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Direct Vs. Indirect Grilling: How To BBQ

One of the crucial steps to becoming a grill master is to know the difference between direct and indirect grilling.

Cooking on charcoal grills is more than just firing up the briquettes. The same goes for gas grills; you can’t just turn on the gas burners and kick-off.

No matter what kind of grill you have, it’s essential to understand the right grilling method for your cooking needs. If you get a little confused between direct heat and indirect heat, this post will tell you the major difference.

Key takeaways:

  • The bigger the meal and the longer it takes to cook, the trickier it gets. This affects how you use your grill at different temperature levels.
  • Whether you use charcoal or gas, you have to deal with these two grilling methods. You either have to prepare the grill for indirect heat or create heat zones, depending on the meal or recipe.
  • There’s a big difference between the two. Knowing when to use each can also affect how your food turns out.
Burger patties being cooked on a grill with direct heat
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What Is Direct Heat?

Grilling with direct heat, also known as direct grilling, means you’re cooking food directly over the heat source. It could be through hot charcoal or the burners on a gas grill.

Basically, when you place food on the cooking grates, you’re using the direct heat grilling route. It’s similar to broiling in an oven, where food is directly exposed to fire.

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The direct method also works by grilling or cooking with the lid off for a couple of minutes at intense heat. It should take less than 25 minutes to cook most foods this way.

This heat then transfers to your food coming from the hot cooking grates, a process called conduction heat. Direct heat grilling sears the meat and vegetables to achieve a golden-brown colour and crisp exterior.

Considering that searing hot cooking grates transfer a lot of heat quickly, direct grilling is ideal for meals that cook faster. This includes hot dogs, burgers, kebabs, vegetables and seafood like shrimp.

You can also go for this grilling method for cooking steak, skinless chicken breasts or pork chops. This is also the secret to getting those beautiful, classic grill marks on steaks and veggies!

Top tip: For even cooking, give each side access to heat throughout the cooking process. You also might want to be careful as too much exposure to high heat can result in:

  • Pulling moisture out of your food
  • Leaving you with dry, less flavourful dishes

For direct heat grilling, check your BBQ grill once in a while to ensure things are getting overdone.

A variety of meat on a grilling gate, being cooked with direct heat
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Using your charcoal barbecue or burner gas grill with direct heat

For a gas barbecue grill, make sure to turn all the burners to the highest setting and close the lid. After preheating the grill for 10 to 15 minutes, adjust the burners to lower settings.

This will depend on how hot the high setting is for your cooking needs. For instance, regulate it to medium-high heat.

As for the charcoal grill, prepare the briquettes using a chimney starter. When the coals are covered in white ash, spread them out for a fair distribution of heat.

A variety of dishes on a charcoal BBQ grill with indirect heat
Unsplash

What Is Indirect Heat?

Indirect heat grilling happens when you place foods on the grates to the side of your heat source. Also known as indirect cooking, this type of cooking method creates two heat zones inside the grill.

There’s one area that’s hot and another one that has no direct access to the heat source. In short, the indirect grilling method goes like this: the food isn’t in direct contact with the flame.

This allows it to cook at a lower temperature for a longer period, ideal for slow cooking. So, if you’re cooking something that takes longer than 20 minutes, use indirect heat grilling.

Moreover, the indirect method is similar to roasting/smoking, where you cook low and slow. When the heat rises, it reflects off the interior of the lid and the grill’s surface to slowly cook your food evenly on all sides.

It transfers the heat to your food not from the grates beneath it but from the hot air circulating through the firebox. This process is known as convection heat, which is comparable to the way an oven works.

Indirect heat cooking route is ideal for delicate foods, such as:

  • Large cuts of chicken pieces
  • Raw meat
  • Pork shoulder
  • Chicken wings
  • Roasts
  • Cedar plank fish
  • Other oily fishes
  • Ribs
  • Briskets

Top tip: The indirect method only works when your grill is covered as the heat is created by reflected heat. Avoid peeking at your meal every now and then since heat will escape every time you lift the lid.

Otherwise, your meal will take a lot longer to cook.

A meat being grilled with indirect heat
Unsplash

Using charcoal grills or gas barbecue grills with indirect heat

If you’re using a gas grill, make sure to turn on half of the burners. For instance, use two burners on a four-burner grill or a single burner on a three-burner grill.

Close the lid and let the BBQ grill pre-heat for 10 to 15 minutes. You may adjust the burners to higher or low, or medium heat settings to control the internal temperature.

Then, you may place the food over the unlit burners and start cooking.

For charcoal BBQs, bank the hot coals to one side of the grill. You’ll want to make sure to leave the other side for indirect heat cooking.

Or you could load the coals to either side of the grill, place a foil drip pan in the centre between the coals. Start placing the meat directly over the drip pan once you’re ready to cook.

Large cuts of steaks on a grill with indirect heat
Unsplash

The Difference Between Direct and Indirect Heat

Simply put, direct heat grilling is quick and hot. As the name implies, it uses heat and puts your food in direct contact with the flames.

With this type of grilling method, you can cook meals like hot dogs and veggie skewers in a matter of minutes.

Meanwhile, indirect heat cooking is low and slow. It keeps longer-cooking dishes away from direct flames. For one, to prevent them from burning before they cook through.

Meals like whole chicken, pork shoulder or roasts are a few good examples that work best with indirect grilling.

Veggies on the grill with combination heat
Unsplash

What if you want to use both at the same time?

Let’s suppose you want to slow cook a thick steak to achieve a smoky flavour. While the indirect heat method is an excellent way to go, it doesn’t give you a golden brown sear, unlike direct grilling.

Hence, experts recommend using a combination of both methods! This technique means you apply direct and indirect grilling.

In other words, the food is seared over direct heat for a few minutes, then cooked to finish over indirect heat. For a more in-depth explanation, here’s what you should do.

Start by cooking your dish on the direct heat side. At least turn them once on each side to get grill marks.

Then, move the food to the indirect side. Close the lid until it reaches the ideal internal temperature or your desired level of tenderness. Or you can use the reverse sear process, where you cook the food on the indirect side and give it a quick sear on the hot side.

Top tip: This trick works best if you own a hybrid BBQ grill. The power of convenience is in your hands.

The Bottom Line

So, are you still confused with direct and indirect heat grilling? The distinction between the two is already stated in their names.

Direct heat is a method of grilling that has direct contact with the flames, either hot coals or gas burners. As for indirect heat, you basically stay away from the fire as much as possible.

So, is one method better than the other? This will depend on your cooking needs. If you want to have a quick grilling session, go for direct heat grilling.

But for more tender, slow cookouts, indirect grilling is your best bet. Or you can do both, because why not? If grill masters can do it, so can you!

Top tip: If you have a garden bar shed, adding an area for BBQ is guaranteed to help you make your outdoor nights more entertaining! Or if you’re looking for ways to decorate your corner garden, a barbecue station is an excellent way to do it.

Check out our range of BBQs for direct and indirect grilling below!

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FAQ

With direct heat, you're cooking food directly over the heat source. In contrast, you're grilling the food that isn't in direct contact with the flame with indirect heat.

Burger patties can be and are ideal to be cooked on direct heat. Once the patties are formed, place them on a well-oiled BBQ grill over direct heat for three minutes.

 

Or you can use a combination of heat. Once the burger meats are cooked over direct heat, move them to indirect heat and cook for two more minutes on each side.

Chicken, be it whole or cut into large pieces, are best to cook over indirect heat. Make sure the lid is closed, and wait for it to be fully cooked, turning once or twice.

Chicken breasts and wing pieces should take about 30 to 40 minutes, while the whole legs will take 40 to 50 minutes.

Put the meat on the grill over indirect heat. Don't forget to add a grilling pan beneath it to catch the drippings.

Cover the BBQ and cook the meat without turning; open the vents if you're using a charcoal grill. Wait for it to get browned and until it achieves your desired tenderness.

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