Barbecuing, grilling, and smoking are three of the most popular outdoor cooking methods used by today’s backyard cookout warrior. But unless you’re a serious grill master, you may not understand the differences of how these separate cooking methods work.
If you want to go from casual cookouts serving up “dogs” and burgers, then it’s time to step up your cooking game by getting to know the intricacies that separates barbecuing, grilling, and smoking foods.
Because seriously, when it comes to summer, there is nothing better than enjoying an outdoor cookout with family and friends and showing off your hard-earned skills.
Barbecue is the world’s oldest cooking method and has become ingrained into the American lifestyle since well before you were born. In fact, according to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA), “7 in 10 U.S. adults own a barbecue grill or smoker”.
That’s pretty amazing when you consider it. I mean, what the heck are those other three adults thinking right?
You can see more statics about the popularity of barbecue in the following article from HPBA here: 2020 State of the Barbecue Industry
Let’s face it, most people just use the term “Barbecue” when speaking of anything cooked on a grill, but true barbecue is different from grilling and smoking foods.
In this article, we will break down each method and give examples on how to successfully master each.
In This Article, We’ll Explore:
Click a topic below to be taken directly to that section.
What Is Barbecue?
Let’s start off with barbecue since this is the term most people use when describing and outdoor cookout.
But what does barbecuing mean exactly? Is it different from grilling? How about smoking? Is that still barbecuing?
Barbecue means different things to different people and just about everybody has their own definition of barbecue and the foods and methods used to cook it.
One of the best articles I have read on the history of barbecue that does a fantastic job of explaining it is over at the Amazing Ribs website if you are interested: What Is Barbecue?
One quote in particular from that article that I thought was interesting was from Van Sykes, the pitmaster of Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q, which was founded in 1957 in Birmingham, AL.
Van Sykes wrote: “According to the true definition of barbecue, it has to be cooked over a live fire or hot coals. Therefore a smoker or an indirect system is not barbecue.”
That’s one common belief on the true definition of barbecue. But I’m not so sure that covers it adequately.
Here is where it gets confusing. You see, many of today’s expert’s claim that barbecuing is done using an indirect heat cooking method. So, does that mean that if you are barbecuing your food using indirect heat, the end result is not actually barbecue? According to Van Sykes definition, it’s not.
Barbecue, grilling, and smoking have become such common terms, that we often forget that there is a big difference in the cooking methods for each. Not only is there a difference in cooking styles, but there are also many different types of grills, pits, and smokers that work for each.
So in this article, I’m going to break down each method of cooking and the different techniques for each. I’m also going to touch on the types of grills and cookers you can use for each method and which foods are best suited for each.
No matter your opinion on the true definition of what can or cannot be called barbecue, most people will agree on how the following cooking methods are applied.
A Quick Breakdown of the Three Outdoor Cooking Methods
Let’s take a quick look at these methods and the temperature and times most commonly used for each.
- Barbecuing – Cooking at 200-350°F anywhere from 1-4 hours
- Grilling – Cooking at 400-500°F plus, flipping the food regularly until properly cooked/heated
- Smoking – Cooking at 68-275°F anywhere from 1 hour to 2 weeks depending on the temperature and type of food being smoked.
While there will always be some variations of temperature and time from the lost above, this is a good starting place.
What Is Barbecuing?
Barbecuing is a general term used by many people to describe cooking meats on a grill.
However, barbecuing is also a specific style of cooking that is sometimes misunderstood and oftentimes hotly debated. Barbecuing is used to cook meats on low to moderate heat, typically between 190-350F, for a few hours using charcoal or wood coals.
It’s usually done using indirect convective heat where the meat should be either very high above the coals on a spit or off to one side and not directly over the fire and with the lid down so the heat is able to circulate all around the food.
It is low and slow cooking when compared to grilling, which is done hot and fast and with the lid up.
The main focus of barbecuing is to cook tougher cuts of meats such as from cows and pigs at a low to moderate temperature for a longer period of time so that the meat tenderizes and soaks up any additional smoke or rub.
This type of cooking is practiced all over the world and there are many ways to barbecue different types of food.
A grill must have the ability to utilize two-zone cooking in order to barbecue properly. You would not be able to barbecue using a gas grill with only one burner for example. That would be grilling.
What Is Grilling?
Grilling, often used as a slang term by northerners as “grill’n out”, is a type of cooking that allows you to char the surface of the meat which helps to seal in the juices of the meat.
This browning and crust that forms on the outside of the meat is called the Maillard Reaction and helps prevent your meat from becoming dried out for a more flavorful outcome.
This style of hot and fast cooking follows the guidelines of cooking meat for a short amount of time over a high direct heat. This can easily be done with a charcoal, gas or infrared grill.
You are using direct radiant heat and conductive heat to grill. There is very little smoke, cooking times are short, and this method requires constant attention.
To use this method, crank the heat up and place your food on the grill directly over the fire. You rarely need to close the cover, usually only to shut down an especially nasty flare-up. Remember to turn or rotate your food often for an even cook.
While grilling is best suited for tender or thinner meats, you can also toss vegetables or side dishes onto the grill for a quick cook that is sure to add a desirable flavor.
While grilling can be quicker, it is important to keep a close eye on things because it is also easy to overcook or burn your food. The key is knowing when to get your meat off the grill and the best solution for that is by using a good instant read thermometer.
Grilling is fast and can get your food on the table in as little as 20 minutes in some cases.
What Is Smoking?
Smoking is often the least used method of cooking among the average outdoor chef, however, it is very popular among famous BBQ restaurants and pit masters.
Smoking refers to cooking meats “low & slow”. Using low convective heat for a long period of time with moderate wood smoke, it often requires you to continuously check up on your food and fuel source while it cooks.
Smoking is done with the lid or door closed and can take anywhere from a couple of hours to several days depending on the method and food being smoked.
When it comes to smoking foods, you will find out that this type of cooking is not restricted to just meat. Many people smoke vegetables, sauces and side dishes to capture that smoky flavor that can really upgrade the taste of your foods.
There are two types of smoking techniques and those will be cold smoking and hot smoking.
- Cold Smoking – requires cooking foods at a lower temperature, between 68 – 86°F, until the food has a smoky flavor but retains its moisture. This is best reserved for cheese, fish, butter, sausages, nuts, salt, eggs, and After smoking, cold smoked meats must be fully cured and cooked before eating.
- Hot Smoking – fully cooks meats at a temperature between 126 – 275°F and is great for medium to large meats such as brisket, hams, and ribs. Hot smoking does not require additional cooking and can be eaten right away. If you do have to store away hot smoked meats in the freezer or fridge, you can easily reheat the meats in the oven.
While hot smoking is by far the most common smoking method, learning how to cold smoke foods is rewarding in its own right.
What Food Is Best for Barbecuing?
Due to the low heat nature of barbecuing, this type of cooking is usually reserved for tougher cuts of meats found on cows, pigs or whole chickens and turkeys.
Large, thick cut steaks and chops, pork loins, and roasts like a tri-tip are also great candidates for barbecuing.
While you may be invited to a “barbecue” where they are cooking hamburgers and hotdogs, this is simply slang and usually refers to a cookout where the host will be grilling meats.
What Food Is Best for Grilling?
As previously mentioned, popular meats that are grilled are hot dogs and hamburgers, a staple for any cookout.
While these are the most popular meats that are grilled, the high, direct heat style of cooking is great for cut chicken, beef skirt steak, beef loin strip steak, thinner cut steaks, and pork chops and many other tender types of meat. Seafood like shrimp, not to mention veggies can be great when grilled.
One thing to keep in mind, barbecuing and grilling often cross over and are used during the same cook. Many people start by searing their meat and once it is nice and browned on the outside, finishing off the cook with indirect heat cooking.
On the flip side, by using the reverse sear method, you can start off by barbecuing your meat and finishing off with a nice hot grilling sear.
What Food Is Best for Smoking?
If you are wanting to cook a large cut of meat or just want to add the smoky taste to your food, smoking it is your best option.
Most people who smoke meats usually choose briskets, pork shoulders, sausages, ribs, fish, whole chicken or turkeys, and hams. Veggies and sauces come out great when smoked as well.
Depending on the type of meat, you will choose either cold or hot smoking.
What BBQ Pit Is Best for Barbecuing?
As with the term barbecue, BBQ pits are often used as slang terms for any type of grill, pit, or smoker.
The best BBQ pit for you is going to depend on what all you want to cook with it. With various different types of pits with numerous options and features, choosing the perfect pit can be stressful.
Our suggestion is to think about the types of foods you will be cooking on the pit, what type of fuel you want to use, where you will want to place the pit, and how you want the pit to look.
These factors can easily help you narrow down the perfect BBQ pit for your needs.
The one thing that is absolutely essential in a pit for barbecuing is the ability to utilize two-zone cooking using indirect heat.
Look for gas grills with multiple burners where at least one burner can be left off as a safe zone for your meat.
For a charcoal pit, any grill that will let you set up a safe area or cool zone off the fire will work.
What Grill Is Best for Grilling?
When looking for the perfect grill, you can usually look towards the same types of pits used for barbecuing.
Grilling and barbecuing go hand in hand and can easily be done with the same grill. The difference will lie in the way you utilize hot and cool zones with your grill to cook with direct or indirect heat.
If you are wanting the signature taste of charcoal cooked meats, which many people prefer, finding a nice charcoal grill will be no problem at all. You will want to group your charcoal together to get a nice direct heat to grill your foods.
For those wanting a more easier option, a propane grill will be the way to go. These grills start very quickly and easily and are simple for beginners to use.
Heat can be adjusted with the turn of a knob and cleanup is much easier than ash-producing charcoal. However, you will not get the same great taste of charcoal cooked foods while barbecuing.
The real requirement for grilling is the ability for your grill to reach 400-500°F plus for a fast and hot cook.
What Smoker Is Best for Smoking?
Smoking meats is not for everyone as it could require constant attention to maintain a certain temperature for long periods of time when using wood or charcoal.
Thankfully, advances in technology have made this much easier than the old days of standing in front of a smoker all day in the form of electric smokers and propane smokers, not to mention pellet smokers. These types of smokers are much more set it and forget and a good option for a beginner.
If you are a fan of the more authentic style, you can still kick it old school and manually monitor temperatures, fuel, and your food with a traditional charcoal smoker. These can be found just about anywhere and can even be found as an attachment to many BBQ pits.
If convenience is a bigger factor like mentioned earlier, propane, electric and pellet smokers allow for a much simpler way of smoking your meats without constant supervision. With the introduction of Bluetooth remotes and automatically controlled thermostats, you don’t even have to be outside to keep an eye on your food.
The best smoker for you will depend on the amount of food you want to cook, how much you want to pay for convenience, and what extra features you will want.
Which Method of Outdoor Cooking Is Best for Me?
The type of cooking that is best for you is going to rely solely on the type of food you are going to be cooking.
If you like to cook briskets, hams, and other large meats, I would suggest investing in a nice smoker. If you just want to throw some burgers or steaks on the pit, a standard BBQ pit or propane grill will get the job done.
If you would like to dip your feet into each one, I would suggest finding a nice propane and charcoal combo grill that has a provision for an offset smoker box attachment. This will allow you to cook virtually any type of food, any type of way. You will get to BBQ, grill, and smoke with propane and charcoal.
In my opinion, the more versatile your outdoor cooker is, the better in the end.
What Method Will Give Me the Best Taste?
A common question that I get when discussing this topic is which style of cooking will yield the best tasting food?
In my opinion, I would have to say smoking meats is going to be the best tasting method as the low and slow style cooking allows the meat to retain the juices while developing a smoky crust.
Barbecuing and grilling can be just as tasty if you are using a sauce or rub on your meats. These will help give you a flavorful crust or caramelize your meats and can usually be found in many different flavors.
Also, the type of fuel you use to cook will also greatly affect the taste. When smoking, be sure to research the best type of wood chips for different meats to enhance your smoky flavors. For those who are looking to BBQ and grill, the two choices you have are charcoal and propane. Charcoal usually gives off a better taste than propane, however, it is harder to use when compared to propane.
Which Method Is Easiest?
If you are looking to host a simple cookout and are wanting the most convenient method of cooking your meats, you will most likely want to aim for grilling with propane. This is the quickest and easiest way to not only cook your food but an easy way to get the straight-off-the-grill taste.
Barbecuing can also be a top choice as it can usually be done in just an hour or two with minimal maintenance and will be great for parties where you don’t mind hanging out around the grill for a few hours.
Smoking is going to be the least convenient method, even with the lower maintenance smokers available on the market.
Smoking involves many hours of cooking and temperature monitoring, not to mention the changing out of wood chips and water. This is usually a method reserved for experienced grill masters who are dedicating a full day or an all-nighter to cooking their meats.
Final Thoughts on Our Barbecuing vs Grilling vs Smoking Guide
To review, there are many differences and many similarities between barbecue vs grilling vs smoking.
While it is usually acceptable to label any of these as simply “barbecuing” or “grilling out”, knowing the difference will help you correctly cook your meats and can even help with buying the correct equipment.
So get out there and show off your new knowledge at your next cookout. Who knows, maybe you can even educate a few people with your newly learned BBQ terms!
Now It’s Your Turn
I want to hear from you:
Which of the above cooking methods have you used before?
Which method do you prefer and do you have any tips to share?
What features do you typically like to see in an outdoor grill?
Are you going to be purchasing a smoker in the future? Or do you plan on looking at a pellet grill, built-in or standalone gas grill, or charcoal model?
Let me know by leaving a quick comment below.
If you still have questions, please feel free to send me a message.
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A backyard warrior, certified carnivore, lover of good whiskey, self-proclaimed grill master and I’m Living The Grilling Life!
I have a passion for cooking with live fire and smoke, no matter the weather. I’m a real person just like you, who loves outdoor cooking and BBQ. Food, fun, and time spent with family and friends are what it’s all about! It is my mission to take my passion and knowledge for outdoor cooking and all things BBQ and share this expertise in techniques and grilling equipment with you. In other words, Living The Grilling Life!