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BBQ 101: What’s the Difference Between Direct Heat and Indirect Heat?

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Mar 26, 2020 • 5 min read

Grilling is perfect for cooking everything from hamburgers and hot dogs to tender brisket to roasted whole chickens—and the way you use a grill can have a dramatic effect on how your food turns out. Direct grilling, which exposes food to high heat, is perfect for burgers and steaks, while indirect grilling, which surrounds food with lower, indirect heat, is optimal for smoked foods and tender meat that falls off the bone.



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What Is Direct Heat Grilling?

Direct heat grilling is a cooking process that involves heating food either above hot coals (in a charcoal grill) or above a propane flame (in a gas grill). When you cook food with direct heat, you place food directly on the cooking grate with the heat source directly beneath it. The cooking process tends to be fast, and your main job is to regulate the temperature (either by adjusting the top vent of your grill or by removing the grill lid entirely) and regularly flip your meat to prevent it from burning.
The direct cooking method produces food that has a crisp, slightly charred outside and a tender juicy inside. This is why it works so well for hamburgers, sirloins, tenderloins, chicken breasts, and meaty fish like salmon and tuna.

How to Grill With Direct Heat

Your main task when grilling with direct heat is to properly establish your heat source. With gas grills, this is easy: Simply light the flame (most gas grills have built-in starter buttons) and use the grill's built-in knobs to regulate the temperature. A charcoal grill takes a bit more skill, however.

  1. Set up your charcoal. Remove the grill grate and layer your charcoal briquettes on the bottom of the grill. The best way to get charcoal to burn quickly is to stack it in a pyramid. Alternatively, you can use a charcoal chimney starter to vertically align charcoal and get it burning before you add it to your cooker.
  2. Allow the charcoal to heat. Pour some lighter fluid on your charcoal pyramid, strike a match, and let it burn. Grilling requires patience, and that starts by letting the coals heat to a useful cooking temperature. As a general rule, they're ready for use once white ash forms around the outside of the briquettes.
  3. Start cooking. Coat your charcoal grate with a little nonstick cooking spray, and then add the meat you wish to grill. Arrange your food in a single layer on one grill grate. Cooking times tend to be short (especially when compared to indirect cooking).
  4. Regulate the temperature. Standard grills have two sets of vents (sometimes called dampers)—bottom vents beneath the charcoal firebox and top vents in the lid. The air vents at the bottom of the grill let spent charcoal to fall into an ash catcher beneath the kettle grill itself, and they allow oxygen to feed the fire. You can open the air vents at the top of the grill to let heat escape. You can also let heat escape by removing the top lid altogether. Most gas grills come with a built-in thermometer; some charcoal grills may have one as well. Use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of your food. Ideal grilling temperatures range from 165ºF for slow-cooked chicken all the way to 450ºF for seared steak. As a general rule, hotter temperatures require shorter cooking times.
  5. Stay safe. Remember that lit coals get incredibly hot. Use tongs to flip your meat. Take care not to touch the side of the grill or even the grill lid until they've cooled down. Watch for flare-ups from the coals, which are rare (lit charcoal is more predictable than lit wood), but you must always take precautions when it comes to outdoor cooking.
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What Is Indirect Heat Grilling?

There are two ways to cook with indirect heat: grilling and smoking. The indirect grilling method involves placing meat on a grill so that it is never directly above the heat source. In the two-zone method of indirect grilling, heat comes from one side of the grill, while the meat cooks on the other side. In other words, you might place burning coals on the left side of a kettle grill and place the meat on the right side of the charcoal grate.

The other indirect cooking method is smoking. Smoking takes place in a closed grill or—even better—an actual pellet smoker, gas smoker, or electric smoker. These smokers mix wood chips with their primary heating sources of coal, gas, or electric rods. Smoking is great for anything from beef brisket to fish fillets to large cuts of meat, but it does take a long time.

4 Methods for Grilling With Indirect Heat

When using a grill to cook food with indirect heat, be conscious of where you place your charcoal. Once you’ve lit the charcoal and placed it in the grill, you must move it away from the food you are cooking. There are four main ways to do this:

  1. The two-zone method: In the two-zone indirect grilling method, you place your hot coals on one side of the grill and your meat on the other side. The drawback to this is that if left alone, your coals will cook one side of your meat much more than the other. To prevent this, you must regularly flip and rotate the food you're cooking.
  2. The three-zone method: In the three-zone indirect grilling method, you place your meat in the middle of the grill and create two heat zones on either side of it. This lets you do some slow cooking without having to rotate your meat nearly as much as in the two-zone method (although you do still need to flip and rotate it).
  3. The ring of fire method: In this grilling method, you place meat in the middle of your grate and surround the perimeter of the grill with burning coals. This method allows for an especially even cook.
  4. The rotisserie method: This method piggybacks on either the three-zone or ring of fire method by adding a spit to the middle of the grill. Spear your meat with this spit (for instance, directly through the middle of a rotisserie chicken), then regularly rotate the meat to ensure even cooking.


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