Barbecue Cooking Tips – Indirect Heat Grilling For Perfectly Done Outdoor Roasts

The spring and summer months are a great time to pull the old grill out of the garage, dust it off and start planning some delicious barbecue dishes.

Most of us know how to make basic grilled foods like burgers, hot dogs, steaks and sausages. These are generally cooked by the most basic form of grill cooking, direct heat cooking. Direct heat grilling means that the food is directly over your heat source (hot coals or gas burners) and cooks from this direct heat. Direct heat is perfect for smaller food items that you want to quickly sear the outside, producing that beautiful browned caramelization on the surface, while sealing in the juicy freshness of the inside. It is the ideal cooking style for steak which is nice and browned on the outside yet pink and juicy on the inside.

However, what many grilling neophytes don’t know is that direct heat is not the only way to cook on a barbecue! Another important style of cooking is indirect heat grilling. Indirect heat relies on a heat source which is not directly next to or beneath the grilling food, but is rather separated by some distance. With the lid closed on your barbecue, this gentler form of heat cooks the food by convection of ambient heat in the hot air and smoke within your grill, rather than by direct radiant heat from the coals. This is similar to the way food cooks in your oven when roasting, except without the wood smoke!

So why should you learn how to cook with indirect heat? What is it good for? Well, if you tried to grill a whole chicken with direct heat over very hot coals, the surface skin and fat would be burnt to a crispy, black char long before the interior was fully cooked. Also, by the time the middle was cooked, the flesh would be dried out. You would loose the surface flavors and juicy interior of a well roasted chicken. So the solution? You guessed it, indirect heat. Indirect heat allows your larger cuts of meat to cook slowly, developing the outer brown color more slowly while allowing the interior to cook to perfect doneness. A perfect rack of ribs requires the meat to cook slowly until the meat is tender and almost falling off the bone. A chicken should cook completely while the exterior does not char. All this and more can be accomplished with indirect heat.

So how do you do it? Lets find out!

  1. For starters, you will need a couple of things to help make your indirect grilling perfect (you can do without them, but they are helpful:
    • A shallow metal pan or dish half-filled with tap water
    • A meat thermometer
    • A grill thermometer (if your grill doesn’t have one built-in)
  2. Start your charcoal or gas burners as you normally would.
  3. If you are using charcoal, when your charcoal is all hot and ready (when the briquets have a layer of grey ash over them), separate the coals onto the two sides of your grill. You will have two piles of coals on either side of your grill with a large empty space in the middle. Weber and other companies make indirect grilling coal holders just for this purpose which are basically metal baskets that hold charcoal on either side of your grill. However, you can do without any special equipment. If you are using a gas grill, you can use indirect heat by turning off one of your burners to have a less hot spot on your grill. Ideally, if you have three burners, you would turn off the middle one, leaving the two side ones on. If you only have two burners, turn on on and leave the other off.
  4. Place the metal pan with water in it in the middle of your charcoal grate, between the two piles of charcoal (on on the turned off burner if you have a gas grill). This will catch drippings from your roasting meat and will also help keep the interior of your grill humidified so that your meat doesn’t dry out.
  5. Put your grill grate on.
  6. Close the lid of your grill and let the heat accumulate. Use your grill thermometer to check the temperature inside your close grill to make sure there is adequate heat. If it is not warming up, either add more coals and wait for them to start burning or turn up your burners if you have a gas grill
  7. Open your grill and place your prepared food (whole chicken, ribs, roast, etc.) in the “indirect heat zone” of your grill. This is the open area, under which there are no coals or gas burners burning.
  8. Close the lid and let your food roast.
  9. Check back periodically and flip your meat over or rotate it occasionally. Also check that there is still adequate heat in your barbecue. Baste your meat regularly when the surface dries out to keep it moist, about every 15 minutes. If the surface of your meat looks like it is browning too fast in any one area, be sure to turn or flip it so that all sides get equal heat and exposure. If it still seems like the surface is cooking too fast, your heat may be too high or the roast is getting too much direct heat from one of the heat sources. Attempt to move the charcoal away further or move the roast to a more isolated spot on the grill. Always remember to keep the cover of your grill closed between checking on your food. You want to keep all that good heat inside to help roast your meat!
  10. When your roast is looking like it may be done, begin testing for doneness. The most accurate way to do this is with a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat (on a chicken this is the deepest part of the inner thigh meat or deep in the breast). Do not put your thermometer up against bone as this can artificially increase the temperature reading. Most thermometers have readings for doneness for beef, pork, and chicken. If yours does not, general rules to go by for chicken is 165 degrees, pork 160 – 170 degrees, beef/lamb/veal 145 for medium rare, 160 for medium and 170 for well done. If you do not have a meat thermometer, you can prick the meat deeply with a skewer or fork. If pork and chicken are done adequately, the fluid that runs out should be clear, not red or pink. If all else fails, cut a small slice into a deep part of meat to check the color.
  11. When your food has reached its ideal level of interior doneness, remove from the grill and place on a large platter or plate.
  12. Cover with tin foil and let your roast sit for 5 to 10 minutes at least so that the interior juices and heat redistributes.
  13. Carve and serve!

A few other tips to make your indirect heat grilled foods shine!

    • Marinating – Because grilling is a dry heat that can have the tendency to dry out meats that are cooked for a long time, marinating your food before cooking is a great way to both add savory flavors as well as increase the juiciness. There are many recipes for delicious marinades for poultry, pork and beef and even many bottled marinades available in supermarkets. Another option similar to marinating is brining which really seals in and concentrates flavors.
    • Basting – I strongly recommend basting your meat as it cooks over indirect heat. When the surface dries out, every 15 minutes or so during the cooking time, baste it generously with a basting brush. The basting mixture can be similar to the marinating mixture or alternatively it can introduce new flavors. For example, barbecue sauce is not good to marinate with, it will just burn on the meat if it cooks too long. However, introduced later in the cooking process to baste the meat a few times before it is done creates a great, savory coating of flavor. Other great options for marinating include lemon juice, olive oil, and red wine vinegar, either together or alone. Again, there are many recipes with recommendations for basting mixtures for your slow roasted grilled foods. For safety, if you baste with your marinade, remember that your marinade came in contact with your raw meat. Therefore, avoid adding this mixture in the last 15 to 20 minutes of cooking so you don’t introduce any uncooked meat to the surface of your roast! Its best to use a fresh basting mixture if possible.

Well that’s it! A quick and complete primer to indirect grilling. I think you will find that it brings your barbecue cooking to a whole new level, making your roasts more tender and juicier.