Sometime back in 1999 or thereabouts Jim Minion was participating in a regional barbeque championship in the Pacific Northwest. His cooker of choice was a Weber Smokey Mountain.
However, following the manufacturer’s instructions on building a fire in this otherwise wonderful smoker proved useless as the fire would quickly shoot up to well over 325 degrees. What to do, what to do?
Jim Minion, a fleet manager for an auto sales company, tried something different – he spread a layer of lighted briquettes over a pile of unlit briquettes and he found that he could maintain a steady fire for as long as 22 hours in his Weber Smokey Mountain. He took a first and a second in two categories that day and the Minion Method was born.
About that same time I was having incredible difficulty holding a steady temp for any decent length of time in my Hondo offset. I came across a description of the Minion Method on the Internet and decided to give it a try. I filled the firebox with Kingsford briquettes as recommended, lit a Weber chimney filled with briquettes, dumped them on top and for the very first time I held a rock steady 220 for four hours, but then the fire choked itself out from all the ash produced by the briquettes. But heck, that was a whole lot better than before.
My wife’s uncle, one of the most fun individuals I have every had the pleasure of knowing (he was one of those people who, from the moment they walk into the room you know you are about to have a great time), and a true lover of ‘que was visiting and he wanted me to fire up the barbeque. As an incentive he brought me a bag of lump charcoal. Not wanting to insult a guest, I fired up my Hondo using the Minion Method with the ump charcoal.
I fully expected a disaster as everything I read about the Minion Method said to use briquettes. Instead I was stunned – I quickly got the fire settled down to 220 and it stayed there – and held – and held – and 8 hours later the temp was still reading 220! By then I was done and removed the meat from the smoker
but it was another two hours before the temp dropped.
A convert was born!
That was several years ago and I’ve learned a lot since then. Most important is that not all lump charcoals are the same. Some will only hold a steady fire for about 4 hours. The average lump will give you about 6 hours. The best lumps will hold 220 for 10 hours or more. Other things that will affect the burn time are outdoor weather conditions, the make/model of smoker you have, and the temp at which you are cooking. I have also learned that once you learn the individual quirks of your smoker you can “dial in” any temp you want by making small adjustments to the chimney damper and/or the air intake control.
For the longest, steadiest burn times I recommend you get the best quality hardwood lump charcoal you can find. Briquettes will work, however they produce so much ash that the fire chokes itself out within about 4 hours. High quality hardwood lump charcoal burns hotter produces very little ash resulting in a much longer burn time.
Fill the firebox with charcoal all the way to the lip of the opening between the firebox and the cooking chamber then hollow out ever so slightly — about an inch or so — just enough to make the pile slightly concave — a small area in the middle by pushing the charcoal up around the sides a little.
Fill a Weber chimney with charcoal and light it. When it is going real good (all coals glowing) then pour it all on top of the charcoal in the firebox, keeping it centered as much as possible.
Close the lids but leave all the vents (air intake and chimney) wide open. When the temp reaches 275 – 300 degrees, begin closing the air intake. Close the air intake half way then check the temp in 15 minutes. If it is too high, close the intake half way again and check in 15 minutes. If still too high, close the air intake all the way. Check again in 15 minutes. If the temp is still too high and ALL VISIBLE SMOKE DISAPPEARS, begin closing the chimney — you guessed it – half way. Check again in 15 minutes, etc. At some point the temp will stabilize — check the vents and remember where they were as that will be your starting point next time — in other words, after the initial temp has reached 275-300, then you can close the vents down to your starting point rather than repeating the entire procedure again. The fire will slowly burn down through the pile of charcoal providing a nice, long, steady burn.
So, all of us backyard pitmasters owe Jim Minion a huge thumbs up for daring to try something different and making top notch barbeque a breeze.
Til next time, keep on cookin’!
My name is Dan Colmerauer – aka “Big Dan.” You may know me from my booklet on how to modify a “backyard” offset smoker to make it perform better. The majority of my articles will deal with what goes into building proper fire in your smoker and related topics – but I will diverge from that from time to time. By the way, I will accept questions and comments via e-mail at: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org – I try to reply to any and all e-mails but I do not use my computer on weekends and sometimes it may take a day or two before I have time to reply so please be patient.
I am a backyard cooker only — I don’t do catering or cook-offs, etc. I have, however, been barbequing in one form or another for almost 35 years. Originally from Buffalo, New York I was often seen barbequing and grilling even in middle of the biggest snow storms. I now live in Phoenix, Arizona where some days in the summer I swear all you need to do is put the meat in your smoker and wheel the smoker out into the sun. I have a Hondo offset smoker, a Weber Smoky Mountain, a Weber “kettle” grill, and a barrel smoker and I use them all.
Knowing how to build and maintain a fire is the most important part of barbequing. You can have the greatest recipe in the world – buy the best quality meat you can find – yet if you can’t build and maintain a long, steady fire, your final product will suffer.
Today, I’d like to discuss fuel. There are three basic fuels for barbeque: wood, lump charcoal and briquettes.
Typical briquettes are made from powdered charcoal mixed with binders and fillers such as coal dust. Their biggest advantage is an easily controlled, steady fire with very little temperature fluctuation. Their biggest drawback is the large volume of ash produced when burning briquettes. In an offset style smoker the ash will actually build up and snuff out your fire in about 4 hours – not enough time to barbeque much of anything. Plus, there are too many additives that can alter the flavor of the final product for my taste. But, they are inexpensive, readily available, easy to use and certainly can turn out a fairly decent final product.
There are briquettes available (but very hard to find) that are made out of 100% hardwood charcoal and all natural binders. No additives – no strange fillers – just pure 100% hardwood charcoal. I have used Rancher 100% hardwood briquettes and Royal Oak 100% hardwood briquettes and was pleasantly surprised – both at the flavor and the performance. While producing much more ash than lump charcoal, I was still able to maintain a steady 220 for over six hours. And the flavor was a huge improvement over regular briquettes. In an upright “water smoker” such at the Weber Smoky Mountain these are probably the best fuel you can use. I ran mine for over 22 hours with the Rancher briquettes without refueling and still had briquettes left in the smoker to burn. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find either Rancher or Royal Oak 100% hardwood briquettes in over a year.
Natural lump charcoal (sometimes called “charwood”) is my fuel of choice. Lump charcoal is made by burning hardwood in the absence of oxygen. The process burns off all the impurities (creosote, etc.) leaving a final product that is free of all the bad stuff that can ruin the flavor of the meat. It burns hotter than briquettes and a quality lump charcoal will leave very little ash – which means you will achieve a long, steady burning fire which will impart a wonderful “woodsy” flavor to the meat with a nice touch of smoke. There are a large number of brands of lump available – some not much better than briquettes and others darned near the “holy grail” of barbeque fuel. Hopefully, you will have a good brand available in your area.
The ability to use wood as a fuel is seen by many as the hallmark of the true pitmaster. I don’t necessarily agree.
The single most important factor in whether you can successfully use only wood as your fuel source is your smoker. The typical backyard smoker is simply too small to use wood as fuel unless you burn it down to coals first. In fact, many commercial pitmasters (especially in the barbeque belt) will burn the wood down to coals first no matter what type of smoker they have. The reason for this is simple – you want to burn off the impurities before exposing the meat to the smoke.
So — I tried this once. I used over $50 worth of wood – spent six straight hours burning wood and shoveling coals and the ribs came out tasting exactly like they did with lump charcoal. Some Internet research revealed what has since become my mantra: a glowing lump of hardwood charcoal is IDENTICAL to a glowing coal/ember burned down from logs. The only difference is how it got there.
Interestingly enough – at the more recent bbq cook-offs I’ve attended (I do love to eat good ‘que) I’ve noticed that most of the competitors were using lump charcoal in even the biggest of smokers because —- a glowing lump of hardwood charcoal is IDENTICAL to a glowing coal/ember burned down from logs.
Now, what about wood chunks or chips for added smoke flavor. They work, but you have to be very careful because there is a very fine line between a little extra smoke flavor and over-smoked, creosote-coated meat. Cross that line and you’ve ruined a nice hunk of meat (unless, of course, you like the flavor of creosote). This is more of a problem in the offset smokers than with the uprights. The man in Phoenix who sells cooking wood to all the local restaurants taught me a neat trick if you like to use chunks or chips for a stronger smoke flavor. Simply take a piece of heavy duty foil and gently place it on top of the meat – don’t “tent” it and don’t “wrap” it – just gently lay it on top. The foil will catch most of the bad stuff before it settles on the meat leaving the meat exposed to the remaining flavorful part of the smoke.
Next time I’ll discuss exactly how to build a fire using the Minion method for a long, steady fire.
Keep on cookin’!
Bought my Hondo over ten years ago and really struggled to get good ‘cue. I researched and researched and bought book after book but still struggled. I was ready to spend big bucks to purchase a fancy rig – or even get one custom made – I Was that frustrated.
But before I did, I used my research to make the following modifications, and my problems disappeared. Then I tried a fire-building technique in addition to the modifications and was finally able to maintain an absolutely steady 220 degrees for 6 to 10 hours with ease. I was thrilled!
Nearly all the “backyard” offset smokers (typically those that sell for under $750) need these modifications. The only exception that I am aware of is the new model Bar-B-Chef
sold by Barbeques Galore.
These modifications are inexpensive and easy yet they work wonders. Try them and see if they don’t work for you, too.
First the Modifications
Stuff to Get
Go to your local home improvement or building supply store and get the following:
1. One roll of aluminum flashing for the chimney.
2. One piece of unpainted, non-galvanized 22 to 16 gauge light steel for the baffle.
3. Pipe plug or metal cap to fill the thermometer hole.
4. If you don’t have one, you will need either a 3/4″ drill bit or a 3/4″ hole cutter.
Lower the Position of the Temperature Gauge!
This is critical. You want to measure the cooking temperature at the grill level, not at the top of the cooking chamber. Heat rises, and the temperature reading with the temperature gauge in its original position will give you a reading up to 80 degrees higher than the temp at which you are actually cooking. 1. Remove the existing temperature gauge. The hole is 3/4″ in diameter. Fill the hole with a pipe plug or a metal cap.
2. With an electric drill and 3/4″ drill bit or 3/4″ hole cutter, drill or cut a new hole a little to the side of the handle (if your firebox is mounted on the left side – if your firebox is mounted on the right side, you want to put the new hole to the left of the handle) and remount the temperature gauge in the new hole.
Note: Another option is to purchase a digital, remote temperature gauge. This eliminates the need for drilling a new hole. Get a small block of hardwood and drill a hole all the way through. Insert the probe of the remote temperature gauge through the hole so that 1″ to 1½ “ of the end of the probe is exposed. You can then place the probe anywhere in the cooking chamber and obtain a very accurate reading.
Improve the Chimney, by lowering it Toward the Cooking Grate
This modification will improve heat retention, helps to even out heat distribution and promotes proper heat conduction over the meat.
1. Unroll the aluminum flashing and cut a piece off about a foot to a foot and half in length.
2. Roll the cut piece of flashing into a cylinder about ½” less in diameter than the chimney.
3. Stick the cylinder up inside the chimney from the bottom leaving enough of the flashing exposed so the chimney is about an inch or so above the cooking grate.
4. Let the flashing unroll and it will unroll to the diameter of the chimney.
Insert a Steel Baffle between the Firebox and the Cooking Chamber
This modification serves two purposes. First, it directs heat downward below the grill for much improved heat circulation, which together with the chimney modification dramatically evens out the temperature in the cooking chamber. Second, it acts as a heat shield between the firebox and the meat to eliminate radiant heat so that you are cooking by heat convection only. This prevents the meat from burning before it is done.
1. Cut a piece of the steel wide enough to cover the opening between the fire box and the cooking chamber at its widest point (side-to-side). Make this piece of steel 12″ to 16″ in length (better to be slightly long than slightly short).
2. Line the piece of steel up with the upper bolts that hold the firebox to the cooking chamber and mark the spots. Drill holes to line up with the existing bolts.
3. At a height just below the cooking grate, bend the piece of steel into an “L” shape, but the angle should be less than 90 degrees. You want the end which extends into the cooking chamber to angle slightly downward toward the bottom of the cooking chamber.You want at least 6″ of the steel baffle extending into the cooking chamber (more is better than less).
4. Mount the piece of steel using the existing bolts and nuts, making sure the bottom half
of the “L” extends into the cooking chamber below the cooking grate.
Building a Fire in a Offset Style Smoker
For the longest, steadiest burn times I recommend you get the best quality hardwood lump charcoal you can find. Briquettes will work, however they produce so much ash that the fire chokes itself out within about 4 hours. High quality hardwood lump charcoal produces very little ash. If you don’t use a charcoal basket, you need to find a way to keep the charcoal away from the air intake. Here is a good way
Fill the firebox with charcoal all the way to the lip of the opening between the firebox and the cooking chamber then hollow out every so slightly — about an inch or so — just enough to make the pile slightly concave — a small area in the middle by pushing the charcoal up around the sides a little.
Fill a Weber chimney with charcoal and light it. When it is going real good (all coals glowing)
This site reviews most all available hardwood lump charcoals. The higher the quality charcoal, the longer your burn time.
It takes some time to learn the individual quirks of your smoker, but if you work with the technique and use the highest quality lump charcoal you will easily get 6-8-10 hours of steady 210-220 degrees. This really does work — I have heard back from hundreds of people who have followed these instructions and all report results just like mine.
I don’t recommend that you use wood as your primary fuel. The backyard sized off-sets have a cooking chamber that is just too small and it is very easy to over-smoke the meat making it taste very bitter and, well, gross. I have been trying for years to figure out why this is and I believe (and others tend to agree) that it is because in order to get the wood to the proper temp to burn off the foul-tasting impurities you will not be able to maintain the low temp required for proper barbequing (remember, low and slow) — the cooking chamber just gets way to hot.