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There are many ways to build a fire in the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker. The good news is that there's no wrong way to do it. If you have a method that works for you, that's great—keep doing what you're doing.
The WSM Owner's Manual describes a method in which you light 50-150 briquettes, depending on the type and weight of meat you're cooking. Heap the briquettes into a pile, add 4-5 paraffin starter cubes, and light. The charcoal is ready when you see gray ash on the top coals in the pile. Spread the coals evenly on the charcoal grate and you're ready to add smoke wood to the fire, water to the pan, and meat to the cooking grate.
The Owner's Manual method is not a bad starting point, but there are two other methods used by WSM owners that you may want to consider. One is what I call the Standard Method—good for shorter, high-heat cooks—and the other called the Minion Method—good for longer, low-heat cooks.
Remember...click on any of the pictures to view a larger image.
Using this method, you fire-up enough charcoal at the beginning to last the entire cooking session. All briquettes are hot and covered with a light coat of gray ash before you start cooking.
This is my preferred method when I want to roast meats like turkey or standing rib roast at 325-350°F.
Light A Chimney Full Of Charcoal
For most cooking sessions, you'll need at least one chimney full of hot coals. Fill the chimney starter to the top with charcoal briquettes and light.
You can learn more about using chimney starters in the How To Use A Chimney Starter article.
Dump The Hot Coals
It will take 10-20 minutes for the coals to light, depending on wind conditions, how much charcoal is in the chimney, and the type of charcoal being used.
The charcoal is ready when you see flames licking at the coals in the top of the chimney and gray ash just starting to form (Picture 1).
If you wait longer for the top coals to be fully ashed-over, much of the charcoal in the bottom of the chimney will be spent, so go ahead and dump the charcoal into your cooker when it looks like Picture 1.
Wearing heat-resistant gloves, pick up the chimney and pour the hot coals into the charcoal chamber. Spread the coals evenly over the grate using tongs.
Add More Charcoal
It takes some experience to learn how much charcoal to use for the various types of barbecue you cook in your WSM. Make sure to use a cooking log to keep track of fuel usage from one cooking session to the next.
Using a Weber chimney starter as a charcoal measuring cup, I might use:
The amount you use will depend on several factors:
If you need more than a single chimney of hot coals, spread the additional unlit briquettes evenly on top of the lit ones. It will take 10-20 minutes to get these briquettes going.
Of course, if you have two chimney starters, you can shortcut this process by lighting all of the charcoal at one time in the previous step.
Assemble The Cooker
When the coals look like this, with a nice coating of gray ash, you're ready to cook.
For 225-250° cooking:
For 325-350° cooking:
As the cooking session proceeds, adjust the bottom vents to regulate the temperature.
It takes the Weber Bullet a little time to react to changes in vent settings. The trick is to anticipate the direction the cooker temperature is heading and adjust accordingly. With a little practice, you'll be controlling WSM temps like a pro!
Avoid Overheating The Cooker
As mentioned above, one problem with this method is that it can be hard to bring down the cooker temperature if it's running much hotter than you want. This happens for several reasons:
If all else fails, use tongs and heat-resistant gloves to remove some fuel from the cooker through the access door. If you're feeling lucky, lift the middle cooking section off the charcoal bowl with the lid, meat, and water pan intact to access the fuel. This can be dangerous and messy, especially if you dump the contents of your cooker on the ground or into the hot coals. Remove the cooking section at your own risk. Weber warns that you should never move a hot cooker and you should never operate it unless all parts are in place.
Learn more about temperature troubles by visiting the Temperature Control Troubleshooting page.