How to Set Up Two Heat Zones on Your Grill

Whether you're using gas or charcoal, creating a hotter zone and a cooler zone is the key to perfectly grilled food.

Have you ever pulled perfectly charred food from the grill, only to discover it's still raw in the center? What's a grill master to do? You'll have a lot more control over your grill — and much better results — when you learn to create cooking zones. A two-zone fire is the best way to control the heat — it creates a hot area for direct, high-heat cooking and a cooler one for indirect heat. Use the hot side for searing, marking and crisping. The cooler side is for cooking things through or keeping them warm.

Zoning a Charcoal Grill

When the coals are ready in your charcoal grill, push them to one side, leaving the other empty.

The side with the charcoal is now the direct-heat zone. Foods are exposed to hot, radiant heat at about 500 degrees F. This is the perfect spot for cooking steaks, burgers and vegetables and crisping up chicken skin or ribs. For safety, be sure to use designated grilling tools and never lean over the grill when moving charcoal.

The side without charcoal is the indirect-heat zone. Foods are exposed to cooler temperatures—around 225 to 375 degrees F. This is a great place to roast a whole chicken or to finish up seared items that take a little longer to cook through — like bone-in chops, steaks or chicken pieces.

Another way to create heat zones with a charcoal grill is to push the hot coals around the rim. The empty area in the center is now the indirect-heat zone and the outer edge serves as the direct-heat zone. We call this the "ring of fire."

Zoning a Gas Grill

For gas grills, zoning couldn't be easier. Simply turn the burners on one side to high or medium-high and leave the other side off or on low. Preheat for 15 minutes before adding any food. Use the hot side for marking, charring and crisping. The cooler side is perfect for cooking things through or keeping them warm.

For both styles of grill, heat can also be controlled using the lid and vents. Closing the lid with the vents open over the indirect-heat zone pulls hot air over to the cooler side for a convection oven-like effect.

Zoning in Action: Ribs

To add context to the zoning concept, we'll demonstrate with ribs. This slab can be cooked slow and low over the indirect heat zone. This gives the ribs a chance to cook through and become tender. If the ribs were grilled over high heat only, the outside would burn before the lower, ambient heat had a chance to work its gentle cooking and tenderizing magic.

Once the ribs are fully cooked and tender, they're transferred to the direct-heat zone. The hot fire will create the perfect exterior char.

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