Direct vs Indirect Heat For Grilling

lump charcoal direct girlling indirect grilling

Who doesn’t love grilling with some friends or family on a summer weekend?  Good food and good friends are what grilling is all about.  There are two different methods for grilling that not everyone is aware of, direct grilling and indirect grilling.  In order to get the most out of the food you are grilling and to get the best taste, you need to know the difference.

Grilling is a method of cooking that involves dry heating your food surface, usually from underneath the food but also from all different sides (kinda like baking in an oven). This is a fast way of cooking your food.  When most people think about grilling, they think about a type of protein, burgers, chicken, steak, pork chops, but you can grill pretty much anything.  Vegetables, pizza, fajitas are a few that come to mind.

This form of cooking allows you to use every source of energy that can cook food. You can use charcoal, wood, propane and or natural gas, and electricity. Let’s discuss the different types of direct or indirect heat for grilling and their pros and cons.

Different Types Of Fuel For Direct Heat and Indirect Heat For Grilling

For grilling, you can use the following energy sources for both direct and indirect grilling.

·   Charcoal

Charcoal Briquettes

They are convenient and purposely made to make grilling a convenient cooking method. Not to mention, there are several other applications and usage of coal briquettes.

Many believe this form of charcoal is a far superior fuel for grilling. It brings a flavor to the food, that you can’t get using any other fuel to cook your food.

Hardwood Lump of Charcoal

This is a slow form of fuel, but it is gaining popularity for the reason that they add no chemicals to it. Thus, keeping its purity; it basically burnt wood and that’s it.

Like any other charcoal form, it also adds a rich taste to your food. If you like the slightly smoky flavor, it’s a good option.

·   Wood

Wood Pellets

This form of quality wood is new and has been in use for grilling for about three decades.

They are usually the size of baked beans and come from different types of trees.  Different types of wood put off a different flavor profile when they burn.  Depending on the type of protein you are cooking will determine the type of wood you should use. 


This is a perpetual source of fuel and very good for having a mild taste in your grills. Most grill masters won’t use anything other than firewood or wood sticks.

Wood is available in abundance and offers your grill a distinct flavor. However, it takes a lot of effort to keep your grill at an even temperature using big pieces of wood.

Natural Gas

Natural gas is another famous fuel; it’s affordable and easily available.

Gas grills are easy to fix in your backyard. Many gas grills are convertible to propane gas as well. So buy the right grill if you have a natural or propane gas supply at your premises.

It won’t add any flavor to your food, so making sure your food has the correct spices is essential if you are going to cook with this method.


It’s famous for all grill lovers. The reason is you can buy propane cylinders, small or large, from stores and hardware outlets around. They are easy to carry around and offer a refill option.

Moreover, propane burns clean, hot like natural gas.  It is the same as natural gas in the sense that it won’t add any flavor to your food.


It’s not a common feature in the grilling world. They are easy to carry, as they are smaller and ideal even for small areas like a balcony, recess, or an apartment.

These electric grills are good for a small or intimate gathering. They are not handy for cooking for many hours like a brisket or a holiday turkey.

Indirect Heat For Grilling

indirect grilling smoking

Indirect grilling means that the source of heat is not directly in contact with the food. The food gets heated evenly with hot air from all sides.  This is the basic concept of baking something as well but with baking, you aren’t able to add any different flavor profiles like you are with a grill.

This method is ideal for foods that take longer to cook. Pork shoulders, briskets, ribs, whole chickens and whole turkeys are cooked best this way.  They are thicker pieces of meat that take longer to cook and longer for the heat to penetrate.  If we were to cook these with direct heat, the outside would be burnt to a crisp and the inside would be raw.  If you have ever heard of the term ‘low and slow’ when people BBQ, this is exactly what they mean.

Benefits Of Indirect Heat For Grilling

Indirect heat grilling is a slow and gentle method for cooking thick cuts of meat without burning its outer layer.  

This method of cooking is best for those foods that can take anywhere between 30 minutes to 12 hours to cook.

One of the best features may be that indirect grilling takes out the possibility of dangerous fire flashes, fat drips off food. Hence, there is no chance of burning the food unless you leave it for hours.  As long as you have enough fuel and can keep your grill at a constant temperature, you can leave the food cooking while you go do something else.


The obvious disadvantage is its slow heating process.  Cuts of meat like brisket, ribs and pork shoulders can take upwards of 10 to 12 hours to cook depending on their size.

Indirect heat grilling usually involves food with a high-fat content.  The process of cooking it low and slow breaks down the fat and renders it in a way that direct grilling couldn’t do.  So if you are on a diet or looking for a lean cut of protein, indirect grilling might not be the best choice.


As mentioned above, indirect heat grilling is usually for larger pieces of meat that take a long time to cook.  If you have ever heard someone say they are ‘smoking’ some meat, they are cooking the meat with indirect heat using a method that creates smoke.  If you are planning on using this method, make sure to pick the right cut and make sure to have plenty of time on your hands.

Direct Heat For Grilling

direct grilling chicken

In this cooking technique, the food is in direct contact with the heat source during the entire process.

This method is excellent for thin cuts, ideally for two-inch layers of meat, seafood, burgers, snacks, and vegetables.

If your source of heat is charcoal, then spread them evenly in the pit under the grill area. Direct grilling is a high heat technique to cook small and thin food rather quickly as the heat is directly under the grill area.

Benefits Of Direct Heat For Grilling

When most people think about grilling, they are thinking of direct heat for grilling.  Burgers or hot dogs on a grill is the perfect example.  Steaks, veggies, chops, chicken breasts are all examples of cuts that do well with direct heat grilling.

Direct heat grilling will give your food an edge over steamroll or boil foods. You can have a crispy flavor to savor your food with a sear-crust and benefits of smoky flavor that comes from wood or charcoals.

It will give you those tempting grill lines and allows you to build up a crust on your meat for an excellent taste.

Disadvantages Of Direct Heat For Grilling

The biggest disadvantage is if you aren’t careful and if you aren’t watching your grill, the chance of burning your food is real.  


The direct heat grilling method gives you a flare of traditional food, like steaks, fish or other fillets, etc. These foods cook in a short time, thanks to direct grilling.

Difference between Direct Heat For Grilling and Indirect Heat For Grilling

While using direct heat for grilling, you cook your food directly on a source of heat. You can get fillets, small-cut meat products, steaks, burgers, veggies, bread, etc., in their best form. It’s a quicker and hotter method for cooking.

The indirect heat for grilling method will get you tender food. In this method, an adjacent fire or heating source surrounds the food with low heat and cooks the food slowly. It’s handy for foods that require the slow heating process to get a perfect result.

You may wonder if you can use a combination of both direct and indirect grilling on the same piece to get food ready.

Yes, you may cook some food using a combination of both grilling methods.

The combo cooking or combo grilling method is mostly useful for thicker pieces of meat.  The reverse sear method is exactly this and is probably the most popular method of combining the two.  First you cook your cut of meat with indirect heat until the internal temperature is at your desired temp and then you transfer the cut to direct heat to build up a crust on the outside of the meat and finish cooking it.  

Direct vs Indirect Heat For Grilling – Final Word

There’s no definite answer to which grilling method is best, it all depends on what you are cooking.

Whatever you are grilling, make sure to use the proper method.  Have some friends or family over and enjoy a summer weekend.  That’s what grilling is all about.

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