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Digital Thermometers:
Stop Guessing!

thermopop bbq thermometer

Gold BBQ AwardA good digital thermometer keeps me from serving dry overcooked food or dangerously undercooked food. You can get a professional grade, fast and precise splashproof thermometer like the Thermopop (above) for about $24. The Thermapen (below), the Ferrari of instant reads, is about $96. It's is the one you see all the TV chefs and all the top competition pitmasters using. Click here to read more about types of thermometer and our ratings and reviews.

bbq thermapen

GrillGrates Take You To
The Infrared Zone


Gold BBQ AwardGrillGrates(TM) amplify heat, prevent flareups, make flipping foods easier, produce great grill marks, keep small foods from committing suicide, kill hotspots, are easier to clean, flip over to make a fine griddle, smolder wood right below the meat, and can be easily removed and moved from one grill to another. Every gas grill and pellet smoker needs them.

Click here to read more about what makes these grates so special and how they compare to other cooking surfaces.

The Smokenator:
A Necessity For All Weber Kettles

smokenator bbq system

Gold BBQ Award If you have a Weber Kettle, you need the amazing Smokenator and Hovergrill. The Smokenator turns your grill into a first class smoker, and the Hovergrill can add capacity or be used to create steakhouse steaks.

Click here to read more.

The Pit Barrel Cooker

pit barrel c ooker bbqAbsolutely positively without a doubt the best bargain on a smoker in the world.

This baby will cook circles around the cheap offset sideways barrel smokers in the hardware stores because temperature control is so much easier (and that's because smoke and heat go up, not sideways).

Gold BBQ AwardBest of all, it is only $269 delivered to your door!

Click here to read our detailed review and the raves from people who own them.

scissor tongs

Best. Tongs. Ever.

Gold BBQ AwardMade of rugged 1/8" thick aluminum, 20" long, with four serious rivets, mine show zero signs of weakness after years of abuse. I use them on meats, hot charcoal, burning logs, and with the mechanical advantage that the scissor design creates, I can easily pick up a whole packer brisket. Click here to read more.

steak knives for bbq

The Best Steakhouse Knives

Gold BBQ AwardThe same knives used at Peter Luger, Smith & Wollensky, and Morton's. Machine washable, high-carbon stainless steel, hardwood handle. And now they have the imprimatur. Click for more info.

tailgater monthly

weber kettle setup

The Importance Of Temperature Control, The 2-Zone Setup, And Indirect Cooking

"A man in the house is worth two in the street." Mae West

By Meathead Goldwyn

The single most essential concept an outdoor cook needs to understand is the importance of temperature control and how to use a 2-zone setup.

Whether you are cooking on an El Cheapo Charcoal Grill from Wally World, a Super Stratoliner Stainless Steel Gas Grill from Williams of Napa, or a Texas Tinkermann Iron Tube Competitor mounted on a trailer, most outdoor cooking goes best if you use a 2-zone setup. Even if you are only cooking hot dogs.

To cook delicious food, you need to control your cooking temperature because the compounds in foods react differently to different levels of heat. For example, meats are composed of protein, water, fat, collagen, and some sugars, and each component changes drastically at different temperatures. Fats render at one temp, water evaporates at another, collagens melt at another, sugar caramelizes at another, the Maillard reaction (a.k.a. browning) occurs at another, and carbonization (a.k.a. charring or burning) occurs at yet another temp.

A 2-zone setup is ideal because it gives you much better control over temperature. In a 2-zone setup, you have one side of the grill that is hot and producing direct radiant heat, and the other side is producing no heat and food on that side cooks by indirect convection heat. We'll call one the direct zone and the other the indirect zone.

2-zone gas setup

2 zones for temperature control

The most common mistake we make is using too much direct heat. That's how we make hockey pucks. If meat is exposed to very high heat for too long the proteins get their undies in a bunch and shrink, squeezing out the liquids, and the result is tough dry meat.

Using a 2-zone setup allows us to control the temp applied to the food. We can gently heat a turkey in the indirect zone, get it cooked to juicy, tender, smoky perfection, and be the heroes of Thanksgiving. Using a 2-zone setup we can slowly gently bring a big prime rib to bumper to bumper medium rare with no gray meat, and a perfect crunchy crust, and be the heroes of New Year's Eve.

We can start chickens over the indirect zone at a low temp and cook them until they are almost done. Then move them over the direct zone to crisp the skin and finish cooking. We can cook the most tender ribs with a special secret sweet dry rub and never burn a grain of sugar, and then move it over the direct zone to sizzle on the sauce and caramelize it to finger licking sticky goodness. We can even make fluffy baked potatoes with crackling skin completely free of burn marks.

2 zones for different foods

A 2-zone setup is especially handy if you have more than one food cooking at once where the thickness and water content of the two is significantly different so they will cook at different rates. For example, you might put lobster in the indirect zone to roast gently for about 20 minutes, and then put asparagus on the direct zone to sear quickly.

An indirect zone is particularly helpful for preventing food from burning if it is very sweet or if there is sugar in the rub or sauce. Slices of pineapple are great on the grill, but can burn quickly if put over direct heat. Start them in the indirect zone, then move them to the high heat to brown.

2 zones for slow roasting

Roasts, like pork loin or beef roasts, or even whole chickens will burn badly before they are cooked through if put over direct heat. They need to go in the indirect zone.

How to do it

Every grill is different, but try to get your indirect zone down into the 225°F range. That's a magic number at which a lot of foods cook best. On a charcoal grill you push the coals to one side. On a gas grill you turn off all the burners except one or two. You will need to fiddle with your system. You may find that you can hit the 225°F mark with a three burner gas grill by turning one burner on medium and the other two off. Or maybe it needs to be on low. But then you have no hot zone. No problem. When it is time to move the the food to the hot zone, you can put it on a platter and then crank the hot side. When it maxes, put the food back on. You need to get to know your instrument and master the concept.

A good way to do this is do some dry runs with a good thermometer and without food. You cannot trust your grills thermometer. You absolutely must get a good digital thermometer for your grill. Please read my buyer's guide to thermometers. You should also read my articles on the thermodynamics of cooking and meat science.

Add a water pan or two, especially if you are smoking

If you add a water pan under the meat you are adding moisture to the atmosphere and if the water pan is above the heat source you are further protecting the meat from direct heat -- the water absorbs heat helping to keep the temperature down. Smoking, which is usually done at low temperatures for a long time can dry out the meat, so putting humidity into the atmosphere can help keep the meat moist. In addition, moisture mixes with the combustion gases, even on a gas grill, and creates desirable flavors. Some smokers, like the Weber Smokey Mountain, come with a water pan. That's it in the picture below on the right just beneath the ham and above the charcoal.

All you need in the water pan is water. Don't waste money on wine, juices, beer, whater. They will not flavor your food. Click here for more on the subject of what to put in the water pan. Here are some ways to set up for indirect cooking with a water pan.

indirect grilling

On a charcoal grill, fill up a chimney, wait til the coals are white, dump the coals all on one side of the bottom rack, and put a water pan on the other.

Put the top rack on, put the meat on the top rack above the water pan, and another water pan on the top rack above the coals.

Here's another article on how to set up a charcoal grill for moist smoke roasting. Follow the same concept on other charcoal grills.


The metal insert on the right side of this Weber Kettle grill is called a Smokenator and it keeps the coals off to one side so, as in the photo, you can put your food on other side for low and slow indirect smoke roasting, and you can put more meat below on the bottom rack, or, as in this photo, a pan of beans under the ribs to catch the drippings. If you have a Weber Kettle, you need one of these handy attachments. Click the link above for more about setting up a Smokenator.

weber smokey mountain barbecue

The very popular and inexpensive Weber Smokey Mountain (WSM) and other "bullet" shaped smokers have a water pan between the coals and the food. Leave it in and you are cooking indirect. Take it out and you are cooking direct.

The water pan helps stabilize and lower oven temp and adds humidity to the oven. It can also catch drips for sauce. Here's an article on how to set up a WSM for moist smoke roasting.

smoked turkey barbecue setupThe gas grill at right is set up with a water pan under the meat for indirect cooking and to collect drippings. The pan is filled with wine, fruit, herbs, onions, and more goodies to make a flavorful stock for gravy (they do not flavor the food above in any way).

To the left is a small pan with wood chips for smoke. It is resting on a hot burner so the chips will smolder. Click here for more on how to make the ultimate smoked turkey, even on a gas grill. Here's an article on how to set up a gas grill for moist smoke roasting.

This page was revised 3/11/2013

Please read this before posting a comment or question

Please use the table of contents or the search box at the top of every page before you ask for help. Then please post your question on the appropriate page. Please tell us everything we need to know to answer your question such as the type of cooker and thermometer you are using. Dial thermometers are often off by as much as 50°F so if you are not using a good digital thermometer we can't help you. Please read this article about thermometers.

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About this website. is all about the science of barbecue, grilling, and outdoor cooking, with great BBQ recipes, tips on technique, and unbiased equipment reviews. Learn how to set up your grills and smokers properly, the thermodynamics of what happens when heat hits meat, as well as hundreds of excellent tested recipes including all the classics: Baby back ribs, spareribs, pulled pork, beef brisket, burgers, chicken, smoked turkey, lamb, steaks, barbecue sauces, rubs, and side dishes, with the world's best buying guide to barbecue smokers, grills, and accessories, edited by Meathead.

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