Direct vs. Indirect Grilling: The Differences & When to Use Each

Let our Test Kitchen pros guide you through the difference between direct and indirect heat on a grill—plus how to get the best of both worlds.

True, with the nice weather, sunshine, and family or friends gathering in the backyard, it can be tempting to treat your grill like a slow cooker: Blast it on high, then set and forget. But controlling grill temperature through techniques like indirect grilling is crucial to get as close to blue ribbon territory as possible. A critical factor in living your best backyard pitmaster life is becoming well-versed about direct vs. indirect grilling and when to use both. It all boils down to where the food you're cooking is positioned relative to your heat source and whether that heat is from charcoal, gas, or wood.

So what is indirect heat on a grill? It's that low and slow heat we mentioned, akin to your slow cooker but outside and with a burst of additional flavor from the smoke. Direct heat, in contrast, is a quicker and hotter cooking style since you're placing the food directly over the heat source. Read on to discover how and when to grill direct or indirect heat, plus one technique that offers the best of both worlds.

someone grilling meat and vegetables on a grill outside
Fabian Krause / EyeEm / Getty

What is Direct Heat on a Grill?

When we say "grilling," chances are you picture this—grilling food directly above its heat source, be it glowing charcoal, smoky wood, or gas grill burners. Direct grilling is fast, often done in a matter of minutes, and usually performed with the lid off. It's ideal for searing and crisping the exterior of meats, vegetables, or fruits (yes, you can and should grill fruit!), and lends those enticing grill marks.

When deciding between direct vs. indirect grilling, consider the items at play (aka on your plate). Direct grilling is best for quick-cooking foods like hot dogs, kebabs, vegetables, shrimp, burgers, and thinner, tender cuts of poultry, pork, or steak. Flip once halfway through grilling for the best results.

To cook with direct heat:

  1. Light your charcoal grill or turn on your gas grill to high.
  2. Aim for around 450°F to 650°F, depending on your recipe.
  3. Once the grill has preheated, transfer the food to the grill grates and cook, flipping once, until the internal temperature has reached a safe cooking temperature.

Using clean tongs, transfer the cooked food to a plate, allow it to rest for 5 to 10 minutes, then enjoy.

What is Indirect Heat on a Grill?

Indirect grilling involves cooking food on a grill rack, not directly above the heat source, usually with the lid closed. This works similarly to an oven; the heat inside the grill reflects off the cover and other interior surfaces, so the food is cooked from all sides in a lower, steadier fashion. Indirect grilling on charcoal grills, gas grills, and smokers is ideal for larger or tougher foods that take longer than 20 minutes to cook. This includes ribs, brisket, whole chickens or turkeys, or smoking food like fish fillets on a plank. 

Indirect grilling is commonly constructed using a two-zone method, meaning the heat source is on one side of the grill, and the food is on the other. (In case you missed it, here's how to turn your grill into a smoker to lend even more flavor.)

To cook with indirect heat, position the charcoal on half of the grill or light the burners on only half of a gas grill. Or try the three-zone method, with heat on either edge of the grill and an open space in the middle where you place the food, so it receives heat from both sides. 

Some grilling experts swear by the "ring of fire" method, an option if you're cooking with charcoal, which involves lining the perimeter of the grill with the heat source. This circular indirect grilling style yields the evenest cooking. Start your grill, close the lid, and allow it to preheat for 15 minutes. Then, place the food over an unlit portion of the gas grill or away from the glowing charcoal.

Combo Cooking, The Happy Medium of Direct vs. Indirect Grilling

Reverse-Seared Grilled Ribeye Steaks
Carson Downing

While combo cooking isn't new, our love for it reignited while perfecting our recent Reverse-Seared Grilled Ribeye recipe. That juicy, tender beef dish is made by indirectly grilling the meat until the internal temperature reaches 100°F, then direct grilling to sear the crust and finish cooking the inside to 130°F. The resulting ribeye is ultra-moist with a crispy exterior and totally worthy of a fancy steakhouse menu.

To combo cook, you can go either way:

  • Start the food over direct heat, turning once to get grill marks, then shift the food to the indirect grilling side and close the lid, or
  • Start the food over indirect heat until it's almost fully cooked, then shift the food to the direct grilling side to char the outside and add the grill marks.

In addition to steaks, chicken breasts, fruit, and dense vegetables like cauliflower steaks are fantastic candidates for combo cooking.

Now that you're well-versed in all of the grilling styles, it's time for the most fun part: selecting the grill recipes to add to your menu to put your new hot tips to terrific use.

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