The secret to great grilling is indirect heat

AP Photo/Matthew Mead
AP Photo/Matthew Mead

If you want to master the art of grilling, you need to accept the idea that more heat isn’t necessarily better heat.

In other words, just because your grill is able to crank out 60,000 BTUs doesn’t mean you should let it. That’s because the key to great grilling actually isn’t intense heat, but something far more nuanced called indirect heat. In fact, when I’m grilling, I use indirect heat at least 80 percent of the time.

The beauty of indirect heat is that it allows the heat to surround the food from all sides. The result is that the food almost cooks itself. As long as you keep the heat even and consistent, you won’t need to rotate the food for it to cook evenly.

A common mistake when cooking with indirect heat is to turn off one side of the grill and just set the food there. But that’s not ideal, as the food closest to the lit burner gets most of the heat. It’s better to have the heat come from both sides, a method that involves creating a ring of heat around the food.

But to master indirect heat, you first need to understand how it differs from direct heat.

— Direct heat (also called direct grilling) involves placing food directly over the heat source. This is the same method as when you broil in the oven, except the heat source is under rather than over the food.

— Indirect heat (also called indirect grilling) means there is no heat source under the food. The burners are lit on either side of the grill and the food is placed in the center. The effect is similar to roasting or baking in the oven.

The benefit of indirect grilling is that it is a slower and more gentle method, enabling you to cook thicker cuts of meat (or those that toughen or dry out quickly) without burning the exterior. My general rule of thumb is that if the food takes less than 20 minutes to cook, use the direct method. Anything longer than that and indirect heat is your best bet.

It’s also possible to use both methods. This involves searing the meat initially over direct heat, then finishing it over indirect. This technique works well for everything from chops and steaks to whole tenderloins and even slices of denser vegetables, such as sweet potatoes and fennel.

This combo method is a time-honored and well-respected tradition. It’s also the grill version of the way most restaurants chefs cook almost everything — searing on the stovetop, then finishing in the oven.

How you use direct and indirect heat depends on the type of grill you have. So here are some tips for each.

— Direct heat on a gas grill

Turn all the burners on high as you normally would to heat the grill. When ready to cook, reduce the heat by turning all the burners to medium. This should result in a temperature of about 450 F. Place the food directly on clean cooking grates and grill as the recipe directs.

— Indirect heat on a gas grill

Setting a gas grill for indirect cooking is as simple as turning it on and off. Once the grill has been heated with all burners on high, simply turn off the burner or burners in the center of the grill and reduce the other burners to medium or medium-low. The food should be placed above the burner or burners that have been turned off.

If your grill has two burners, chances are that the burners are on the perimeter of the grill and the center of the cooking grate is already set up for indirect cooking. A three-burner grill is the easiest to set; you turn the center burner off and reduce the heat on the other two. Set a four-burner grill by turning both the center burners off and leaving the two outer burners on medium-high heat.

Since there are so many different models of gas grills, it is best to refer to the manufacturer’s instructions. Most new gas grills are designed to be used for both direct and indirect cooking.

— Direct heat on a charcoal grill

Light 50 to 60 charcoal briquettes in either a chimney starter or in a pyramid mound on the charcoal grate. Once the briquettes are covered with a white-gray ash, spread the briquettes in a single layer across the entire charcoal grate.

— Indirect heat on a charcoal grill

Light 50 to 60 charcoal briquettes in either a chimney starter or in a pyramid mound on the charcoal grate. Once the briquettes are covered with a white-gray ash, rake half of the briquettes to each side of the charcoal grate, leaving space in the center between them. Place a disposable foil drip pan between the two piles of coals. The drip pan will catch fats and juices as the food cooks.

If you want to add some smoky flavor, add soaked wood chips to the gray-ashed briquettes, then replace the cooking grate. Place the food in the center of the cooking grate directly over the drip pan and proceed with the recipe.

The secret to charcoal indirect cooking is to add briquettes to the fire as needed to maintain the cooking temperature (add about 10 briquettes per side every hour or so, or when the temperature inside the grill gets below 250 F). Charcoal briquettes can be added to the fire by dropping additional un-lit briquettes through the opening by the handles on each side of the cooking grate.

However, I find that it is more efficient to light briquettes in a chimney starter set in a heavy-duty disposable foil pan 20 minutes before you need to add them. This way the new briquettes are already at their prime temperature and covered with a white-gray ash when you add them.

— Elizabeth Karmel, Associated Press