AmazingRibs.com is supported by our Pitmaster Club. Also, when you buy with links on our site we may earn a finder’s fee. Click to see how we test and review products.

2 Zone Grilling Setup: How Best To Control Temperatures On A Grill

Achieve cooking perfection on charcoal and gas grills with the 2 zone grilling setup.

The most essential concepts an outdoor cook needs to understand are the importance of temperature control, the differences between direct heat and indirect heat, and how to use a 2 zone grilling 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.

convection vs radiant heat in a charcoal grill

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.

On a grill, a 2 zone grilling 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. When you shop for a grill, you must get one that allows you to configure it in 2 zones.

2 zone grilling setup, a technique 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 grilling 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. Here you can see the cooks at the Weber Grill restaurant in Chicago using a large charcoal grill in 2 zones.

2 zone grilling setup, a technique for different foods

A 2 zone grilling 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 zone grilling setup, a technique 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.

2 zone grilling setup, a technique for holding

Even if your steaks are all cut to the same thickness, somehow one of them just wants to get outta there and cooks faster. With 2 zones you can move it from the direct zone to the indirect zone to hold without overcooking. This is especially useful when you have six steaks and on guest wants it rare, another well done, and the others in between. You can slide them to the safe zone at the appropriate time.

Think of your grill as an oven

I know you don’t think of your grill this way, but if it has a lid, it really is an oven. Since temperature control is critical to all cooking, the major differences between your outdoor and indoor ovens are crucial:

(1) The heat source in your indoor oven is probably under a metal plate so the food is not directly over the heat source. It is indirect.

(2) Controlling the temperature is not as easy outdoors as it is in your kitchen because your indoor oven has a thermostat that regulates the oven heat. The thermostat is often off (often by as much as 25°F), but at least it holds the temperature constant. Outdoors, at the moment, only pellet smokers have thermostats, and there is a battle with sun, wind, and rain, hopefully absent in your kitchen.

(3) Temperature control is especially hard outdoors because the thermometer on your grill is probably worthless, regardless of the price you paid for your fancy stainless steel grill. Most grills have cheap bi-metal thermometers and they can be off by as much as 50°F, especially because the probe is often nowhere near the meat.

How to control temperature on your grill

Every grill is different, but when using a 2 zone grilling setup 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 of the charcoal grate. 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.

Sometimes you will want to add a water pan or two, especially if you are smoking

charcoal grill set up for smoking using the 2-zone smoking method

If you add a water pan under the meat while using a 2 zone grilling setup, 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.

Just one thing: The pan can emit a little steam, but don’t let it boil. Don’t worry, it won’t boil if the air in the cooker is 225°F even though that is higher than the boiling point. Evaporation takes energy away from the water and that cools it too quickly so it can take many hours to hit 212°F if ever. Use a digital thermometer to make sure the air temp is at or near 225°F.

All you need in the water pan is water. Don’t waste money on wine, juices, beer, whatever. 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.

2-zone, indirect setup for BBQ ribs on a charcoal grill

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.

smokenator setup on a charcoal grill using the indirect method

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 smoker setup for indirect  cooking

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.

indirect setup for BBQ turkey on a gas grill using wood chips

The gas grill above 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.

For some foods you do not want a water pan. If you are cooking something that finishes quickly, like steaks or chicken parts, the pan has little or no impact, so you can skip it.

Seasoning and calibrating your grill or smoker with dry runs

The first thing to do after you assemble your new grill or smoker is to season it and calibrate it by doing a few dry runs without food. This will burn off any manufacturer’s grease, and give you a sense for how to set it up to hit the two important target temps that almost all my recipes use: 225°F and 325°F.

toasting bread on a new grill to calibrate it

Related articles

Published On: 8/21/2012 Last Modified: 9/30/2021

  • Meathead - Founder and publisher of AmazingRibs.com, Meathead is known as the site's Hedonism Evangelist and BBQ Whisperer. He is also the author of the New York Times Best Seller "Meathead, The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling", named one of the "100 Best Cookbooks of All Time" by Southern Living.


If you help us, we’ll pay you back bigtime with an ad-free experience and much more!

Millions come to AmazingRibs.com every month for quality tested recipes, tips on technique, science, mythbusting, product reviews, and inspiration. But it is expensive to run a website with more than 4,000 pages and we don’t have a big corporate partner like TV network or a magazine publisher to subsidize us.

Our most important source of sustenance is people who join our Pitmaster Club, but please don’t think of it as a donation. Members get 21 great benefits. We block all third-party ads, we give members free ebooks, magazines, interviews, webinars, more recipes, a monthly sweepstakes with prizes worth up to $2,000, discounts on products, and best of all a community of like-minded cooks free of flame wars. Click below to see all the benefits, take a free 30 day trial membership, and help keep this site alive.


Post comments and questions below

grouchy?

1) Please try the search box at the top of every page before you ask for help.

2) Try to post your question to the appropriate page.

3) Tell us everything we need to know to help such as the type of cooker and thermometer. Dial thermometers are often off by as much as 50°F so if you are not using a good digital thermometer we probably can’t help you with time and temp questions. Please read this article about thermometers.

4) If you are a member of the Pitmaster Club, your comments login is probably different.

5) Posts with links in them may not appear immediately.

Moderators

  Max

Click for comments...

Spotlight

These are not ads or paid placements. These are some of our favorite tools and toys.

These are products we have tested, won our top awards, and are highly recommend. Click here to read how we test, about our medals, and what they mean.

Use Our Links To Help Keep Us Alive

A big part of this site is our unbiased equipment and product reviews. We love playing with toys and we have no problem calling them the way we see them. Some companies pay a finder’s fee if a reader clicks a link on AmazingRibs.com and buys a product. It has zero impact on our reviews, zero impact on the price you pay, and the sites never tell us what you bought, but it has a major impact on our ability to keep this site alive! So before you buy, please click our links. Here’s a link that takes you to a page on Amazon that has some of our favorite tools and toys: https://tinyurl.com/amazingribs


Finally, A Great Portable Pellet Smoker


Green Mountain’s portable Davy Crockett Pellet Smoker is one mean tailgating and picnic machine. But it’s also gaining popularity with people who want to add a small, set it and forget it pellet smoker to their backyard arsenal. And with their WiFi capabilities you can control and monitor Davy Crocket from your smart phone or laptop.

Click here to read our detailed review and to order


Grilla Pellet Smoker proves good things come in small packages

We always liked Grilla. The small 31.5″ x 29.5″ footprint makes it ideal for use where BBQ space is limited, as on a condo patio.
Click here for our review on this unique smoker


The Pit Barrel Cooker May Be Too Easy


The PBC has a rabid cult following for good reason. It is absolutely positively without a doubt the best bargain on a smoker in the world. Period. This baby will cook circles around the cheap offset sideways barrel smokers because temperature control is so much easier.

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


GrillGrates Take Gas Grills To The Infrared Zone


GrillGrates(TM) amplify heat, prevent flareups, make flipping foods easier, kill hotspots, flip over to make a fine griddle, and can be easily moved from one grill to another. You can even throw wood chips, pellets, or sawdust between the rails and deliver a quick burst of smoke.

Click here for more about what makes these grates so special


Masterbuilt MPS 340/G ThermoTemp XL Propane Smoker


This is the first propane smoker with a thermostat, making this baby foolproof. Set ThermoTemp’s dial from 175° to 350°F and the thermostat inside will adjust the burner just like an indoor kitchen oven. All you need to do is add wood to the tray above the burner to start smokin’.

Click here to read our detailed review


Bring The Heat With Broil King Signet’s Dual Tube Burners

3 burner gas grill

The Broil King Signet 320 is a modestly priced, 3-burner gas grill that packs a lot of value and power under the hood. Broil King’s proprietary, dual-tube burners get hot fast and are able to achieve high, searing temps that rival most comparatively priced gas grills. The quality cast aluminum housing carries a Limited Lifetime Warranty.

Click here to read our complete review


Blackstone Rangetop Combo: Griddle And Deep Fryer In One


The flat top does the burgers and the fryer does the fries. Use the griddle for bacon, eggs, grilled cheese, and so much more. And why deep fry indoors when you can avoid the smell and mess by doing it outside!

Click here to read our detailed review and to order