Perfectly cooked through steak, crispy-skinned chicken, and caramelized pork chops are all made possible by grilling with indirect heat.
What is indirect heat grilling?
Indirect grilling is a term used for a cooking technique when food is cooked using hot air circulating around the food. Instead of sitting directly over the heat source, the food is placed on the cooler side of the grill or high above the heat source. Indirect grilling is similar to baking or roasting foods instead of direct heat grilling.
The process uses the same grill that you pull out for a summer barbecue, but a few technical peculiarities make up a delicious difference. It allows you to cook loads of new foods on the grill, and only takes a few points of practical know-how.
Let’s check out some details on getting started, then we can talk about some great dish ideas to test out the process.
By the end of our what is indirect grilling guide, you’ll know exactly why and how to grill with indirect heat.
Table of Contents
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What Is Indirect Grilling?
Grilling with indirect heat is also known as two-zone grilling. This is because you are creating two areas to grill. One will have the charcoal or fire directly below, which is direct heat grilling; the other area will not have a source of heat directly below. The area without heat directly below is the indirect grilling area.
By keeping your grill’s lid shut, you allow the charcoal or fire to heat up the enclosed air. The air that surrounds your food will cook it, instead of the fire itself.
By placing food directly over the source of heat, you are increasing the cooking temperature drastically. This is great for searing the outside of meats and creating those awesome-looking grill marks, but not so perfect for cooking foods through.
A slow, steady heat is necessary to cook thick foods or foods that can’t handle a rapid increase in temperature.
By heating the food indirectly, it cooks from all sides more evenly. Think of it like baking but with the added benefit of delicious wood smoke flavor.
Because of this, when you grill indirectly, always make sure it’s with the grill’s lid shut. You will be greatly disappointed trying to grill with an open lid and no direct heat. By trapping the air and heating it, you are cooking the food slowly and thoroughly, and grilling with indirect heat!
Will Indirect Grilling Work on Both a Charcoal & Gas Grill?
Yes, indirect heat grilling works on both a charcoal and gas grill. Keep in mind that in order to cook with indirect heat on a gas grill, the grill must have at least two burners, which are individually controlled.
Having an area away from the direct fire is the entire purpose of this type of grilling. Without individual control of both burners, it can be difficult to create an area without direct heat. You can attempt to divert heat by using a drip tray, but I’ll get into that later.
Reasons to Grill With Indirect Heat
Direct heat on a grill is fantastic for many types of food. Thinner foods that are cooked quickly are prime examples. Meats like thin steaks, hot dogs, hamburgers, shrimp, and veggies are ideal for direct heat grilling.
Indirect grilling can be utilized in several ways, acting as both a complement and an addition to direct grilling.
Whole chickens, roasts, or tenderloins are some things to grill with indirect heat. These large pieces of meat can take a while to cook thoroughly. If you keep them over direct heat the whole time, you will end up with a burnt piece of meat on the outside before it ever finishes cooking in the center.
Instead, try starting with direct heat to create a mahogany sear, then move these foods over to the indirect area. You get a nice sear first, then slowly cook through the meat, allowing it to stay moist and avoid burning.
Another great option is the reverse sear method, which is pretty much the exact opposite of the process noted above. You start with indirect heat and finish the cook with a nice hot sear using direct heat. You can read more on the reverse sear method here.
Two-zone grilling can be used to cook potatoes and other vegetables as well. Treated like an oven, indirect grilling will cook the vegetables to a tender consistency without burning them while adding the woodsy, smokey flavor we all crave.
When you have a party over for steaks it can be difficult to time them to all finish cooking at the same time. Indirect grilling lets you time steaks together more consistently. If you notice some steaks cooking quickly, or if someone wants a more rare steak, you just move the steak over to your indirect area. The steak will stay hot, but not cook quickly, letting the others catch up.
What Is Indirect Grilling When Broken Down?
Indirect heat grilling is made possible in the assembly or setup of your grill. Depending on your type of grill and its design, you can easily start grilling with indirect heat, or you may have to play a bit to make your grill capable.
For gas assembly, just light one of your burners while leaving the others unlit. The lit burner will be your direct heat while the unlit areas are for indirect heat.
Light your charcoal using a charcoal chimney starter or whatever charcoal lighting technique you prefer, but make sure the coals are completely lit and ready to go.
Once the briquettes are white and ashy you should be all set. Next, push all the coal to one side of your grill, spreading it out evenly as you would normally. The side with coals will be your direct heat source, allowing you to quickly cook small meats and sear larger ones. The side without charcoal is your indirect heat side.
Another option is to make a ring of lit charcoal around the edge of the grill, leaving the very center bare. That way, your direct heat is around the edge, and the indirect heat is in the center, allowing for an even cooking area for indirect heat.
Like with direct heat grilling, controlling the temperature is still very important. Since the trapped air is a large part of what cooks your food with indirect grilling, try to keep the lid shut as much as possible.
With charcoal grills, you will need to play a bit with your air vents to control the temperature. Allow enough air through to increase the temperature while also taking into consideration that every time you open the lid you are allowing a gust of air in and heat out. The increase in oxygen from opening the lid increases the temperature of a charcoal grill, but the release of heated air can make for a strange balance.
Play around with the settings on your vents in order to even out the temperature.
Using a Water Pan
If you have the option, using a water pan is a terrific way to improve your indirect grilling.
To use a water pan, your grill needs a second rack underneath your cooking area, or at least a space to place the water pan. Take a metal or disposable drip tray and fill it about two-thirds of the way with water. You can add veggies, wine, cider, beer, or other additives as well. I personally enjoy experimenting with different liquids and spices for increasing the flavor profile.
Place your tray on the lower rack. If you have a grill without individual burners, you can utilize a water tray to diverge one burner’s heat, giving you an indirect heat area.
The additional water keeps your food nice and moist, sort of like a sauna. Also, if the tray is positioned under the meat, it will catch any drippings and stop flare-ups from the fire. This allows you to baste your food if you’d like or use the drippings for a sauce later on.
Final Thoughts on Our What Is Indirect Grilling Guide
So really, what is indirect grilling?
It is another tool within the grilling realm.
It is a twist on more common grilling techniques. While it does not completely replace direct heat grilling, indirect heat is a terrific addition.
Just like with direct heat, it is something to experiment with.
I shared a few of my favorite ways to use indirect heat grilling. Take those, and experiment in your own ways.
If you find something that works well or a recipe you are proud of, let me know! I am always happy to hear about new and improved ways to use the grill.
Now It’s Your Turn
I want to hear from you:
Which methods of zone or indirect heat grilling have you used before?
Do you have any zone grilling tips to share?
Are you going to be purchasing a new grill in the future? Do you plan on looking at a Pellet Grill, Smoker, Built-In Gas Grill, or Charcoal Model?
Let me know by leaving a quick comment below.
If you still have questions, please feel free to send me a message.
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A backyard warrior, certified carnivore, lover of good whiskey, self-proclaimed grill master and I’m Living The Grilling Life!
I have a passion for cooking with live fire and smoke, no matter the weather. I’m a real person just like you, who loves outdoor cooking and BBQ. Food, fun, and time spent with family and friends are what it’s all about! It is my mission to take my passion and knowledge for outdoor cooking and all things BBQ and share this expertise in techniques and grilling equipment with you. In other words, Living The Grilling Life!
Thank you for the good information about indirect grilling. I once did that with a charcoal grill when cooking a turkey. We now have a gas grill with two burner tubes. There is an inverted “V” of thin metal over each burner tube. I also have a welder. I am thinking about how I might make an adapter so the gas grill could be used to cook a turkey by indirect heat. The height inside the cooking chamber is less than I would like. I am thinking of an adapter that would increase the height of the cooking chamber inside about three inches. That means the lid or top would need to be unbolted and bolted to my riser. Inside I would remove the regular cooking racks. My adapter would utilize a steel plate made 3/4 inch less in area than the grilling racks so hot air from the gas burner tubes could float upward around the metal plate to cook the meat indirectly. The turkey would rest on a rack or in a pan a couple of inches above the metal plate. The metal plate would also heat up from the gas flame and radiate heat to the meat, but with less intensity than if in direct contact. I may not actually do this, but I would like to try it. My wife now has a double electric kitchen oven and has less need for an alternative to the one oven she formerly had. In the days of a single oven it was a real help when I cooked a turkey in the charcoal grill.