Direct heat and indirect heat are two terms that you often hear discussed in barbecue circles. What do they mean? Are both referring to the same thing? In this BBQ Showdown, we will tell you how these two cooking methods compare to each other.
How does direct heat differ from indirect heat?
While direct and indirect heat both refer to cooking with an open flame, direct heat involves cooking the food right above the fuel. The fuel may be charcoal, gas, or wood. Direct heat gives grill marks while also quickly cooking thin, tender foods.
When you cook with indirect heat, you cook the food to one side of the fuel. Most (but not all) cooks recommend that you cook meat with direct heat for a short time to create a sear on the meat’s exterior. You then follow the searing with indirect heat for a longer period. The result is food a browned exterior and a perfectly cooked interior.
Some experts suggest that you do things the other way around — a long exposure to indirect heat followed by a quick sear. The latter method is called reverse searing.
Direct and indirect heat each require different methods of setting up your grill. When cooking with direct heat on a charcoal grill with a firebox, you will want to ignore the firebox and use fuel in the main cooking chamber only.
When cooking with indirect heat, use the firebox only with no lit coals in the main cooking chamber until you are ready to sear the food. If you want to cook with indirect heat on a grill with no firebox, you will need to move lit coals to one side of the cooking chamber and keep your food on the other side. For a four-burner gas grill, keep two or three of your burners lit and position your food over the unlit ones.
Pros and cons of direct heat
- It’s faster: Direct heat is used on foods that cook quickly, which means that you spend less time cooking.
- It’s great for vegetables: With vegetables, direct heat produces flavorful external caramelization without overcooking.
- It limits what you can cook: In most cases, you won’t be able to grill a whole turkey or a brisket directly over the flames. The outside would burn long before the inside was safe or tender enough to eat.
Pros and cons of indirect heat
- It cooks thoroughly: Indirect heat is gentler and exposes the food item to lower heat, which means that the heat can be conducted to the food’s center over the extended cooking time. It also means that the exterior will not char.
- It’s great for tough cuts: Brisket and other tough cuts need low, indirect heat to break down collagen and soften tough muscle fibers.
- It’s not ideal for quick-cooking foods: Indirect heat might not be the ideal method of cooking some foods. It dries out thin steaks and keeps hamburgers from getting an attractive, flavorful exterior sear.
When should you use direct heat and when should you use indirect heat?
Direct heat is what you use to cook steaks, hamburgers, and hotdogs. It also works when grilling asparagus and Brussels sprouts. What it won’t do is thoroughly cook thick or tough items. The exterior on tough cuts of meat and large, starchy vegetables is likely to char while the interiors remain uncooked. Use indirect heat for large roasts, whole potatoes, and similar items.