In my Grilling Life’s guide to mastering zone grilling methods, I’ll be teaching you the most essential skill to master your grill.
The concept of grilling is quite simple when you think about it.
Or is it?
Grilling is when food cooks over an open flame.
Well, yes, and no.
Getting the best flavor for each type of food you’re cooking requires a different temperature. Grilling involves the art of setting individual temperatures by using zone grilling methods.
For example, boiling water to cook pasta requires a high-temperature setting. Heating the pasta sauce requires a medium setting. Baking the garlic bread requires another temperature.
Therefore, steaks and burgers need fiery hot coals and higher temperatures, while delicate vegetables and shrimp skewers need a lower temperature so they don’t scorch and overcook.
If the concept of zone grilling methods is new to you; if you want to understand the nuances of zone grilling or brush up on the different types of zone grilling, based on your type of grill, keep reading!
Because zone grilling is the most essential skill to master your grill!
To get perfectly grilled foods, you have to prepare “heat zone separations” to divide the cooking surface into individual temperature zones.”
Some gas grills have built-in zone separators – removable metal plates – which allow you to divide the grill into warmer and hotter sections to grill sensitive and heartier foods simultaneously.
With a charcoal grill or smoker, the coals and wood’s placement – more on one side, less on the other, or a pan of water to make steam heat, create separate zones.
As radiant heat forces its way up from beneath the food, it develops and deepens the food’s flavor through the grates.
Grilling creates that one-of-a-kind savory flavor and award-winning sear. Heat chemically alters the sugars, and that caramelization is why grilled vegetables taste so much better.
What You Can Expect From This Zone Grilling Methods Guide
This article will explain what zone grilling is and how grilling in the right zone guarantees perfect barbecue results.
Next, we’ll explain some zone grilling essentials, like 2-zone and 3-zone grilling.
We’ll share what we call The Thanksgiving Analogy, so you’ll understand WHY zone grilling yields the best results.
You’ll learn the difference between zone grilling on a gas grill versus zone grilling on a charcoal grill and a smoker.
And finally, we’ll explain the methods and benefits of zone grilling for each type of grill.
The smell of meat on the grill is mesmerizing. The sound of the food sizzling creates excitement and evokes glorious memories. And the taste, well, the taste of barbecue is like nothing else!
Master zone grilling methods and all your foods are more likely to be their tastiest version every time you barbecue!
Table of Contents
Click a topic below to be taken directly to that section.
Why Zone Grilling?
Zone grilling is the way to enjoy the benefits of both direct and indirect heat when using your grill. More to the point, zone grilling maximizes the ratio of perfect temperature to perfectly cooked food.
Despite the idea that grilling is “hardcore all the time,” even an expert pitmaster will tell you that your grill won’t work as effectively if it’s “stuck at one temperature.”
Yes, reasoning says that consistent, radiant heat is key to a successful barbecue. If you’re grilling 40 hot dogs, yes, one zone will do.
If chicken and peaches and corn are involved, you need zones! 1 zone for chicken, 1 zone for hotdogs, and 1 zone for fruits and veggies. A 3-zone grill cooks everything at once!
And you’ll barbecue using multiple grill zone methods for good reason.
Grilling using a 2-zone or 3-zone method eliminates the heat from radiating evenly underneath the entire grill grate surface area. One evenly spread, hot bed of embers will burn out too fast and can’t effectively cook the variety of different foods you place on the grill grates.
Zone Grilling Methods – The Thanksgiving Analogy
Let’s look at a familiar timeline as a basic analogy: Thanksgiving Day. To avoid the “mid-day meltdown,” you assemble, then configure the oven and stovetop for a cook-and-warm strategy, so all the dishes and sides touch down on the table when the turkey is ready.
The same goes for grilling. With a gas grill, you use the adjustable heat zone separators and temperature dials to create hotter and cooler temperatures.
With a charcoal grill or smoker, you arrange the coals or wood chips in sections.
Either way, gas or charcoal, the cooking time is relevant to the heat zone.
Hotter isn’t always better, no matter how badly you want the perfect sear.
If you’ve ever felt the embarrassment of serving undercooked chicken breasts and suddenly realizing that the steaks, grilled to their optimal temperature, are about to be served with overcooked and wilted vegetables, then mastering the 2-zone or 3-zone grill methods are most definitely worth trying.
Why does a pork chop take longer than chicken to cook on the grill? Well, it takes time for radiant heat to reach the center of the food and cook it to a safe temperature.
Think of your stovetop. It has individual burners, each with its own temperature control. Different proteins, vegetables, and starches cook in separate pans and pots. You don’t cook a pork chop in the same pot you make macaroni and cheese.
This same cooking method applies to your grill. Remember, the food’s “doneness” depends on:
- How much heat radiates up from beneath the food or circulates around it.
- The internal temperature of the grill. Is the lid on or off, or both?
- The thickness of each cut of meat.
- How cold the cut of meat is when it starts to cook.
This last point – “how cold” – is essential for two reasons: 1) cold cuts of meat cool down the surface you’re cooking on, and 2) the colder the meat, the longer the cooking time, the tougher the texture.
Food cooks at different temperatures. It’s as simple as that. A piece of fish blisters over direct heat, and a steak on the grill at “seafood temperature” will have you standing there well past kick-off.
In essence, 2-zone or 3-zone cooking allows you to turn your grill into something like a stovetop—or a convection oven, depending on what you’re grilling!
What is Zone Grilling aka “Getting In THE ZONE”
We’ve determined that zone cooking involves setting up your grill into two or three sections and grilling with different radiant temperatures.
Now that we have the primary definition established let’s look deeper into the zones.
Zone grilling has one thing in common whether you’re cooking on a gas grill, charcoal grill, or Smoker. The zones should correspond with the types of food and need to be arranged with the correct amount of fuel to provide direct and indirect heat.
Direct Heat Cooking
Direct heat grilling is cooking food directly right above the burner, coals, or heat source. Small pieces of tender meat – burgers, boneless chicken breasts, pork chops, fish, hot dogs, seafood, shellfish, and sliced vegetables.
Direct heat is for foods that cook fast, and when you want that coveted sear or caramelization!
Indirect Heat Cooking
Indirect Heat grilling is cooking food higher above or to the side of the burner, coals, or heat source. Heavier, larger, thicker, and tougher cuts of meat – whole chickens, beef roast and pork butt, and everybody’s favorite – RIBS!
Roasting over long periods at a lower temperature also cooks the surface evenly while roasting the inside.
Whole vegetables, such as baking potatoes and corn on the cob, cook beautifully with indirect heat.
Cooking with indirect heat on a gas grill, make sure that one area of your gas grill is sectioned off using a heat zone separator. Check out this video at 1:26! If you don’t have the actual partitions, you can also create zones. We’ll show you how later in the article.
Cooking with indirect heat on a charcoal grill, make sure your charcoal grill or smoker is sectioned off by the number of briquettes/pan of water that creates steam and will make your charcoal grill work like a smoker.
As you can see, and if you checked out the videos, grill zones allow the heat to circulate and cook pieces of meat or vegetables directly and indirectly over the heat.
Trust us; it will make more sense once you start making your grill zones.
Must I Become a Zone Griller?
Is zone grilling an unnecessary step if I know how to cook each type of food individually on the grill?
Zone grilling makes sense, no matter your grill skills.
It would be best if you zone grilled for the benefit of your food, first and foremost. Everything you grill will taste better because you will cook it properly. You won’t end up with charbroiled, inedible hockey pucks.
Grilling food simultaneously, if nothing else, is the reason to zone grill.
Finally, mastering the art of 2-zone and 3-zone grilling will make you a better griller. You learn the nuances of heat as it relates to flavor, and these zone skills will take you one step closer to becoming a master of the backyard barbecue.
Finally, it is always smart to have a safe zone on the grill. Flare-ups, interruptions, and mistakes happen. Having a safe or “cool” zone to be able to temporarily transfer the food while you get things under control is something I can’t suggest more.
Zone Cooking on a Charcoal Grill
2-zone and 3-zone cooking on a charcoal grill is relatively easy. The key to success is knowing the different configurations for the charcoal placement. You can choose the best method once you know what foods you’re grilling.
Before you start creating your zones, you need to get familiar with all the different ways to arrange your charcoal.
Charcoal Grill Zone Cooking Methods
2-Zone Charcoal Method | 3-Zone Charcoal Method | 3-Zone Split-Fire Charcoal Cooking| Indirect Heat Charcoal Zone Cooking with Water | Charcoal Ring of Fire Zone Method | The Charcoal Bull’s-Eye Zone Method
The bottom line is, most outdoor cooking works best when you use a 2 or 3-zone setup, even if you’re just cooking dogs and burgers.
As we mentioned earlier, zone cooking is a way to control the temperature and is a safe zone for food that is getting too much heat. The below methods will help you with this.
2-Zone Charcoal Method
It’s super easy to create two heat zones on your charcoal grill. Light your briquettes in the base of the grill, or load them into a charcoal chimney starter as usual. Read my handy Charcoal Chimney Starter Instructions in case you need them. Let the briquettes burn to coals. Rake the coals to one side of the grill – DIRECT HEAT, leaving the other side empty – INDIRECT HEAT.
A thick juicy Ribeye steak starts with a “smoking hot” grill over direct heat at 500° F plus to get that fantastic sear and then can be finished off with indirect heat at 325° – 350°F with the lid down until the center gets to the desired temperature. On the other hand, shrimp kabobs take approximately 6-8 minutes to cook and are flipped once, at a temperature of 350° – 400° F.
The 2-zone grilling method would see more coals on one side for the steaks, and less or no coals on the other side for the kabobs. Food grills at intervals, and you can’t beat perfectly cooked food, enjoyed at the same time.
Without a 2-zone grilling method, you run the risk of overcooking and burning the kabobs.
You can also purchase charcoal baskets for your type of grill to create perfect heat zones.
3-Zone Charcoal Method
It’s just as easy to build a 3-zone fire.
Once your coals burn down, scrape all of them to one side of the grill to create a DIRECT HEAT zone.
Rake about 1/3 of the direct heat coals to the center, creating a MODERATE DIRECT HEAT zone.
Leave the other side of the grill coal-free for INDIRECT HEAT.
3-Zone Split-Fire Charcoal Cooking Method
To get more radiant heat circulating in the indirect zone, you can employ the 3-zone split-fire technique.
Place the briquettes two to three layers deep on one side of the grill. On the other side, place enough briquettes close enough together to create and maintain low or medium heat.
Using the 3-zone split method, with no coals in the middle, the grill’s center is the indirect zone.
It’s the best choice for thick, weighty roasts, such as a beef shoulder or a pork loin, and roasting a whole chicken.
Indirect Heat Charcoal Zone Cooking With Water Method
A pan of water is indeed a griller’s best friend. Here’s a handy trick that will release even more heat. Set up the 3-zone split-fire method. Place a disposable heat-safe pan full of water in the center of the grill’s indirect heat zone.
You can fill the tray with flavor by adding beef, chicken, or vegetable stock. Apple juice or cider works too. Mix in a bouquet of fresh herbs, your favorite spices, and some thick-cut vegetables, as well as a splash of wine if you’re feeling daring.
The pan catches the drippings as the meat cooks above it and creates a base for a sauce or gravy. It keeps your grill cleaner too!
The liquid absorbs heat and then releases it as flavored steam. As a result, steam means no re-upping your charcoal as often. The temperature should remain steady, and the briquettes will burn longer. Most importantly, your meat stays moister.
Charcoal Ring of Fire Zone Cooking Method
A Ring of Fire zone is self-explanatory, really. As the name implies, you should arrange your charcoal so that it forms a ring around the outer edge of the grill. The inside, in contrast, is free of charcoal.
The Charcoal Bull’s-Eye Zone Cooking Method
For the Bull’s-Eye approach, you do the opposite of the Ring of Fire. Keep the coals piled in the middle of the grill. Use the bare outer edges as an indirect grilling area.
You can keep your food warm using this method, too. It works exceptionally well for chicken drumsticks, thighs, and wings, and bone-in pork chops.
Benefits of Zone Cooking With Charcoal
Throwing a ton of briquettes into the center of the grill rarely ends well. No, really, even for experienced grillers, it’s difficult to fully control the heat on a charcoal grill when a few extra briquettes are added and alter the temperature.
Getting IN THE ZONE(S) and adopting a zone grilling method or two, gives you way more control.
Zone grilling offers more versatility, letting you branch out, and perfect your craft.
Gas Grill Zone Cooking Methods
While creating zones on your gas grill is pretty simple, there aren’t as many methods available as there are with a charcoal grill. Your ability to configure the heat zones depends wholly on the size of your gas grill.
We want to be clear about something. There is a big difference between:
When you control the heat using the individual dials on your gas grill. This method is flame control, not heat separation.
Using HEAT ZONE SEPARATORS – adjustable metal plates to create designated zones. *Note: Not all gas grills come standard with heat zone separators. They are usually only found on higher-end grills.
2-Zone Gas Grill Method
2-zone cooking on your gas grill is as easy as lighting one burner and leaving the other turned to low or off.
Thick cuts of meat will be cooked in an indirect heat zone on a gas grill.
3-Zone Gas Grill Method
3-zone cooking only applies to gas grills that have more than two burners. If you have a large grill with 3 or more burners, you can cook using practically every zone method when using a charcoal grill.
Turn each burner dial to the desired temperature setting. For example, the burner on the far left to high for direct heating; the center temperature is medium, and the far-right burner is set to low or off for indirect heating.
Zone Cooking Pro Tip: The top rack of your grill can serve as an indirect zone too. Anything that’s away from direct heat but can still absorb it is an indirect heating zone.
3-Zone Split-Fire Gas Grill Cooking Method
A bigger grill can pull off a 3-zone split-fire scenario, too.
As with a charcoal grill, you light burners at the grill’s far ends, one burner on high and the other burner on medium or low.
For a four-burner grill, err on the side of caution. Keep one or more of the burners completely off or set to the very lowest temperature.
Indirect Gas Grill Zone Cooking With Water Method
Water can create some magic in the grill. So can chicken, beef, vegetable, and fish stock. Place the liquid in a pan, then place the pan inside your gas grill over a burner that is off preferably or at the lowest setting. Some gas grills include a pan. If yours didn’t, a disposable heat-resistant pan would do.
Be careful with glass pans. Glass is for warming and baking. When that comes in contact with too high heat, it can shatter.
Grilling Safety Fun Fact: “All glass, even borosilicate, can experience thermal breakage if exposed to sudden or uneven temperature changes.”
Place the metal pan at the bottom of the grill. Use a pan that won’t raise the grill grates.
Benefits of Zone Cooking on a Gas Grill
Although it’s not as difficult to control the temperature on gas grills, zone cooking is nevertheless beneficial. If you’re cooking different types of food simultaneously, set the different temperatures, but be mindful; a combination of direct and indirect heat radiating from adjacent burners can cause your food to overcook.
Gas grill zone cooking is also great for searing hot and fast over direct heat and then finishing over indirect heat for desired internal temperature.
You could also utilize the reverse sear method by using zone cooking as well.
Zone Cooking Methods With a Smoker
You’re not as likely to need to experiment with zone grilling on a smoker because they cook low and slow.
Most smokers work in much the same way as a charcoal grill, so you can try zone cooking the next time you want to slow-cook an impressive piece of meat.
You should be able to arrange the coal in your smoker into a 2-zone or 3-zone cooker by raking the coals into different quantities.
When you use a smoker, the Ring of Fire and Bull’s-Eye methods don’t serve much of a purpose for zone cooking unless you want to reposition the meat as it nears the cooking cycle’s end to keep it warm.
Benefits of Zone Cooking on a Smoker
Low-and-slow smoking will automatically provide that crusty sear and lock in the flavor and juices!
You can also do a Reverse Sear. Cook the meat low-and-slow in the smoker, then sear it over high heat. The results are fantastic.
Creating a Flavorful Stock Base
It bears repeating that, instead of using water, you can fill a pan with just about anything you like, including vegetables, fresh herbs, and fruit. Mind the level of the liquid if you add any sort of alcohol, however. Dripping fat and juices from the meat might make the liquid splash the coals.
Transforming your Grill into a Smoker
Below are some easy tips for transforming your standard charcoal and gas grills into a smoker.
- Turn a charcoal grill into a smoker simply by adding wood chips.
- Soak the wood chips for about half an hour first.
- Place the wood chips over the coals once they’ve burned down and reached the desired temperature.
- Repeat as needed once the chips have burned down for the desired smokiness flavor.
- Preheat one of the burners. You’re setting up the grill using the 2-zone method.
- While the grill is heating up, place the soaked wood chips in a square of foil and make a packet. Poke a few holes in the foil to create steam vents.
- Turn off the grill, place the foil packet on the cooking grate, and relight the burner
- Cook the meat as you normally would.
Smoking with a grill is the fastest way to get a rich, smoky flavor and can be done even though you don’t have a smoker.
Final Thoughts on Our Zone Grilling Methods Guide
In closing, we want to share a key takeaway from learning and mastering zone grilling. It’ll keep you polished and keep your knack for barbecuing exciting and tasty; the various zone grilling methods guarantee a more balanced grilling experience.
Face it, evenly cooked food using direct and indirect heat zones gives you the very best flavor profiles and simultaneously lets you cook multiple food types, giving you more time at the table eating and less time babysitting the grill!
Trying out the various zones is free! So, let us know if you’ve had any luck with 2-zone or 3-zone grilling, and tell us your preferred method.
We’d love to hear about your zone grilling techniques and how you Stay in the Zone!
Now It’s Your Turn
I want to hear from you:
Which methods of zone grilling have you used before?
Do you have any zone grilling tips to share?
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!