Pellet grills/smoker are first and foremost indirect heat cookers whereas charcoal/gas grills are first and foremost direct heat cookers. However, pellet grills can also be direct-heat cookers, but what does indirect vs direct heat even mean? Well, that’s what we will discuss in this article. This is a topic I have previously touched on in the past with my article on direct-flame pellet grills. However, with this article, I wanted to discuss the difference between indirect vs direct heat cooking. For example, what types of food are better suited to indirect heat and which are better suited to direct heat cooking.
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Indirect vs Direct Heat Cooking Principles
So before we talk about the different ways to cook on a pellet grill/smoker and which pellet grills are best suited to cooking via direct heat let’s discuss the principles of these two different methods of cooking.
Indirect Heat – Lower Temperature Cooking Including ‘Low & Slow’
So really on a pellet grill anytime indirect heat cooking is referenced it typically refers to a temperature inside the grill below 450 degrees. For instance, you will find various guides/videos online for cooking a whole chicken in a pellet grill at temperatures between 225 degrees and 375 degrees. Indirect heat cooking is essentially the same method of cooking as the oven in your kitchen. Indirect heat cooking is about creating an even temperature around the whole surface of the meat to get even/consistently cooked food. Basically, indirect heat cooking is required for thick cuts of meat/whole poultry etc.
So for the example of a whole chicken, it’s very important that all the chicken is cooked (to avoid salmonella poisoning) and an internal temperature inside the chicken of 165 degrees is reached. Purely cooking at very high temperatures (direct heat) will overcook/dry out the outside of a whole chicken while potentially leaving the internal meat raw. Though, some recipes/guides do cook via direct heat either at the start or end of the cook to get additional charing/caramelization. However, when it comes to large/thick cuts of meat and whole poultry the majority of the cooking process will be done via indirect heat and temperatures below 450 degrees.
So What Is ‘Low & Slow’ Cooking?
Above I gave an example of cooking a whole chicken via indirect heat at temperatures between 225 & 375 degrees. Well, at 225 degrees that’s a cooking time of between 3-4 hours, while at 375 degrees it’s only between 60-80 minutes. So you could describe the 225 degree/3-4 hour cook as low and slow for a whole chicken, but what about larger/thicker cuts of meat? Well, take a large beef brisket for example, well that could be something like a 10-16 hour cook at temperatures between 200 to 275 degrees.
So what’re the benefits of low and slow cooking? Well, cooking at lower temperatures for longer means the fibres within the meat will be broken down more and the fat within the meat will be properly rendered down. Therefore, even tough cuts of meat can become moist and tender when cooked via low and slow principles. With lean meats (low-fat content) when cooking low and slow best practice is to use a water pan to avoid drying out the meat.
Now, when you do low and slow on a pellet grill you have the added benefit of the wood smoke flavour penetrating the food. While you can get an intense smoky flavour from cooking on a charcoal grill you get a more suitable smoky flavour from a pellet grill/smoker. Therefore, that opens up the option of more smoke flavours by using different types of BBQ wood pellets.
How Do Pellet Grills/Smokers Produce Indirect Heat?
You can cook via indirect heat on gas/charcoal grills by turning off some of the outer gas burners/moving the coals to one side and not directly under the food. However, a pellet grill/smoker works differently. On a pellet grill, we have in most cases a single burn pot of about 3 inches in diameter. So how does a pellet grill/smoker provide even heat distribution for indirect heat cooking?
Well, first off, pellet grills/smokers often have a heat deflector fitted directly over the burn pot. This will typically be thick steel (sometimes stainless steel) plate with reinforcement to stop it from deflecting/warping from the high heat output of the pellet fire directly below it. However, most pellet grills then have a grease tray above that heat deflector which again helps to distribute/spread that intense heat from the 3-inch wide pellet fire pot over the cooking surface.
However, pellet grills/smokers also distribute heat around the cooking chamber with the assistance of their built-in fan as I discuss in my article on how a pellet grill works. The fans first role is to feed the fire with sufficient oxygen to aid combustion. However, the secondary effect is that the heat and smoke from the fire is distributed around the cooking chamber. Therefore, a pellet grill/smoker also functions as a convection oven. You can also get pellet grills with a rotisserie as another option when cooking via indirect heat.
If you are purely interested in indirect heat cooking/smoking then you need to consider the pros and cons of a horizontal vs vertical pellet smoker. For instance, if you already own a gas grill a vertical pellet smoker may actually be your best option to get better-flavoured food at a lower investment cost.
Direct Heat – Higher Temperature Cooking (Grilling/Searing)
For direct heat cooking, we are talking about temperatures at the grate of 450 degrees and above. The types of food best suited to direct heat cooking are typically thin cuts of meat or processed meat (steaks, burgers, hot dogs etc). However, many types of fish and vegetables also turn out great when grilled/seared. Now, for good grilling/searing performance, you really need temperatures above 450 degrees.
Previously many pellet grills such as the Gen 1 Traeger Pro Series had a maximum temperature setting of 450 degrees, whereas the Gen 2 Pro Series offers a maximum temperature of 500 degrees. However, for some 500 degrees is still just on the edge of being able to actually grill/sear compared to a gas grill/charcoal grill where grilling temperatures of 550 degrees plus will be achieved.
I’ve previously written about direct-flame access pellet grills, these are pellet grills that give you the option of letting the flames from the pellet fire reach the cooking grate. The benefit is that you can get higher cooking grate surface temperatures, typically around the 650-degree mark, sometimes higher. However, there are cons to direct-flame access as I also discuss in that article, namely the higher risk of grease fire flareups. Hence, for anyone who uses direct-flame access on a pellet grill is very important to keep it clean.
Conclusions On Indirect vs Direct Heat Cooking
The key strengths of all pellet grills/smoker, in general, are as indirect heat cookers. That’s why you will hear a lot about ‘low and slow’ cooking with regards to pellet grills/smokers. The heat deflectors, solid grease tray’s and convection cooking performance thanks to the fan in a pellet grill/smoker mean that indirect cooking is where the strengths of all pellet grills/smokers lie. Previous generations of pellet grills had maximum temperature settings of 450 degrees, hence only just hot enough for grilling/searing with direct heat.
Those 450-degree temperature limitations led to comments from some in the BBQ community that ‘pellet grills cannot grill‘, which to some degree was true. However, more pellet grills now are offering maximum temperature settings above 450 degrees, some at 500 degrees, some at 600 degrees and some can even go over 700 degrees. I’m going to discuss the best pellet grills for searing in my next article, my article on pellet grill hot spots will also likely be of interest.
That’s it! I hope this article on the differences between indirect and direct heat cooking has helped to clear up questions you may have on the strengths/capabilities of pellet grills. If you have more questions my General Pellet Grill FAQ can hopefully help and my Wood Pellet Grill Guide will also likely be of assistance. 🙂