Controlling Temperature with Indirect Grilling

Indirect and Direct Grilling Zones Diagram

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One of the most crucial concepts for an outdoor cook to master is temperature control and how to effectively perform this in an outdoor grilling scenario via indirect cooking.

Cooking with distinct temperatures and maintaining those temperatures is critical for cooking all (and I really mean ALL) of your favorite dishes, be it in your grill or oven. This is very achievable via the use of two-zone cooking, which you’ll learn how to do below. This is mainly because different foods require different cooking temperatures for a plethora of reasons. Be it the rendering of fat, the Maillard reaction (the thing that gives us delicious browned butter), or the evaporation of water. There are so many processes at hand that really don’t share many variables, causing temperature control to be quintessential in creating pretty much any food.

Cooking with indirect heat is the best way to control and maintain low temperatures, no matter what grill you’re using nor what you’re using it for. Now, this may sound odd, as some foods simply require high heat to cook correctly, like burgers and steak (which they most definitely do). But even still, hear me out. 

Temperature Control - Uses of 2 Zone Cooking

The most common mistake we grillers make is applying too much direct heat to our food. That’s how you’ll often be left puzzled as to why your smoked turkey isn’t coming out like it should, with severe shrinkage and tough, dry meat being widespread consequences of this error.

Using the two-zone cooking method solves this problem in a heartbeat, and thankfully isn’t complicated at all – in fact, in the next five minutes, you’ll learn just how to do it. In essence, indirect cooking works by lighting one side of the grill and not the other, creating two cooking zones, exposing the first one to direct heat by being placed directly above the heat source. In contrast, the other radiates heat from the ‘direct’ side—the latter resulting in lower temps on that side of the grill, which don’t have a conducting surface from which they are omitted. This allows you to achieve a very even cook, resulting in succulent turkey roasts and crispy prime ribs every single time.

A Comparison to Indoor Ovens

The indirect grilling method is, in essence, a tool. A tool that allows us to gain absolute control of our grill’s temperature, just like you would in an indoor oven. In fact, thinking of your grill as an oven is key to understanding how and why this method works, and to such a high degree. Now, I know this idea may confuse you, mainly because you’ve most likely never thought of your BBQ grill as an oven before, so let me explain what I mean. Firstly, I’ll point out some of the key differences between a barbeque grill and your everyday oven.

Temperature control is much easier indoors than outdoors, however, this is often misinterpreted as ‘temperature control is impossible outdoors’, which is wrong, by any stretch. Even still, ovens do control temperature with ease for three key reasons.

  1. The first of these is that ovens have a thermostat, that, while it mightn’t be all that accurate, it still does a fair job of keeping the oven’s interior temperature consistent. On the other hand, grills don’t have such luxury, which is the whole reason we’re discussing the two-zone method to begin with.

     

  2. The thermometers on barbecue grills are absolute pieces of junk, even if you did go out and splurge thousands of dollars on the best grills on the market. This means that owning a digital thermometer is essential in order to keep track of and ultimately maintain the temperatures you’re looking for when cooking.

     

  3. Ovens only use indirect heat for cooking, which is where grills gain the advantage for many, many use cases. I’ll elaborate.
 
The fact is that grills give you the benefit of using indirect and direct heat at the same time, allowing you to cook different foods that may have different water contents and densities to each other simultaneously. For instance, your baked potatoes that are cooking on the indirect side of your grill are about to be ready, so you quickly cook steaks on the direct side to go with them, so that both will be ready at the same time.

This is where grills are just infinitely better than your everyday indoor oven.

The indirect zone is also particularly useful when cooking foods that have a very low burning point, for example, a dish that has a high sugar content, while giving it that flavor and aroma that simply can’t be replicated in a home oven. A great example of this is roast chicken. Don’t get me wrong, you most definitely can cook roast chicken in a home oven, and it may even turn out pretty well, but it just won’t carry through the same aromas and flavors you’re going for when making this dish. Most people shy away from cooking a meal such as this on a barbecue grill, thinking it’d be too hot, but that’s precisely why I’m teaching you this technique.

How to Control your Grill's Temperature

Now, before reading on, bear in mind that each grill is different, but you ideally want to get your indirect zone’s air temperature to roughly 225°F. Many foods cook best somewhere around this temperature, so you should generally be safe to use this temp for the vast majority of your cooking. 

It is also worth mentioning that you may need to fiddle with your system to achieve the rough temperatures discussed above. This mainly applies to gas grills, as the process for charcoal grills is more straight-forward. With charcoal grills, you push all of the coals or briquettes to one side. The side you push them to is your direct side.

With gas grills, you may choose to, in four burner systems, turn off the left two burners and have the right two running at full, or vice versa. This may be too hot, so maybe you turn the fourth burner to medium and the third to low, resulting in a lower overall temperature; keep in mind, however, that using a setup like this also results in a cooler direct zone – but you may also choose to turn on the first and last burners. Still, this isn’t advisable as it strictly limits what you can cook on your direct side(s). 

The point I’m trying to make is – experiment. See what works, and note it. Note what doesn’t work, as well. Keep in mind that all instructions given here are up to your discretion, and may change, even drastically, depending on your setup.

Moving Foods between your Zones

Often times when cooking steaks or burgers, one may seem to cook just a little bit faster than the rest, even if they are all the same thickness or size, respectively. Or you might have guests that prefer their meats done differently, but understandably would still like to eat at the same time. These are scenarios in which switching between your direct and indirect zones is especially useful. Simply slide each piece of meat over to the other zone when it is appropriate to do so.

Using Water Pans when Indirectly Grilling

Adding a water pan under the meat adds moisture to the interior of your grill ‘oven.’ Adding a pan of water above the heat source and next to the meat adds moisture to the meat itself and protects it from burning. This is especially useful for long roasts, after which the meat can be moved to the direct heat briefly to crisp the exterior of the meat. The mentioned techniques are also especially useful when smoking. This is a process that takes a long time and often dries out the meat, therefore adding moisture to the grill’s atmosphere counteracts this artifact perfectly. As a bonus, the moisture reacts well with the gases emitted by any and all grills, (yes, even gas grills!) and creates highly desirable flavors.

As a side note, make sure you’re not letting the water come to a boil, as this will make the air temperature drop far too quickly (a little steam is reasonable, but boiling is a definite no-no).  When using water pans in a charcoal grill, place one under the meat in the indirect zone and one on the direct zone next to the meat, just as you would for a gas grill.

Conclusion

All in all, two-zone cooking is a technique about as useful for someone who bought their first grill yesterday as it is for a professional chef that’s been grilling for thirty years. It is also highly versatile and can save you loads of time (trust me, it really does!). Its mastery could make or break your next thanksgiving. It will, in all honesty, make you a much better outdoor cook in general, be it your proficiency in cooking grocery store sausages, or your expertise in smoking prime ribs to the perfect degree.

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