Two-Zone Grilling is our number one method to achieve a perfect crust, and juicy meat every time. No matter what type of grill you are using, this method of indirect grilling will be the most versatile technique to master.
You can see more basic techniques at our How to Grill resource page.
Have you ever thrown a burger on, or tried to get that chicken to come out tasty, tender and done? Only to be thwarted by the flame with a burnt exterior and undercooked interior? This is the challenge when learning to grill, often the charcoal or heat source is set up for direct cooking over the flame and you have nowhere to move the protein as you cook.
The answer is understanding the two-zone or indirect method of cooking which allows you to have a direct heat source for searing, and then an indirect heat source to finish your meat.
Heat – What Is Direct vs. Indirect Grilling
What is Direct Heat
Direct Heat is when the heat source is directly under the food being grilled. Direct Heat is the set up you use for Direct Grilling where you manage a high heat flame directly for sear or browning. Also called the Maillard Reaction.
Vegetables, grilled seafood, lean beef and pork tenderloin work well using direct method. The lack of a fat avoids the dreaded flare up and lean cuts of anything cook up quickly. So you can get a beautiful exterior and strive for the medium rare interior. And on vegetables, I love a nice crispy texture with flavor, not something that folds over on itself.
What is Indirect Heat
Indirect heat is when the heat source is not directly under the item cooking on the grill. This can mean the charcoal is to one side, or the cooking chamber is separated from the heat chamber like an offset smoker, or a pellet grill.
Indirect heat is one of the principles of smoked meat or low and slow cooking (cooking under 300 degrees Fahrenheit).
What Is Two-Zone Grilling
Combine the direct and indirect methods to grill perfectly. Simply set up the grill whereby you have the heat source on one side, and the cooler side on the other. This is especially effective on a kettle style grill or kamado grill without a heat deflector plate.
This allows the perfect sear over a direct heat and then move to indirect heat to finish.
Using this method also allows you to move the meat back and forth to get the right crust and finished temperature. This technique is also great using a gas grill.
- A charcoal chimney starter makes easy work of a hot coal bed.
- A good quality instant read thermometer like a Thermoworks MK4 Thermapen is a critical investment. It will help determine when your meat is done and at the perfect temperature.
- High heat welding gloves help in handling the chimney starter, hot grates, and will an important tool in your arsenal.
- Long Tongs make it easy to move food around and not burn off arm hair.
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30 Minutes 30 minutes.
Two-Zone Grilling Steps
- Light Charcoal
Start charcoal in a chimney starter or review the steps for how to use a chimney starter.
- Pour charcoal into the grill on one side.
When charcoal is completely lit, pour into one side of the grill. This will set up the two zones. Use long tongs to make sure the charcoal is all on one side.
- Place grates on grill and cover for 5 minutes.
Fine tune the temperature to your desired grilling temperature. We target 450 – 500 degrees F over direct heat for most recipes. This lets the grates get hot in about 5 minutes. Your then ready to grill.
- Grill Direct
Now that the grill is at temperature, start by searing the meat over the direct heat following the recipe timeline. Then flip the meat to sear the other side
- Grill Indirect
Following the recipe timelines, after you see the color you like on the sear, move the meat to the indirect side and cover grill to finish. Use an instant read thermometer like the Thermoworks MK4 Thermapen to pull the meat at your desired temperature.
Let any meat rest for 10 – 15 minutes before slicing. Smaller cuts loosely tent with foil.
Two-Zone Grilling on a Gas Grill
For a gas grill, same concept, turn on one or two burners for the sear and then move the item being grilled to the cooler side. I’ve found that even by changing the dials on the gas grill from high to a medium or even low, the fact that the meat could sit directly over the flame may cause flare ups (especially if using sugar based sauces) or a little tougher exterior.
There are a number of ways to practice heat management and this is one of the basics. Best part is practice, grab some meat and grill it up! And you can even smoke meat on a gas grill using the two-zone grilling technique.
This post was originally published in May of 2018 and updated in January of 2021 with more detailed steps and photos.
Mary (a certified sommelier) and Sean (backyard pitmaster) are co-authors of the critically acclaimed cookbook, Fire + Wine, and have been curating content for the IACP nominated website Vindulge since 2009. They live in Oregon on a farm just outside Portland.
Grilling Recipes Using Two-Zone Method
A collection of our most popular favorite grilled foods.
- For some grilling and BBQ recipes check out the recipe index.
- For information on pairing wines with BBQ and grilling check out The Wine Pairing Guide to Barbecue