This is Part 2 of a 5-part grilling guide by SE grilling correspondent Josh Bousel that should give you all the knowledge you need to tackle cookout season. —The Mgmt.
One of the glories of the grill is its cooking versatility. It can act as an oven and range at the same time—usually outperforming both—allowing just about any food to be successfully taken to the flames. Part of the magic is all in how the coals are arranged, but before diving into that, a quick primer on direct vs. indirect heat is required.
Direct vs. Indirect Heat
Direct and indirect are the two ways you can deliver heat to your food when grilling.
Direct heat is when the food is grilled directly over the coals. This delivers heat to the food in two different ways. The main contender is radiant heat, which will quickly cook the fire-exposed side of whatever you are grilling, creating a nice, crusty sear. The second is conductive heat, created from the super-heated grill grate, leaving those ubiquitous grill marks that proudly say to the world, "This food has been grilled!"
Alternatively, indirect heat is when food is placed away from the coals and, when the lid is closed, hits your food with some convection heat action, much like an oven. Unlike direct heat, which blasts your food with some extreme temperatures, indirect delivers a more gentle heat, and even though radiant and conductive heat are in play a little, it will not create the sear and grill marks to the extent direct-heat grilling does.
So having that down, it's time to put them into action with coal arrangements.
Just spread a chimney full of lit coals evenly over the charcoal grate and you're ready for some direct heat grilling. A full on direct fire gives the advantage of using the entire grilling area along with a fairly even temperature all over. Go ahead and sear off that mess of burgers, fish, sliced veggies, etc--you have the space and heat to accomplish it all.
Two-Zone Direct Fire
Sometimes you need a direct fire, but without the all of that searing heat--that's where the two-zone direct comes into play. Two levels of direct heat are created by piling up a large concentration of coals on one side, and a smaller scattering on the other side. For foods like steak that may require a nice sear and then some more gentle heat to finish it off, this would be a good choice. I often like this arrangement because it affords me the ability to move food between the two zones, ensuring that I get a nice crust, while having more control over cooking to perfect doneness.
Two-Zone Indirect Fire
When cooking hot and fast isn't what you need, you'll most likely be turning to a two-zone fire. The best way to get this going is to pile all of the coals on one side the grill, leaving the other side completely empty, creating both direct and indirect heat zones. A two-zone will be handling your roasts, whole birds, ribs...anything requiring longer cooking times with more gentle heat. Take a little caution though with this arrangement, since one side of what's cooking will ultimately be closer to the coals than the other, it's important to rotate the food. I like to rotate about 4 times during cooking at regular intervals based on how long the cook will last, and that will solve any problems of unevenness.
Three-Zone Split Fire
A lot like the two-zone fire, but instead of piling the coals on one side, two equal piles are made on either side of the charcoal grate. You'll lose a little indirect space in this arrangement, but for smaller items like chickens and pork loins, the food can be placed in the middle of the grill, giving it even heat on either side, eliminating the need for rotating during cooking. Since rotating requires opening the lid, and opening the lid lets heat escape, the three-zone split will also cook those smaller indirect items a bit faster.
The Ring of Fire
Putting the same principle into practice as the three-zone split, but with an even ring of coals encircling the sides of the charcoal grate. Taking longer to arrange than the three-zone and not seeing much benefit over it in my final product, I've only used this method once myself, but it totally has the coolest naming of all the coal arrangements, so it made it in.
Armed with this information, it's time to put it into practice. Since each grill is a little different, it's best to play around the different methods and placements of the coals to see what will work best. Put in some good time grill-side and it will all become second nature pretty quickly, leaving no food that you can't grill.