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5 tips to become a Weber Kettle grill master

From smoking to searing to roasting, here's how to use your Weber Kettle to its full potential.

The classic Weber Kettle grill can treat racks of ribs right.

Brian Bennett/CNET

The Weber Kettle might look like a simple charcoal grill without many moving parts, but it's a classic for a reason. If you know how to use it right, it's extremely capable. It can cook low and slow as a barbecue smoker -- and when set up properly, it roasts poultry like champ too. The same goes for searing burgers, steak and vegetables, as well as grilling seafood.

And remember that the affordable backyard cooker has been around for decades, which means you can find plenty of useful aftermarket accessories for it. Upgrades like those make coaxing out the impressive abilities of the Weber Kettle a lot easier, as well.  

A digital probe thermometer like this one provides accurate grill temperatures.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

1. Get a good thermometer

One of the simplest ways to up your Weber game is to buy a quality thermometer. Most grills come with analog hood thermometers, if they have one at all. Built-in thermometers like those tend to be slow to respond and they're often inaccurate, because they sit inside the grill lid and measure heat levels at the top of the grill cavity. 

Place the probe clip right on the grill at food level, on the opposite side of the fire.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

What's more important to know is how hot things are at grill grate level. That's why I suggest using a metal grill clip to mount your thermometer right on the grates. This will allow you to monitor cooking temperatures where it counts -- where the food is. 

The charcoal snake method is a very effective way to cook low and slow on your Weber Kettle.

Brian Bennett/CNET

2. Smoke low and slow

Barbecue smokers work by cooking with indirect heat. They're also able to keep temperatures inside their cooking chambers low for hours on end. The ideal heat level is 225 Fahrenheit or as close to it as possible. These are the precise conditions that, over time, transform tough cuts of meat into gloriously tender treats like smoked brisket and baby back ribs.

It's harder to do that with a Weber Kettle, at least without lots of practice. Traditionally, you place hot coals directly below the Weber's cooking grates, which means you're cooking with direct heat. That's the opposite of what you want to do. 

You've got options, though. You can create an indirect heat zone by placing briquettes, or lump charcoal if you prefer, only on one side of the charcoal grate. You leave the other side empty then cook food above the cool spot. The trouble is that it's tricky to control the grill's heat level this way. 

Sure, you can fire up your Kettle with a small amount of coals. That'll keep the pit from getting too hot -- but, unfortunately, that also means you'll have to constantly add fuel to keep the cook going.

The minion method calls for topping lit coals with unlit briquettes.

Brian Bennett/CNET

Another trick for low and slow cooking is the Minion method. It calls for dropping a few lit coals over top of many unlit ones inside the grill. The idea is that the fire spreads slowly from the center of the coal bed outward. Personally, I've never gotten it right. Without fail, there comes a point when all of my coals are burning at once. That puts out a tremendous amount of heat.

However, there's one technique that I swear by and it makes it easy to use your Weber as a smoker. Called the fuse method, or "the charcoal snake," this trick involves stacking briquettes in a specific way inside the grill. Do it correctly and the charcoal snake will burn at barbecue temperatures and with minimum supervision. 

Stack your charcoal briquettes in two rows that are each two bricks deep along the inner wall of the grill.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Start by stacking one layer of briquettes in pairs along the edge of the charcoal grate. The line of coals should curve in a semicircle along the inner wall of the Kettle. Next place another layer of paired briquettes on top of the first layer. If you have any smoke wood chunks or chips, drop them on top of the coal chain. Choose various spots close to the beginning of the snake, where you'll ignite it. I also like to nestle a water pan at the center of the charcoal grate. It'll serve as a heat reservoir and helps to smooth out temperature swings. 

Now, just light the snake. A wax fire starter works well for this, but you can also use a few lit briquettes. Set the Weber Kettle's air vents to the 25 percent open position.

Add smokewood chunks for extra smoky flavor.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Once the snake catches fire, the grill should heat up and then stabilize at approximately 225 F in 20 to 30 minutes. From there, it'll slowly burn anywhere from 5 to 8 hours depending on the ambient temperature.

3. Roasting

The Weber Kettle is also an excellent outdoor oven. If your plan is to roast some poultry -- perhaps a chicken or a small turkey -- then this cooker can definitely get the job done. In fact, the Weber produced our taste testers' favorite roasted turkey in our outdoor cook off

A water pan helps smooth out temperature swings while apple smoke wood adds extra flavor.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Here's the technique I used. First, I filled a charcoal chimney 75 percent full with briquettes and ignited them. Once the coals were lit I added them to one side of the grill. On the other side of the charcoal grate, I placed a water pan. Then I replaced the grill grate and dropped my spatchcooked bird on the cooler side (over the water pan).

You're looking for an internal grill temperature of 350 to 400 (F). Since all of your coals are burning at once, you'll have to keep a sharp eye over the pit. If the heat begins to dip, be ready to add a handful of coals (5 to 10 briquettes). 

Depending on the size of your bird, total cooking time should be between an hour and 90 minutes. The best approach is to use an instant read thermometer to confirm that the thickest part of each breast is 160 to 165 F. I personally pull it out at 160F since it's easy to overcook poultry. Remember, heat levels will rise for a few minutes while the bird rests off the grill.

One product that promises to make child's play of roasting is the Vortex. Highly rated by consumers, the Vortex also has a following among barbecue experts, too. Its indirect/direct combination roasting application looks particularly tempting. 

4. Searing

Grilling is one of the Weber Kettle's true strengths. Fill a chimney starter full of briquettes, or lump charcoal, and ignite it. When they're fully caught after about 15 to 20 minutes, dump the coals into the grill. Next, spread them out into a bed of coals one layer deep. You're now ready to sear anything at very high temperatures.

If you're like me, you might also prefer a reverse sear, especially if you're cooking thick cuts of steak, or pork chops. Instead of spreading out your lit coals, gather them to one side of the grill. They should occupy half of the charcoal grate. Now place your steaks on the opposite side of the grill grate, where they'll get seared with indirect heat.

Let these steaks or chops cook there until their internal temperature hits 110 F. Once that happens, transfer them to the hot side. Flip them over in 1 minute intervals until they develop a nice crust. Don't overdo it. Put them back on the cool side to avoid burning them. You'll know they're at a nice medium rare when they hit an internal temperature of 135 degrees F.

It's not a difficult technique to master, but if you want something simpler, you'll find other products that promise to make the process effortless. One with a large fan base is the Slow 'N Sear. The half moon shaped device holds coals for both searing at high heat and low and slow cooks. It has a removable water reservoir, too.

Digital barbecue controllers like the SmartFire make it a lot easier to deal with pit temperatures.

Brian Bennett/CNET

5. Make it smarter

It's certainly true that the Weber Kettle's fire can be tricky to control, especially when compared to pellet grills and kamado smokers. It's simply not as fuel efficient and heat insulated as fancier grill styles like those. Still, you can buy plenty of aftermarket products designed to make life easier. 

For example, the SmartFire uses a motorized fan to control air flow through the Kettle. It also lets you monitor pit temperature and set a target temperature for your cook. Additionally it comes with two food probes to keep an eye on what your cooking. You'll do that through an app on your phone that you can use anywhere you have Wi-Fi. Another product in the same vein is the Digiq from BBQ Guru.

These systems are especially useful if you'd like to limit the headaches of low and slow barbecue babysitting. Of course, the fundamentals of fuel, air and fire still apply. Even with fancy hardware, if you add too much lit fuel at once, your pit temperature will run away from you. 

Get out there and grill

Hopefully, this guide has given you the confidence to fire up your Weber for any occasion. If used right, it has the chops to do all of the things more expensive cookers serve up. I hear the call of the grill, do you?