I get a lot of e-mails asking how I light my Weber Smokey Mountain Smoker BBQ Smoker (WSM). It is actually a very easy and forgiving smoker to light. Here's what I do:
To light my WSM I follow the minion method. This method is based on placing unlit coals in the chamber of the smoker and then adding a smaller amount of lit coals on top of the unlit. This allows the coals to slowly burn into one another and gives you a longer, slower burning heat. For BBQ ribs my game plan is a 3-4 hour smoke as close to 250 degrees as possible. I assemble the WSM as shown in the following photo. I fill up the charcoal chamber about 1/2 to 3/4 full of unlit coals and place some apple wood chunks throughout. I also dig out some coals from the center with my hand to create a sort of hole in the middle where I will dump the lit coals. If you look closely you'll see some leftover coals from my last smoke at the very bottom underneath of the fresh unlit coals. Why waste them?
Most people are shocked when I tell them that I only use a charcoal chimney filled about 1/3-1/2 full of lit charcoal. You really don't need that much. It is easy to hit 500 degrees in the smoker so you want to be careful and only add no more than 1/2 of a lit chimney. Of course in the middle of winter with a wind storm you will need to make some major modifications to this methodology.
Once the coals are almost ashed over I dump them into the "hole" of charcoal in the smoker, as shown below.
As soon as the coals are dumped into the charcoal ring, I assemble the smoker, line the water pan with foil and pour warm water into the pan. I found that lining the water pan with foil really helps speed up my cleanup. No greasy gunk will get stuck to the water pan this way. After the water pan is in place and the grates are in place I toss the ribs on and let the system come up to temperature. I figure its better to put the ribs on early then to keep them inside until you actually hit 250 degrees. Its just preference.
With this set up there isn't much work required. The WSM does have 3 air vents at the bottom that you can manipulate. I start out the smoke with all vents wide open. The top vent is ALWAYS open 100%. If I approach 275-300 I will close 2 of the 3 bottom vents until the temperature drops. When the temperature gets back to 250 or so I will open the vents back up. Its a game of ups and downs with temperature but in my opinion the ribs will taste great whether they are smoked at 250 or 280 degrees. There isn't that much of a difference for the backyard rib smoke enthusiast. Now, if you are over 300 degrees I'd pull the rack off and close the bottom vents completely!
I also use this arrangement for smoking stuffed jalapeno peppers. For smoking pork shoulder or other long time smokes I will fill the Weber Smokey Mountain BBQ Smoker charcoal chamber almost full with unlit coals (saving just enough space to dump the lit coals in).