What’s the Difference Between Direct Grilling and Indirect Grilling?

There are a lot of things you can cook on a grill. From ribs and burgers to pies and brownies, grills are one of the most versatile cooking tools.

As many grill enthusiasts and pitmasters know, there are two main ways you can cook on a grill, direct grilling and indirect grilling. Both have their uses and merits and you need to learn both if you want to get the most out of your grill so here’s a quick guide to the difference between direct and indirect grilling.

What is Direct Grilling?

This is the type of grilling that you are probably the most familiar with. It is exactly what it sounds like, grilling directly over the heat source. Direct grilling with charcoal means cooking with flame. It’s how you get great grill marks, juicy burgers, and crisp vegetables.

Commonly used for quick cooking, it is usually recommended that you use direct grilling for things that don’t take a long time to cook. Think hotdogs, burgers, vegetables, and a lot of seafood. You can also use the direct grilling methods for meat that is thinner or more tender like chicken breasts, strip steak, tri-tip, and more.

It takes less time to cook with direct heat, so make sure to keep an eye on what you are grilling as food can easily and quickly burn. Another great tip: try to turn the food you are grilling only once when using direct heat to get the most even cook.

Direct Grilling Tips

  • Grilling directly over the heat source
  • Use for tender or thinner cuts of meat
  • Great for vegetables and seafood
  • Food cooks quickly but can burn easily if not monitored
  • Use for grill marks and searing
  • Turn food only once for the most even cook

What is Indirect Grilling?

Pitmasters know that indirect grilling is where the real magic happens. Indirect grilling is when you place the charcoal on one side of the grill and the meat on the other. You want to create a zone that is adjacent to the heat so your food cooks low and slow.

Similar to baking, the indirect heat gradually cooks the food evenly and slowly. The heat radiates off of the top and walls of the grill allowing the food to be cooked from all sides. Good foods to cook with indirect heat include ribs, large steaks, briskets, and anything that you want to bake on the grill.

Indirect grilling is also good for foods that have a high water content, lots of sugar, or a lot of fat. This is why you cook brisket with indirect heat. It allows the fat to render making the meat juicy and super tender.

It takes more time to cook with indirect heat so be prepared to monitor the grill. You’ll also want to make sure that you are basting your meat regularly when using indirect heat. Apple juice and/or beer are great ways to add flavor and moisture.

Indirect Grilling Tips

  • Grilling adjacent to the heat source
  • Use for thicker or more fatty cuts of meat
  • Great for brisket, ribs, and large steaks
  • Food cooks slower and needs moisture added like apple juice or beer
  • Use a drip pan under your meat and add water so the drippings don’t burn
  • Keep the lid closed as much as possible for optimal flavor and best results
  • Heat the coals until they are totally grey with ash before cooking