Direct, Indirect, Low and Slow – 3 setups to cook anything

So you’ve got yourself a BBQ…. what now? What are you gonna cook? What can you cook? Well the simple answer is anything! By learning the different ways to setup your BBQ, you can cook a huge variety of different food.

The three setups are direct, indirect and low and slow. All can be achieved on most BBQ’s and they will give you the versatility to create different heat zones, allowing you to cook any style of food.

In this page, we are going to look at these three setups in detail. I’ll talk you through how to set each of them up on different BBQ’s and give you some tips to master each of them.

You can click the links below to jump straight to a section

Direct Cooking | Cooking over the coals

Direct cooking is often known as grilling and it involves placing your food directly over the heat source. You can achieve different temperatures by controlling your heat source but generally, direct cooking is used to cook thinner cuts of meat such as steaks or burgers.

While direct cooking is possible with larger cuts of meat, there is a risk that the outside of the meat will be overcooked before the middle of the meat reaches a safe internal temperature and so it is easier to use the indirect method for these cuts.

Full Grill Setup

The most traditional set up for direct cooking is simply to have the BBQ setup for direct heat. If you are using a gas BBQ you will have all your burners on or on a charcoal BBQ, your charcoal will be spread evenly across the entire charcoal grate.

Setting your BBQ up this way means that anywhere you place food on the cooking grate it will receive direct heat from underneath.

This isn’t to say that the heat will be even across your entire cooking grate. Even with a gas BBQ, when the heat source is a little easier to control, you will still get hot and cold spots on the cooking grate. Typically, the outer edges of the cooking grate will be a little cooler than the centre.

The same can be said for charcoal BBQ’s. Even if you spend time spreading the charcoal evenly, there will still be some spots that are hotter. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but if you are aware of it, you can move your food around to account for this

The Safe Zone

When I’m cooking direct I rarely use the full grill setup. Instead I like to set up my BBQ so that 60% of the cooking grate has direct heat and the remaining 40% is left with no heat source under it. I call this part of the cooking grate the safe zone.

On my 3 burner gas BBQ, I cook with the left and middle burner on and the right burner off. On my Weber Kettle I will spread the charcoal over 60% of the charcoal grate.

You might be asking why you would only use a portion of your cooking grate rather than the entire area?

Let’s say you have a bunch of friends round and you’re making burgers for everyone, so you throw 10 burgers onto the BBQ in the area of direct heat. After a few minutes you flip them but you notice some have coloured up better than others, so you rotate them.

After a few more minutes, 3-4 of the burgers are almost ready but the rest still need another couple of minutes. With a full grill set up, you either lift the 3-4 that are ready off and let a couple of your friends start eating while the rest look on with envy or you leave them on the BBQ until the rest are ready meaning they will be overcooked.

With a safe zone setup, you can move the burgers that are almost ready over to it and, with the lid on the BBQ, they will continue to cook but slower than the burgers that are over the direct heat.

This is my preferred direct cooking setup and one I recommend all beginners try as they learn about the different hot spots of their BBQ.

Tips for cooking over Direct Heat

To finish up, I want to give you 3 tips for cooking over direct heat that have helped me

1. Keep the Lid Closed

Keeping the lid of your BBQ closed will not only help your food cook faster but it reduces flare ups. All BBQ’s are designed with vents to allow the optimal amount of air to flow through them with the lid closed. Fat dripping from your meat onto the coals or burners will result in a flame. If you have the lid open, you are feeding those flames with an abundance of oxygen and that never ends well!

When I was a kid, we used to have big family parties and all my aunts and uncles would come over. My uncles would bring their BBQ’s and along with my dad, they would cook for everyone. 

Some of my earliest memories are of my dad and my two uncles standing around 3 Weber kettles with bottles of water to squirt the flames as they flared up. George Stephens, inventor of the Weber Kettle, would have been furious as this is the very reason he invented a BBQ with a lid on it! 

2. Don’t turn your food too often

I sometimes think this is a manly thing. We love nothing more than to stand around the BBQ, tongs in hand just waiting to turn something or move it around the grill. It gives us a sense of purpose but we’re really doing more harm than good.

For one, if we’re constantly turning the food it means the lid is open (see tip one) but the second problem is that each time you move your food around the grill you are losing the juices that make meat moist and tasty. I’m sure you have been to a BBQ before where a burger gets turned 10 or 12 times before it is finally lifted off and served. Each time that burger is turned, the juice that was sitting on top of it rolls of and a little flare up happens. That’s your flavour going up in smoke! In reality, something like a burger or a steak only needs to be turned once.

So here’s my suggestion. Put your burger on the BBQ and close the lid. Put the tongs down and go back into the house. Resist the urge to go back outside, your burgers will be fine. After 3-4 minutes, go back outside and flip the burgers. Move them around the grill a little if necessary to account for hot spots but once they have all been turned, put the lid back on and go back inside.

After another 3-4 minutes have passed you can check to see if they are ready. They may need a little longer but if they do, put the lid back on and leave them alone.

I think you get what I’m trying to say. It can make the difference between juicy burgers or dry burgers. It can also turn a 20 minute burger flipping session into a 10 minute cook.

3. Keep your temperature under control

When cooking at a very high temperature using the direct method, things can become a little frantic if you have a full grate of meat to deal with. I’ve found that dialling the temperature back a little makes everything easier to manage. If you put the first two tips into practice then a lower temperature will not affect your cook time. It simply allows your food to cook in a more controlled way.

My tendency when I was learning to BBQ was to turn all the burners on my gas BBQ to 11 or to fill my chimney starter as high as I could. The temperature would be sitting around 230-240°C. Add into the equation that I didn’t know anything about safe zones at the beginning and you can imagine a grill full of burgers and sausages got a little hard to handle!

Now I prefer to grill at around 200°C which is still a high temperature but more manageable. Cooking ‘hot and fast’ doesn’t always have to mean as hot and as fast as possible.

Watch my video on how to setup your BBQ for direct cooking

I put together a video on my YouTube channel as part of my BBQ Know How series explaining how to setup your BBQ for direct cooking, including how to create a safe zone

Indirect Cooking | Opposite the coals

Indirect cooking is where things really start to get interesting. Unlike direct cooking, you do not cook your food over the heat source. Instead your food is placed opposite the heat source and with the lid down, it will cook in the ambient heat within your BBQ.

The main requirement for this style of cooking is a BBQ that will allow you to close the lid. If your BBQ doesn’t have a lid, or the capability to close the lid during cooking, then you will not be able to build up that ambient temperature required to cook your food.

How to setup for Indirect cooking

You can cook using the indirect method on both gas and charcoal BBQ’s and most of the setups are the same with charcoal having a few extra. Each one of the methods below has its own advantages and disadvantages and which one you use will depend on what you are cooking.

50/50 Method

One of the most common indirect cooking methods is the 50/50 Method. On your charcoal BBQ, you would cover half of your charcoal grate with coals then place your food on the cooking grate above the area without coals. With the lid on, the ambient temperature will rise and cook your food in a similar way to your oven, but much tastier!

This would also be your method of choice for cooking indirect on a 2 burner gas BBQ. You would light the left hand burner and place your food on the right hand side of the cooking grate.

The only disadvantage to this setup is that the heat source is only coming from one side of the meat. If you are roasting a chicken for example, you would need to turn it halfway through to help it cook evenly.

This is a two zone cooking setup so you have an area of direct and indirect heat making it great for searing a large piece of meat then moving it to the indirect side to finish cooking.

50/50 Split Method

Similar to the first method, you will have half your charcoal grate with no charcoal but this time, instead of placing all your coals to one side of the charcoal grate, you split them to the left and right leaving an area of indirect heat in the centre of the cooking grate where you place your food.

On a 3 burner gas BBQ you would light the left and right burners, leaving the middle one off, and place your food directly over the middle burner.

You will not have to rotate your food using this method as the heat source is coming from either side of the meat, helping it cook more evenly.

Whilst it is not essential, using charcoal baskets or charcoal rails to hold the coals in place will stop them from falling into the indirect area.

Once again, you will have an area of direct heat for searing.

Ring of Fire

This method is solely for charcoal BBQ’s, unless you fancy bending your burners into shape, and it involves placing your coals around the entire outside edge of the charcoal grate leaving the middle empty.

Your food would then be placed in the centre of the cooking grate giving you an even heat distribution around the entire BBQ. This method is great for roasting large, single cuts of meat such as a whole Chicken or Beef roast.

It isn’t an effect two zone cooking method as your area of direct heat around the outside of the BBQ is quite small so if you are planning to sear your meat before or after roasting, one of the other methods might work best.

Bullseye Method

The bullseye method is the mirror opposite to the ring of fire, with your charcoal placed in the centre of the charcoal grate leaving the outer ring empty. This means your area of indirect heat is around the outer edges of the cooking grate.

This cooking method is better suited to lots of smaller cuts of meat and is traditionally used for things like Chicken wings. With the coals all in the middle of the grill, you have an area where you can sear over direct heat then move your food to the outside to cook indirect.

Using something like charcoal baskets or charcoal rails to hold your fuel in place makers it easier to avoid the charcoal falling to the outer edges and you can keep the charcoal concentrated in the centre of the grill.

Watch my video on setting up your BBQ for Indirect Cooking

In another episode of my BBQ know how series, I talk through all the setups above for indirect cooking on different BBQ’s. If you find the video useful, I’d love you to Subscribe to my channel here

In another episode of my BBQ know how series, I talk through all the setups above for indirect cooking on different BBQ’s. If you find the video useful, I’d love you to Subscribe to my channel here

Low and Slow | from tough cut to tasty and tender

Low and slow cooking is using the indirect cooking method to cook your food, the only difference being that your BBQ temperature is much lower, so you cook your food at a slower rate, hence the name low and slow.

This method of cooking is traditionally used for tougher cuts of meat that have a higher fat or connective tissue content. Cooking a cut of meat such as a brisket or pork shoulder at a high temperature will cause those fats and tissues to tense up making the meat tough.

By reducing the cooking temperature and bringing the internal temperature of the meat up slowly, the fats and tissues will start to break down slowly and absorb into the meat. This packs your meat full of flavour and makes it juicy and tender.

Many of the indirect cooking methods we discussed in the above can be used for low and slow however some require more management than others. The 50/50 setup is one of the more popular methods for low and slow however you would start with fewer lit briquettes and add more as your temperature falls.

Can you cook low and slow on your gas BBQ

Absolutely! All the same principles apply when cooking low and slow on a gas BBQ and charcoal BBQ. You can keep the temperature down by only using one burner. On my 3 burner Weber, usually the first burner on high is enough to get a temperature of around 120°C. You would then place your meat as far away from that burner as possible and it will cook slowly.

The nice thing about cooking low and slow on a gas BBQ is that it is easy to maintain a constant temperature throughout your cook. A steady temperature is one of the keys to success with this style of cooking.

Setting up your Charcoal BBQ for Low and Slow

So let’s look at setting up your charcoal BBQ for low and slow cooking. Most BBQ’s are suitable for low and slow as long as they have a lid. The Weber Kettles are famous for their versatility but you can give it a go on pretty much any style of BBQ.

You should choose your fuel source wisely. Lumpwood charcoal burns hot and fast and will generally have a temperature drop off after 1 hour so most people will tend to use a briquette.

A briquette is a compacted lump of charcoal that burns for a longer period of time. By burning slowly, they maintain a steady temperature for at least 2-3 hours before you have to add more.

With this in mind, you could fuel your low and slow cooks this way. Start off with a small amount of briquettes to get up to your desired temperature. As the temperature starts to drop off, you can light some more in your chimney starter and add them to the BBQ to bring the temperature back up.
If you have a hinged cooking grate with a section you can lift to give you access to the coal, you can add the lit briquettes this way. If your cooking grate is solid, then simply lift it off, pour in your coals and place it back on as soon as possible.

While this method works OK, it requires a certain amount of babysitting as you have to anticipate when the temperature is going to fall so you can have some briquettes ready to add.

There are two other popular setups that people like to use that will extend your burn time for anything up to 10+ hours. Both of them work on the principle of adding lit briquettes and unlit briquettes to the BBQ.

The Minion Method

At the heart of it, the minion method is basically adding a small amount of lit briquettes on top of unlit briquettes. Over time the unlit briquettes will start to burn so as the original briquettes start to die out, the unlit ones will take their place.

It can be used on a regular charcoal BBQ or in a bullet style smoker but the setups for each are slightly different.

On a kettle BBQ, you can use the 50/50 setup and arrange your unlit briquettes on one side of your BBQ. Light a small amount of briquettes in your chimney starter and then tip them onto the unlit briquettes.

You can add the lit briquettes to one side of the unlit ones and allow the fire to spread across.

Alternatively, create a small gap in the centre of the unlit briquettes and allow the fire to spread out from that central point. Either way, this will extend your burn time.

On a bullet smoker, the setup is slightly different but the same rules apply. As your cooking grate is set much higher with a water pan between it and the fire, you can place the briquettes over the entire charcoal grate.

When using the minion method on my Weber Smokey Mountain, I create a ring of unlit briquettes and place a small amount of lit briquettes in the centre, allowing it to spread radially.

The Snake Method

The snake method involves creating a ring of unlit briquettes around the outer edge of the charcoal grate, with 2 briquettes on the bottom layer and 1 on the top. 

You add some lit briquettes to the start of the snake and it will slowly burn it’s way around the BBQ like a fuse.

This is an excellent method for maintaining a steady temperature for a long period of time and with some simple vent management, it will light at a consistent rate.

This is my favourite method for low and slow on a kettle BBQ as it has little to no maintenance and as long as you take some time arranging the briquettes at the beginning… it will look after itself.

Something else to take into consideration

The weather can have a dramatic effect on your burn time and temperature. On a windy day, your fuel can burn much faster than on a calm day or your minion method will light up too quickly. You can account for this by placing your BBQ in a sheltered spot and closing the vents a little.

On hot, sunny days you may not need as much fuel to get your desired temperature. I have seen the lid thermometer on my WSM at 55°C sitting unlit in my garden just from direct sunlight. On the other hand, if you have to tunnel through 3 feet of snow to get to your BBQ, you might want to add a few extra briquettes to help bump the temperature up.

A few tips to help you get started

Low and slow cooking opens up a world of possibilities for cooking on your BBQ but in the beginning you will have a few frustrating cooks. Hang in there! We have all had them and you will learn over time how to manage it and get great results.

Pulled pork is a great cook to practice with. The cook time isn’t too long and it is a little more forgiving if your temperature isn’t as constant as you would like.

Set a day aside when you have nothing else to do and there are no time pressures and fire up. If your cook takes longer than expected, that’s OK. Try not to put yourself in a situation where you have a bunch of friends coming over expecting to eat at a certain time, it will just stress you out! As Mr. Aaron Franklin says “Good BBQ just takes time!”

Keeping notes during your cooks can really help you improve each time you do it. It doesn’t have to be overly detailed, simply scribbling down grill temperatures and internal meat temperatures at different stages during the cook will help you anticipate when your temperature is likely to fall off or if your cooking temperature is too high.

Watch my video on how to setup your BBQ for Low and Slow Cooking

In this episode of BBQ Know How, I talk about the different ways to setup your BBQ for low and slow cooking.

So there you have it – the three main setups for your BBQ that will allow you to cook almost anything you can cook in your house. Using these different cooking styles has allowed me to move a lot of the things I would have traditionally cooked in the kitchen, out to the BBQ such as Christmas dinner or pretty much any roast dinner I have cooked for the last few year.

Each of them will take a little practice, but that is part of the fun. Find the setups that work best for you and you will quickly start to build a knowledge of what setups work well for different types of cooks.

Of course, if you have any questions, you can get in touch with me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram and I’d be happy to chat with you. Now that you undertand these different ways to cook, the next step is to learn how to control your temperature

Click here to read the visit the next resource page on temperature control