The single most essential concept an outdoor cook needs to understand is the importance of temperature control and how to use a 2-zone setup.
Whether you are cooking on an El Cheapo Charcoal Grill from Wally World, a Super Sabre Jet Stainless Steel Gas Grill from Williams of Napa, or a Texas Tinkermann Iron Tube Competitor mounted on a trailer, most outdoor cooking goes best if you use a 2-zone setup. Even if you are only cooking hot dogs.
To cook delicious food, you need to control your cooking temperature because the compounds in foods react differently to different levels of heat. For example, meats are composed of protein, water, fat, collagen, and some sugars, and each component changes drastically at different temperatures. Fats render at one temp, water evaporates at another, collagens melt at another, sugar caramelizes at another, the Maillard reaction (a.k.a. browning of proteins) occurs at another, and carbonization (a.k.a. charring or burning) occurs at yet another temp.
To gain control of temp, a 2-zone setup is ideal because it gives you much better control over temperature and method of applying heat. In a 2-zone setup, you have one side of the grill that is hot and producing radiant direct heat, and the other side is producing no heat and food on that side cooks by indirect convection heat. We'll call one the direct zone and the other the indirect zone.
For a charcoal grill, just push the coals to one side to setup a 2-zone cooking system. For a gas grill, just turn off a burner or two or three and placing the food over the burners that are off to roast with indirect convection heat.
2 zones for temperature control
The most common mistake outdoor cooks make is using too much direct heat. That's how they burn things. That's how foods get tough and dry. If meat is exposed to very high heat for too long, the proteins get their undies in a bunch and shrink, squeezing out the liquids, and the result is tough dry meat.
Using a 2-zone setup allows you to control the temp applied to the food. You can sear the exterior of a thick steak over high heat in the direct zone to get great flavor from browning, and then move it to the indirect zone to prevent burning and finish cooking the interior at a more moderate temperature.
2 zones for different foods
A 2-zone setup is especially handy if you have more than one food cooking at once where the thickness and water content of the two is significantly different so they will cook at different rates. For example, you might put stuffed tomatoes or stuffed peppers in the indirect zone to roast gently for about 20 minutes, and then put steaks or chops on the direct zone to sear quickly.
An indirect zone is particularly helpful for preventing food from burning if it is very sweet or if there is sugar in the rub or sauce. Slices of pineapple are great on the grill, but can burn quicklt if put over direct heat.
2 zones for slow roasting
Roasts, like pork loin or beef roasts, or even whole chickens will burn badly if put over direct heat. They need to go in the indirect zone.
Add a water pan or two, especially if you are smoke roasting
Here's another useful technique: When you are cooking indirect with convection heat, you are roasting. If you add smoke to the atmosphere, you are smoke roasting. If you add a water pan under the meat you are adding moisture to the atmosphere and if the water pan is above the heat you are further protecting the meat from direct heat and the water absorbs heat helping to keep the temperature down. Smoke roasting, which is usually done at low temperatures for a long time can dry out the meat, so putting humidity into the atmosphere can help keep the meat moist. In addition, moisture mixes with the combustion gasses, especially on a gas grill, and creates desirable flavors.
Some smokers, like the Weber Smokey Mountain (right), come with a water pan. That's it just beneath the ham and above the charcoal. Leave it in and you are cooking indirect. Take it out and you are cooking direct. The water pan helps stabilize and lower oven temp and adds humidity to the oven. It can also catch drips for sauce. Here's an article on how to set up a WSM for moist smoke roasting. Click here for more on setting up a WSM.
On a charcoal grill, fill up a chimney, wait til the coals are white, dump the coals all on one side of the bottom rack, and put a water pan on the other. Put the top rack on, put the meat on the top rack above the water pan, and another water pan on the top rack above the coals. Follow the same concept on other charcoal grills. Click here another article on how to set up a charcoal grill for moist smoke roasting.
The metal insert on the right side of this Weber Kettle grill is called a Smokenator and it keeps the coals off to one side so, as in the photo, you can put your ribs on other side for low and slow indirect smoke roasting, and you can put more meat below on the bottom rack, or, as in this photo, a pan of beans under the ribs to catch the drippings. If you have a Weber Kettle, you need one of these handy attachments. Just click the link above.
The gas grill below is set up with a water pan under the meat for indirect cooking and to collect drippings. The pan is filled with wine, fruit, herbs, onions, and more goodies to make a flavorful stock for gravy. To the left is a small pan with wood chips for smoke. It is resting on a hot burner so the chips will smolder. Click here for more on how to make the ultimate smoked turkey, even on a gas grill. Click here for an article on how to set up a gas grill for moist smoke roasting.
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All text and photos except the WSM are Copyright (c) 2010 By Meathead, and all rights are reserved. For more of Meathead's writing, photos, and recipes, please visit his website AmazingRibs.com, friend him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.