Charcoal Grill Indirect Heat

This is a complete guide on how to setup and use a charcoal grill indirect heat for cooking.. The key to a great outdoor cooking session is to know how to set up 2 zones and use the indirect method. I list this in our “Grilling on Charcoal Guide” and it’s also a part of our Food Equipment & Tools category and Grilling section.

Charcoal Grill Indirect Heat Overview

This guide show using a charcoal grill indirect heat for cooking. Initially, I’ll explain what indirect heat is. Then, I’ll show charcoal arrangement methods for indirect heat when cooking different types of food. Then, you’ll learn how to set up a charcoal grill for indirect heat.

What Does Indirect Heat On A Grill Mean?

Indirect heat is used when you’re NOT cooking over hot coals. In fact, you’re cooking on the side, so to speak.

What Recipes Can You Cook on Indirect Heat Using a Charcoal Grill?

Grilling on Indirect Heat can be done with lots of recipes. Here are some recipes that don’t directly always cook over hot charcoal. They grill very steady and consistent. Although some items will partially use direct heat.

Indirect Heat can even be used AFTER searing real thick steaks or burgers. Although not always, it’s very common to close the lid for most of this time.

Indirect Heat Charcoal Grill Ribs

Check out this recipe for slow cooking ribs while off to the side of hot charcoal, under a closed lid. Very little grilling attendance is needed.

Indirect Heat Charcoal Grill Brisket

You can cook Brisket using non-direct methods. One example is to slow cook it indirectly next to hot coals and the lid covered.

Advantages of Cooking With A Charcoal Grill Indirect Heat Method

Charcoal grills are unique in that they are the easiest to set up and use for indirect heat. Usually, grilling on indirect heat on a charcoal grill make your items more evenly cooked. Also, in most cases, you can leave it unattended. Indirect cooking is also the method used for making grilled or smoked items far more tender or juicy. Finally, you can even use it for keeping things warm. So, keep reading to see more uses.

In some cases, you’ll use both indirect and direct heat. One example is searing a thick steak on direct heat and then finishing it on indirect heat. Briefly, let’s look next at what direct heat means.

What Does Direct Heat On A Grill Mean?

Direct heat is used when you’re grilling closest to the coals. It’s a high heat used for things like burgers, hot dogs, salmon, searing steaks, and so on. Although not always, it’s very common to have the grill’s lid open during this time. You need to get a good focus when you cook food directly in this manner because there are high heat coals directly underneath.

Cooking over Hot Coals is Direct Heat

Charcoal Arrangements for Indirect Heat Methods

To setup your indirect heat charcoal grill, you’ll need to arrange the coals in a way that’s best for what you’re going to cook. The most common method is to have the charcoal grill indirect setup using a 2-zone method.

What Is A Two-Zone Method?

A two-zone method refers to creating two distinct areas on the grill that use 2 different heat temperatures. It’s first all about the method used to arrange the charcoal. After that, it’s about the cooking method to best use each area.

One area is the hottest temp, and the other is much lower, although still too hot to touch. The first zone is considered the hottest and the second is considered the “medium” or the “cool zone” area. We’ll now see some arrangement options that involve this commonly practiced two-zone method and finish with a 3-zone arrangement.

Option 1. The Single Pile Charcoal Grill Indirect Heat Arrangement

Many times you’ll just have a pile of hot charcoal on the side or in the center.

Option 2. The Ring Method of a Charcoal Grill Indirect Heat Arrangement

However, other times you might want a ring of hot coals around the charcoal grate border. However, there are times where you might have a pile of hot coals on 2 locations.

Option 3. The S-shaped Method of a Charcoal Grill Indirect Heat Arrangement

Another design is an “S” shape, also known as a Snake setup. It’s a good one because it distributes the temperature most evenly compared to all the other layouts. The disadvantage is that it’s not designed for refilling so it can only be used for regular cooking and no long sessions. There’s also less cooking space available because it uses more square inches.

Option 4. The Three-Zone Method of a Charcoal Grill Indirect Heat Arrangement

The Three-Zone method that divides the hot area by placing two equal piles on opposite sides of each other. These 3-zone location arrangements are good for when you have a tray of water between 2 areas of hot coals. It’s perfect for rotisserie cooking or long smoking sessions such as for roasts or hams.

Mark Jenner wrote a real good article “Indirect Grilling – What is it? Why Use it? And How to Set Up for it” on FoodDireFriends.com. He explains and confirms many of these aspects of zone setup for proper cooking. It sounds like he went through similar starting experiences that I also had.

How To Set Up Charcoal Grill For Indirect Heat

Now, decide on which indirect heat arrangement option you’re going to use. Next, pick one final option of how to set up a charcoal grill for indirect heat. Also, it won’t matter if you’re using charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal. It also won’t matter how you ignite your charcoal.

When you set up your charcoal grill for using indirect heat, you have two final options. You can light the charcoal first and then arrange it or you can arrange the charcoal first and then light it. Let’s look at both options so you can pick either one of them to make your charcoal grill indirect heat ready.

Regardless of the way you use to light charcoal, you’re usually ready to start cooking in 20-30 minutes.

Setup Option 1. Lighting Charcoal First & Then Arrange It

With this indirect heat creation method light the charcoal first and then arrange the hot charcoal. This way is often done using a charcoal chimney or charcoal carrier bin. However, some will make a simple pile of charcoal, light it, and arrange it later after the coals are confirmed hot and lit.

If using a charcoal chimney starter or charcoal holder trays, you’ll be lighting it first and then arranging them into position. It’s best to stuff a large wad of paper on the starter or tray bottom and then light the paper. Then, you wait about 10 minutes for the charcoal to get hot all the way up.  Using this way to light is great because you use no lighter fluid.

Charcoal Chimney Starter Top View
Charcoal Chimney Starter Top View
Charcoal Chimney Starter Handle View
Charcoal Chimney Starter Handle View

Another way to light is to place your charcoal holding trays over an automatic ignition flame for about 5 to 10 minutes.

An alternate is to use an electric starter to insert into the coals. The good ones have a large heating element in the shape of a loop. Still others might use a small gas flame torch to hold to ignite your heat source.

Setup Option 2. Arranging Charcoal First & Then Lighting It

If you’re going to use lighter fluid or self-igniting briquettes, it’s much easier to arrange it first, and then light it. However, either way can be easy.

Loading a Single Pile of Lump Charcoal for Indirect Heat
Loading a Single Pile of Lump Charcoal for Indirect Heat
Aligning 2 Charcoal Trays to Light for Indirect Heat
Aligning 2 Charcoal Trays to Light for Indirect Heat

How To Cook With Indirect Heat On A Charcoal Grill

There are a few ways of how to cook different things on the grill when they’re not over the heat source. For example, if you’re barbecuing ribs, you’ll usually want the meat rack in the center with heat in one of 2 layouts. You either want a hot circle all around or you’ll want the heat on 2 opposite sides.

If you’re cooking a lot of chicken pieces, you might need more space so, a good layout would be to keep the heat focused. In other words, avoid the ring of coals around the outer edge. Keep a hot pile in the middle or have it as 2 smaller piles on opposing sides, like in holders or trays.

When you’re planning to have a long session like smoking or using a rotisserie, your placement needs to allow for refilling the heat source several times. Remember, as your food rotates and cooks, the coals will cook also. Also, during refilling times, you’ll be checking the internal meat temps with a thermometer.

Center of Grill Grate Removed for Refilling Charcoal
Center of Grill Grate Removed for Refilling Charcoal

Usually this will mean to have a hot tray of coals on opposite sides of each other. Then, you’ll have space for a water pan to catch drippings in the middle between them.

Long Session Indirect Heat Setup for Rotisserie Cooking
Long Session Indirect Heat Setup for Rotisserie Cooking
Rotisserie Indirect Heat Zone Cooking Whole Chickens
Rotisserie Indirect Heat Zone Cooking Whole Chickens

Indirect Cooking On A Weber Grill

Many of the Weber grills are perfect for this indirect cooking. Some come with a top grate that and a center section that lifts out for refilling a pile in the middle. You can just leave it off during the entire cooking session to make it even more convenient.

Other Weber top grates have small hinged sides that easily lift up for refilling charcoal. These are usually left down until needed.

Hinged Sides of Grill Grate Lifted Open for Refilling Charcoal
Hinged Sides of Grill Grate Lifted Open for Refilling Charcoal

Control The Temperature Using Vents

For managing airflow and Weber temperatures, many will have a 3-blade propeller style vent in the kettle’s bottom. If it’s viewed and marked beforehand, you can set it for any range of opening or closing for varying the temp. There’s also the vent on the lid, which can also dampen a flame. If you have a rectangular shaped grill, the side vents on the cover and the body, if one is open and one closed, it works the air like a convection.

Adjusting Kettle Bottom Vent for Indirect Heat
Adjusting Kettle Bottom Vent for Indirect Heat
Adjusting Weber Top Lid Vent for Indirect Heat
Adjusting Weber Top Lid Vent for Indirect Heat

Using a Weber Grill As An Indirect Heat Smoker

Use your Weber Grill as a Smoker. Managing the vents properly, and keeping a consistent low temperature, turns your charcoal grill into a smoker. For more info, see our article “Best Ways How To Use Weber Performer Charcoal Grill“.

Remember to set up your charcoal grill to be able to refill your heat source periodically. Weber has a good article as their example of “Roasting a Whole Turkey on the Grill“. Here’s our long cooking example on a Weber Grill being used as a smoker for cooking pulled pork for several hours.

Conclusion

Now you’ve learned ways to setup and arrange the coals for charcoal grill indirect heat cooking. You’ve seen different methods to pile the lit coals for simply cooking and for longer sessions when you have more charcoal needed. You’ve also learned how to have multi-zone fire source on either side and arrange briquettes or lumps for indirect heat on a charcoal grill.

Finally, you’ve also seen several cooking examples and how they differ using various setups. So, don’t wait any longer; plan a cookout soon using indirect heat.

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