Two Zone Grilling: What It Is and How to Set It Up

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Knowing how two zone grilling works is one of the foundational building blocks that any aspiring grill master should understand.

This method of cooking on the grill can come in handy in a bunch of different situations.  A two zone set up allows you to cook different foods at different temperatures, or even to convert your grill into a convection style cooker (or smoker).

On a more basic level, two temperature zones allow for you to have a safe, low temperature section of the grill to safely move food away from potential flare ups.

I didn’t realize just how often multiple temperature zones come in handy until after I learned how to do it.  It’s the type of knowledge that can truly unlock a world of possibilities for you on your grill – so you’re off to a great start by coming here to learn.

In this article, we’ve created a complete guide to two zone grilling.  We’ll go over what it is exactly, how to set it up on a gas or charcoal grill, and what the practical applications are.  By the end, you’ll be well on your way to more consistent, delicious grilled meals!

What is Two Zone Grilling?

At its core, two zone grilling is a very simple concept.  No matter which type of grill you have, the idea is to divide your cooking surface in half and apply a different level of heat to each half.  One side will be the high heat side, and the other side will be the low heat side.

The end result is that one side of your grill can cook food with direct heat with high temperatures – which is ideal for searing or cooking up a fast meal.  On the other side, your food can cook low and slow (or simply stay warm) via indirect heat.

The indirect side also serves as a nice, lower temperature area where you can place food if you are dealing with flare ups on the high heat side.

Direct Heat vs Indirect Heat

To help understand what two zone grilling is, it’s important to touch on the concepts of direct heat vs indirect heat.

Direct heat is the style of cooking that most people utilize when they fire up the grill and throw some burgers or steaks on the cooking grates.  With direct heat cooking, your food is placed directly over the top of your heat source, be it gas burners or lit charcoal.  The heat from the direct source quickly cooks your food – which isn’t a bad thing!  This method of cooking is ideal for smaller meats, or foods that are best served with a sear.

Indirect heat on the other hand is more akin to the convection style of cooking you’d utilize in a traditional oven.  For grilling and smoking, it’s the ideal method for cooking larger, tougher cuts of meat that need lots of time on low heat to break down and tenderize.

With indirect heat, your food is on the grill – however no fuel source is directly underneath the food.  Cooking with indirect heat also greatly reduces the risk of burning your food.

How to Set Up Two Zone Grilling

No matter which type of grill you have, electric, charcoal, or gas, you can set up two temperature zones on your cooking surface in no time!  Here is a step by step guide for how to do it on each type of grill.

Two Zone Charcoal Grill Set Up

  • Use a charcoal chimney starter to light your charcoal until it’s piping hot.
  • Pour all of the charcoals up against one side of your grill or charcoal basket.  For a “normal” set up you’d spread the hot coals evenly across the bottom of your grill, but for two zone cooking, you’ll want the coals all on one side.  The side with the hot charcoals is your high temperature direct heat side.
  • Keep the other half of your grill free of charcoal.  This is your indirect heat side where you can slow cook your food.
  • If you’re cooking steak, burgers, or other foods that spend less than 15 minutes on the grill, utilize the direct heat side for a sear.  After your sear is complete move your food to the indirect side to finish on low heat.
  • The low heat, indirect side can be utilized to cook foods that would normally go on a smoker, like ribs for example.  Depending on how low you can get your indirect temperature side, you can utilize your grill as a low and slow cooker.
  • Also use the low heat indirect side to keep your food warm before serving.

Two Zone Set Up for Gas and Electric Grills

  • Turn half of your burners or electric heating elements to high for the direct heat side.  Keep the other burners or heating elements on low, or even off, depending on which temperature you’re aiming for.
  • For 3 burner gas grills, turn one end knob to high heat and the middle knob to low for a two zone set up.  You can adjust from here as needed to reach your desired temperature.
  • Similar to charcoal grills, the high heat side is ideal for foods that cook quickly.  The low heat, indirect side is ideal for finishing off foods or keeping them warm.
  • You can actually convert your gas grill into a smoker with an indirect heat set up combined with a cold smoke generator or a pellet tube smoker.
  • If you’re smoking low and slow on a gas grill, place a pan with water underneath your food to catch drippings and keep the cooking environment nice and moist.

Benefits of Two Zone Grilling

Flexibility and Control

With a two zone set up, you are truly in the driver’s seat of your grill.  Here you’re truly able to accomplish whatever it is that you need to get done on your cooker.

Unless your friends are less picky than mine, I’m guessing you’ve been on grill duty trying to please everybody’s doneness preferences.  For a group of 4, it’s not uncommon for me to have somebody wanting medium rare steak, somebody else wanting medium, and another who prefers medium well.

Getting this done is near impossible without a two zone set up.  But if you’ve created a direct and indirect heat zone, you can easily plop all of your steaks onto the direct heat side to get the sear started.  From there, you move the medium rare steak to the indirect side first, followed by the medium steak a minute or so later – then finished by the medium well steak a few minutes after that.

You get the idea.  An indirect zone where your food can stay warm and tasty, and even rest a little bit while other food cooks, is incredibly handy.

The other thing to keep in mind is that most often, the cuts of meat you cook side by side aren’t going to be the exact same in size.  Whether it’s steak, burgers, chicken, or something else, odds are you’ll be happy with how one piece of meat looks finished before another one does.

When this happens, it’s ideal to have a “keep warm” side that you can move finished pieces of meat to while the others continue to cook.

Versatility

As I alluded to above, two zones gives you quite a bit of versatility when it comes to preparing food.

What I mean specifically here is that you can essentially convert your grill to a smoker with a two zone grilling set up, which unlocks a whole world of BBQ possibilities.

It’s a great way to get your feet wet if you’re interested in smoking meats.  Instead of putting a few hundred (or thousand!) bucks down for a smoker, you can get started with some easy stuff right there on your grill to see if you like it.

Flavor

On a similar note, different foods do better flavor wise at different temperatures.  Depending on which food you’re making, being able to manipulate your temperatures with two zones can unlock a new level of taste, texture, and tenderness in the end results of your food.

Different types of foods are best cooked at different specific temperatures, so mastering two zone cooking means you’ll be able to get the maximum flavor out of your food.

Consistency

Utilizing the indirect, low heat side in particular will make you a more consistent griller.  Your food will be tasting better more frequently because your margin for error is larger when you have a low heat side of the grill to lean on.

Safety

We’ve touched on this already, but a two zone set up is great for general safety while you’re grilling.  Even if you only utilize the high heat side of your grill during a particular cook, having a low temperature zone where you can move food during flare ups is invaluable.

Which Foods are Best for Direct and Indirect Heat?

To be honest, a ton of foods are suited for a little bit of both in the same cooking session.  There are benefits to both direct and indirect heat – direct heat is great for searing and creating a tasty outer crust and crispiness.  Indirect heat is ideal for bringing about tender results and maximum flavor.

Generally speaking though, the size of your cut of meat will largely dictate which style of cooking it’s best suited for.  Smaller cuts which are already tender by nature are great for high heat, direct cooking.  Larger, tougher cuts are better suited for low temperature, indirect cooking as the low and slow method breaks down and tenderizes your food.

Here’s a quick reference guide for which foods are best suited for which style of cooking.

  • Direct heat cooking (with indirect heat to keep warm):  Chicken breasts, chicken tenders, small steaks, burgers, fish, shrimp, pork chops, vegetables.
  • Brief direct heat (to sear) with more time on indirect heat: Ribs, whole chickens, whole game birds, pork shoulder, tenderloins, roasts, and meat with bones.

A Quick Note On Your Grill’s Temperature

Every grill is different, and it might take some experimenting to get your two zone settings down just right.  If your burners are particularly powerful, it might be enough to just keep one on medium and all others off to achieve your desired temperature.  Vice versa, you could have one side’s burners on high and the other side on low to get your two zone set up right.

You get the point – at the end of the day, grilling has a little bit of art and a little bit of science to it.  The big takeaway with two zone grilling is that it’s greatly beneficial to understand how it works to unlock the true potential of your grill.

One piece of essential equipment for two zone grilling is the probe meat thermometer, although I think grillers should utilize them regardless of which style they’re cooking with.

A probe thermometer can help you read your ambient temperatures, i.e. exactly how hot your direct and indirect heat sides are.  And more importantly, the probe will accurately measure the doneness of your food based on internal temperature.

Final Thoughts On Two Zone Grilling

It’s time to start utilizing the two zone set up!  If you’ve never done it before, try it out first with something simple like burgers, steak, or chicken, and simply use the indirect heat side to keep the food warm after it’s done cooking.

Once you get the feel for your particular grill and how to set up two zone cooking best, you can move on to more involved foods – maybe a roast or a rack of ribs.  After you’ve mastered that, well, there’s not really anything you couldn’t get done on your grill.

Two zone grilling is a fundamental concept when it comes to grill mastery, and in particular, mastering your temperature control.  It’s a really simple concept that I wish more people utilized – because there really aren’t downsides!  You don’t need to buy any new equipment to get it done – no matter which type of grill you have, the two zone set up is easy to create.

Have any two zone set up tips that you want to share?  Or did you try it out for the first time?  How did it go?  We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!