note: Do not cover up the vents in an attempt to keep the smoke inside; this is very dangerous.
A gas grill can hold some wood, but not enough to give your meat that signature bark and aromatic flavor.
Smaller grills or travel style BBQs aren’t suitable for the charcoal snake method either. There’s simply not enough room for you to create your fuse, and it will keep the meat too close to the heat source.
There you have it, the charcoal snake method — it’s one of our favorite techniques for smoking meat in a charcoal grill, it’s also one of the most effective.
A few key points to remember are:
- Briquettes are more effective than lump wood.
- Always overlap your briquettes to keep the fire going.
- Place smoking wood at the start of the snake.
- Avoid opening the lid too often.
- Always check the internal temperature of the meat towards the end of the cook.
One of the snake method’s beauties is that there’s no limit to your imagination — go wild with different marinades, dry rubs, type of meat, and aromatic wood chunks or chips!
Have you ever attempted the charcoal snake method? If you have any tricks you want to add, share them in the section below.