Can You Use the Snake Method with Lump Charcoal?

Lump charcoal is attracting some serious buzz from grilling and smoking enthusiasts owning to its credentials as a pure heat source free from some of the less desirable additives associated with charcoal briquettes. But is it all hype, will it still burn like the widely used humble charcoal briquette?

The natural approach does make lump charcoal a little more volatile to grill with though as it lacks the uniformity in size that we have come to expect from briquettes. In this article, we will look at whether using the snake method is a viable means of harnessing lump charcoal for the desirable low and slow cook time.

Yes, lump charcoal can be used with the snake method. However, as it lacks the consistency of size associated with briquettes, a little extra work is needed first. Sorting your lump charcoal prior to arranging is vital in order to pick lumps of fairly similar size that will stack tightly without gaps.

What is Lump Charcoal – How does it Burn? What is it used For?

Lump charcoal is the term used to describe a fuel source for grilling or barbecuing which is achieved by super-heating hardwood in very low levels of oxygen. This helps draw out all moisture and substances like sap to leave behind lumps of energy-dense charcoal that can burn at super-hot temperatures.

Unlike charcoal briquettes which can have varying levels of additives and compounds, lump charcoal is 100% natural hardwood. This means there is no chemical smell when burning which is one of the major positives for people who decide to make the switch.

What is the Snake Method?

If you are new to at-home grilling or smoking, a quick search of the internet might leave your mind boggled at just how many variations there are to setting up your fire. While for the novice bunging a bunch of charcoal briquettes into the base of your grill seems like a good approach as you become more accomplished you will discover the placement of your fuel can have a massive bearing on your cooking experience.

The snake method is one such approach to placing your fuel in order to try and maximize steady burn time and avoid the faff of re-fuelling.

How is the Snake Method Achieved?

The snake method is achieved by placing your fuel, either charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal, around the outer three-quarters of your grill with a gap between each end.

The fuel has to be laid in a particular pattern, stacked against each other so they touch at least on some points but there is still space for oxygen flow. The first layer is two wide with a third layer running over the top of this. The stacked pattern and coiled appearance are what give the snake method its name. If you want a much longer or hotter burn the stacking can be increased to a 3x2x1 or even 3x3x3 approach just as long as it remains snaked around the edge of your grill.

Another key component of the snake method is how it is lit. The fuel is only lit from one side, by inserting some already burning lighters or briquettes. This means that heat is maintained as the heat from the lighters heats the first lumps to burning which then slowly heats the fuels next to it and so forth until it reaches the end of the snake.  

This is easily achieved with briquettes as they are a uniform size. Lump charcoal throws up a bit more of a challenge as you will need to sort your lumps by size as they can vary massively. It may be that you need to sort from more than one bag of lump charcoal to get enough lumps of a similar size to build your snake.

It is this extra work that puts some people off using lump charcoal for a snake method. The bonus, however, if you are willing to put in the work is the lovely natural, chemical-free smoke that comes from lump charcoal which can massively enhance your meat’s flavoring.

This short YouTube clip demonstrates the snake method.

What are the Benefits of the Snake Method?

Advocates of the snake method report it is extremely effective at achieving long, slow cooking times ideal for slow-roasting meat joints. The steady burning process can also help regulate overall heat throughout the period of cooking. This can be much harder to achieve when all the fuel is lit at once as you get a very hot initial burn that quickly dies out.

Another benefit of cooking with a snake method is that it is fairly low maintenance. Once your snake is established and burning there is little need for intervention. If you require to extend the length of cooking, additional briquettes or lump charcoal can be added to the end of the “tail” without the need to empty out cinders.

The snake method is also cost-effective as you can achieve a steady heat for longer term cooking with fairly minimal amounts of base fuel.

Snake Method vs Minion Method

Of course, the snake method is not the only approach out there. During your investigations you make have come across another term, “minion method”. Like the snake method, the minion method’s base aim is to have a charcoal arrangement that allows lit coals to slowly and steadily light the remaining unlit coals, thus achieving a nice steady, long burn time.

While the snake method advocates a long thin line of fuel around the outer edge of your grill or smoker the minion method is more of a carefully constructed pile around the entirety of the outer edge of your charcoal pan.

In the minion method hot already burning charcoals are tipped into the vacant center spot and then works similarly to the snake method by these hot charcoals steadily igniting the adjacent coals working outwards.

How do you Choose Between Snake or Minion?

It largely comes down to personal preference. However, there are some discrete differences between the snake and minion methods when considering burn time and temperatures achieved.

As there is more overall charcoal used in the minion method often this can achieve longer burn times. However, the downside of this is that as the burn is radiating outwards heat can be harder to control as there will be more charcoal burning at any one time.

The snake method therefore may be more appealing as a first foray into long and slow cooking as it is slightly less unpredictable.

How Much Charcoal do you use for a Snake Method?

The biggest factor in determining how much charcoal you will need for your snake method depends on the diameter of your grill or smoker. As it requires a row of fuel around the outer edge, the bigger the charcoal pan, the more fuel you will use.

The second factor will be how much height or stacking you are putting into your snake. A 2×1 approach will need a lot less than 3 rows or 3 charcoals.

Regardless of how high you stack, the snake method will almost universally use less than a minion method, or filling your grate. This makes it the more cost-effective method.

Related Questions

How Long will a Charcoal Snake Burn?

Some grill die-hards will swear they have achieved as much as 18 to 20-hour burns from their snake method. However, this would be extreme. In reality, a well-stacked snake method with good quality fuel in a standard grill or smoker could achieve between 10 and 14 hours. Of course, if you need a shorter cook time you can just shorten your snake.

Many factors contribute to the overall burn time such as external temperature, quality of your grill, and use of ventilation.

Can you use Wood Chips for Snake Method?

Wood chips as the main fuel for a snake method burn are not likely to work effectively. Their much smaller size and quick burn mean that they would burn through very quickly. Trying to keep them densely stacked enough to avoid any cold spots or failed combustion would also prove a considerable challenge. For this reason, charcoal briquettes and lump charcoal are the best options for a snake method.

That being said there can still be a role for wood chips when grilling with a snake method. Many will scatter some fragrant wood chips such as applewood, into the grill pan to enhance the smoke flavoring achieved when cooking over the snake method.  These will still burn out quickly but can be topped up periodically without disturbing the fire.