the new bbq basics

July 17, 2019 by Steven Raichlen

It used to be that grilling meant direct grilling or indirect grilling, and that was pretty much it. My, how times have changed!

Today’s griller needs to master a broad range of techniques, from plank grilling and salt slab grilling to plancha grilling. And, of course, there are the old standbys, from direct grilling and indirect grilling to spit-roasting.

Sound like a lot? Get up to speed with this crash course on the new BBQ basics. Here’s what every griller needs to know this barbecue season. But first, let’s start with a quick refresher on the basics.

Direct grilling

As the name implies, this means cooking the food directly over the fire. It’s a fast, high-heat method designed for quick-cooking foods like steaks, burgers, chicken breasts, fish fillets, fast-cooking vegetables (not dense root vegetables), sliced fruit, etc. — in other words, any food that’s quick cooking and tender.

Direct grilling is usually done at high temperatures (between 400 and 650 degrees). When setting up the grill, run one or two burners on high and one on medium. Keep one burner off for a safety zone.

Indirect grilling

In this essential method, you cook the food next to — not directly over — the fire, with the grill lid closed to keep in the heat. In effect, this turns your grill into an outdoor oven. Use indirect grilling to cook larger foods, such as whole chickens or turkeys, rib roasts, pork shoulders, whole fish and large, dense vegetables like cabbages, beets and potatoes.

Indirect grilling is typically done at moderate temperatures — around 350 or 400 degrees. To set up your grill for indirect grilling, light the outside or front and rear burners, leaving the center burner(s) off. Cook the food over the center burner.


This method combines the virtues of direct and indirect grilling. As with the former, you expose the food directly to the fire. As with the latter, the food is next to (not over) the fire. Spit-roasting is great for fatty, cylindrical or football-shaped foods, such as whole chickens, duck, shoulder or leg of lamb, boneless beef rib roast and whole pineapples. When spit-roasting, always place a foil drip pan under the food to catch the drippings.

And now, onto some of the new methods:

Plank grilling

When the first Europeans settled Connecticut, they encountered Native Americans grilling shad fillets on upright boards around a bonfire. So, while plank grilling may seem new, it really isn’t. What is new is the way we do it — charring the plank without soaking it first — and some of the unexpected foods we now grill on a plank, from French toast to Camembert cheese.

Plank grilling delivers a protected grilling environment (less char-prone than direct grilling) with a uniquely aromatic smoke flavor. Start by setting up your grill for indirect grilling. Next, char one side of the plank directly over the fire.

Arrange the food to be planked on the charred side. Set the plank on the indirect section of the grill, then lower the lid and indirect grill. Note: Cedar is the most common wood plank for grilling, but you can now buy cherry, alder, oak and hickory planks — each with a subtly different flavor.

Salt slab grilling 

Salt slabs are newcomers to the world grill scene, but we’ve embraced them with gusto. I use these thick rectangles of pink salt from Pakistan often — as a plancha, grilling plank, grill weight, resting platform, and even as a serving platter.

The porosity of salt slabs enables them to absorb and impart flavors; up to 80 trace minerals enhance their salty taste. The surface is mercifully non-stick, while the striking color and theatrical presentation speak for themselves.

Set up your grill for indirect and preheat for medium-high to high. Preheat the salt slab along with it — it’s important to do so gradually so it doesn’t crack. Salt slab grilling is done with the grill lid closed — typically at 350 to 400 degrees.

It’s well suited to whole chickens, whole fish, acorn squash (cut it in half and roast the halves cut-side down), and chocolate brownie s’mores. You can even use the salt slab as a grill press for grilling pollo al mattone (Italian chicken under a brick).

Again, heat your salt slab gradually —20 to 30 minutes or more — as rapid heating may cause it to crack. You can reuse your salt slab many times. Simply scrape it clean with a putty knife (or metal scraper provided by the manufacturer) when hot, then let it cool to room temperature.

The real enemy to salt slabs is humidity, especially if you live near water. Once the salt slab has cooled to room temperature, store it in a large, heavy-duty resealable plastic bag.

Plancha grilling

Plancha is the Spanish word for a griddle (traditionally cast iron). In the old days, you heated the plancha over a campfire, which allowed you to sear, sauté and pan-fry as you would in a cast-iron skillet, but with a blast of the wood smoke we associate with the best live fire cooking.

Today, we do it on the grill which allows you to expand your repertoire to include foods not customarily grilled, such as delicate fish, like flounder and sole; small foods, like bay scallops or snap peas; or breakfast foods, like bacon, eggs and hash browns.

To use a plancha, set up your grill for direct grilling and preheat to medium or high. Scrape it clean with a putty knife. Oil it well with vegetable oil or a chunk of bacon fat. When you flip pieces of food, move them to a fresh section of the plancha where you still have oil to keep the food from sticking.

The best planchas are made of cast iron, so you’ll need to season and care for them as you would a cast-iron skillet. For that matter, don’t have a plancha? Use a large cast iron skillet.

Have more questions about grilling, or want to find recipes to go to each of these methods?   Visit and sign up for our Up in Smoke newsletter.

Steven Raichlen