How to Set Up A Charcoal Grill For Indirect Grilling

Cooking on a charcoal grill or a smoker, compared to using a gas grill, is a very different experience. Grilling with charcoal is generally a labor of love; it is best suited for a long and slow cook. Learning how to set up a BBQ for indirect grilling is key to a great experience using charcoal.


Indirect Grilling on a Charcoal Grill

What is indirect heat on a charcoal grill? Grilling using indirect heat on a charcoal BBQ or smoker is when you ignite charcoal and place it to one side of the grill, creating a space for the food you are cooking that is not directly over those lit coals. Now this seems like an obvious answer, however sometimes it isn’t that easy. What about smoking? What about grilling a perfect steak over charcoal? You can do that and more using indirect heat on a charcoal grill.


The easiest way to light charcoal

Using a charcoal chimney starter is the easiest way to light charcoal. Place a wad of paper, or a lighter cube under the starter and fill the chimney with the amount of charcoal needed. Light the paper or cube. The fire will ignite the bottom coals while convection and airflow will draw that heat and flame up, lighting the rest. This takes between 10 and 20 minutes.




The easiest way to set up your charcoal grill for indirect heat is to light a full load of charcoal and pile the lit coals to one side of the grill leaving an open space on the opposite side. The benefit of this technique is that you can sear over the coals as well. Imagine slow grilling a steak, maybe adding a little smoke, then searing it off directly over the hot coals for the perfect steak dinner! The two-zone method of charcoal grill set up is the most popular and versatile.



Parallel With A Pan:

Okay, so that title doesn’t exactly help. Let me try and explain. Light your charcoal, and before you dump it into the grill, place a pan in the middle. That pan can be filled with liquid, be used to catch drippings, or both. Then you pour the charcoal on both sides of the pan. Using charcoal baskets to hold and corral the hot coals is a great way to keep your hot charcoal under control. This is a great technique for when you want to roast something larger, like a turkey or roast of beef or pork. Food that cooks quickly, like a side of salmon, will get too hot on the sides and dry out.

Have a look at our charcoal baskets



Snake – Chain – Train Technique:

This technique is a little challenging, but it is just as its name says a snake, chain, or train of charcoal. To set this up, create a semi-circle of unlit charcoal, only two or three chunks wide, around the perimeter of the grill. Light a very small load, ¼ of a chimney will do. Place the lit coals at one end of the charcoal chain. These lit charcoals will light the ones that they touch, and so on. This setup is ideal for extended cooking lasting up to 14 hours.


Turn it up to 11!

Turn the flavor dial way up by adding smoker chips or chunks to your lit charcoal. This turns your charcoal grill into a smoker instantly so you can pull that pork, rack up the ribs, and get makin’ that bacon!


smoked pork


Indirect Grilling On Your Smoker

While you can use your charcoal grill as a smoker, Napoleon also has the Apollo™ Series Charcoal Grill & Water Smoker. Setting this BBQ up for indirect heat is virtually the same as setting up a charcoal kettle grill, just use one of the three techniques above, however, the Apollo™ is a stacking grill with many chambers so that you can smoke many different foods at once. There is an optional water pan that you can place above the coals, this is used to help manage temperatures and catch drips. When setting up your smoker for indirect heat, using the two-zone or snake technique is ideal, especially when you are looking at a smoke time of 8 to 16 hours. Place food on any of the stackable layers and make sure that the doors are closed and latches are latched. Even though your food is on a much higher level, heat still rises; ensure better convection by placing your food over the side of the smoker that doesn’t have charcoal. Don’t forget your favorite flavor of wood chips.

See our collection of wood chips and wood chunks


Controlling Heat

You can control heat on a charcoal grill through several different methods. The most important being the air shutter adjustment. Air shutters are found on the bottom of both the Apollo™ and Charcoal Kettle Grills. You want the air shutter open just enough to let adequate oxygen into the chamber to keep the charcoal lit; one notch on the ash bucket of our Charcoal Kettle Grills, or ¼ of the way open on the Apollo™.

You can also control heat through the amount of charcoal used. By burning less than a full load of charcoal, you will generate less heat; this is ideal when you are trying to cook at a very low temperature – less than 200°F. If you need a little more heat and notice that the temperature isn’t getting as high as you want it to, you can always add another partial load to the already lit charcoal and open the air shutters a little more.


Types of Charcoal – Which is Best?

There are many types of charcoal but determining which is best is completely dependent on what you are cooking.





I am going to stop you right there. These aren’t great. We’ve said so before. They’re full of chemicals and unknown materials. They generally burn too hot for anything less than direct grilling too.


Lump Charcoal:

Lump charcoal is made from wood that has been specially burned to create almost pure carbon. The heat and longevity of burn can differ depending on the wood that was used to create the charcoal.


Coconut Charcoal:

Coconut charcoal is interesting. It’s made from coconuts and burns for long periods. Stack a few of these together and you will have a fantastic and easy to manage heat source that you can both use to smoke for long periods, or sear over high heat (or both!).


Although a tad more in-depth than setting up your gas BBQ for indirect grilling, using a charcoal grill for indirect heat is a fun and tasty experience. So tell us – which do you prefer to use; your gas or your charcoal grill when you use the indirect heat method to cook.

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