What Does It Mean To Grill With Direct Vs. Indirect Heat?

Sometimes, cooking on the grill is straightforward as it gets — put the meat on the heat and just watch it until it's ready. Other times, though, you may need to navigate some nuances to grill food properly. One such nuance is indirect versus direct heat. Recipes may distinguish between the two, but what does cooking on direct or indirect heat actually mean — and does it matter?

Cooking on direct heat means putting your meat, vegetables, or other ingredients directly onto or above the source of heat, whether it's hot charcoal or a flame if you're using propane. Indirect heat, on the other hand, separates the heat source from the food. You can accomplish this on a grill by putting the food on the opposite side of the grill as the heat source. Or, you can smoke your meat, cooking it via the indirect warmth of the smoke, rather than direct warmth or flame.

Direct heat and indirect heat both have strengths and weaknesses and should be used in different circumstances. Here's how to know when to use which.

When and how to use direct heat

Direct heat cooking goes fast and hot, and it needs to be monitored carefully to prevent burning. As a rule of thumb, direct heat should be used for any food items that need less than a half-hour to cook — this includes burgers, steaks, hot dogs, as well as veggies, such as corn and peppers. These items will need to be flipped once or twice for even cooking, to make sure that all parts of the meat or vegetable come in contact with the heat source.

To prepare your grill for direct heat, turn the grill on high or light your charcoal, depending on what fuel you prefer to use. Let the grill heat up; you're aiming for a temperature of about 450 degrees Fahrenheit, up to 650 degrees Fahrenheit (an infrared thermometer can help you keep tabs on your grill's temperature). You can then cook your food directly on your grill's grates, using a grill-safe spatula or tongs to flip as necessary.

When and how to use indirect heat

For meats and other food items that take longer than a half-hour to cook, indirect heat can create a succulent finished product. Think smoked brisket, ribs, and other meats you want to get extremely tender. Cooking on a plank would also fall under this category. Typically you would close the grill's lid when cooking with indirect heat, allowing the warmth inside to build up and cook the meat from all sides. Using a dedicated smoker will also achieve the same effect.

To use indirect heat on the grill, light only half of your grill (whether using charcoal or propane). Close the lid to let things heat up for 10 to 15 minutes; then put your meat on the grates of the other half of the grill and close the lid again. Avoid opening the lid except when necessary, as this will let precious heat out. You can also light the outer corners of your grill and put the food in the center of the grate. Keep in mind that this cooking technique can take a long time, but it's worth it for the perfect smoked meat.