Barbecue University™

The 5 Methods of Live-Fire Cooking

Loaded chimney starter

Grilling is simple, right? You cook the food directly over the fire. Well, that’s one method—by far the most popular. Actually, there are five major methods of live-fire cooking, plus other specialized methods. Each is well suited to particular foods and delivers different textures, flavors, and tastes. Master them and you can grill anything. Really.

The 5 Methods of Live-Fire Cooking

1. Direct Grilling

This is the simplest, most straightforward, and widely practiced method of grilling, and it’s what most people on Planet Barbecue use when they fire up the grill. In a nutshell, you cook small, tender, quick-cooking foods directly over a hot fire.

Pork Burger

Setup: Position the food on the grill grate or on skewers or in a grill basket directly over a hot fire.

Temperature: Most direct grilling is done over high or medium-high heat. Larger or fattier pieces of meat (chicken legs, for example) might be direct grilled over a medium re. As a general rule, the smaller or thinner the meat, the hotter the fire.

Grilling time: Brief. Generally 3 to 6 minutes per side, depending on the cut of meat.

Well suited to: Steaks, chops, burgers, shish kebabs, chicken breasts, fish steaks or fillets, small high-moisture-content vegetables such as peppers, mushrooms, corn, asparagus, and onions (quartered or sliced), fruit (small or sliced), bread and pizza, as well as cake and other desserts.


2. Indirect Grilling

Direct grilling works great for small, tender, quick-cooking foods, but what about larger cuts, like whole chickens or pork loins, or fatty cuts, like whole ducks or pork shoulders? Enter indirect grilling, in which you cook the food next to—not directly over—the fire, or between two fires. Indirect grilling is almost always done with the lid closed.

Ultimate Rib Rack



  • On a charcoal grill, rake the coals into 2 mounds at opposite sides of the grill and cook the food
    in the center. This works great for relatively slender foods, like pork loin, turkey breast, chicken pieces, sausages, whole and planked fish, and more.
  • Place an aluminum foil drip pan under the food to catch the dripping fat. This also helps you corral the fire.
  • To set up a 2-burner gas grill for indirect grilling, light one side and do the indirect grilling on the other side. On a 3-burner gas grill, light the outside or front and back burners and do the indirect grilling in the center. On a 4- to 6-burner gas grill, light the outside burners and do the indirect grilling in the center.
  • On a kamado-style cooker, build the re in the bottom. Install the heat diffuser under the grate
    to shield the food from direct exposure to the fire.
  • Pellet grills are, by their very design, set up for indirect grilling, although some can be converted to direct grilling.

Temperature: Generally done at medium or medium-high heat.

Grilling time: Longer than direct grilling. Thirty to 45 minutes for chicken pieces and sausages. One to 1 1/2 hours for whole chickens and pork loins. Two to 4 hours for pork shoulders and rib roasts.

Well suited to: Large or fatty foods, such as whole chickens, ducks, and turkeys; pork, lamb, and beef roasts; whole fish; large or dense vegetables, such as cabbages, beets, whole potatoes, and whole onions.


3. Smoking

Add hardwood (in the form of chunks, chips, or logs) to the fire and you’re smoking. Sometimes you smoke at medium or high heat—a process I call smoke-roasting. True barbecue (like Kansas City ribs or Texas brisket), as well as bacon, jerky, smoked salmon, and other fish, are smoked “low and slow” (at a low temperature for a long time). Slow smoking and dishes you use it for (like spareribs and brisket) are covered in depth in my book, Project Smoke.

There are many ways you can smoke on a grill—while you’re direct grilling, indirect grilling, spit-roasting, even while grilling on a plancha. Note: It’s difficult to smoke on a gas grill, and you’ll never get the pronounced smoke flavor you get with charcoal. That’s because gas grills have a wide gap between the lid and the cook chamber to release excess hot air, so the grill doesn’t overheat. Most of the smoke you generate exits through this gap before it has a chance to add much flavor.

Barbecued brisket in a smoker


  • When direct grilling on a charcoal grill: Add hardwood chunks or chips to the fire (you’ll need 2 chunks or 1 1/2 cups chips). You can also place a small log on the fire.
  • When indirect grilling and spit-roasting on a charcoal grill: Set up your grill for indirect grilling. Place 3/4 cup wood chips or 1 large or 2 small chunks of wood on each mound of coals.
  • When direct grilling on a gas grill: Many gas grills come with a smoker box (a slender metal drawer with a dedicated burner beneath it). To be honest, while some of these put out a fair amount of smoke, they rarely produce a significant smoke flavor (again, on account of the gap between the cook chamber and the lid). Instead, place wood chunks directly on the heat diffuser (or between the inverted V-shaped Flavorizer Bars of a Weber gas grill), under the grate and under the food, then grill the latter directly over the wood.
  • When indirect grilling on a gas grill: Set up your grill for indirect grilling. Place wood chips in the smoker box or on the heat diffuser as described above, or make a foil smoking pouch and place it over one or more burners under the grate. Again, you won’t get nearly as much of a smoke flavor as you would on a charcoal grill, but this is better than nothing.
  • How to smoke on a kamado-style cooker: Most manufacturers call for interspersing unlit charcoal with wood chunks or chips, then lighting the coals from the top down. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • How to smoke when plancha grilling: Build a charcoal fire in the grill (direct or indirect, depending on how hot you want the plancha). Add wood chips, chunks, or logs to the fire. Close the lid for part of the time while the food is on the plancha to trap the smoke.
  • How to smoke on a pellet grill: By their very construction and nature, pellet grills are smokers. (Many aren’t really even grills.) Follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Note: Pellet grills smoke best when run at lower temperatures.

Temperature: Smoke-roasting is generally done at a medium heat (325° to 350°F) or medium-high heat (375° to 400°F). True barbecue is smoked at a low to medium-low heat (225° to 275°F).

Grilling time: Similar to indirect grilling times: 30 to 40 minutes for chicken pieces and sausages. One to 1 1/2 hours for whole chickens and pork loins. Two to 4 hours for pork shoulders and rib roasts.
Well suited to: Chicken; turkey; pork loin and shoulder; rib roast and beef long ribs; whole fish; whole vegetables; tofu.


4. Spit-Roasting (Rotisserie Grilling)

Spit-roasting is one of the oldest methods of live-fire cooking. (There’s a terrific description of
an ancient Roman rotisserie hog in the Satyricon by Petronius.)

It combines the virtue of direct grilling (direct exposure to the fire) with that of indirect grilling (cooking next to, not directly over, the fire, so you don’t get flare-ups). The gentle rotation helps the food cook evenly. The result: large cuts of meat with a savory seared surface and an extraordinarily moist interior. Another advantage of this method: Spit-roasting bastes the meat both inside (with the internal meat juices) and outside (with the dripping fat).

Steven Raichlen with Rotisserie Prime Rib


  • For a kettle grill, set up the grill for indirect grilling. Place the rotisserie collar on the kettle and attach the motor to the mounting bracket. Install the spit, securing the end in the socket, and switch the motor on.
  • For a gas grill, light the rear rotisserie burner (a feature on many high-end gas grills). Install the rotisserie motor and spit following the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Some kamado-style cookers, like the Excalibur, come with a rotisserie attachment. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Temperature: Like indirect grilling, spit-roasting is generally done using medium to medium- high heat.

Grilling time: Similar to indirect grilling, but spit-roasting goes a little faster: 30 to 40 minutes for chicken pieces and sausages. One to 1 1/4 hours for whole chickens and pork loins. Two to 3 hours for pork shoulders and rib roasts.

Well suited to: Cylindrical or football-shaped foods, like whole chickens and ducks; pork shoulders and loins; rib roasts and so on. Good for whole fish, fish steaks, and large fillets. (You’ll need to spit-roast these in a rotisserie basket.)


5. Caveman Grilling (Grilling in the Embers)

This is it—the original grilling method—pioneered nearly 2 million years ago by a human ancestor called Homo erectus. Flash forward to the 1950s when President Dwight D. Eisenhower would grill “dirty steak” (sirloin roasted directly on the embers) at the White House to the horror of onlookers. This theatrical method requires no grill grate. You grill the food directly on the coals. Although similar to direct grilling, caveman grilling gives you a crustier exterior and smokier flavor—the result of varying heat zones and micro-charring of the meat.

Raichlen's Barbecue Trend Predictions for 2020

Setup: Build a charcoal fire and rake the embers out in a single layer with a grill hoe or garden hoe. Fan the fire with a fan, folded newspaper, or hair dryer to dislodge any loose ash. Lay the food directly on the embers.

Temperature: Comparable to that of direct grilling, that is, hot (500° to 700°F). Paradoxically, it’s not quite as hot as you’d think, because the charcoal acts as an insulator where it comes in direct contact with the meat. (In part, this is what enables firewalkers to walk barefoot on beds of embers.)

Grilling time: Quick—3 to 6 minutes per side for most foods.

Well suited to: Steak is the obvious candidate for caveman grilling, but vegetables are awesome grilled this way. (The short list includes sweet potatoes, onions, bell peppers, eggplant, and squash.) Less expected, but no less delectable, are ember-roasted shellfish and ember-roasted flatbread.


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About the Book

Project Smoke book coverProject Smoke

Project Smoke is the How to Grill of smoking, both a complete step-by-step guide to mastering the gear and techniques and a collection of 100 explosively flavorful recipes for smoking every kind of food, from starters to desserts.

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