Barbecue and Grilling – What’s the Difference?

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When you hear the words barbecue and grilling they tend to be used interchangeably.  How often have you heard someone talk about having a barbecue and grilling something outside as the same basic activity?  But, for those of you who don’t know, barbecue is much different from grilling and there are some distinct differences in the cooking techniques.


Barbecue refers to cooking slowly over low, indirect heat.  The fuel source that is used in barbecue is typically charcoal or wood.  Meats which are typically on the tough side tend to benefit tremendously from the slow process of barbecue.  The term “falling off the bone” typically refers to meat that has been made tender through the slow cooking process of barbecue.  Meats like ribs and brisket or even whole chickens or turkeys can be barbecued.  The process may take hours to complete but the mouth-watering results are well worth the wait. 

Barbecue Equipment

The term smoker refers to a barbecue cooking vessel which will maintain low temperatures in a smoke-filled environment.  The sizes of smokers can vary greatly from small table-top versions to huge smokers that you can buy or build yourself.  Typically the average temperature maintained for smoking is around 225 degrees Fahrenheit.  The difference between a grill and a smoker is that the heat source for a smoker is away from the food.  This is how the temperatures are kept lower and, as a result, leads to a much longer cooking process.


Most of what the average American cooks out on their patio should be termed grilling.  Grilling refers to fast cooking over high heat.  Typical grilling items are hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks, sausages, fish, shrimp, scallops, and chicken.  You can even grill vegetables skewered or placed directly on the grill.  Grilling times typically average between 5 and 15 minutes depending on the item.  Meats such as pork tenderloin and chicken will take a bit longer than a steak or hamburger but there is no comparison in time between grilling and the slow process of barbecue.

Grilling Equipment

The propane gas grill has taken the world by storm from the small table-top versions used at football tailgate parties to the large stainless steel versions used in elaborate outdoor kitchens.  The immediacy of the instant flame and heat source has allowed the typical griller to use these devices in any kind of weather. 

Charcoal grills are also extremely popular and are used for grilling.  Even though using charcoal takes a little more time to set up it still remains a favorite of many.  Adding various water-soaked wood chips such as mesquite or hickory that have been soaked in water to the hot charcoal can add a smoky flavor to your food. 

The next time you hear someone refer to barbecue and grilling as the same process, point out the differences to them.  The differences are clear and should be recognized even by the average home griller.  They are two totally different cooking methods that can both yield unique, great tasting results.

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