Two Zone and Indirect Cooking
September 12, 2011
It’s never a bad idea to review the basics. In that spirit, Craig “Meathead” Goldwyn of AmazingRibs.com offers his extensive primer on 2-Zone cooking for Grilling.com today.
The single most essential concept an outdoor cook needs to understand is the importance of temperature control and how to use a 2-zone setup and/or indirect cooking.
Whether you are cooking on an El Cheapo Charcoal Grill from Wally World, a Super Sabre Jet Stainless Steel Gas Grill from Williams of Napa, or a Texas Tinkermann Iron Tube Competitor mounted on a trailer, most outdoor cooking goes best if you use a 2-zone setup. Even if you are only cooking hot dogs.
To cook delicious food, you need to control your cooking temperature because the compounds in foods react differently to different levels of heat. For example, meats are composed of protein, water, fat, collagen, and some sugars, and each component changes drastically at different temperatures. Fats render at one temp, water evaporates at another, collagens melt at another, sugar caramelizes at another, the Maillard reaction (a.k.a. browning of proteins) occurs at another, and carbonization (a.k.a. charring or burning) occurs at yet another temp.
To gain control of temp, a 2-zone setup is ideal because it gives you much better control over temperature and method of applying heat. In a 2-zone setup, you have one side of the grill that is hot and producing radiant direct heat, and the other side is producing no heat and food on that side cooks by indirect convection heat. We’ll call one the direct zone and the other the indirect zone.
2 zones and convection for temperature control The most common mistake outdoor cooks make is using too much direct heat. That’s how they burn things. That’s how foods get tough and dry. If meat is exposed to very high heat for too long, the proteins get their undies in a bunch and shrink, squeezing out the liquids, and the result is tough, dry meat.
Using a 2-Zone Indirect setup allows you to control the temp applied to the food. You can sear the exterior of a thick steak over high heat in the direct zone to get great flavor from browning, and then move it to the indirect zone to prevent burning and finish cooking the interior at a more moderate temperature.
Or you can do the reverse. You can start chickens over the indirect zone at a low temp and cook them until they are almost done. Then move them over the direct zone to crisp the skin and finish cooking.
2 zones for different foods A 2-zone setup is especially handy if you have more than one food cooking at once where the thickness and water content of the two is significantly different so they will cook at different rates. For example, you might put stuffed tomatoes or stuffed peppers in the indirect zone to roast gently for about 20 minutes, and then put steaks or chops on the direct zone to sear quickly.
An indirect zone is particularly helpful for preventing food from burning if it is very sweet or if there is sugar in the rub or sauce. Slices of pineapple are great on the grill, but can burn quickly if put over direct heat.
How to do it Every grill is different, but try to get your indirect zone down into the 225°F to 250°F range. That’s a magic number at which a lot of foods cook best. On a charcoal grill you push the coals to one side. On a gas grill you turn off all the burners except one or two. You will need to fiddle with your system. You may find that you can hit the 225°F mark with a three burner gas grill by turning one burner on medium and the other two off. Or maybe it needs to be on low. But then you have no hot zone. No problem. When it is time to move the the food to the hot zone, you can put it on a platter and then crank the hot side. When it maxes, put the food back on. You need to get to know your instrument and master the concept.
A good way to do this is experiment with a goodthermometer and without food (doh!). You cannot trust your grill’s theremometer. You absolutely must get a good digital thermometer for your grill. Please read my buyer’s guide to thermometers. You should also read my articles on the thermodynamics of cooking and meat science.
Add a water pan or two, especially if you are smoke roasting
Here’s another useful technique: When you are cooking indirect with convection heat, you are roasting. If you add smoke to the atmosphere, you are smoke roasting. If you add a water pan under the meat you are adding moisture to the atmosphere and if the water pan is above the heat you are further protecting the meat from direct heat and the water absorbs heat, helping to keep the temperature down. Smoke roasting, which is usually done at low temperatures for a long time, can dry out the meat, so putting humidity into the atmosphere can help keep the meat moist. In addition, moisture mixes with the combustion gases, especially on a gas grill, and creates desirable flavors.
Here are some ways to set up for indirect cooking with a water pan.
Some smokers come with a water pan.
On a charcoal grill, fill up a chimney, wait til the coals are white, dump the coals all on one side of the bottom rack, and put a water pan on the other. Put the top rack on, put the meat on the top rack above the water pan, and another water pan on the top rack above the coals.
Here’s another article on how to set up a charcoal grill for moist smoke roasting.
Follow the same concept on other charcoal grills. The metal insert on the right side of this kettle grill keeps the coals off to one side so, as in the photo, you can put your ribs on other side for low and slow indirect smoke roasting, and you can put more meat below on the bottom rack, or, as in this photo, a pan of beans under the ribs to catch the drippings. If you have a kettle grill, you need one of these handy attachments.
“Bullet” shaped smokers have a water pan between the coals and the food. Leave it in and you are cooking indirect. Take it out and you are cooking direct.
The gas grill above is set up with a water pan under the meat for indirect cooking and to collect drippings. The pan is filled with wine, fruit, herbs, onions, and more goodies to make a flavorful stock for gravy. To the left is a small pan with wood chips for smoke. It is resting on a hot burner so the chips will smolder. Click here for more on how to make the ultimate smoked turkey, even on a gas grill. Here’s an article on how to set up a gas grill for moist smoke roasting.