Mastering Direct and Indirect Methods of Grilling

As mentioned before, when grilling, you use two different methods to cook, direct and indirect heat. With direct heat, food is placed on the cooking rack directly over the hot coals or fire. Indirect heat is used for more delicate foods and for thicker cuts of meat that need longer cooking times, such as barbecuing a thick roast.

Direct heat cooking is uncomplicated. Learning the temperature of the coals is the only real skill. The coals are ready when 3/4 of them are gray and coated with ash.

There are two methods for checking the heat on a charcoal grill, with your hand or with your eyes.

Using both methods and comparing results is a good way to improve your skills.

You can check the temperature of a charcoal grill by very carefully holding your hand just above the grilling surface and counting the number of seconds it takes before the heat becomes uncomfortable enough for you to pull your hand away.

  • 5 seconds equals Low Heat
  • 4 seconds equals Medium Heat
  • 3 seconds equals Medium-High Heat
  • 2 seconds equals High Heat

Alternatively, you can use the following visual descriptions to check the cooking temperature by observing the coals:

  • When the ash coating thickens, and a red glow is just visible, this would equal a low heat.
  • When the coals are covered with light gray ash, this would equal a medium heat.
  • When the coals have a red glow visible through the ash coating, this would equal a high heat.

Once you know what heat you have, you can adjust it to be what you want and get grilling.

On the other hand, if you use a gas grill, you just need to set the heat to the proper level. Easy!

Indirect heating takes a little more planning but can achieve some delicious results. The most important thing to remember is to always keep the lid down. You lose all the indirect heat you’ve worked hard to create whenever you lift the lid.

Step one for indirect heat cooking on a charcoal grill is to place an equal number of charcoal briquettes on each side of the grill pan. Leave a space in the center. Light the briquettes and wait until they are at cooking temperature. When you are ready to start cooking, place a drip pan between the coals, and add 1/2″ of water to the pan. This prevents fats and any other liquids from dripping onto hot surfaces and causing flare-ups that will burn your dinner. Place your food over the drip pan and then cover the grill. You will need to add 5 or 6 briquettes to each side of the pan as necessary to maintain even heat. As a general rule, briquettes should be added every 45 minutes.

For indirect heat on a dual burner gas grill, set the drip pan on the lava rocks on one side of the grill and add water to 1/2″. Preheat the other burner on high for 5-10 minutes. Turn the temperature down to medium, then put the food on the rack over the drip pan and cover the grill.

For indirect heat cooking on a single burner gas grill, preheat the grill on high for 5-10 minutes. Turn the temperature down to low, and place a large foil baking pan on the rack. You can also line half of the cooking rack with a double thickness of heavy-duty foil. Place food in the pan or on the foil, cover, and cook.