How to Grill with Indirect Heat

What is Indirect Grilling?

Most people stop at small, thinner cuts of food when it comes to grilling. As delicious as thin, seared carne asada and grilled peaches are, think bigger, much bigger. How about a whole chicken or ribs or salmon? Now you’re talking! If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to sample delicious, melt-in-your-mouth Jamaican grilled jerk chicken, a perfect thick steak, or juicy & tender smoked salmon, you may not have even considered how you might be able to grill it yourself. There is one easy way to make any of these wonderful, thick or tender foods – indirect heat.

Indirect heat might sound suspicious, especially if you like a bit of carbon on everything you eat, but indirect grilling has been used by people for millennia to grill perfect, tender meats and other foods. Texans have been using indirect grilling over many generations to make their famous, delicious barbecue. So what exactly is indirect grilling and what makes it so special?

Indirect Grilling vs Direct Grilling

Direct grilling is what most people think of when they grill. You are using a direct source of heat, whether it be gas or open flame and cooking food by direct exposure to high heat. Because the heat is so high, cooking happens very quickly. “Low and slow” is the motto of indirect grillers everywhere. In other words, indirect grilling is when you either heat a food close to but away from the main heat source or have something solid that stands between the food being grilled and the direct source of heat, such as a plank, pizza stone, or a metal pan. The process of cooking indirectly generally lasts a long time, often hours, as compared to the quick grilling using direct heat. The reason why people use indirect grilling is because it allows you to grill large or tough cuts of meat at a low temperature, creating a sort of outdoor oven. The larger pieces of meat can avoid being overcooked on the inside and under-cooked on the inside, resulting in a perfectly tender, evenly cooked piece of meat. Another great advantage of indirect grilling is that it makes it easier to introduce smoking flavors to your food.

How to Grill with Indirect Heat

Whether you are using charcoal, an open flame or a gas grill there are many different ways to use indirect grilling, but the technique remains the same – keep the food you are grilling away from the heat, but close by, to cook it on a lower temperature for a long time. On a charcoal grill, light the charcoal in a chimney starter. When the coals get red hot, put them in two separate piles at opposite ends of your grill. Place a drip pan in the middle and place your food on the grill above the drip pan. If you want to add some nice smoked flavor, throw in some wet wood chips to produce smoke. Adjust the vents to get the temperature you want and keep the lid closed on the grill. Check after an hour and throw in more charcoal if needed.

For indirect grilling, you want to turn one burner on high and one burner on medium, to create a two-zone grilling setup. Cook the food on the medium side. If you have more than two burners, simply turn on the outside burners and cook the food in the middle, to create a three-zone grilling system.

Indirect Grilling Recipes

If you have ever lived in the Pacific Northwest, you know that salmon is king. Generations of Northwesteners have grown up grilling salmon over cedar planks on an open fire. For an interesting take on planked salmon, try the Finnish dish, Loimulohi, in which salmon is held vertically on a wooden plank beside a fire. There are many fierce debates over the best way to cook brisket Texas style, but everyone agrees on one thing – it needs to be cooked slowly on low heat. Don’t forget grilled jerk chicken, one of the finest inventions of indirect grilling.

There are so many great recipes to try that use indirect heat. It’s not as difficult as you think and the results are amazing. So why not try indirect grilling on your next outdoor cooking adventure?

Watch this short video to learn even more about grilling with indirect heat:


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