One of the first steps to becoming a grill master is to understand direct and indirect cooking. In BBQ, most of the time when someone refers to *grilling* they are talking about *direct* cooking and when discussing *smoking* they are referring to *indirect* cooking.
When most of the BBQ world discusses grilling they are referring to the heat source directly under the food they are cooking, whether that is wood, charcoal or a flame from a gas like propane. Most of the time direct grilling is used to cook smaller and thinner pieces of meats and vegetables quickly and in an environment with high heat. The best foods for direct heat are things like steaks, chops, vegetables, smaller cuts of poultry, and fish.
Success in cooking with direct heat comes down to how the cooker is set up. It works best to cook with two different zones when preparing food over direct heat. You want a zone that has high heat and you want a zone with no heat that can act as a “cool” zone so you have somewhere to put the food if the fire gets too hot or the food gets close to burning on the exterior before the interior is cooked properly.
One example of cooking direct would be to use a simple charcoal grill. You could layer lit charcoal on about half of the grill and have a very hot direct cooking area. On the other half of the grill you could have no heat source under the cooking grate, that way you will attain the “cool zone”. It is important to note that the “cool” zone is not cold, it is just cooler that the hot direct zone and because there is no direct heat source under the cooking grate the outside of the food you are cooking will not continue to cook and potentially burn.
Indirect cooking is designed to cook larger, thicker cuts of meats or vegetables that if cooked in a direct style would burn the outside before the inside was even remotely finished cooking. The latter is a great way to ruin a great cut of meat.
As the name suggests, the food is placed next to, or above, with a heat barrier between the fire and the meat instead of directly over the fire. Usually the grill or smoker would have the lid or doors closed to keep the heat and smoke contained. Indirect grilling is used to cook large pieces of meat, like pork shoulders and whole chickens. It’s also used to cook tough cuts of meat like brisket and ribs, that require long, slow cooking at a low or moderate heat. Indirect grilling allows you to work over a more moderate temperature, usually around 225 to 350 degrees. Cooking indirect is the way pit masters smoke meat and get the wood smoke infused into the flavor of the food they are smoking. This is the method used to cook ribs, pork shoulders, briskets, whole chickens and turkeys, and other large pieces of food.
There are many different cookers you can use to cook indirect and the options range from offset smokers to ways to cook indirect on a gas grill. The key is to keep to a lower temperature for longer periods of time.
Which cooking method is right?
The key to mastering these cooking methods is to experiment with them! Without practice, patience and taking the time to learn, mastering these methods will never happen. Give the direct method a shot with some steaks and asparagus and grab a pork shoulder and give the indirect method a shot. As always, monitoring internal temperature is a must for figuring out your favorite methods for grilling or smoking.