Grill Tips, grilling
Direct vs. Indirect Heat: What’s the Difference?
Grilling with Direct Heat vs. Indirect Heat: What’s the Difference?
Have you ever seen a recipe that starts with directions like, “prepare your grill for indirect heat?” Or maybe it calls for creating “heat zones”? If you ever get a little lost telling the difference between grilling with direct or indirect heat, or when to use one versus the other, don’t sweat it. Because today we’re answering two questions:
- What’s the difference between direct heat and indirect heat?
- What’s actually going on inside your firebox?
There’s a big difference between direct heat and indirect heat when you’re grilling, and knowing when to use each can really affect how your food turns out.
Grilling with Direct Heat
In a nutshell, direct heat means cooking your food directly over your source of heat, while indirect heat means cooking food adjacent to your heat source.
Translated to the grill: When you place foods on the grates directly over a gas burner or burning charcoals, you’re using direct heat. With direct heat, heat transfers to your food from the hot grates in a process also known as conduction heat.
Since the searing hot grates transfer a LOT of heat very quickly, direct heat is the way to go for ingredients that cook quickly. It’s how you get those beautiful classic grill marks on steaks, burgers, chicken breasts, and veggies. Just be careful: Too much exposure to such intense heat can pull moisture out of your foods too quickly, leaving you with dry, less flavorful dishes. When using direct heat, check your grill once in a while to be sure things are getting overdone.
Grilling with Indirect Heat
Now… when you place foods on the grates to the side of your fuel source, you’re using indirect heat.
The avocados in this photo are an example of cooking with indirect heat. The burner beneath the avocados is off, which means they’re taking in heat from the hot air and smoke around them (not necessarily from the grates).
With indirect heat, heat transfers to your food not from the grates beneath it, but from all the hot air circulating through the firebox. It’s a process known as convection heat, and it’s pretty dang similar to the way your oven works.
Since indirect heat isn’t normally as intense as direct heat, it’s a good way to go for foods that are a little more delicate–like whole chickens and oily fishes. Or dishes that require more time to cook at low temperatures, like roasts, ribs, and briskets. Just be careful opening your grill with indirect heat. When you open the lid, all that heat escapes, and it takes a moment for the firebox to come back up to temperature.
If you’re lookin’, it ain’t cookin.
Setting Up Your Grill for Two Zone Heat
When you hear recipes talk about setting up “heat zones” on the grill, it usually means to set up half your grill for direct heat, and half for indirect heat.
These different zones give you more command over your heat transfer. Of course depending on your recipe and your grill, you can actually create more than just two zones, but two is pretty standard.
The easiest way to think about the difference between direct heat and indirect heat is by cooking a steak.
In this photo, two steaks are being seared over intense direct heat on a ceramic searing side burner.
When searing a steak, the intense direct heat will cause the surface of the cut to form a delightful brown crust that helps to keep juices locked in and contained within the meat. But just because it’s seared on the outside, doesn’t mean it’s cooked perfectly on the inside.
That’s where you might move the steak over indirect heat. Indirect heat will be less intense, which is great for bringing your steaks up to the perfect temperature depending on your choice of doneness. (Speaking of which, if you don’t have an instant read meat thermometer, it’s about time you got one. They make life SO much easier on the grill).
Related Reading: A Starter’s Guide to Meat Temps
Related Video: Stacking Charcoal Using the Snake Method