As we've seen an influx in new members lately (Yeah!!) I've seen a few questions about the Minion Method and also building fires and maintaining temps. So while getting the WSM fired up this morning I thought I'd take a few or better pictures and jot down my thoughts on the subject.
Below my tutorial is something I copied off another website (sorry forgot where) that I've included that also explains how the Minion Method got it's name and how it started.
First, I start by using a high quality lump charcoal. Seven Oaks is my current fuel of choice. It's made locally so you may not be able to find it in your area. I start by creating a "ring" of lump charcoal. You can do this a variety of ways. The easiest I've seen is to put an empty coffee can in the middle of your fire basket (or fire ring in my case with the WSM) and pour the lump around the OUTSIDE of the can. What I usually do is dump a pile of lump in there and just spread it out with my hands. It's dirty, but you'll wash, trust me. After I do that I add in some chunks of whatever wood I want to use. Here's what it should look something like
You can see that the middle is open. Just lump around the outside.
Now get a chimney of lump going. And let it get completely burning. All hot and ashed over.
Normally I wouldn't do this on the concrete patio, but it was snowy and my little Smokey Joe was buried and I was too lazy to dig for it.
Now take that lit chimney of lump and carefully dump it into the center open area of the charcoal basket.
Back up and get some perspective
That's basically it! Depending on how much unlit you put in is what dictates how long of a burn you'll get without having to add more lump. I will after a few hours open the door and toss in a couple more wood chunks since they burn up faster than the lump. But I've done several 12+ hour smokes without having to add fuel.
Now it's just a matter of having a quality (and tested) thermometer at the grate level to monitor your cooking chamber temps. From here you just need to ride your air intakes to get them to the point that the chamber is maintaining the desired temps.
One quick note about air intakes from my experience and what I've learned here on the mighty SMF, is make small adjustments, wait 15 minutes and see what that did to the temp. Then make another small adjustment, wait 15 minutes...etc. If you make drastic changes to the intakes and/or don't wait for the fuel to "catch up" with what you're doing, you'll be chasing it all day. Also, you'll find that once you find where it's holding at your desired temps, that's where you should start from on your next smoke. There'll be less messing with it from now on since you have your reference point.
Hope this little tutorial serves some of you well.
--Now on to the story about the birth of The Minion Method and one guy’s ability to transfer it from a WSM to a Side Firebox setup...
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.
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 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.