When it comes to grilling and smoking on a charcoal, gas, or electric grill, you don’t (and shouldn’t) have to be restricted to cooking strictly over direct heat. You can easily broaden your cooking horizons and master your grilling temperatures by utilizing the two-zone cooking method.
The most common mistake in outdoor cooking is using too much direct heat. Then, sometimes, this can lead to being afraid to utilize enough direct heat when appropriate and you end up with food not being cooked enough. This creates a food safety issue. If you want to avoid overcooked undercooked food and up your barbecue game on your grill, you have to learn to use two-zone cooking.
In this article, we’ll break down exactly what it is, its advantages, and how to properly set up two-zone grilling.
What Is A Two-Zone Grill Setup?
When you hear two-zone cooking, it actually refers to your fire or heat source. A two-zone grill setup is the most versatile way to cook because it provides both direct radiant heat and indirect convection heat on the same grill. Unlocking the opportunity to sear, roast, and smoke meat all in one place.
With a two-zone setup, you simply divide the grill into two zones. One side of the grill is your high, direct heat source zone while the other side of the grill is clear of any charcoal or active burners. Thus making it your indirect heat zone. The indirect side also serves as a safe-zone in case of flare-ups.
On the direct heat side, directly over the fuel source, you can cook fast, sear the meat, and get good caramelization and grill marks. Alternatively, on the indirect side, you can smoke and cook meat to juicy, tender perfection using the low and slow method.
Instead of being restricted to one temperature while grilling and smoking, with two-zone grilling, you can utilize two separate cooking temperatures and master your grill.
Advantages To Two-Zone Cooking
No matter what type of grill you are cooking on, two-zone cooking has many advantages. These include:
More flexibility: You can cook multiple different things at the same time at different temperatures if needed. You can also cook several meat cuts to different doneness at the same time. For example, if you need some steaks cooked to medium-rare and some cooked to medium or medium-well.
More control: With two-different temperature zones, you’ll have more control over your cooking. For example, you can cook and smoke larger meats indirectly and move them to the direct side just before they are done to get a perfectly caramelized exterior crust. You can also hold meats at the desired temperature on the indirect side, without overcooking, while your other items are finishing on the direct side.
Better flavor: Different types of meat react differently with high and low heat. This is because they all have varying water content, fat content, proteins, sugars, etc. Each of these elements within the meat react at different temperatures. With the two-zone cooking method, you can utilize the proper temperatures for the specific type and cut of meat and maximize flavor.
Longer burning fuel source: Since you are not using a whole grill full of charcoal or wood and keeping it contained to half of the grill, you’ll actually have a longer burning fire.
How To Properly Set Up & Use Two-Zone Grilling
Setting up two-zone grilling is very simple. The most important thing is to create the two defined sides, one with the direct heat source and the other without. This can be done on a charcoal grill, gas grill, or electric grill. Here’s how to set up a two-zone fire or grill:
On A Charcoal Grill
Light the coals: Light your coals, ideally using a chimney starter, and get them white-hot. To get sufficient high heat, use a full chimney of charcoal or light a pile of about 100 briquets.
Spread out coals on one side of the grill: Pour the hot coals out of the chimney starter all to one side of the lower grill grate or use tongs to move all the coals carefully to cover only 50 percent. This will be your direct heat side where meat can be cooked right over the heat source at a much higher temperature than indirect heat.
Leave the other side of the grill coal-free: This will be your indirect heat side. Through convection heat, this other side free of coal will still be hot enough to cook meat low and slow. The food on this side won’t cook nearly as fast as on the direct side right above the heat source.
Aim for proper temperatures: This is where a set of good digital thermometers comes in handy. Don’t trust your grill thermometer when doing a two-zone system. Aim for 225 degrees Fahrenheit on the indirect side and a minimum of 325 degrees Fahrenheit on the direct side.
Cook over the appropriate side: Always start with the larger items you are going to cook. A general rule of thumb is that you will cook larger meats over the indirect side the majority of their cooking time to avoid quickly overcooking them. Use the high heat side for direct cooking and searing (whether searing first or reverse-searing). While using the indirect side for longer cooking over lower temperatures. For example, you can smoke larger, more tender meats like brisket over the indirect side.
Bonus Tip: Utilize different types of kiln-dried cooking wood and add them to or use in place of traditional charcoal to generate delicious wood smoke and experiment with different flavors. B & B Charcoal has a great selection. For example, smoking meat with B & B Cherry wood will create a whole new flavor profile. You can try different variations of wood including wood chunks, chips, pellets, and even B & B Char-logs.
Turn on the appropriate burners: Turn half your grill’s burners (or elements, if you’re using an electric grill) on high, this will be the direct heat side. Then put the other half on low, this will be the indirect heat side.
Decide on the direct/indirect ratio: If you have four burners it is very easy. Two will be your direct side and two will be your indirect side. But if you have three burners, you have a decision to make based on exactly what you are cooking. You do two burners on high and one on low, or one burner on high and two on low. Don’t be afraid to experiment with the ratio to achieve desired temperatures.
Follow steps 4 and 5 from the charcoal grills steps above.
Source: Kary Osmond
Wrapping It All Up
Temperature control is essential to mastering great barbecue and grilled meats. The best way to do this is by utilizing the two-zone cooking method. You’ll have the control and flexibility to cook both perfectly tender and juicy meat as well as perfectly seared and tender steaks. Gone are the days or you overcooking or undercooking meats.
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