Thu Jun 12, 2014
I get so wrapped up in my endless supply of recipes ideas, that I forget that I still have a lot of ground to cover here on the basics of grilling. So over this summer, I'm tasking myself to put up some long overdue guides on fundamental grilling know-how to make sure we're all the best grillers we can be.
To start things off, a primer on coal arrangements is needed. In almost every post, I mention either direct or in-direct heat, and mastering this difference, and all the in-betweens, is essential to becoming an excellent griller.
Direct vs. Indirect Heat
Direct and indirect are merely two ways you deliver heat to the food you're grilling.
Direct heat is when the food is grilled directly over the coals. This delivers heat to in two different ways. The main contender is radiant heat, which will quickly cook the fire-exposed side of whatever you are grilling, creating a nice, crusty sear. The second is conductive heat, created from the super-heated grill grate, leaving those ubiquitous grill marks that proudly say to the world, "This food has been grilled!"
Alternatively, indirect heat is when food is placed away from the coals and, when the lid is closed, hits your food with some convection heat action, much like an oven. Unlike direct heat, which blasts your food with some extreme energy, indirect delivers a more gentle heat, and even though radiant and conductive heat are in play a little, it will not create the sear and grill marks to the extent direct-heat grilling does.
So having that down, it's time to put them into action with coal arrangements.
The most common coal arrangement by far is a direct fire. This is created when a batch of lit charcoal is spread evenly across the entire charcoal grate. The advantage here is grilling space—although there may be some temperature fluctuations, a full direct fire lets you make use of the entire cooking grate with a fairly even heat across the board. Go ahead and sear off that mess of burgers, fish, sliced veggies, etc—you have the space and heat to accomplish it all.
Two-Zone Direct Fire
Sometimes you need a direct fire, but without an even amount of scorching heat—that's where the two-zone direct comes into play. Two levels of direct heat are created by piling up a large concentration of coals on one side, and a smaller scattering on the other side. For foods like steak that may require a nice sear and then some more gentle heat to finish it off, this would be a decent choice. I often like this arrangement because it affords me the ability to move food between the two zones, ensuring that I get a nice crust, while having more control over cooking to perfect doneness.
Two-Zone Indirect Fire
When cooking hot and fast isn't what you need, you'll most likely be turning to a two-zone fire. To get this arrangement going, pile all of the coals on one side the grill, leaving the other side completely empty, creating both direct and indirect heat zones. A two-zone will be handling your roasts, whole birds, ribs...anything requiring longer cooking times with more gentle heat. This is actually my standard coal arrangement even when not roasting because it affords some searing heat, as well as space to either move food to in the event of flare-ups, or an area to just keep things warm. The one word of warning with this arrangement is that in indirect roasting situations, it's important to flip your meats for even cooking since one side will inevitably be closer to the coals than the other.
Three-Zone Split Fire
A better option for roasting, in my opinion, is the three-zone split. It's like the two-zone, but instead of piling the coals on one side, two equal piles are made on either side of the charcoal grate. With a lose of direct grilling space, this arrangement is really best for items done primarily over indirect heat like whole chickens, pork loins, and beef roasts. Having fire on both sides of the food gives a more even heat, which can lessen, or eliminate, the need for rotating during cooking. Since rotating requires opening the lid, and opening the lid lets heat escape, the three-zone split will also cook those indirect items a bit faster than a two-zone indirect.
The Ring of Fire
This arrangement put the same principle into practice as the three-zone split, but with an even ring of coals encircling the sides of the charcoal grate. Taking longer to arrange than the three-zone and not seeing much benefit over it in my final product, I've only used this method once myself, but it totally has the coolest naming of all the coal arrangements and has me singing Johnny Cash every time I hear its name, so it made it into the guide purely on those grounds.
Armed with this information, it's time to put it into practice. Since each grill is a little different, it's best to play around with the placement of the coals to see what will work best for you. Put in some good time grill-side and it will all become second nature pretty quickly, and once you have a handle on all the arrangements, you'll find that there are few recipes that can't be adapted to the grill.