What is the Difference Between Grilling and Barbecuing?

The method of cooking known as barbecue has been a part of North American culture since pre-colonial times. However, barbecue as we now know it is a delicious combination of Native American and Caribbean technique and Western European influences and flavors. These days, most of us Northerners (read: anyone who doesn't live in the southern US) use the terms "grilling" and "barbecuing" interchangeably without a second thought. We "barbecue" steaks and shrimp, brats and burgers. We have summer "BBQs" where friends gather around to enjoy juicy grilled meats and veggies. But as any Southerner can tell you, barbecuing and grilling are two very different things. While barbecuing is a form of grilling, not all grilling can be called barbecue. The best barbecue "pit masters" take their barbecue very seriously. For them, barbecue isn't just a way of cooking, it's a way of life.

Fun Fact: According to the Smithsonian, the indigenous peoples of North America and the Caribbean used a wooden frame situated high over an open flame with plenty of smoke to slow cook their food. Upon their arrival in the new world, the Spanish Conquistadors picked up on this technique and called it Barbacoa, referring to their wooden frame placed over an open fire. This method of cooking was then adopted by settlers in modern day Southern Carolina, and eventually spread throughout the southern colonies, picking up new twists and flavors along the way.

There are three major factors that differentiate barbecuing from other types of grilling: heattime, and meat. These key elements will help you tell the difference between true "BBQs" and other types of "grill outs". 


Searing is a type of direct heat cooking. (Pictured here: Infrared Side Burner of the LEX 485 Gas Grill by Napoleon)

As with any cooking method, heat and temperature play a huge role in how your final product will taste. For grilling, you are typically dealing with extremely high temperatures (anywhere from 375°F to 650°F) coming from a heat source directly under your food.

This type of cooking is called conduction. High heat radiates from the source (usually a gas flame or smoldering charcoal) and creates very high temperatures on the grill's grate. This direct heat comes from the bottom and travels up toward the food.

Because heat only comes from the bottom, flipping is crucial to the grilling process to ensure uniform cooking all around and to avoid unwanted char on one side. These high temperatures also allow for quick searing on tender cuts of meat or seafood while keeping the interior on the rarer side. Barbecuing, on the other hand, uses low-temperature convection cooking (around 160°F to 250°F) to achieve ultimate tenderness and flavor.

Convection cooking uses indirect heat, which is temperature-controlled hot air in an enclosed space (closed grill lid), to cook food from all sides.

This indirect cooking method takes much longer than its quick sear, high-temperature grilling cousin, but will give your food that unmistakable smoky flavor that barbecue is well-known and loved for. (Check out the Huffington Post's article on the Thermodynamics of Cooking for helpful infographs on cooking methods.)


Barbecuing and grilling are both excellent ways to get friends and family together. (Pictured here: Leather Apron by OFYR)

With a proportional relationship to temperature, time is a key factor in understanding the difference between grilling and barbecuing. Grilling boasts the ultimate convenience of a prep-to-plate time of under an hour, usually less. Most grilled meals will only need to be on the grill for around 5 to 20 minutes. This makes grilling a quick and easy method of preparing food for a weeknight meal or a weekend soiree.

Barbecue, on the other hand, takes much longer. Good barbecue takes preparation and time- a little TLC- as many good things do. The magic words of the barbecue world are "low and slow". Low temperature combined with a long cook time makes for deliciously smoky and tender meat. Pit masters will tell you that the key to good barbecue is two hours of cook time, at the very least. Some signature BBQ recipes call for up to 20 hours of slow cooking!

The reasoning behind this method is based in science. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation's chemistry of cooking explains that tougher cuts of meat (the ones that are ideal for barbecue) have a great deal of connective tissue called collagen. Because these cuts are taken from the stronger muscles of the animal's body, they have more connective tissue surrounding the muscle fibers. While in its raw form, collagen gives meat an incredibly tough and chewy consistency. It is not until collagen is heated (in the range of 165°F to 200°F) for a couple of hours that it begins to melt and transform into a succulent and juicy substance called gelatin, making for an extremely tender and flavorful piece of meat. However, if you allow your barbecue meat to cook above this "sweet spot" range for a prolonged period of time, you'll end up over-cooking the muscle fibers and turning your meat into a tough, dry, chewy disaster.


Naturally tender, high quality steaks such as these are perfect for quick, high-temperature grilling and searing.

Another incredibly crucial difference between grilling and barbecuing is your ideal cut of meat for each cooking process. Cuts perfect for grilling tend to be on the smaller side, naturally tender, and have little connective tissue. Chicken breast, chops, hamburgers, seafood, and veggies are all ideal candidates for grilling. Steaks such as Ribeye, Filet Mignon, and Porterhouse are best served medium rare with a flavorful crust on the outside. With no tough connective tissue to worry about, these expensive steaks are perfect for the quick-searing high temperatures of grilling. For barbecue, you will want to select a piece of meat that is on the tough side and traditionally known as less desirable in the butcher world. These cuts, such as the beef brisket, pork shoulder, leg of lamb, and ribs have more connective tissue, which makes them perfect for smoky, low-and-slow cooking. You'll want to "steer" clear of the more expensive cuts, as they usually don't turn out as well after being slow cooked in true barbecue style.

Fun Fact: From Time Magazine, we learn that because pigs were cheap and low-maintenance, many of the original southern colonies depended on their pig livestock for food. During particularly hard times, these pigs were set loose in the forest to rummage for their own food. Because of their inconsistent diets and wild lifestyles, the pork from these pigs was usually tough, lean, and gamey. Southern colonists turned to the "low and slow" nature of barbecue to turn these tough cuts into more palatable and tender pieces of meat. Many Carolina-born barbecue purists still consider pork to be the only true type of barbecue.

From the hickory-smoked, sticky sweet sauces of Kansas City to the tangy dry rubs of Memphis, the chopped brisket sandwiches of East Texas to the white pulled pork of Alabama, barbecue lies at the heart of southern American culture and cuisine. But from gorgeous seared Ahi to the perfect medium-rare Porterhouse, there are dishes that just can't be done in the traditional barbecue style. At the end of the day, there is a time and place for both grilling and barbecue. Purists from both camps will sing the praises of their favorite grilling methods, but in reality, it all comes down to preference. Now that you know the differences in these two styles, you can make your own decision on one of man's greatest questions: grill or barbecue?

A Rib Rack, like the one pictured here as part of the Meat Lovers Starter Kit by Napoleon, will help you achieve uniform cooking on your barbecued ribs.

For the best of both worlds, buy a grill that can do both. There are gas grill models with multiple burners and heat zones, such as the 4 Burner Professional Grill by Blaze Outdoor Products, which comes with an optional smoker package. Charcoal grills, such as the Apollo 300 Charcoal Grill by Napoleon, are perfect for achieving that beautiful smoky barbecue taste. Of course, having a dedicated smoker like the Charcoal Portable Smoker Grill by Fire Magic can take you from occasional griller to BBQ Royalty.

If you have any other questions on the nuances of barbecuing or grilling, feel free to call our pit masters at (866) 578-8538, chat us live on the site, or email us by filling out this simple form.

Main Image: A commercial smoker barbecues a large quantity of pork.


Katrina McBreen