Direct vs. Indirect and the COMBO Cooking Method

It’s a given, that the first thing you need to do [always] is purchase the best quality raw ingredients. That said, the secret to great grilling is a simple one: know which cooking method to use. Virtually all cooking on gas and/or charcoal grills can be divided into three cooking methods: direct, indirect or combo. As the names imply, the difference between the methods is determined by where the food is placed in relation to the fire. The DIRECT method cooks foods with the direct heat of the flame. INDIRECT cooking uses reflected heat to cook; foods are placed away from the source of the flame. COMBO cooking is simply a combination of the two methods.

The Direct Method:

The DIRECT Method is used primarily for searing foods and for cooking foods that take less than 20 minutes to cook, such as shrimp, steaks, hamburgers, chops and most vegetables. Food is placed directly above the heat source and must be turned once halfway through the cooking time to expose both sides of the food to the heat. The Direct method can be done on any grill but works best with the grill lid closed during cooking. Remember: the longer the lid is up, the longer it will take your food to cook.

 The Indirect Method:

This method is used for larger cuts of meat and other foods that require longer cooking times at lower temperatures such as whole turkey, brisket, chicken pieces, ribs and other roasts. Foods are cooked by reflected heat, as in a convection oven. This allows faster cooking and juicier meats without having to turn the food. This method can only be used on a grill that is covered. In the INDIRECT method, food is placed between the heat source – never directly above lit gas burners or charcoal. Remember, indirect cooking is a no-peek cooking method -- every time you lift the lid, heat escapes and can increase cooking time.

The secret to charcoal indirect cooking is to add briquettes to the fire every hour, in order to keep the fire burning and maintain an even cooking temperature. Charcoal briquettes can be added to the fire by dropping additional briquettes through the opening by the handles on each side of the cooking grate. Use this rule of thumb, put about 30 grey-ash covered coals on each side with a drip pan in between to catch fats and juices as the food cooks. Every hour add charcoal as needed to maintain the cooking temperature.

Tip: Light briquettes in a chimney starter set in a disposable aluminum pan 20 minutes before you need to add them. This way, the new briquettes are already at their prime (grey-ash) temperature.


This is literally a combination of the two cooking methods. It is used to sear foods over high heat before finishing the cooking process slowly by indirect heat. Place food directly over the heat source until well-seared, generally only a few minutes, and then move it to the area of the grill that is set up for indirect heat, generally the center of the cooking grate, and complete cooking. This method is perfect for chops, steaks, whole tenderloins and chicken pieces that benefit from a seared, caramelized exterior and a juicy, tender interior. In fact, I use the combo method for almost all of my protein/entrees and it is the secret to making grilled pizza!