The Difference Between Barbecue, Grilling, and Smoking

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Knowing the difference between barbecuing, grilling, and smoking should help you to settle the next argument that inevitably breaks out when you’re cooking out with friends.

This age-old argument often crops up when people from different parts of the United States get together. Not only is there general confusion about the similarities and difference between these cooking methods, but the terms can also have different meanings depending on the region.

Broadly, barbecuing involves cooking slow and low, grilling involves cooking hot and fast over a fire, while smoking involves cooking low and slow like on a BBQ but with the addition of smoke to impart that trademark smoked taste.

While you typically BBQ and smoke meat, poultry, and fish, whereas with grilling you open up many other avenues like delicious grilled vegetables. With smoking and barbecuing, it’s the extended cooking times combined with super-low temperatures that renders large and tough cuts of meat surprisingly tender. Both of these cooking methods also help to bring out the full flavor profile of the meat.

While there are some key differences between these methods – and we’ll outline these below – they also have one commonality: all of these cooking methods are performed outdoors, and you can even use the same piece of kit for each one. Whether you choose a gas grill, a charcoal grill, or an electric grill you’ll be capable of grilling and barbecuing. For smoking food, look for a grill/smoker combo or a dedicated smoker.

Now we’ll highlight how each of these different cooking methods differentiates itself.

I. Grilling 101

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Grilling is a cooking method that involves cooking food layered on a metal cooking grate over an open flame

In the case of natural gas grills or liquid propane gas grills, heat comes from a gas flame. You can also fuel grills using charcoal – you can even make your own charcoal at home – or using some chopped firewood.

Whatever fuel you use, the heat transfer takes place via radiation. The high heats involved when you’re grilling permit you to quickly and efficiently brown food, making this cooking method the smoothest fit for foods that don’t call out for lengthy cooking times.

These high temperatures mean you’re advised to opt for thinner cuts of meat. Many steaks like New York strip steak are ideal for grilling. Many other cuts like ribeye with the bone in, skirt steak, hanger steak, and flank steak all work wonderfully on the grill. Cuts of chicken also work well, especially chicken breasts, wings, thighs, and drumsticks. Burgers and hotdogs are also great on the grill.


II. Barbecuing 101

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Barbecuing involves cooking meat very slowly over indirect heat. BBQs are characterized by low heats and super-slow cooking times.

Typically, you’ll barbecue at temperatures between 190 and 275F. This means most cuts of meat will take several hours to cook properly.

You’ll be free to BBQ in many forms, including:

Almost any meat will work well on the BBQ. In particular, though, tough and fatty cuts respond very well because the extended cooking time will enhance the tenderness. Some of the best options at your disposal include pork butt, pork shoulder, and pork ribs. Beef brisket is also unbeatable on the barbecue.

Look for meat that’s well marbled when you’re shopping for cuts to barbecue. Marbling is the subcutaneous fat that’s distributed throughout the muscle of the meat. This is just what you’re looking for.

When you barbecue meat to perfection, it will be tender and juicy, and will fall easily off the bone.


III. Smoking 101

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Smoking is a traditional process of exposing food to smoke so as to enhance the flavor, as well as browning and preserving the food.

You smoke food by hanging meat on hooks inside a cooking chamber. Alternatively, you can place ingredients on a rack inside the cooking chamber. This chamber will trap the smoke that’s created by a hardwood fire. The heat generated is low and indirect.

You can use a variety of wood chips for smoking food. Common options include:

  • Oak
  • Apple
  • Maple
  • Hickory
  • Mesquite

Smoking is similar in many ways to barbecuing. The key difference between these methods is that one of the primary goals of smoking your meat is to imbue that meat with the smoky flavor kicked up by the hardwood smoldering on the fire.

You’ll need to pack plenty of patience for smoking food. Temperatures are low for smoking, and cooking times are lengthy. You can expect some cuts of smoked meat to be ready in 6 to 8 hours, while others like brisket will take 20 hours or more. It will be worth the wait, though.

This cooking method sprang up in the Paleolithic era. Meat was smoked in these times to cook it through completely while locking in the moisture as well as the natural flavors of the meat.

There are two main method of smoking:

  • Cold smoking
  • Hot smoking

With cold smoking, you cook your food in a temperature range from 68F to 86F. This method is normally reserved for imparting a smoky flavor to meats that have already been cooked and cured. Examples include beef, sausage, chicken breasts, salmon, scallops, and cheese.

Hot smoking, by contrast, requires temperatures from 300F to 450F. The goal of hot smoking is not simply to impart that trademark smoky flavor. You also want to cook the meat all the way through, harking back to the reason this method was first invented. Hot smoking is ideal with larger cuts of meat such as pork shoulder, ham, brisket, hock, and ribs. You will often cook hot smoked meats more at a later stage, or reheat them. Alternatively, eat the meat as soon as it’s cooked right through.

You will need one of the best smokers as well as some premium wood chips to get the most out of this rewarding cooking method.


IV. Conclusion

Well, if you arrived here at Madiba today with no idea of the difference between barbecuing, grilling, and smoking, that should now have changed.

You can find many grills allowing you to perform all three of these functions in one multipurpose piece of kit. Browse our guides to grills and smokers for more inspiration.

In closing, bear the following points in mind to clear up any confusion:

  • Barbecuing: Temperature range 190F to 275F, cooking times 4 to 6 hours
  • Cold smoking: Temperature range 68F to 86F, cooking times 6 to 8 hours
  • Hot smoking: Temperature range 300F to 450F, cooking times 6 to 20+ hours
  • Grilling: Temperature range 325F to 550F, cooking times 30 minutes or less

If you keep this in mind, you should soon establish which of these cooking methods makes the best fit for you, or whether you feel a multipurpose appliance allowing you to achieve all three might be the smartest move.

Whatever you decide, be sure to bookmark our blog as you head off. We have a very busy content calendar for the coming months, so pop back soon and don’t miss out!

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