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The Two-Zone Grilling Trick You Need to Know

The Two-Zone Grilling Trick You Need to Know

Words Holly Hays

Cooking multiple foods at once on the grill is easy once you learn how to create different zones of heat.

Backyard chefs, it’s time to take your grilling game up a notch. You’ve been delighting your audience with beautifully cooked single acts: burgers, steaks, grilled pizzas. Now it’s time to cook the main course and the side dish—at once.

Two-zone grilling creates different areas of heat, or zones, on the grill. Suddenly, it’s possible to cook very different foods—say, steak and asparagus—to perfection at the same time. It’s akin to having two pots going on the stove, one at full boil, one at a mellow simmer. The end result is a lovely thing: Dinner in one fell swoop, with everything cooked to just the right doneness, at the same time. That also means you get to hang up your apron and enjoy the meal, too, instead of prepping the grill for the next course. Discover how to do two-zone grilling like a pro.

cooking with a thermometer on a charcoal grill

What Is Two-Zone Grilling?

The key to this useful technique is direct and indirect heat. Direct heat refers to the side of the grill directly over the open flame. This zone is the hottest and best for searing and cooking anything that requires high temperatures. The other half of the grill is the indirect heat zone; there’s no direct flame, but there is plenty of spillover heat from the grill’s other side for food to cook. This zone is best for slower cooking and roasting.

vegetable skewers on a grill

Getting in the (Two) Zone

You can create a two-zone grill regardless of what type of grill you are using, but the approach differs slightly depending on whether you’re cooking with a charcoal or gas grill.

On a charcoal grill: The goal is for all the hot coals to hang out on one side of the grill, creating two distinct temperature zones. Here’s how to set it up:

  • Use a chimney starter. Position coals exactly where you want them in your grill. Charcoal goes on top of the chimney and wadded-up newspaper or lighter cubes go underneath the wire grate.
  • Light the paper. Once lit, the flames and heat will slowly climb their way up through the stacked briquettes.
  • Check the color. When the top coals turn a light grey and are covered in a thin layer of ash, they’re ready.
  • Lift up the chimney. Use a silicone mitt in case the handle is hot and carefully tip charcoal out on one side of the grill. This area will be your direct heat zone.
  • Alternatively, light up the grilling coals in whatever way you like best. Just be sure, once they’re hot, to push them over to one side. (Tongs or a long-handled metal turner make great assistants.)
  • Close the grill lid. Allow the grill to preheat fully (about 10 minutes). Use your oven thermometer and aim for 450°F to 550°F in the high-heat zone and 250°F to 350°F in the low heat. A well-heated grill gives you more control once you start cooking, as well as more reliable results.

On a gas grill: The important requirement here is that you have a gas grill with at least two burners. You’ll turn one to high heat (450°F or higher), the other to low (250°F) or simply leave it off. Once burners are going, close the grill and allow it to preheat.

precision turner on a grill

Which Zone Cooks What?

Once you have your two-zone setup going, it’s important to know which foods do better when cooking over direct high heat or lower indirect heat.

High-heat zone: This area is just right for anything needing quick, high heat to cook, including burgers, thin cuts of meat (one inch thick or less), wings and thin-sliced veggies. Direct heat is also the zone for searing steaks and chops. Baste your foods with enough marinade or sauce to coat all sides, then line them up on the grill. Start them in the high-heat zone and, when they’ve developed a nice, crispy crust, move them over to the low-heat zone for finishing.

Low-heat zone: This area allows food to cook longer and more evenly than they would on the super-hot side. Large cuts of meat (like brisket), whole fish, ribs or vegetables you want to slow roast work best on this side of the grill. The low-heat zone is also the place to finish steaks and other foods after searing them. Or, if you’re reverse searing, start steaks here and finish them in the high-heat zone.

The indirect heat side is also a safe zone for flare-ups on the grill. If the flames suddenly climb higher, zip food over to the cooler side of the grill (use those tongs again) until things calm down.

Ready to get grilling? Check out these smart ideas for small outdoor gatherings this summer where the grill is the main attraction.

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