grilling
05-23-2017

The 5 Grill Setups You Should Use This Summer

Whether you’re cooking with charcoal or gas, follow these tips for the best flame.

America's Test Kitchen

We did a lot of grilling while developing recipes and how-tos for Master of the Grill. And as a result, we made a lot of discoveries about the mechanics of grilling, specifically the mechanics of building the best fire for cooking (on both charcoal grills and gas grills). Two of the biggest mistakes outdoor grillers make occur 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 below. You might have to adapt these setups based on the shape, depth, and/or circumference of your grill.

Single-Level Fire

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 some vegetables.

  • For Charcoal Grills: Distribute the lit coals in an even layer across the bottom of the grill.
  • For Gas Grills: After preheating the grill, turn all the burners to the heat setting as directed in the recipe.

Two-Level Fire

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.

  • For Charcoal Grills: 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.
  • For Gas Grills: 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

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 that require long cooking times, 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.

  • For Charcoal Grills: Distribute the lit coals over half of the grill, piling them in an even layer. Leave the other half of the grill free of coals.
  • For Gas Grills: After preheating the grill, adjust the primary burner as directed in the recipe, and turn off the other burner(s).

Banked Fire

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.

  • For Charcoal Grills: Bank all the lit coals steeply against one side of the grill, leaving the rest of the grill free of coals.
  • For Gas Grills: After preheating the grill, adjust the primary burner as directed in the recipe, and turn off the other burner(s).

Double-Banked Fire

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 flare-ups. 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.

  • For Charcoal Grills: Divide the lit coals into two steeply banked piles on opposite sides of the grill, leaving the center free of coals.
  • For Gas Grills: 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).
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What do you prefer to grill with: gas or charcoal? Let us know in the comments!

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