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Barbecuing vs Grilling vs Smoking: What’s the Difference?

Barbecuing, grilling and smoking and three of the most popular methods for cooking meat. While they can all be used to cook delicious meals, though, they aren't necessarily the same. Each cooking technique offers unique qualities to meat. So, what's the difference between barbecuing, grilling and smoking?

What Is Barbecuing?

Barbecuing is an outdoor cooking method that involves the use of indirect heat to slowly cook meat at a low to medium temperature. The meat is placed inside a grill or smoker where it's cooked using heat from burning wood or charcoal. For added flavor, smoking chunks are often used in conjunction with wood or charcoal. Barbecuing cooks meat slowly, typically over the course of several hours, allowing for increased tenderness and better flavor.

In the United States, the origins of barbecuing can be traced back to the 1800s, during which southerners would capture and barbecue wild hogs as a source of food. In fact, historians believe that southerners consumed five times as much as pork as beef during this period. While pork can be cooked using a variety of techniques, many southerners preferred barbecuing because of its fork tenderness.

Pork is relatively tough when compared to other meats. Therefore, traditional cooking methods like grilling or baking don't offer the best results. To make pork more tender, barbecuing is used to cook it. It takes longer to barbecue pork than it does to grill pork, but the end results is a superior level of tenderness. This is why hogs were frequently barbecued during the 1800s, and it's also why the term "barbecue" has become colloquially known as slow-cooked pork.

While many people associate barbecuing with pork, other types of meat can be cooked using this method. Chicken breasts and beef ribs, for example, are often barbecued. In fact, you can barbecue any type of meat, though it works best on otherwise tough cuts of meat because of its ability to increase tenderness.

Here are some tips on how to barbecue delicious meat:

  • Use only a small amount of charcoal to maintain a low to medium temperature.
  • Place meat on an area of the grate where it's not directly over the burning charcoal or cooking wood.
  • Marinate meat before grilling for extra flavor and tenderness.
  • Use a thermometer to monitor the temperature of your meat, ensuring it reaches a safe temperature to prevent foodborne illness.
  • To barbecue pork, place meat in a covered foil pan.

What Is Grilling?

Grilling is essentially the opposite of barbecuing. It involves the use of a grill to quickly cook meat at a high temperature using direct heat. Meat is placed inside the grill -- on the grill's main cooking grate -- where it's exposed to heat from the burning charcoal below. With the meat directly over the burning charcoal, it's exposed to greater heat.

Because charcoal is almost always used when grilling, temperatures can easily reach 500 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. As a result, it doesn't take very long to grill most types of meat. When grilling medium-rare steaks, for instance, you can expect a cook time of less than 10 minutes (flipping the steaks just once halfway through).

The hot temperature of grilling essentially sears the outside of meat. Why does this matter? By searing the outside, juices remain trapped inside the meat, which is critically important when cooking steaks. Whether you're grilling filets, sirloins, ribeyes, New York strips or T-bones, you can rest assured knowing that they'll be full of flavorful juices.

Unfortunately, grilling doesn't offer the same fork tenderness as barbecuing and smoking. Since it uses high heat over a short period of time, grilling isn't able to break down tough, fibrous meat as effectively as barbecuing and smoking. For steaks, especially tender cuts like filets, this doesn't really matter. But for tough meats, you may want to consider a different cooking method.

Here are some tips on how to grill delicious meat:

  • Open your grill's dampers (vents) to increase airflow when grilling.
  • Check your meat frequently -- but don't touch it -- to ensure it's not burning or otherwise cooking too quickly.
  • Clean your grill's grate before adding your meat to prevent it from sticking.
  • Use lump charcoal rather than charcoal briquettes to achieve a higher grilling temperature.
  • After removing your meat from the grill, let it sit at room temperature for five minutes to the juices settle.

What Is Smoking?

Smoking is similar to barbecuing, with both techniques using indirect heat to slowly cook meat. Smoking is unique, however, because it relies on flavorful smoke to both cook and cure meat. Many people still use charcoal to smoke meat, but it's the wood chunks that create a genuine smoking experience. When heated, flavorful smoke is released from the wood chunks, which rises into the main cooking area where the meat is placed.

The smoke produced by wood chunks offers a unique flavor that's not found with grilling. If you grill meat, it may still taste delicious, but it won't have the same unique flavor as it would with smoking. When smoking chunks begin to smolder, they'll release smoke that binds to your meat. Additionally, the smoke helps to cure meat by inhibiting the growth of bacteria. Smoking has been used as a curing process for thousands of years, and even today it's still commonly used for this purpose.

There are two main types of smoking: cold and hot. Cold smoking is a commercial smoking process that's performed in a smokehouse. Hot smoking, on the other hand, is a conventional smoking process that's performed using a grill or smoker. With cold smoking, meat is exposed to a low temperature, typically ranging from just 68 to 86 degrees Fahrneheit. With hot smoking, meat is exposed to a higher -- yet still much lower grilling -- temperature of about 180 to 220 degrees Fahrenheit. It's important to note that most health organizations, including the National Center for Home Food Preservation, discourage cold smoking because of its low temperature.

The terms "smoking" and "barbecuing" are often used interchangeably. The key difference between them is that smoking specifically relies on flavorful smoke to cook meat, whereas barbecuing uses heat produced by burning charcoal or cooking wood. Other than these slight nuances, smoking and barbecuing are pretty much the same. You can use either method to slowly cook meat for superior flavor and tenderness.

Here are some tips on how to barbecue delicious meat:

  • Choose a variety of wood chunks for smoking that complements the natural flavor of your meat.
  • Add a bowl or pan of water to help stabilize the temperature and prevent your meat from drying out.
  • Keep the lid of your grill or smoker closed. Whenever you open it, smoke will escape out.
  • If you're worried about meat drying out, mist it water every one or two hours.
  • Add more smoking chunks as needed.
  • When using charcoal with smoking chunks, add only a small amount of charcoal to prevent your smoker from becoming too hot.
  • Adjust your grill's or smoker's dampers so that they are about 90% closed.

Find the best deals on premium smoking chunks by visiting our online store today. Cutting Edge Firewood offers a variety of high-quality smoking chunks, including white oak, hickory, cherry, pecan and whiskey, all of which will allow you to smoke delicious meat.

About The Author

Leroy Hite

Leroy Hite is the founder and CEO of Cutting Edge Firewood, an ultra-premium firewood and cooking wood company located in Atlanta, Georgia. Leroy's mission is to give people the experience of the perfect fire because some of life’s best memories are made in the warmth of a fire’s glow. He founded Cutting Edge Firewood in 2013 with a goal to provide unmatched quality wood and unparalleled customer service nationwide. The company offers premium kiln-dried firewood, cooking wood, and pizza wood in a wide variety of species and cuts to customers around the country.