How to Set Up Your Grill for Two-Zone Cooking

Two zone heating on the grill featuring indirect and direct heat

One of the most common mistakes among novice outdoor cooks is setting up the grill with an even distribution of coals and cooking their food solely over direct heat. It’s comparable to cooking a meal on a stovetop burner using only the highest setting. On a grill, cooking exclusively over super-hot direct heat leads to flare ups and food that is all-too-often overcooked on the outside and undercooked on the inside or — even worse — overcooked on the outside AND inside. Ever gone to a cookout and been served a burger that is more like a hockey puck? That’s a result of trying to cook the burger all the way through using direct heat.

For roughly 90% of what the typical backyard cook is going to make on the grill, there should be two separate areas of heat established in the cooker. This is commonly referred to as two-zone heating and it’s one of the fundamentals of grilling. Just as the name implies, there are two zones: a very hot direct zone just above the heat source (coals on a charcoal grill or flames on a gas grill) and a cooler indirect zone away from the heat source. In the direct zone, conduction heat transfer is used for fast cooking and searing while in the indirect zone convection heating is used and acts more like an oven to slowly raise the temperature of the food.

With a two-zone set up, burgers that taste more like briquettes are a thing of the past.  In most grilling recipes, the majority of your cooking should happen over indirect heat. This allows slow cooking of your meat and for your entire burger, steak, chop, etc. to gradually and evenly come up to the desired temperature. Additionally, you’ll avoid those flare-ups and overcooking the outside of the meat. The direct heat will only be used at the very end of your cook in order to get that nice char that looks beautiful and adds an intense amount of flavor to whatever you’re serving.

grill with charcoal on one side for two zone cooking

To set up your charcoal grill for two-zone cooking, pile all of your coals on one side of the grill; this will be the direct heat or hot zone. The other side will have no coals and will be your indirect or cool zone. For a gas grill, only light half of the burners and leave the other half turned off to form hot and cool zones.

Now that you have your grill set up for two-zone heat, the last step before you start cooking is to find out the temperature of your cool zone. As a general rule of thumb, I never trust the thermometer that is provided by the grill manufacturer and mounted in the lid of the cooker. In all my years of cooking I have never found one of those to be accurate within even 25 degrees. There are number of grill thermometers on the market, some better than others. I recommend those from a company called Thermoworks. Their Smoke* model is the best one I’ve found; it’s functional and inexpensive and lets you monitor the temperature of your grill as well as the internal temperature of your meat. I love using this for the reverse-sear method of cooking.

bbq chicken over indirect heat on grill

While two zone cooking might sound complicated at first, all it requires is a simple adjustment when setting up the grill and it delivers a virtually fool-proof way ensure that burnt burgers and tough steaks are a thing of the past.

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