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Why is it that when I check google images for Direct heat, I see pictures of a flame under a grid like surface? Is that direct, or indirect?

And what'd you call sticking a marshmallow directly in a flame to toast it? no grid at all. Is there a unique name for that?

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I call sticking a marshmallow directly in to a flame "lighting a marshmallow on fire". –  Ryan Elkins Apr 25 '11 at 20:22
    
@Ryan Elkins British people sometimes cook marshmallows on a bonfire and eat them. they don't light up i don't think. they just taste nicer! what'd you call a bonfire in America? –  barlop Apr 25 '11 at 20:48
    
@Ryan Elkins and does every method of cooking in america involve a grill/grid/surface between food and flame? Is there no name for without? –  barlop Apr 25 '11 at 20:49
    
got it.. campfire roasting. –  barlop Apr 25 '11 at 21:24
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I just more meant to imply that you don't want to stick it directly IN the fire otherwise they tend to catch on fire and burn. It was mostly a joke. –  Ryan Elkins Apr 25 '11 at 22:27
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5 Answers

I believe the direct v. indirect distinction originally comes from grilling. There, its essentially a question of do you put the food directly over the heat source (burning charcoal, gas burner, wood longs, etc.) or do you put it on the other side of the grill. Putting it directly over concentrates most of the heat on the bottom side of the food; putting it on the other side allows the heat to distribute to all sides of the food. Naturally, since its spread out, its also cooler.

So, you can then generalize that the following are more like direct heat:

  • Sitting on the coals in a foil pouch. (Or on the wood, whatever fuel).
  • Under a broiler, gas or electric
  • Held with tongs over a burner on a stove (e.g., a pepper)
  • In a sauté or fry pan, with only a little oil

The heat-contact side may be being hit by heat upwards of 1000°F in some methods.

And some examples of things more like indirect:

  • Baked in an oven.
  • In a smoker (what's called BBQ in the American South)
  • Boiling, steaming, braising.

You also get some things that are harder to classify, like if you deep fry something its being cooked evenly all around, but at a heat delivery rate more similar to direct heat. And some odd things like a slice of bread in a toaster (mostly like direct heat, but with two heat sources).

Direct heat is used to cook thin cuts of meat (thin steak); indirect to cook large cuts (roast). Sometimes both are used; you may use indirect heat to cook a thick steak or roast through, but direct heat to sear the outside.

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what about heating it in the flame itself. that'd be direct I suppose. or another name? does "direct" not go as far as that? similarly, (and I doubt anybody would do the following, but) directly on the coals. –  barlop Apr 26 '11 at 7:21
    
In the flame is definitely direct, and a very quick grilling method. Sitting on the coals would be direct too, I guess, but quite a bit more intense than a grilling recipe that calls for direct heat would expect. (Also beware that charcoal can be hot enough to melt aluminum and tin.) –  derobert Apr 27 '11 at 5:35
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Direct vs. Indirect Heat are terms usually used when referring to American style BBQing or grilling. While the terms can apply to other areas of cooking as well their usefulness makes the most sense in this context.

Direct Heat

A method of heat transfer in which heat waves radiate from a source (for example, an open burner or grill) and travel directly to the item being heated with no conductor between heat source and food. Examples are grilling, broiling, barbecueing, and toasting. (source)

Keep in mind that the grill itself doesn't really act as a conductor as much as a way to hold the food in a static position relative to the heat source. To better understand direct heat, understand it's complement:

Indirect Heat

When using indirect heat, your goal is to never have any part of the meat directly over flames or charcoal. You can only do indirect cooking with a charcoal or gas grill that has a cover. In this respect, it acts very much like a convection oven... the heat swirls around the inside of the grill and the meat is cooked from all angles. This also eliminates the need to 'flip' or turn your meat during the cooking process. (source)

This is generally used to cook large pieces of heat that need a long time to cook. A smoker is an example of the kind of equipment used to cook with indirect heat.

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so would frying be indirect? or neither? –  barlop Apr 26 '11 at 7:35
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I think that this question is causing so much confusion because while a distinction can be made, it just isn't useful for cooking. If you want to understand what is happening in cooking and why, you need to understand the mix of heating by conduction, heating by convection and heating by infrared radiation of every different source. Direct vs. indirect doesn't matter much, maybe only if you're afraid of charring. –  rumtscho Apr 26 '11 at 11:54
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@rumtscho: As silly and ambiguous as the distinction is, if you want to do American-style BBQ, you really do have to understand the terminology, otherwise half of what you hear and read won't make any sense. It's like the difference between essences and extracts; there's a pretty long continuum of gray area but nevertheless, if you use the wrong one in a recipe then it'll be ruined. –  Aaronut Apr 26 '11 at 13:42
    
@Aaronut, you're right, I've never read instructions for American BBQ, so I didn't know that this distinction is used there. Thank you for the information. –  rumtscho Apr 26 '11 at 18:12
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@barlop, Basically, food is heated by a) conduction, b) convection, c) radiation. A heat source can use one or more of the methods, but usually there is one which supplies the most heat. A marshmallow in a flame is one of the harder examples, heated both by convection and radiation. The question which contributes more isn't entirely clear. I found a dissertation which states that without wind, radiation is dominant, with wind, convection is dominant, but it was about heating wood to the ignition point, not about marshmallows. contentdm.lib.byu.edu/ETD/image/etd3066.pdf. –  rumtscho Apr 26 '11 at 21:34
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I'm going to pull quotes from BBQ god Steven Raichlen to help answer your question:

Direct: food is cooked directly over and just a few inches away from the flowing coals at a temperature in excess of 500F.

Indirect: food is cooked adjacent to, not directly over, hot coals.

Direct heat is therefore hotter and fiercer, and suitable for thin, small tender cuts of meat (or breads), and will cook for a relatively short time. Therefore the images you're seeing are direct heat.

Indirect grilling is better suited for oven-style cooking: ribs, turkeys, whole fish.

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So with the glowing coals, even if the food isn't even touching the flame, that's still direct? So what about a gas powered grill above food, and food on a tray under it. If it's just a few inches away, is that -direct-? –  barlop Apr 25 '11 at 20:36
    
I see, broiling is direct heat too. –  barlop Apr 25 '11 at 21:24
    
I would guess direct; like me it sounds like you're from the UK - where these terms are completely alien. I'd only heard these terms from reading American BBQ manuals. –  Gary Apr 25 '11 at 21:27
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In what context are you hearing these terms? I'm most familiar with direct vs indirect cooking with regards to grilling. In the context of grilling, direct heat means that the meat is directly over the flame, whereas indirect heat would be a configuration in which the coals are on one side of the grill and the meat on the other (often with a pan of water or other liquid underneath).

Indirect grilling is often used for slower cooking (ribs, brisket, etc) and provides more even heat. Direct grilling is great for quick searing, burgers, grilled pineapple, etc.

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Isn't a grill like something that looks like prison bars? so if there is grilling how can it be indirect? if you look in between the bars, the food is over the flame. –  barlop Jan 13 at 15:33
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LOL this is getting silly - what are we going to say about induction hobs, rotisseries, and microwaves?

Perhaps we should think more deeply. Let me suggest that direct heat means heat directly applied to the food from a source that is red hot or hotter - flames are hotter than that by definition. That way electric heating is also accommodated.

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Induction hobs are not a heat source at all. Rotisseries expose meat to an open flame so they are definitely direct heat. Microwaves are not a direct heat source because the heat is generated within the food itself, not applied externally. It doesn't seem silly to me. –  Aaronut Apr 26 '11 at 1:00
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