Charcoal or gas, direct or indirect heat, a searing blast or a gentle glow: Grillers have a lot of choices when it comes to building a fire
Grilling Basics
Thomas J. Story


It’s your choice. Cooking with gas versus charcoal is a little like driving an automatic versus a stick, and both have their fans. Gas is easy—just turn it on and you’re good to go. With charcoal, you have to interact with the fire to keep the food cooking at the right temperature—adjusting the air flow, moving the coals, adding a bit more fuel, and doing a lot of impromptu shifting of the food to whichever spot is at the right heat. Some cooks feel that charcoal gives food a more “grilled” flavor, but gas aficionados tend to disagree.


When a recipe calls for direct heat, that means the fire is right beneath the food—ideal for grilling smaller items such as steaks, burgers, and kebabs, plus seafood and vegetables; they’ll be cooked all the way through by the time the outside is nicely browned.

Direct heat with gas. Open the lid, press the ignition, turn all burners to high, close the lid, and wait 10 minutes or so for the grill to get hot. Then adjust the burners for the temperature range you need. As you cook, keep the lid closed as much as possible.

Direct heat with charcoal:

  • Ignite the charcoal. Our favorite way to start a charcoal fire is the chimney starter: Stash a few pieces of crumpled newspaper or a few paraffin cubes in its base, then fill with enough charcoal to cover the cooking grate in a single layer—usually to the top of the chimney for a standard kettle grill (see “Charcoal Choices,” next page). Set the chimney on the firegrate (the bottom grate) and open the vents underneath the grill. Ignite the paper or cubes and let the fire burn until all the charcoal ignites, 15 to 20 minutes. You can buy a charcoal chimney starter at most hardware or barbecue stores.
  • Spread it out. Protecting your hands, dump the charcoal onto the firegrate and spread it out with tongs. Then put the cooking grate in place to preheat and let the coals burn to the heat specified in your recipe—usually 5 to 10 minutes for high, longer for medium to low (see “Taking Your Grill’s Temperature,” next page). If you can spare the grill space, leave about one-quarter of the firegrate clear of coals. This will give you a cool zone where you can temporarily move any foods that start to get too brown.
  • Add food. Arrange food on the cooking grate; grill with the lid on (and its vents open) for the most even cooking, or keep the lid off for easy access—if, say, you’re flipping a lot of burgers.
  • Adjust the vents. If you need to reduce the fire’s temperature, partially close vents in the lid and at firegrate level. (You reduce the oxygen that feeds the fire.)


In a recipe that calls for indirect heat, the fire burns to one side of the food or all around it rather than directly beneath. Large items such as turkey, long-cooked food like ribs, and flammable meats such as fat-rich duck or anything glazed in sweet barbecue sauce all benefit from the more gentle, radiant heat of this method.

Indirect heat with gas. Set a drip pan (see “The Drip Pan,” below) on one burner, either on the side of the grill or in the middle—it doesn’t really matter. With the grill lid open, ignite all the burners and turn them to high. Close the lid and wait 10 minutes or so for the grill to get hot. Turn off the burner with the drip pan on it and adjust the other burners to get the temperature you need. When the grill is at the right heat, set the food over the drip pan. As you cook, keep the lid closed.

Indirect heat with charcoal:

  • Ignite the charcoal. Following the steps under “Direct Heat Grilling” (above), light charcoal—usually about two-thirds of what you would need to cover the entire firegrate.
  • Bank it. When coals are thoroughly ignited, after 15 to 20 minutes, bank them on opposite sides of the firegrate (bottom grate). Set a drip pan in the empty area (see “The Drip Pan,” below) and set the cooking grate in place to preheat. Let the coals burn to the heat specified in your recipe, usually 5 to 10 minutes for high, longer for medium to low (see “Taking Your Grill’s Temperature,” next page).
  • Add food. The area over the section cleared of coals is the indirect-heat area; set food on the cooking grate above cleared section. Cover the grill, being sure all vents are open.
  • Maintain the heat. If you’re cooking longer than 30 minutes, add 10 to 12 briquets to the fire every 30 minutes, and leave the fire uncovered for a few minutes to help them light. At the same time, sweep ash from the firegrate by moving the outside lever; this keeps vents clear and air flowing.
  • Adjust the vents. If needed, reduce the fire’s temperature by partially closing vents in the lid and firegrate.

The drip pan. Whenever you grill indirectly, before beginning to cook, set a metal drip pan on the burner you intend to turn off (on a gas grill) or in the space cleared of coals (charcoal) underneath the cooking grate. The pan—ideally the same size as the food above it—helps prevent flare-ups by catching flammable falling bits. For extra-incendiary fatty foods (such as duck and some sausages), add water to the pan to fill it at least halfway. We also add water for long-cooking foods (ribs, turkey) to help keep them moist and to even out the temperature circulating inside the grill.


Some grills have built-in thermometers to guide you, but if not, use the following “hand test.” Measure the temperature often; on a charcoal grill, it can fluctuate quite a bit (your cue to move the food to a hotter or cooler spot, or to add coals). You may have to move food to several different spots before it has finished cooking.

  • Very high: 550° to 650°; you can hold your hand 5 in. above the cooking grate only 1 to 2 seconds.
  • High: 450° to 550°; you can hold your hand 5 in. above the cooking grate only 2 to 4 seconds.
  • Medium: 350° to 450°; you can hold your hand 5 in. above the cooking grate only 5 to 7 seconds.
  • Low: 250° to 350°; you can hold your hand 5 in. above the cooking grate only 8 to 10 seconds.


  • Briquets. Briquets are the most common fuel for charcoal grillers. These compressed pillows—made of crushed charcoal, a starch binder, and often coal products to make the heat last—provide reliable, even cooking. Kingsford, the major manufacturer, has in recent years reformulated its briquets, and now they light faster and burn hotter and longer than before. For long cooking, you will probably need to replenish the coals every 20 to 30 minutes. Hardwood, or natural, briquets (made purely from charcoal) contain no additives and burn out even faster. Avoid briquets with lighter fluid added; they’re bad for the environment and give food an off flavor.
  • Charcoal. Lump charcoal is the name for irregularly shaped pure hardwood chunks. It gives food a nice smokiness. Compared with standard Kingsford briquets, lump charcoal lights faster, gets hotter, and loses heat more quickly—so be generous when adding fuel if you’re cooking more than 30 minutes.
  • Some grillers like to use a mix of briquets and lump charcoal for high, consistent heat and good flavor.


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