Since most of us have not gone to culinary school to learn about grilling but are self-taught in the backyard through trial and error, there could be some basics you're missing. Ever wonder about the difference between direct and indirect heat? Or how to use them when grilling? You're not alone! We are going to explore these fundamentals of grilling and other tips in "Grilling 101: What is Direct and Indirect Heat?"

The smell of grilled food is one that never goes away. Those who have had the pleasure know this first hand, and those whose stomachs are rumbling from just reading about it! Grilling over an open fire can be a wonderful experience for both cookers and eaters alike. When you set yourself up to succeed by learning the fundamentals, backed with tried and true techniques, there's nothing quite like cooking outside over open flame.

If you're planning on grilling anything more advanced than basic burgers and dogs, you need to understand direct and indirect heat - what they are, why they differ, and how they are used. Simply stated:

  • Direct heat is when food sits directly over the flame or burner.
  • Indirect heat is when food is placed adjacent to the lit burner or fire.

Let's dive into each to gain a better understanding of how to use them. These simple guidelines will help make your next cookout even more delicious!

Grilling 101: What is Direct Heat?

We will start with direct heat because that is most likely what you have already been using.  Direct heat is when the food sits directly over a flame or burner, like placing a pot on a stovetop. Whether using charcoal, gas, propane, or other solid fuels, you are using direct heat when the food is directly over the heat source.

Direct heat cooks foods quickly because it has more direct contact with the flames than indirect sources of heat do. It is ideal for foods that will cook through before burning, like hamburgers, carne asada, certain types of seafood, kebabs, and thinner cuts of meat. The high temperatures from the concentrated heat are great for searing meat to lock in natural juices and moisture while forming a tasty crust.

Grilling 101: What is Direct and Indirect Heat?

When grilling most items, it is generally preferred to always set up a grill for both direct and indirect zones, giving the chef more tools and safeguards if the grill gets too hot. Even with steak and hamburgers, it's helpful to have a cooler part of the grill available in case of flare-ups or to prevent burning.

To get the best results when grilling, you need a balance of high and low heat areas. The direct zone is where your meat will receive intense, fast-cooking heat, while the indirect zones offer lower temperatures for slower roasting.

Grilling 101: What is Indirect Heat?

Indirect heat refers to zones of your cooktop area that are not directly over the burners or coals. There is still plenty of heat throughout the grill, but it is less intense in these areas. Thicker cuts of meat or poultry will burn before they cook through when only roasted over hot direct heat, whereas the cooler temperatures of indirect heat zones will cook the entire portion evenly.

Many people who grill prefer indirect heat because it cooks food more slowly and gently. This is great if you need a slower roast, such as for ingredients that contain sauces or delicate foods like fish. It's also a good option when the meat has been seared on the outside but still needs time to finish cooking before serving. By moving these pieces off of direct contact with the fire to an unlit part of the grill, they can keep roasting at their own pace without drying out or burning too fast.

Indirect cooking is your best choice to reduce the chance of flare-ups from fat and juices dripping onto direct heat sources. Indirect heat also spreads throughout the entire grill instead of only warming up one side or corner, creating an oven-like effect with the mesquite character of open flame.

Grilling 101: Using Both Direct and Indirect Grilling

Providing a more forgiving grilling environment, plan to use both direct and indirect heat each time you grill. To set up your grill for direct and indirect grilling, ensure that one side of the grill is fully lit and leave the opposite side off for indirect cooking. For gas grills with more than two burners, you can vary the size of each zone with the number of lit burners. When using briquettes, lump coal, or hardwood, you can regulate the zones by keeping the pile of coals to one side of the grill or evenly distributing them in a single layer.

Grilling 101: What is Direct and Indirect Heat?

The next time you're planning on grilling something more advanced than basic burgers and dogs, take advantage of direct and indirect heat zones. Use the direct heat from your burners or coals to quickly roast or sear, and then move your food to indirect zones away from the fire to finish cooking. Direct and indirect heat zones offer a versatile way to get the perfect texture on your food, grow your skills, and show off your grilling prowess!

Keep an eye out for our next Grilling 101 post as we look into the fundamentals and differences of cooking different types of meat.

June 07, 2021 — Jason Klein