Depending on where you’re from or how new you are to BBQ/barbecue, you might not realize there’s a difference between BBQ and grilling. However, if you’re here on Angry BBQ looking to learn, there is a big difference between grilling and BBQ. Both cooking methods involve heat and (typically) meat, but the amount of heat, how you use the heat, and how long you cook the meat vary wildly between grilling and BBQ.
We can summarize the differences into two simple sentences:
- BBQ is meat cooked low and slow with wood smoke to allow tough cuts of meat to become tender.
- Grilling cooks meat and other food quickly over direct high heat.
That’s a simple explanation, but it’s correct. Traditional barbecue is tender meat infused with wood smoke for a flavor you can’t get any other way. Grilling done properly results in juicy meat with beautiful char.
However, there’s plenty of nuance and details to get into when answering the question of grilling vs BBQ! Let’s dig in.
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While there are some cultural differences in terms of the word barbecue, if you go to a barbecue restaurant or a BBQ competition, it’s quite plain that it means one thing: food cooked in low temperatures for an extended period of time with wood smoke. There are some details that differ from region to region in terms of the meat preferred, sauce or no sauce, what type of sauce to use, and even what you cook your barbecue on. However, at its core, barbecue is about producing smoky-tasting, tender meat.
When we talk about low temperatures, that usually means somewhere between 225°-275°F (107°-135°C.) Slowly cooking at that temperature can mean anything from a few hours for things like chicken thighs, five to six hours for ribs, and even 14-hour-long brisket sessions.
Some of the most iconic cuts of meat in BBQ include beef brisket, pork butts, and ribs (either pork or beef.) In the case of brisket or pork butt, these are big cuts of meat that need to be cooked a long time slowly in order for the meat to become tender. Generally, you will prepare these cuts of meat with some sort of dry rub, a combination of spices and even herbs to add a lot of flavor to the surface of the meat. You can even inject the meat with liquid, like stock or apple juice, to add flavor to the interior of the meat and to help keep the meat moist. That is especially helpful if you’re smoking a whole chicken or turkey.
Depending on what type of barbecue you like, you may finish your meat with some type of sauce. That can be a thick and sweet sauce, thin and vinegar-based, or even mustard-based.
Cultural Differences On The Word Barbecue
So why did I define BBQ for the purpose of this article? Well, depending on where you’re from, the term ‘barbecue’ can be used for a lot of different meanings. For instance, it’s not uncommon in the northern parts of the United States for the word barbecue to be used to mean a summer cookout where most of the food is prepared on a gas or charcoal grill with no wood smoke or long cooking times in sight. The food will likely still be referred to as grilled, but the party will be called a barbecue.
Why Do Some People Call A Grill A Barbecue?
Other areas across the world will use the words barbecue and grill interchangeably. There’s an Australian stereotype and clichéd saying that you may have heard “throw some shrimp on the barbie.” For Australia, Canada and a host of other countries and cultures, they refer to gas and charcoal grills as barbecues.
However, for those of us who are well-versed in low-and-slow cooking with wood, whether that’s actually cooking it or simply enjoying it at restaurants, barbecue will always mean food that’s wood smoked at low temperatures for a long time.
However, there are still cultural differences that still exist in the larger wood-smoked barbecue community. Some areas, like Texas, are beef-heavy while others like North Carolina are pork-forward. Then there are the cultural differences surrounding barbecue sauce. Should meat be sauced, and if so, what type of sauce should be used? North Carolina has at least two distinct types of barbecue, both in terms of pork and sauce. However, they will all agree that there’s got to be wood, low temperatures, and a long time spent at the pit.
We actually wrote an article on all the different kinds of BBQ by US state. It’s worth a read here.
What Is Grilling?
So if barbecue means low-and-slow cooking with wood smoke, then what does grilling mean? Typically it involves a gas or charcoal grill, high heat, and cooking food quickly. While barbecue is predominantly meat being smoked, you can grill just about anything including fruits and vegetables.
In terms of temperatures, you could be looking at anything between 350°F (177°C) and upwards of 700°F (370°C,) especially for steaks. Grilling usually is quite quick with food coming off the grill within 30 minutes on the long end. Some food will come off considerably quicker.
When To Use BBQ Rubs And Sauces When Grilling
Just because we are talking about grilling doesn’t mean some of the standard practices of barbecue go by the wayside. In terms of preparation, you can still put dry rubs on your food. However, you want to be more careful about the ingredients because sugar will caramelize and burn at higher temperatures. Other ingredients might burn as well.
As for barbecue sauces, you may want to add sauce to chicken or pork that you’ve grilled. You should always add it late in the grilling process so the sugar in the sauce doesn’t burn and turn your food bitter. It’s best to sauce for the last few minutes on the grill, enough time to let the sauce set and even caramelize a bit before removing the food from the grill.
What Kinds Of Meat Are Better Suited To BBQ vs Grilling?
As noted earlier, barbecue is well-suited to big, thick cuts of meat that need to break down slowly to help them tenderize. That means cuts like brisket, pork butts and shoulders, pork belly, chuck roasts, and even ribs. All of these cuts have plenty of intramuscular fat that can render out (at least partially) which helps tenderize the meat and keep it juicy. You can also smoke all sorts of chicken, including whole chickens and turkey. For most cuts of meat that you smoke, you are looking for an internal temperature somewhere between 203°-205°F (95°-96°C.)
Typically when you’re grilling, you don’t want to use large, thick cuts of meat. You want smaller cuts of meat that are already a certain level of tender. You’re looking for food that’s got a good char without being burnt and tender without being overcooked. Steaks are cooked to your preferred internal temperature, same with beef burgers. Pork chops and loins can be grilled to 145°F (62.7°C) while poultry should be grilled to 165°F (73.9°C.)
What’s The Difference Between A Barbecue And A Grill?
Okay, so that’s the difference between BBQ and grilling. Now, what about what you cook the food on? What are the main differences?
In this case, a barbecue means a smoker. Smokers are designed for low-and-slow smoking of food, and there are a number of designs for this purpose. However, they all hinge on delivering those low temperatures and indirect heat, meaning the food is not exposed directly to the heat source, flame or otherwise.
Offset smokers have a firebox to one side of the grill that vents into the main cooking chamber where you put your food. The smoke and heat then circulate through the cooking chamber before exiting a vent, usually a chimney stack. There are variations on this standard design, but this is the general flow of heat and smoke.
Electric and gas smokers operate fairly similar to each other. The electric heating element or gas burner is located at the bottom of the unit. Then a pan or box is located above that to hold wood chips to create smoke. Then a series of racks are in the main cooking chamber for the food that is getting smoked. Then vents or a chimney are located at the top of the smoker for airflow.
Gas and charcoal grills are designed to provide direct heat and lots of it. When you open a grill, you should be able to see the heat source. Gas grills do tend to have protective pieces over the burners, but you can easily see where the burners are. As for charcoal grills, you should be able to see your burning charcoal easily as well.
While there are a number of designs and styles of grills, they all focus on the ability to deliver high heat directly to the surface of whatever food you’re putting on the cooking grates. Can you smoke on a grill? The short answer is kind of, yes. You can set your grill up for indirect heat usually and even use wood chips to provide some wood smoke. However, these grills are designed more with direct-heat grilling in mind rather than smoking. You won’t get the same level of results as using a true smoker.
Now pellet grills attempt to blur the lines between a grill and a smoker. You can set temperatures usually anywhere between 225° and 700°F, allowing you to attempt both smoking and grilling to a certain degree. Some pellet grills have the ability to slide part of the heat baffle out of the way to reveal the firepot for direct flame access. The Camp Chef Apex also has gas burners in the main cooking chamber to turn it into a true hybrid smoker and grill.
What Accessories Do I Actually need For BBQ Smoking or Grilling?
So you know the differences between BBQing and grilling, you understand the different grills and smokers, and now you want to make sure you’ve got the necessary tools for whichever you want to pursue. So what are the tools you need?
You want to have gloves to protect your hands from the heat of the smoker or grill. Burning yourself will ruin any sort of cooking experience. You’ll want good quality tongs that can hold up to the heat, a grill spatula for flipping food, and a grill brush for cleaning your grill grates. You’ll also want an instant-read thermometer for checking temperatures regardless if you are grilling or smoking. If you’re smoking, investing in a quality leave-in thermometer is a good idea to monitor temperatures throughout the long cooking process.
For more information and specific picks, we have our list of the most important grill and smoker accessories.
Wrapping It Up
So while some places use the terms BBQ and grilling interchangeably, these are truly two different ways of preparing and cooking food using heat. There are certainly similarities, but you don’t want to grill a whole brisket, and smoking hot dogs can add flavor but it’s not the same as true barbecue.
If you’re looking to get into the barbecue game for the first time, check out our list of the best smokers for beginners. If you’re more interested in grilling, we’ve got the best gas grills under $500 and the best charcoal grills.
And hey, cooking outdoors should be for everyone. So if you, a family member, or a friend are vegan, we’ve got some recipes for you to grill or even smoke!
Question: Why Do You Spray Meat When Smoking?
Answer: Spraying, or spritzing as many call it, the meat while smoking serves a two-fold purpose. One, it prevents the surface of the meat from drying out and becoming tough. Especially if you’re smoking a brisket or pork butt, that meat’s going to be in the smoker for quite a few hours which can lead to the surface drying out in the heat. Spritzing every 45 minutes or so can help prevent that.
Secondly, the liquid from the spray also helps attract more smoke than a dry surface. It helps make your barbecue a little more smoky.
Question: Is it spelled barbeque or barbecue?
Answer: When BBQ is spelled out, you’ll typically see barbecue thanks to the Spanish roots in barbacoa. Barbeque does show up, but it is not as common. However, it does make some sense since we commonly use the shorthand BBQ or Bar-B-Q. Some places even use the shorthand Que. As long as it’s smoked with wood for a long time and tastes wonderful, you’ll probably be okay using either. We here at Angry BBQ stick with the more common barbecue, however.
Question: Is BBQ an American thing?
Answer: While BBQ might be considered American cuisine, it has both international roots and international appeal. Heck, Angry BBQ is based out of Canada. BBQ draws on Spanish barbacoa and African babbake which both involve cooking over fire, sometimes for extended periods of time. So while we may view BBQ as something that is distinctly American, it would not exist without the influences of other cultures.