In the first article we looked at the differences between direct and indirect cooking. In this article I want to explain the different ways to set up your BBQ for direct cooking and give you a few great tips for success every time.
What is Direct Cooking?
Direct cooking is often known as grilling and it involve 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 as long as 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.
I really hope these tips help you improve your grilling as much as they helped me. Trust me, I learned these lessons the hard way but hopefully you can apply them to your next cook and I promise you will see results.
In the next article in this series we are going to look at indirect cooking and the different grill setups you can use.