Both these cooking methods are important to grill cooks, depending on what they're cooking and the desired final outcome. Master the concepts of both direct and indirect grilling and you'll never be far from a fabulous grilled feast!
Direct heat grilling is what most people picture when the subject of grilling or barbecue comes up. Their minds conjure up images of steaks, or perhaps burgers, sizzling away directly over hot coals -- the hunger inducing aromas of seared meat filling the air and compelling family, neighbors (and their dogs), and even complete strangers to investigate what could possibly smell so heavenly.
Other foods also do well over the high heat of direct grilling including chops, chicken pieces, fish and shellfish, vegetables, kebabs, firm tofu, and even pizzas and breads.
If you're using a gas grill, simply preheat the grill to high and cook your food directly over the heat source.
For direct grilling in a charcoal grill, build a fire (detailed instructions and tips) link after this article). Start enough charcoal to form a bed of glowing coals three to four inches larger on all sides than the surface area of the food you plan on cooking.
Use indirect grilling for cooking larger and/or tougher cuts of meat and for smoking foods (click here for our Smoking Tutorial). Basically, if it needs a long cooking time, it needs indirect heat, unless you like burned foods.
Typical indirect heat grilled foods include ribs, brisket, pork shoulders, hams and whole chickens and turkeys.
In order for indirect heat to work, you must have a lid for the grill, which turns it into an outdoor oven and maintains a safe cooking temperature. Use an oven thermometer to monitor the heat and open or close the grill vents as needed to control the temperature. Temperatures for indirect drilling generally range from about 250° to 350°F.
For indirect grilling on a charcoal grill, start the fire and let burn until the coals are glowing red. Distribute the coals into two piles on opposite sides of the grill, and place a foil drip pan in the center (I use a disposable pie tin in my kettle grill), between the piles of coals. Sometimes, especially if your recipe requires a very long cooking time, you will want to put water in the pan in order to keep the food moist while cooking. If you plan on using wood chips for adding smoke flavor to the food, add a handful or so of soaked chips to each pile of hot coals before putting the cooking grate into place. Place your food on the grill and close the lid. Add more wood chips as needed for the desired amount of smoke flavor.
Add 12-15 more hot briquettes or pieces of lump charcoal every hour or so to keep the fire hot enough (use the chimney starter to ignite these briquettes before adding to grill).
For indirect grilling on a gas grill, you will need a grill with at least two burners, so you can light one side of the grill to high while cooking food on the other side, which remains in the off position. If you're lucky enough to have a grill with more than two separate cooking burners, light the burners on the outside edges and cook the food in the center portion.