What’s the Difference Between Direct and Indirect Heat?

published Jul 6, 2016
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Grilled Cabbage and Smoked Ribs on grill
Credit: From Left to Right: Mia Yakel; Olive and Mango

Knowing the difference between direct and indirect heat (and when to use one, the other, or both) is the difference between a grill rookie and a grill master. Direct heat will get you great grill marks over a fast flame, while indirect will bring your meat to temperature and make desserts on the grill a breeze. The difference is where the food is placed in relation to the heat source.

The Difference Between Direct and Indirect Heat

Direct and indirect heat are both terms that refer to grilling or open-fire cooking. Direct heat means to cook the food directly over the heat source (whether charcoal, gas, or wood), while indirect cooking refers to cooking adjacent to the heat source. A combination of direct heat for searing followed by indirect heat for long, slow cooking tends to be one of the most skillful ways to use the grill.

Credit: Mia Yakel/Kitchn

How to Grill with Direct Heat

Direct heat cooking is exactly what it reads like — cooking food directly over a heat source. In the case of grilling, we’re talking about the flame. Direct heat is responsible for beautiful grill marks, juicy burgers, and crispy grilled vegetables. It’s also great for quick-cooking foods like vegetables, hot dogs, and most seafood — especially shrimp. Direct heat is also great for searing meat to give it color and a crisp skin.

Credit: Olive and Mango/Kitchn

How to Grill with Indirect Heat

Indirect heat is a zone created adjacent to the heat source. The food is still going onto the grill or over the fire, but with indirect heat the items you’re cooking are placed in an area heated by the flame, but not directly in contact with it. Potatoes wrapped in foil and nestled next to the coals in a campfire are baked with indirect heat. Whole chickens or racks of ribs cooked on the grill without being exposed to a direct flame are cooked with indirect heat. Traditional barbecue (slow-smoked meat) is produced via indirect heat as well.

How to Grill with Combo Cooking (Indirect Plus Direct Heat)

A combination of direct and indirect heat is often called combo heat or combination cooking. Combo cooking is most often seen with large pieces of meat, which are seared over direct heat and then slowly cooked over indirect heat. Grilled chicken is also frequently cooked with a combination — a quick grill over direct heat for grill marks and caramelization and then moved over to indirect heat and cooked with the grill lid down until the chicken comes to temperature. Combo heat cooking is also great for grilled fruit and denser vegetables like cabbage.