How to Heat Your Grill to Cook Steak

How hot should your grill be to cook steak? You'll need direct heat for the initial sear and indirect heat to finish cooking. Here's what to know.

Grill with hot coals to show how to grill shrimp.
Ciara Kehoe

No matter which type of grill you have –charcoal, wood-fired, or gas– you’ll need two heat zones to cook steak: a high heat area (direct heat) and a medium heat area (indirect heat). The high heat area is for searing the steak and the medium heat area is for finishing it to the desired doneness.

Here's what that means, and how to set it up!

What is Searing?

Searing is a cooking technique where food is cooked at a high temperature until a browned crust forms due to the Maillard reaction. High heat causes the molecules to rearrange themselves and sets off multiple chain reactions that brown the steak and unlock the flavor and aroma.

The high heat zone of the grill should be around 500℉ for perfectly seared steak.

If the steak is left on high heat for the whole cooking time, the crust would burn and create a bitter taste, and possibly be carcinogenic. Moving the steak to the cooler (medium) side of the grill maintains the flavor and crust, while allowing the steak to cook to the desired doneness without burning.

How to Set Up Cooking Zones on the Grill

  • On a charcoal grill: Bank most of the hot coals to one side of the grill. This is the high (direct) heat zone. The side with fewer coals is the medium (or indirect) heat zone. Open the vents wider to heat up the grill and close them to cool the grill down. Be sure to not close them all the way or the flame will go out!
  • On a gas grill: Turn two knobs to high (450℉ - 550℉) and let the grill heat for about 10 minutes. Once the grill reaches temperature, turn one knob to medium (350℉-450℉) to create the medium heat zone.

Is the Grill Hot Enough?

Now that both cooking zones are set, when is the grill ready to go?

In her guide to grilling steak, Simply Recipes Senior Editor Summer Miller shared this tip from grilling expert Steven Raichlen: Hold your hand three inches above the hot zone and count to "1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi..." If you can only hold your hand there for two seconds, the grill is ready for searing. The medium cooking zone is ready if it’s around 325℉, or you can hold your hand there for 5-7 seconds.

Of course, some grills have built-in thermometers which make it easy to determine the grill’s temperature! But if yours doesn’t, infrared grill thermometers can check the exact temperature of the grill.

Don’t forget! Charcoal is hottest 5-10 minutes after lighting. You might be tempted to sear the steaks immediately, but it takes about 25 minutes for the medium heat zone to reach temperature. Wait to grill until most of the charcoal is white and has stopped smoking, check both zones, and then grill!