How to Engineer Your Fire

Two of the biggest mistakes outdoor grillers make happen before the food even hits the grill: creating too much fire and setting up the fire incorrectly. The first problem is easy to avoid—add the amount of charcoal called for in recipes or, if cooking on a gas grill, adjust the burner temperatures as directed. The second problem is more complicated. Depending on the food being cooked, we use one of the five grill setups outlined here. You might have to adapt these setups based on the shape, depth, and/or circumference of your grill.

Single-Level Fire
Grilling 101

A single-level fire delivers a uniform level of heat across the entire cooking surface and is often used for small, quick-cooking pieces of food, such as sausages, some fish, and vegetables

On a charcoal grill: Distribute the lit coals in an even layer across the bottom of the grill.
On a gas grill: After preheating the grill, turn all the burners to the heat setting as directed in the recipe.

Two-Level Fire
Grilling 101

This setup creates two cooking zones: a hotter area for searing and a slightly cooler area to cook food more gently. It is often used for thick chops and bone-in chicken pieces.

On a charcoal grill: Evenly distribute two-thirds of the lit coals over half of the grill, then distribute the remainder of the coals in an even layer over the other half of the grill.
On a gas grill: After preheating the grill, leave the primary burner on high and turn the other(s) to medium. The primary burner is the one that must be left on; see your owner’s manual if in doubt.

Modified Two-Level (Half-Grill) Fire

Grilling 101

Like a two-level fire, this fire has two cooking zones. One side is intensely hot, and the other side is comparatively cool. It’s great for cooking fatty foods because the cooler zone provides a place to set food while flare-ups die down. For foods the require long cooking time, you can brown the food on the hotter side, then set it on the cooler side to finish with indirect heat. It’s also good for cooking chicken breasts over the cooler side gently, then giving them a quick sear on the hotter side.

On a charcoal grill: Distribute the lit coals over half of the grill, piling them in an even layer. Leave the other half of the grill free from coals.
On a gas grill: After preheating the grill, adjust the primary burner as directed in the recipe, and turn off the other burner(s).

Banked Fire
Grilling 101

A banked fire is similar to a modified two-level fire, except the heat is concentrated in an even smaller part of the grill. The large coal- or flame-free area can accommodate a pan of water and large cuts of meat. This setup is often used for large foods that require hours on the grill, such as brisket or pulled pork.

On a charcoal grill: Bank all the lit coals steeply against one side of the grill, leaving the rest of the grill free of coals.
On a gas grill: After preheating the grill, adjust the primary burner as directed in the recipe, and turn off the other burner(s).

Double-Banked FireGrilling 101

This fire sets up a cool area in the middle so that the food cooks evenly without having to rotate it. Since the flame-free area is narrow and the heat output is not steady over an extended time, this type of fire is good for relatively small, quick-cooking foods such as a whole chicken. We sometimes place a disposable pan in the empty center area to catch drips and prevent flareups. The pan also keeps the coals banked against the sides. This type of fire can be created in a gas grill only if the grill has at least three burners—and burners that ideally run from front to back on the grill.

On a charcoal grill: Divide the lit coals into two steeply baked piles on opposite sides of the grill, leaving the center free of coals.
On a gas grill: After preheating the grill, leave the primary burner and burner at the opposite end of the grill on medium-high, medium, or as directed in the recipe, and turn off the center burner(s).