How to setup your BBQ for Direct Cooking

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, burgers, sausages and chicken.

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.

The Full Grill Setup

The most traditional set up for direct cooking is simply to have the entire 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

Gas BBQ Setup with Safe Zone
Gas BBQ setup with safe zone
When 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. 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?

The closer your food is to the heat source, the faster it will cook. Having an area with no coals gives you complete control over how quickly your food cooks. Food that is cooking too quickly can be moved into the safe zone. The food will still continue to cook but at a slower rate.

This is a great setup for beginners to master direct cooking on their BBQ’s.

Tips for cooking over Direct Heat

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 Good 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!

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 the tip above). The main reason that most people feel they need to keep turning their food is due to flare ups from the fat dripping onto the coals which can sometimes get out of control. A momentary flare up will not burn your food however persistent flame will cause your food to burn. Keeping the lid on your BBQ will keep the flare ups under control.

The second benefit to not turning your food too often is to help retain the natural juices in your meat. Constantly flipping your food can squeeze the natural juices out. When cooking over a direct heat, try to turn your food no more than once or twice.

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.

Hopefully these simple tips will help you get to grips will cooking over a direct heat. With time you will gain the confidence leave your lid on and walk away, leaving your BBQ to do the work for you.

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