This story is part of, CNET's collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.
It's officially summer, which means one thing: grilling season. We've got tips for, and all the rest, but the more ambitious of you pitmasters in-training probably want to know about making authentic fall-off-the-bone barbecue (pronounced with a Southern drawl). When done properly, barbecued meat is tender, juicy, smoky and very delicious. And you definitely don't need an expensive or grill to make it right in your own backyard. All you really need is a simple (you know the type) plus a little know-how and some practice (of course).
So if you want bragging rights for having made real-deal smoked barbecue on your-- and on a budget no less -- this guide is for how to do it. I'll lay out how to smoke meat using a popular low and slow method on your backyard cooker. Though it's true that mastering barbecue is a lifelong pursuit, achieving mouth-watering pork ribs, shoulder and beef brisket is much easier than you think. (You can also check out our picks for the , and .)
Why you need to try to barbecue ribs
Once you taste good barbecue, it just might blow your mind. That's what happened to me, and now it's become a powerful need that often consumes me. Why? Simple. When you cook a tough cut of meat at low temperatures (225 F, 107.2 C) for a long enough time, something magical happens.
Connective muscle tissue, normally chewy and unappetizing, breaks down. This process, combined with smoldering wood smoke, elevates otherwise inedible food into the realm of the fantastic. Baby back pork ribs that "fall off the bone," tender pulled pork, or succulent slices of beef brisket, are all fine examples of this kind of cooking.
A slow burn
Cooking with charcoal isn't like flipping on a gas grill or stove. You can't just spin a burner knob and dial the heat up or down. Instead, the amount of fuel, the, volume and the weight of your charcoal is the biggest factor affecting heat levels. Too much charcoal and your grill temperatures will skyrocket.
There's one popular way though, that reliably keeps heat in the grill low and stable. The technique is known as the charcoal snake method. The snake also lets your grill burn for hours on end. It's easiest to use the charcoal snake in kettle-style grills, like the Weber Classic, due to their round shape. It also works in other grill shapes of similar size.
Start by placing two standard charcoal briquettes inside your grill. Arrange them side by side on the charcoal grate, right where it meets the inner grill wall. One briquette should be closer to the wall than the other.
Now put down two more, to the right side of the first pair. Repeat until you have a line of briquettes (in pairs) that runs halfway around the curved wall of your kettle. Next place another length of paired briquettes directly on top of those already in the grill. You should now have a semicircle line of charcoal two briquettes deep, and two wide.
To add some extra oomph to the smoke flavor, drop a few chunks of smoke-wood on top of the snake. Put them near the front of the chain, the closest spot to where you'll light the snake. Meat absorbs smoke best when it's cold, at the start of the cook.
Also consider adding a drip pan, filled with hot water, inside the charcoal tray. It'll work to catch drippings from the meat on the grill above. The water pan helps stabilize grill temperatures too.
The minion method isn't for me
I know many people swear by another charcoal burn strategy, called the minion method. This slow-and-low technique calls for you to add lit coals over a larger amount of unlit briquettes. I've tried it, and haven't had much success, personally.
Perhaps I need more practice or should tweak my fuel amounts. Whatever the reason, my minion charcoal fires tend to run away from me. Either they grow too hot, or falter and burn out. Regardless, I find the snake method more reliable, even if it takes more work up front.
Light the fuse
When it's time to cook, confirm that your grill air vents are set halfway open (both top and bottom). Next place between 5 to 12 lit coals at the front of the snake. You can use a chimney starter to fire up these coals. Another way to go is to ignite your starter coals with a paraffin or tumbleweed fire starter, directly inside the grill.
No matter how you start your snake, never use lighter fluid. That'll impart nasty chemical flavors to your meat. The same goes for quick-light briquettes.
Monitor the pit
If your grill came with a hood thermometer, ignore it. In my experience they're all useless, typically about 25 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit off the mark. For accurate readings, invest in a fast-read digital thermometer, the kind with a wired probe. A gadget like this lets you see grill temperatures at food level.
I recommend attaching your probe with a handy metal clip made for the purpose. In a pinch, you can also stick your probe through a ball of aluminum foil, then drop it directly on the grill grate.
The ideal temperature for smoking meat is 225 F, though an occasional spike of up to 250 F isn't cause for panic. Long stretches of anything above that could result in meat that's drier and tougher than usual.
If you find grill heat levels too hot, try closing your air vents slightly. Give the fire at least 15 minutes to respond. Do the opposite to raise grill temperatures. Also try to dial in heat levels by adjusting either the top or bottom vents only. That way you can nail down any effect the top or bottom vent causes.
Reap your BBQ rewards
A semicircle charcoal snake typically burns for at least 5 hours, and possibly as long as 8 hours. Of course your exact experience depends on other factors. Those include ambient outdoor temperature in your neck of the woods, and the design of your particular grill.
The beauty of the snake method is that you can always add more coals if you need more cooking time. So whether you're smoking a rack of baby back ribs (5 hours), St. Louis cut pork ribs, or a hefty whole beef brisket (15 hours), your trusty charcoal kettle has you covered. Hungry for barbecue yet? I know I am.