Direct Heat vs Indirect Heat: When and How to use Each

Grilled
Lamb chops on a grill over charcoal.

Direct Heat vs Indirect Heat – What is the difference? In this guide, we'll break down how to use both direct and indirect heat for a seamless grilling experience.

Achieving master-level barbecue status means understanding when to use direct or indirect heat on your grill or smoker to properly sear, slow roast, prevent burning, and achieve the ideal doneness for your cut of meat.

Lamb chops on a grill over charcoal.

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If your mind spins every time you hear the terms direct and indirect heat, you're not alone. While they are popular terms in the grilling world, they can be difficult for new grillers to understand. But we're breaking down the difference between the two so you can level up your favorite grilled recipes.

TL;DR direct heat vs indirect heat

Understanding the distinction between direct and indirect heat is critical to achieving optimal results in your grilling recipes.

Direct heat gives it to you good browning AND fast cooking for certain foods.

Idirect heat left simmer large pieces of meat or more delicate foods without the risk of charring.
Mastering when to use each method ensures you have precise control over the cooking process, resulting in perfectly grilled dishes every time.

What is direct heat?

Direct heat grilling refers to the cooking method in which food is cooked directly over the heat source.

In this setup, the direct heat source is usually located directly under the grates on which the food sits. Direct exposure to flames or hot coals ensures that the food obtains the desired caramelization, Maillard reactionand grill marks. It's a handy technique for quick-cooking foods that benefit from high, direct heat.

Pros and cons of direct heat grilling

Direct heat grilling has numerous advantages.

  • It's quick, which makes it perfect for those times when you're craving a quick, tasty meal.
  • It gives food a delicious char and smoky flavor, enhancing the overall flavor.
  • Direct exposure to very high heat also creates the coveted sear on meats, locking in juices and creating a visually appealing presentation.

However, quick cooking can be a double-edged sword. While this is excellent for some dishes, it may cause uneven cooking or burning for thicker cuts. For the most part he is the superhero steak recipesbut he will struggle with a huge turkey leg.

Best practices for using direct heat

​To make the most of direct heat grilling, it is essential to preheat your grill thoroughly before adding any food to the grates.

  • Make sure the grates are clean and well oiled to prevent sticking.
  • If your grill allows it, consider adjusting the height of the grates for even cooking.
  • Always let the grill preheat to a good, even temperature, usually 400 or higher, for cooking on the hot side of the grill.

Keep an eye on your food, as direct heat can lead to faster cooking times, and flipping or rotating foods can help achieve an even cooking result. However, since you are right above the coals, flare-ups are more likely to occur. Always use long, appropriate grilling tongs barbecue safety to avoid any problems.

Herb basting a porterhouse steak over direct heat.

Typical foods ideal for grilling over direct heat

  • Steaks: Direct heat is perfect for steak recipes, creating a flavorful crust on the outside while maintaining a juicy interior. If your steak is thicker than 1 1/2″, read on to find out why you may want to combine direct and indirect cooking.
  • Hamburger: Hamburger they benefit from quick, intense heat, developing a charred exterior and succulent interior.
  • Hot dog: Direct heat gives hot dog that classic grilled flavor with a slightly crispy skin.
  • Shrimp: Since shrimp cook quickly, they are perfect for quick, hot cooking. Just make sure you do it clean the grill and oil the grates to avoid the Grilled shrimp from getting attached.
  • Lamb chops: Why Lamb ribs they have been cut for individual portions, they are perfect for hot and quick cooking to obtain a nice browning on the outside while keeping the inside medium rare.

Our favorite recipes for hot and quick grilling

A piece of meat on the grill on the cooler side.

What is indirect heat?

On the other hand, grilling with indirect heat involves cooking food away from the heat source.

In an indirect configuration, also known as a two-zone firethe heat source is on one side of the grill and the food is on the other.

This allows for a more gradual cooking process, preventing the outside from burning while ensuring the inside is cooked completely. This is often seen during smoking, where the meat needs a long time on the fire to break down and become tender.

Advantages and disadvantages of indirect heat grilling

Indirect heat grilling has a number of advantages. First of all, it is excellent for cooking large cuts of meat or whole pieces, ensuring they are cooked without burning on the outside. Secondly, it is the ideal solution for achieving the coveted smoky flavor, especially when using wood chips or pieces. Lastly, it's a lifesaver when dealing with delicate items that might flake or dry out under direct heat.

However, indirect grilling is more of a slow cooking method, which requires patience. While often worth it, it may not be the best choice for an impromptu weeknight barbecue.

Best practices for using indirect heat

To master indirect heat grilling, it is essential to have a two-zone cooking area on your grill. Place the heat source on one side and arrange the food on the other, a hot area and a cold area. Keep the grill lid closed to create a convection oven-like environment, circulating heat around the food. This method provides a controlled cooking environment, preventing flare-ups and allowing for slow, steady cooking.

Turn lamb chops to sear bone-in side on barbecue grill.

Typical foods ideal for indirect heat grilling

  • Whole chickens: indirect heat guarantees even cooking of the chicken without the risk of burning, obtaining juicy and tasty meat, like ours grilled chicken AND whole smoked chicken.
  • Ribs: Slow-cooked ribs over indirect heat allow the meat to become tender and infused with smoky goodness, like ours smoked ribs AND smoked lamb chops.
  • Vegetables: Delicate vegetables, such as peppers and mushrooms, benefit from the indirect method, preventing them from becoming mushy and maintaining their natural flavors, like ours grilled corn on the cob AND smoked cabbage.

Our best Low and Slow recipes for indirect grilling

A black barbecue with flames rising.
Important Note: If your grill looks like this, do not add food. The charcoal is ready when the embers are lit, NOT when the flames rise.

Tips for mastering direct and indirect heat grilling

Consider the type of food you're grilling: thinner cuts thrive under direct heat, while larger roasts prefer the indirect method. Consider the time you have; if you're in a hurry, direct heat could be your ally. Take note of your equipment, as most grills allow you to have different zones for both methods.

How to Create Direct Heat Zones on a Grill

Creating a direct heat zone on your grill is as simple as concentrating the heat source in one area. For charcoal grills, this means placing a larger amount of hot charcoal or charcoal briquettes on one side of the grill. If you used a charcoal fireplace lighter, you can do this step by dumping the coals into the grate.

This creates a 2 zone fire, a warm side (direct heat) and a cooler side (indirect heat). Alternatively, you can spread the lit coals over the entire grill area, but be aware that you won't be able to move the food to a cooler part of the grill if necessary.

On a gas grill, place the food on the lit burners.

How to Create Indirect Heat Zones on a Grill

To establish an indirect heat zone, place food away from the primary heat source. For grill on a charcoal grill, it involves placing the food on the side opposite the hot coals (direct heat). To grill on a gas barbecue, turn off the burners on one side of the barbecue so you have a hot area and a cooler area.

Combined method of direct and indirect heat for optimal grilling

Many grill recipes benefit from a combined cooking method with direct and indirect heat. This technique allows you to brown the outside of the food over direct heat and then finish cooking more gently over indirect heat. For example, first sear a steak over high heat to lock in the juices, then move it to the indirect side to reach the desired internal temperature without burning the outside.

Alternatively, we often use the reverse stitching methodwhere we let a piece of meat cook on the cooler side of the grill before finishing it with a sear to create an amazing crust.

Veal chops on the indirect side of the grill.

Safety precautions to take when grilling with direct or indirect heat

Grill safety it's always a must.

  • When grilling over direct heat, always watch out for flare-ups, especially with fatty meats.
  • Keep an eye on your food and have a spray bottle full of water on hand to douse any flames.
  • For indirect heat, make sure your grill is well ventilated and manage the airflow to prevent too much smoke from building up.
  • Also, use long-handled grilling tools to avoid burns and never leave the hot grill unattended.

More helpful grilling guides

Understanding the difference between direct and indirect heat can make a huge difference in your grilling recipes. While direct heat is best suited for fast cooking, indirect cooking is better for slow cooking. The best way to master these two heating methods is to experiment yourself. Use whatever grill you have and you'll learn the ins and outs of direct and indirect heat in no time!

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