Timothy Woods
Published by Timothy Woods
Last Updated On: August 17, 2022

There are various terms that people use when we talk about cooking meat – barbecue, grilling, smoking. Unless you are an expert, you’re unlikely to understand the differences between them.

We have consulted the best pitmasters and barbecue chefs in the United States to learn about the different techniques used to cook meat on an open fire.

Summary of the Key Findings

  • Grilling refers to cooking meat over a hot fire (325 – 550°F) for a short time (< 1 hour).
  • Barbecuing is cooking meat on a grill over indirect heat (190 – 275°F) for several hours.
  • Smoking refers to cooking meat over low, indirect heat (125 – 175°F) for 6 to 8, and even up to 24 hours.

What Is Grilling?

meat in the griller

Homo sapiens have been grilling meat on fire for millions of years, but it was with the invention of the Weber grill in 1952 that American backyard barbecuing really became mainstream [1].

Grilling is exactly what you picture when you imagine a backyard cookout – sizzling meat on the metal grill rack of an open gas or charcoal grill.

Hot and fast are the essence of grilling. Meat is cooked over a high heat direct flame for a short amount of time.

The heat of the fire sears the outside of the meat, sealing in all the flavor and moisture.

Cooking the meat fast keeps it tender and prevents the meat from becoming dry.

Grilling temperatures range between 325 and 550°F and cooking times vary from under 30 minutes to about an hour, depending on what is being cooked.

The optimal cuts of meat for grilling are tender, high-quality cuts like tenderloin, porterhouse steaks, ribeye steaks, T-bones, strip steaks, sirloin steak, or loin chops.

Burgers, sausages, hotdogs, chicken, and seafood are also popular meats that are grilled [2].

Grilling also refers to cooking a variety of vegetables and fruits on the fire. Grilled asparagus, zucchini, mushrooms, or pineapple bring interesting flavors to the regular backyard barbecue fare.

What Is Barbecuing?

meat getting barbecued

The term “barbecue” has come to refer to any type of large outdoor gathering that involves cooking over a fire.

However, barbecuing actually refers to a specific method of cooking meat.

Low and slow is the name of the game when it comes to barbecuing.

Meat is cooked at lower temperatures over indirect heat for several hours, usually between 4 and 6.

The fire is not directly below the meat as it cooks. The lower temperature cooks the meat more slowly, making it more tender and flavorful. It guarantees that the meat does not dry out.

Barbecuing temperatures range between 190 and 275°F, and cooking times vary from 4 hours up to 8 hours. The taste is well worth the wait!

This technique is brilliant for larger cuts of meat that still have the bone in. Barbecuing tenderizes tougher cuts of meat, like skirt steak or port shoulder, making them fall off the bone and melt in your mouth.

Other popular cuts of meat for barbecuing are shanks, beef or pork ribs, brisket, oxtail, and pork butt.

One can use cheaper cuts of meat for barbecuing. These cuts typically contain more collagen, which gets very tough if it is cooked too quickly. Cooking them over a low heat for a long time will bring out their best flavor and texture.

Barbecue is never a term that refers to vegetables, it is only a technique for cooking meat.

Related: The 3-2-1 Barbecue Method - Unique BBQ Technique

What Is Smoking?

meat getting smoked

Smoking is very similar to barbecuing, but the process generally takes much longer and focuses on infusing the meat with a delicious smokey flavor.

Smoking happens at much lower temperatures than barbecuing, usually between 125 and 175°F, and the meat is cooked for several hours (up to 24 hours!).

The smoke from the smoldering wood or wood chips surrounds the meat while it cooks in an enclosed smoking chamber.

The heat from the fire is indirect.

The low temperature prevents the meat from developing a hard crust on the outside, allowing the smoke to penetrate and flavor the meat. Over time it cooks all the way through.

Smoking is a technique used for large cuts of meat that normally still have the bone in – brisket, ham, ham hocks, pork shoulder, or beef short rib. With a large enough smoker, one can smoke a whole animal.

In the southern US states, smoking a whole hog on the barbecue is a beloved tradition. Mastering this technique of cooking takes many years.

What Are The Advantages Of Smoking Meat?

Smoking meat is not necessarily better than barbecuing or grilling, it is just done with a different intention.

The advantages of smoking meat are:

  • You can use cheaper cuts of meat. The greatest cuts to choose for smoking also happen to be the ones that cost the least because they have more fat and connective tissue.
  • Smoking melts the fat and connective tissues, making the meat tender and juicy.
  • Smoking adds a unique and delicious flavor to food.
  • Smoking naturally preserves meat and increases the shelf life of cooked meat.

The fire is not directly below the meat as it cooks. The lower temperature cooks the meat more slowly, making it more tender and flavorful. It guarantees that the meat does not dry out.

Barbecuing temperatures range between 190 and 275°F, and cooking times vary from 4 hours up to 8 hours. The taste is well worth the wait!

This technique is brilliant for larger cuts of meat that still have the bone in. Barbecuing tenderizes tougher cuts of meat, like skirt steak or port shoulder, making them fall off the bone and melt in your mouth.

Other popular cuts of meat for barbecuing are shanks, beef or pork ribs, brisket, oxtail, and pork butt.

One can use cheaper cuts of meat for barbecuing. These cuts typically contain more collagen, which gets very tough if it is cooked too quickly. Cooking them over a low heat for a long time will bring out their best flavor and texture.

Barbecue is never a term that refers to vegetables, it is only a technique for cooking meat.

Grilling Vs Barbecuing Vs Smoking

The basic differences between these three methods are as follows:

Grilling Barbecuing Smoking
Temperature 325 to 550°F 190 to 275°F 125 to 175°F
Cooking time <30 min to an hour 4 to 8 hours 8 to 24 hours
Best for Smaller, high-quality, tender cuts of meat, as well as vegetables and fruits Larger, more inexpensive, bone-in cuts of meat Very large cuts of meat, even a whole animal
Cuts of meat Steak, chops, burgers, hotdogs, poultry Ribs, pork shoulder, or pork butt Ham hocks, brisket, ribs, a whole hog

The Difference Between Hot & Cold Smoking

There are two different styles of smoking – hot and cold.

The two are used to achieve different things:

  • Cold smoking is done to infuse a smokey flavor to foods that are already cooked or cured, like sausages, chicken breasts, salmon, or cheese.
  • Hot smoking focuses on imparting a smokey flavor as well as cooking the meat. Hot smoking is better for larger cuts of red meat.

Cold smoking happens at temperatures between 68 and 86°F, whereas hot smoking is done at much higher temperatures (125 to 175°F for smaller cuts of meat, or from 300 to 450°F for a whole hog).

Equipment For Barbecuing, Grilling, and Smoking

man holding up grilling equipments

All three of these cooking methods can be done using the same piece of equipment – a grill.

One must understand how to control the flame and manage the temperature of the grill to achieve the desired outcome.

You can use a charcoal or gas grill for grilling, barbecuing, and smoking.

However, there are certain advantages to using a charcoal grill.

Charcoal grills produce more smoke and burn hotter than gas grills, making them excellent for quick grilling as well as slow cooking.

While gas grills are super convenient and you can control the temperature more easily, they do not achieve the same smokey flavor.

When grilling, keep the lid of the grill open, but when you are barbecuing or smoking, you need to close the lid to keep the smoke and heat inside.

To convert a charcoal grill into a smoker, all you need to do is insert a smoker box to hold the wood chips.

Charcoal grills can limit the size of the meat you are able to smoke. If you are serious about smoking meat and want to be making larger quantities or perhaps a whole hog, you should invest in a smoker.

Conclusion

Now that you know the differences between grilling, barbecuing, and smoking, you will definitely have a few interesting facts to share with your friends at the next cookout.

Whether you cook your meat hot and fast or low and slow, if you get the technique right, your meat will always turn out tender, juicy, and full of flavor.

The great news is that you do not need specialized equipment for smoking, grilling, or barbecuing. All three of these cooking methods can be done on a regular gas or charcoal grill.

And, there are also types of equipment that promote versatile functions like smoker grill combos.


References:

  1. https://bbqchamps.com/difference-between-barbecuing-smoking-and-grilling/
  2. https://www.thespruceeats.com/the-difference-between-barbecue-grilling-and-smoking-4586510#:~:text=In%20a%20nutshell%2C%20grilling%20means,(also%20low%20and%20slow).&text=It's%20the%20low%20temperatures%20and,and%20express%20their%20full%20flavors.

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