This is mostly basic grilling technique, but I feel it’s still worth going over for the sake of clarity. It’s also a good way to get yourself set up if you’ve never grilled before. Here’s some Katy Perry to get you in the mood because she is always relevant to barbecue.
“Grilling.” Likely the first image that appears in your head is a 1950s-esque image of a apron-clad person cooking hot dogs or hamburgers over a grill with a multitude of flames flowing out. A cursory search on Google images would reinforce this — the food in nearly every picture is being cooked with the enthusiasm of a convicted arsonist. Though this technique works for certain cuts and types of meats, cooking on the grill requires a bit more finesse than one would expect.
Cooking meat involves a delicate dance between your preferred doneness of the inside and the tasty crispiness of the outside. Throw a steak on a roaring flame and the outside will resemble the charcoals you’re cooking on while leaving the inside raw; do the opposite and you’ll be missing out on the savory crust. Smoking meats, which usually takes several hours, also necessitates indirect heat.
The key is to balance the two, which is where a two-zone fire comes in handy. The concept is simple: when pre-heating your grill, push all of the charcoals to one side to set up a “cold” side and a “hot” side. As I’ve mentioned in my equipment page, I use a Slow n’ Sear for the same effect.
The cold side — which tends to vary between 225 and 350 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on how much air flow there is and the presence of a water pan — allows you to utilize your grill much like an oven. The hot side provides direct, high heat to sear the outside crust and makes it more manageable to control. When I cook, the coals on the side are about less than 1 inch from the grill grate.
Two-zone grilling is what allows us to reverse-sear, which is mostly how I cook anything nowadays.
So let’s take chicken wings for example. Chicken, as compared to other cuts of meat, is relatively lean; the moisture that is stored in fat gives more leeway in preventing things from burning. So to get crispy skin and a safe internal temperature, I usually cook chicken wings on the indirect heat of a two-zone fire up to about 10 degrees below FDA-safe temperature (165 degrees Fahrenheit). Once it reaches that level, I throw it on the direct side to sear the skin and cook it the remaining distance.
The main advantage of using the reverse-sear is that it is easier to catch the temperature that you’re looking for because it goes up more slowly. It is generally more precise and prevents overcooking — on both the inside and outside.
While there is generally a heavy emphasis on two-zone techniques, having a generic single-layer of direct heat can be useful sometimes.
Using a single chimney, spread out a single layer of heated coals across the bottom. I like to call this direct medium-heat, since it is somewhere in between the low and high areas of two-zone cooking.
I’ve found that this setup is most useful for making kabobs on Brazilian skewers, which is usually done with the lid off. The extra area afforded by the spread out coals allows you to cook more meat across at one time. I like to have the meat a bit higher than where grate level is (not that I really have a choice) to help dissipate some of the heat and avoid burning from flareups.
One caveat is that I’ve noticed that you can get by cooking on direct heat on gas grills without ending up with unedible charred black stuff (I only cook on charcoal). This is mainly a product of propane versus charcoal, with the latter being able to reach higher temperatures.
Anyways, you can pretty much cook anything once you get these concepts down. Just make sure you use a thermometer.