There are people in the world who organize their lives such that they have the perfect tool for every job. If these people enjoy the occasional hunk of smoked meat, they probably have a bullet or an egg under a neat cover in the backyard. But the rest of us regular folk learn how to make do with a bit less. In this case, though, not a whole lot less: The Weber Kettle.
This American institution was created by George Stephen, Sr. in 1952 by reconfiguring a metal buoy, and people have been honoring George by tweaking his design ever since. Like computer hackers, we look for ways to tailor the grill to our changing needs: a 16-hour pork-shoulder sm0ke one week, a quick steak sear the next, a whole roasted salmon perhaps, and a gorgeous Thanksgiving turkey on the big day.
Most of the interesting developments come when the griller moves from thin pieces of food (steaks, chicken breasts, sausage, asparagus) that are cooked directly over the heat to larger hunks of food (potatoes, roasts, whole birds, shoulder) that are cooked via indirect heat. In the case of the latter, coals can be banked to either side of the meat (a 3-zone fire; hot-cold-hot), or banked to one side (a 2-zone fire; hot-cold) and the Weber Kettle miraculously becomes an impressive and flavorful convection oven.
In the case of the larger portions of meat (large roasts, whole turkey), the fire may need to be sustained for several hours. Intermittently adding unlit coals on top of the lit ones is effective, but it is time consuming and inefficient (since opening the lid to add coals allows heat to escape and lots of oxygen to intrude, upsetting the careful balance of fuel and air). Enter the Minion Method, named for the common sense genius who discovered it almost by accident. Instead of putting cold coals on top of hot ones, he simply poured unlit charcoal briquettes into his cold grill, then added hot coals on top. The hot coals slowly ignite the unlit ones, and the fire goes on and on under a closed lit. It is an idea that literally and metaphorically turned the barbeque world upside down.
Stacking coals this way, I’ve been able to smoke pork shoulders for over 6 hours before needing to refuel. Of course, it helps that cooking temperatures for such cooking are down between 200 and 220F, allowing the fuel to last much longer.
Another help I’ve found for long smoke sessions has been to more carefully control the air flow inside the grill. I do this by covering over 2 of the 3 vents in the bottom of the kettle. After cleaning out all of the ash inside the grill, I reach underneath the grill to attach several pieces of duct sealing tape (this is the stuff pros use to seal up metal ductwork– it doesn’t leave behind adhesive like the more common ‘duct tape’). Leave the vent that will be right underneath the fire uncovered. This will allow the heated air and smoke to flow over the meat with more precision, and it will also facilitate removal of the ash.
And while you’re bent over there with tape in your hand, put another piece on the ash-can assembly at the bottom of the grill (if you are so fortunate as to own the upgraded model). This way, you can easily use a Sharpie to mark out registration marks for ‘closed’, ‘full open’, ‘half flow’, and etc.. This is a godsend when you’ve needed to open the lid to add more hickory for smoke, or to add coals, or when you simply need to sweep out the ashes inside. If the fire needs some help
coming up to temperature, you can open the vent fully for a few minutes, then bring it back to the previous balance point. Or conversely, if the fire won’t slow down, you can choke it off completely for a few minutes, then find a point just below your previous air mix. It’s way better than waving your air-mix arm in the dark, waiting to see if you get closer or farther from your desired result.
In the end, though, there must be a limit to our clever innovations. Every griller knows that part of the fun of cooking with live fire is the sheer challenge of it: the manifold variables, the complications of wind and weather, and the unpredictability of the food itself. Make things too simple or too predictable, and we might as well stay inside.