One of the best ways to build a controllable fire is to use a technique called the “Minion Method.” Named after its creator, Jim Minion, it’s the process of laying down a base of unlit charcoal and placing a few lit pieces of charcoal on top. The unlit pieces are slowly ignited, providing a longer and more efficiently burning fire. To get those few lit pieces we use a device called a charcoal chimney. It’s a metal cylinder that’s open on both ends with a slotted metal divider inside and a handle on the outside. Charcoal is placed above the metal divider and crumpled newspaper is ignited underneath the divider. The chimney directs the heat and flames of the fire up through the charcoal and efficiently ignites a batch of coals.
To monitor the temperature of your fire, you MUST have some sort of thermometer in your cooker. Just about every commercial grill or smoker comes with a temperature device built in, but these thermometers are normally placed in less-than-ideal locations. To effectively monitor your cooking temperatures, you need to know the temperature where your food is sitting. Lots of manufacturers place the thermometer at the very top of the grill. Since hot air rises, this location tends to be slightly hotter than the actual cooking surface. To counteract this placement error, you can use a basic wired temperature probe skewered through a potato to monitor the temperature of the cooking surface. Slice a medium baking potato in half widthwise and insert the temperature probe all the way through the center parallel to your cut. Place the cut edge of the potato on the grill grate, and you now have a device for monitoring the exact cooking temperature of your food.
Once you have the smoker up to temperature, the next battle is keeping it steady. The easiest way to do this is to adjust the dampers that allow oxygen into the firebox. Closing them cuts off the air supply to the fire, which in turn causes it to cool down. Opening them lets in more oxygen to the fire, which causes it to burn bigger and generate more heat. Now, in the case you get an extreme spike in temperature, or a “flare-up,” it’s always a good idea to keep a squirt bottle of water nearby, so you can extinguish a small portion of the fire to quickly bring its temperature down.