Direct vs. Indirect Heat: What’s the Difference?

We're taking a closer look at direct vs indirect heat. Is one method better than the other?

It’s easy to grill up a couple of hot dogs. But when you start cooking larger, pricier cuts of meat, things get a little tricky. I don’t know about you, but I’ve definitely burned my fair share of foods on the grill, charring them outside before they cook all the way through on the inside. (I’m looking at you, grilled chicken legs!)

When you start to use your grill at different temperatures—I mean, temps other than blazing hot—you get closer and closer to achieving the elusive backyard grillmaster title. It all starts with understanding direct vs. indirect heat. One method cooks your food very quickly, while the other turns your grill into an outdoor oven or smoker. The major difference? Where the food sits in relation to the heat source.

What’s the Difference Between Direct and Indirect Heat?

In short, direct heat grilling is quick and hot. It uses high heat and puts your food in direct contact with the flames, cooking items like hot dogs, vegetable skewers or pork chops in a matter of minutes. Indirect heat cooking, on the other hand, is low and slow. It keeps longer-cooking items like whole chicken, pork shoulder or roasts away from flames to prevent them from burning before they cook through.

Direct Heat: What Is It?

Direct heat grilling is what most people think of when they consider grilling. Foods are placed directly over the heat source—the hot charcoal or the burners on a gas grill—and are cooked with the lid off for a few minutes at very high heat. Direct heat will sear meat and vegetables to get a golden-brown color and crisp exterior, and it’s the only way to achieve perfect grill marks (although, there’s a good reason to skip the grill marks this summer).

Look to direct heat grilling when preparing quick-cooking foods like burgers, hot dogs, kabobs, vegetables and most seafood (especially shrimp). It’s also the ideal cooking method for thin foods like steak, boneless chicken breasts or pork chops. It’s best to turn these items halfway through the cooking process, giving each side access to the heat for even cooking.

How to Use Your Grill with Direct Heat

For a gas grill, turn all the burners to the highest setting and close the lid. After the grill preheats for 10 to 15 minutes, you can adjust the burners to lower settings if the high setting is too hot.

For a charcoal grill, prepare the charcoal using the pyramid style or a chimney starter. When the coals are covered in white ash, spread them out to create an even layer.

Indirect Heat: What Is It?

If you’re cooking something that takes longer than 20 minutes, look to indirect heat. This cooking method creates two heat zones inside the grill: one that’s hot and an adjacent area that has no direct access to the heat source. The food isn’t in direct contact with the flame, which allows it to cook at a lower temperature for a longer period. Indirect heat grilling is usually done with the lid on to trap the heat inside the grill, and you can add wood chips to the mix to turn your grill into a smoker and infuse the food with extra flavor.

Look to indirect heat grilling when cooking large pieces of meat, like whole chickens, roasts or cedar plank fish. It’s also the ideal cooking method for barbecue, where low cooking temperatures are required to turn tough cuts of meat like brisket, ribs and pork shoulder into tender bites. Because the food never comes in direct contact with the heat source, it doesn’t need to be turned halfway through.

How to Use Your Grill with Indirect Heat

For a gas grill, turn on half of the burners. You can use the two outside burners on a four-burner grill, or a single outside burner on a three-burner grill. Close the lid and let the grill preheat for 10 to 15 minutes, adjusting the burners to higher or lower settings to control the temperature inside the grill. When you’re ready to cook, place foods over the unlit burners.

For a charcoal grill, bank the hot coals to one side of the grill, reserving the other side for indirect heat cooking. Alternatively, you could also bank the coals to either side of the grill, placing a foil drip pan in the center in between the coals. When you’re ready to cook, place the meat directly over the drip pan.

What Is Combo Cooking?

OK, let’s say you want to grill a thick steak, or you want to slowly cook thick sausages like bratwurst. Indirect heat is the way to go, but it doesn’t give you an appealing golden brown color in the end. So, use a combination of both methods! Start by cooking on the direct heat side, turning once to get grill marks on each side. Then, move the food to the indirect side and close the lid until it reaches the desired temperature or level of tenderness. You can also use a reverse sear process, where you cook the food on the indirect side and give it a quick sear on the hot side at the end.

Look to combo cooking for those in-between items that are too thick to cook through on the direct side but benefit from a caramelized exterior. It’s the best cooking method for items like thick steaks or pork chops, bone-in chicken pieces, grilled fruit and dense vegetables like cabbage.

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Lindsay D. Mattison
After years of working in professional kitchens, Lindsay traded her knives in for the pen. While she spends most of her time writing these days, she still exercises her culinary muscles on the regular, taking any opportunity to turn local, seasonal ingredients into beautiful meals for her family.