100 Techniques

Technique #28: Master the Two-Level Grill Fire

Learn these techniques and watch your grilling options blossom.

Published Oct. 4, 2023.

This is Technique #28 from our 100 Techniques Every Home Cook Can Master.

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When conversation turns to grilling, a lot of it seems to be about charcoal versus gas. Although it’s often overlooked, another decision that’s even more important—when it comes to everyday grilling, at least—is what level of fire to use and how to build that fire correctly.

The most basic of grill fires is a uniform single-level fire, in which coals are evenly spread across the bottom of the grill or all gas burners are turned to the same heat setting. A single-level fire is all you really need when grilling small pieces of food like sausages, hot dogs, burgers, or shrimp skewers.

But if you want to expand your grilling options, you need to master the two-level fire.

What is a Two-Level Fire?

In a two-level grill fire, there are two cooking zones: a hotter area for searing and a slightly cooler area for more gentle cooking. This is achieved in a charcoal grill by evenly spreading two-thirds of the lit coals over half the grill and the remaining one-third over the other half. 

In a gas grill, the primary burner is left on high and the other burners are set to medium. This type of fire is often used for thicker foods, like bone-in or boneless chicken breasts or thick chops, that you want to sear on the outside (for which you’d use the hotter side) and then finish cooking gently all the way through (for which you’d use the cooler side).

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What is a Half-Grill Fire?

A variation on the two-level fire is the modified two-level fire, or what we call the half-grill fire. It operates on the same two-zone principle, but the temperature differences are more dramatic. 

One cooking zone is intensely hot (more so than in a regular two-level fire), while the other zone is comparatively cool. In a charcoal grill, all the lit coals are distributed over half the grill, and the other half is left free of coals. 

In a gas grill, the primary burner is left on (or multiple burners may be left on) and the other burners are turned off. The heat output from this fire setup is hotter than it is from a regular two-level fire. 

This is great for comparatively fattier foods, such as ribs or steaks, that you want to cook over concentrated high heat to char and develop an outer crust (it also gives you a place to move the food when flare-ups occur).

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Step By Step: How to Make a Two-Level and Half-Grill Fire on a Charcoal Grill

Ready to give it a shot? Here’s how to easily set it up on a charcoal grill.

Step 1: Light Your Coals

Light coals in chimney starter.

Step 2: For a Two-Level Fire, Divide Coals Into Thirds

For two-level fire, spread two-thirds of lit coals over half of grill and remaining one-third of coals over other half of grill. Heat grill until hot, about 5 minutes.

Step 3: For a Half-Grill Fire, Divide Coals in Half

For half-grill fire, spread all coals over half of grill and leave remaining half of grill coal-free. Heat grill until hot, about 5 minutes.

Step By Step: How to Make a Two-Level and Half-Grill Fire on a Gas Grill

Own a gas grill? We’ve got you covered, too. Here’s how to set it up.

Step 1: Turn All Burners to High and Cover

Turn all burners to high, cover, and heat grill until hot, about 15 minutes.

Step 2: For a Two-Level Fire, Turn Down Other Burners

For two-level fire, leave primary burner on high and turn other burner(s) to medium-high.

Step 3: For a Half-Grill Fire, Turn Off Other Burners

For half-grill fire, leave primary burner on high and turn off other burners.

Watch Cook's Illustrated's Lan Lam demonstrate how to make Tacos al Carbón.

Recipes That Use This Technique

Now that you know how to set up this technique, try it in your backyard with one of these recipes


Grilled Glazed Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts

Without skin or bone, this lean cut cooks so quickly that it’s almost impossible to get it to taste both grilled and glazed. An unusual ingredient came to the rescue.
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Easy Grilled Steak Tacos (Tacos al Carbón)

Each component of our quick and easy steak tacos—tender, juicy meat; corn tortillas; and scallion-jalapeño salsa—is cooked on the grill to infuse it with smoky char.
Get the Recipe

Grilled Frozen Steaks

Got thick-cut steaks in the freezer? Just put your frozen steaks on the grill and you’re 40 minutes away from a great dinner.
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Grilled Boneless Short Ribs with Argentine-Style Pepper Sauce

We decided to bring this low-and-slow favorite into the fast lane.
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Sweet and Tangy Grilled Country-Style Pork Ribs

Though not true ribs, this lesser-known cut pairs the rich flavor of ribs with the quick cooking of a chop.
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