I get asked quite a bit about how I start my coals and maintain my fire in my WSM’s . It seems that most often, I hear people have problems with over shooting their desired temps. First off, let me dispel a myth. Most WSM owners believe that they own a “water” cooker. BBQ tends to be a man’s game, not always, but mostly. Therefore very few of us take the time to actually read through the manual. If you did, you will find that the water pan in the WSM is a heat sink, not a steamer. It absorbs heat energy in order to help keep the temps from spiking. No matter what you think, you are NOT receiving any moisture or flavor benefit from the water or juice that you fill the pan with. I personally do not ever put water in my WSM’s, but it’s ok if you do. Just remember that it takes energy to heat all of that water, which burns out your charcoal faster. If you use water, heat it up first if you don’t want to waste fuel. Personally I just hate the mess and I have gotten to the point where I don’t need the water to help me with maintaining temps. Hopefully after this, you wont either. Ill touch more on the water pan issue later.
The most common way to start charcoal in the WSM is what is called the minion method. This is where you fire up a chimney full of charcoal, and pour it into the center of your charcoal ring surrounded by fresh coals. I am not a fan of this method. I feel that too much charcoal is lit from top to bottom, making it nearly impossible to not have temp spikes in the beginning of your cook. Also, no matter how hard you try, when you dump lit charcoal on fresh charcoal, a stray lit chunk ALWAYS lands somewhere outside of where you want to start the fire from. This creates an uneven fire, and that will give you issues.
This is how I setup my WSM’s. This method works great whether you use a temp control device such as the BBQ Guru (I use the Guru and love it) or not. I like to plan on about 45 minutes to start my cookers. It only takes about 20 minutes to get to temp but I recommend getting it to temp and maintaining it for 20 minutes just to make sure it has leveled off. I build a large pyramid with my charcoal and light it with a Looftlighter. I light just the tip top of the pyramid. At this point I obviously do not have the middle section of my WSM in place. It is off to the side. After a few minutes, once a decent little amount of coal has fired up, I place the middle section and lid back in place with all vents, top and bottom, wide open.
My trusty Looft Lighter and Good One Lump Charcoal
This is about all I light.
On the flip side, If I am using my beloved BBQ Guru, this where I would button up the whole cooker, close all of the bottom vents, open the top vent, and let the fan and controller bring the cooker to temp. I recommend learning how to use your cooker manually before buying a BBQ Guru or Ique. In my most recent competition, we lost power, then I pulled my temp probe out of my cooker way too hard and snapped it, so I had to finish the cook manually in thirty mile per hour wind. Luckily I knew how to manually run my cookers and had no problems at all.
Now back to manual operation. I usually advise people to shut the back two charcoal vents, and shut the top vent about halfway once they are within about 40 degrees of their desired temp. Your temp will still continue to ramp up, but this will help keep the temps from overshooting. Generally if the weather is good, meaning no wind, I can lock in the cooker around 225 to 250 following these steps. If you want a little more heat, start by opening the top vent all of the way. Then if you need even more heat, open one of the back vents about a ¼ of the way. Remember, nothing about BBQ is fast. If you want to increase temp, then make a small change and wait 10 minutes and repeat if necessary. After a few hours, especially if you use crap Kingsford, that’s right, I said it Ash will start to build up a bit and you will have to open vents to keep your temps maintained. This is why I strongly advise using a good natural lump charcoal. When I say good, I mean brands like: Good One, Montana, Royal Oak, Chigger Creek, and my personal favorite, Ozark Oak. Sorry about the shameless plugs, but I am big believer in Lump charcoal. Its reusable, produces WAY less ash which in a WSM is imperative, especially for you 18.5 WSM owners, and puts off a better flavor.
If I am shooting for 225, I would button up the vents here.
After 25 minutes, she is humming along right at 225. Lets Cook!!
As you can tell, I am a BIG fan of the WSM! It really is a great cooker, and Weber has some of the best customer service around. I also think it says a lot that some of the best cook teams in the world compete on them, and keep in mind, Weber does not sponsor cook teams, these pro’s buy theirs just like the rest of us. Teams like Slap Yo Daddy BBQ, Sweet Peppers, Rythym n Que, and local AZ young guns Loot n Booty BBQ and us, Bam Bam’s BBQ, all swear by the WSM in competition. That’s it from me, good luck!
TIPS AND TRICKS:
-Every time you open the lid, you add 10 minutes to your cook
-For those of you in cold or windy climates, go to your local Home Depot or Lowes and buy a 10 foot roll of “48 inch Reflectix” this is a super economical way to insulate your cooker and provide a wind barrier. I recommend buying some utility Velcro so you can fully wrap your cooker and keep it in place. One thing to keep in mind, this works especially well for BBQ Guru or Ique users because you can fully wrap the cooker top to bottom without having to worry about suffocating your WSM. For those of you without a BBQ Guru, wrap the Reflectix around the seam between the bottom and middle section of the cooker, so you do not block your vents and suffocate your coals.
-If you don’t use water in your water pan, double wrap the water pan in heavy duty foil for easy cleanup. If you are still having temperature spikes and want to create a heat sink without using water, then buy some ceramic briquettes and place 10-20 of them in the bottom of your water pan and put another layer of foil over them to catch grease.
-Be careful with the lid and middle section of your WSM. Never set the either one on any hard, or abrasive surface such as concrete or asphalt. Not only will you leave a grease ring that wont come out, you will chip away at the porcelain coating which will hurt the seal between the lid and the middle section, or the middle section and the charcoal bowl. Instead, set the lid down on a plastic table or a piece of cardboard. Concerning the middle section. The lid and the charcoal bowl are heavier and much more rigid than the middle section. The lid and charcoal bowl will help the middle section of the WSM hold its shape. If the lid and charcoal bowl are not connected, be careful not to warp the middle section. The middle section is much more flimsy and can warp fairly easy. I have warped mine when traveling to competition. My WSM was too tall if the lid or base was connected, so I had to transport it in 3 pieces. I packed things around the middle section and they shifted en route to the comp and warped the middle section of the cooker. Once that happens, your WSM will run extremely hot and really wont even be useable. Now my warped cooker is my little backyard fire pit