What’s the Difference Between Grilling and Barbecuing?

Grilling and barbecuing can often get quite muddled and confused with one another. It is quite common for many people to use these two words as substitutes of one another, interchanging them and thinking they are the same thing. I am not going to lie, for a long time I thought they were the same thing as well. I mean both deal with cooking and both deal with using a grill and using that heat from the grill to cook various meats and veggies. Sounds the same, but when you actually research the two, you realize that both terms actually refer to different types of cooking that yield some pretty different results. Still confused? Don’t worry. This article will aim to clear up some of that confusion. It isn’t easy to wrap your head around something that you thought to be true for a while, but hopefully I can break it down for you in a way that helps you understand that grilling and barbecuing are truly different in certain aspects and are not technically the same thing.

It’s All Chalked up to Temperature and Time

To really understand the difference between these two terms you have to peg it down to two factors. These factors are temperature and time. The temperature and time required to grill something is not the same temperature and time required to barbecue something. Matt Lee of the Lee Bros and a well-known cookbook author states that grilling is actually done over direct heat with very high temperatures. The whole point behind grilling food is to grill good food with a quick sear. Getting this quick sear on your food is through putting it on the grill and letting it sit on the grill long enough just to get those grill marks and to cook the food up. The method of grilling is not really all about patience and time. It is more about using time wisely and quickly to produce good food that tastes very similar to barbecued food at about half the time. Grilling is typically what normal families do and people of varying cooking skills can do! Barbecuing on the other hand is actually a lot different because it’s pretty exclusive. The method of barbecuing is a discipline that is actually reserved for only esteemed and highly skilled members who have the time to really produce quality, barbecued meat. The whole point of barbecue is completely different from the intended point of grilling, in the sense that barbecue embodies the concept of “I have time and nothing but time.” You need to have a serious time commitment and patience to barbecue food and, in this case, low and slow really wins the race. A chef known as David Bancroft of Acre stated that within his own household “Barbecue, for my family, is low and slow cooking, where grilling is intense direct heat.”

The Enjoyment is Different
Grilling is a method that is typically done between a family in a more intimate setting. Grilling is more about the experience of getting dinner on the table for family and using the time to enjoy good food, while also enjoying company. Now don’t get me wrong, barbecuing is the same concept in terms socializing and spending quality time with the people most important to you, but there is a key difference in the socialization done with grilling and the socialization done with barbecuing. Grilling is focused on socializing and making those memories once the food is done and ready to be enjoyed. Whereas barbecuing is all about making those memories while you are cooking the food (because you will be at the grill for a very long time). In other words, grilling is more focused on enjoying the food whereas barbecuing is also focused on enjoying the food as well, but also enjoying the process of cooking the food, which is where grilling becomes excluded.

Maybe it’s the Sauce

Grilling can possibly be considered the baby or junior version to the barbecue method. Many people think that throwing something on a grill, basting ribs or chicken with barbecue sauce, and flipping burgers and hotdogs are the essence of a barbecue, but that is not particularly true. The essence of the term barbecue is low, low heat and slow cooking that lasts for hours. Ted Lee of the Lee Bros actually blames the problem of thinking that barbecuing and grilling are the same thing, on barbecue sauce itself. The issue of people using both of these terms interchangeably can actually be traced way farther back to the 1930’s in which a West-coast oriented magazine published “Sunset’s Barbecue Book” as a way to capitalize off the popularity of barbecuing that was booming all over the West of the US. Tim Miller, wrote in his article “The Birth of the Patio Daddy-O: Outdoor Grilling in Postwar America” that the fad of being outdoors, rising suburbs, etc. all contributed to this popularity of families getting out there and grilling their food in their backyards. People begin mistaking anything that had been thrown on a grill and slabbed with barbecue sauce as barbecued food. The two words are not synonymous at all though and if you try to argue that they are then prepare to get a few words from the absolute barbecue-aficionados.

There is a Skill to Barbecuing
There is a huge reason as to why barbecue connoisseurs become visibly upset when someone uses the term barbecuing to refer to something that is clearly grilling. It is because when you use the words interchangeably, you are unknowingly chalking up the skills of barbecuing and grilling as being the same, when they are most definitely not. Grilling does not really require skill. As long as you follow the directions, you can have good grilled meat within 30-40 minutes. Barbecuing meat on the other hand is way beyond the scope of 30-40 minutes and following directions from a website. There has to be a lot of knowledge that goes into creating the perfect barbecued meat that is juicy and bursting with flavor. The person who barbecues has to know the right cuts of meat, what the freshest meat looks like, they need to know how to clean the grill so that it doesn’t affect the taste of the meat, they have to cut off certain areas of fat and leave fat on other areas, they need to place their meat in a certain position over a certain area of the grill and don’t even get me started on the level of skill and patience required to know when to turn the meat over and understand if your meat is holding up well or not! These are just the basics of the level of knowledge needed to really barbecue. There is so much more and by knowing this and still using the concept of barbecuing and grilling as the same thing, you tend to dumb down the technique and complexity of barbecuing which is so unfair to those who barbecue seriously and want people to recognize their skills as a serious talent. So be very cautious about these two words!

The Difference in Temperature and its Effect on Meat
To truly understand the difference in temperature required for the two cooking methods, I will quantify the temperature for you. Temperatures of about 500-550 degrees Fahrenheit are typically used to grill meat whereas barbecued meat have to slow cook over low temperatures of about 225 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. This difference in temperature actually ends up changing the meat taste by quite a lot! The muscle fibers of the meat respond differently to the difference in temperatures, producing some pretty different tastes. The opacity, firmness, shrinking, browning, moisture loss, and fat breakdown can be completely altered by how you choose to cook the meat and for this reason grilling and barbecuing cannot be considered the same thing. They produce some pretty different results in terms of quality and therefore shouldn’t be coined the same thing.

The Heat Source is Different

The heat source for both grilling and barbecuing is another thing to add to the list of reasons of why these methods are not the same thing. Barbecuing cooks on the concept of indirect heat meaning that the heat source is connected to the chamber where the meat is on, but the meat is never placed directly over the heat flames on the grill. In terms of barbecuing, charcoal or wood tend to be the most common ways to produce heat and this also alters the taste of the meat. The use of charcoal or wood gives the meat a smoky flavor that the meat can absorb. Grilling on the other hand refers to cooking the meat directly over the heat source for fast heating and this generally done with a gas or charcoal meat source. This means that the meat produced from grilling does not have the same natural smoky taste as the meat made from barbecuing, because it isn’t cooked for that long and does not cook over charcoal or wood. In this case, majority of the flavor of the meat is going to come from the spice and marinade. Barbecuing relies on flavor coming from the actual technique of barbecuing the food and not just the sauces used.

The Meats Used are Typically Different
When it comes to grilling meat as opposed to barbecuing it, you will find that the meats used are actually not the same typically. Barbecuing tends to incorporate meats such as ribs, pork shoulders, beef briskets, whole chickens or whole turkeys. These are all meats that absolutely need a long and slow time to cook because they are quite tough. The low and slow heat helps to make such tough meats tender and flavorful enough to eat. Grilling on the other hand, typically uses meats that are easy to consume and cook in a short amount of time. This includes meats like steaks, pork chops, seafood, hamburgers, and hot dogs. All of these meats are made naturally in a way in which they can be enjoyed at a much quicker cooking time than that of barbecued meats.

Sauces and Marinades are a Bit Different
Both methods of cooking for sure rely on some type of mixture of ingredients that will offer flavor to the meat being cooked, but the way in which these sauces and marinades made actually differ quite a lot. Grilling typically calls for marinades in which the meat, veggies, or fruit, soak in some sort of liquid marinade that lasts anywhere from an hour to overnight. The meat absorbs the marinade and then the meat is cooked while the rest of the marinade is discarded. This is not the case for barbecued meat. Barbecued meat does not utilize a marinade rather it utilizes spices that come in the form of dry rub. The dry rub is rubbed all over the meat during the cooking process and this is typically where barbecued meat gets its flavor from.

Don’t get me wrong! Both barbecuing and grilling are great options! If you realize that barbecuing is a skill you aren’t very good at then thank god for grilling! Grilling is another fast and great alternative that yields meats similar to a barbecued meat just in a more shortcut method that requires less skill and patience. Barbecued meats are reserved for those who have a lot of knowledge about the art of cooking tough meat and so we will leave the whole skill and difficulty of barbecuing to them. They probably end up yielding meats that are slightly juicier, smokier and better in taste than grilling, but not by too much to the point that you would never think of grilling ever again. Both are wonderful options and no matter what you choose I am sure that you will produce an overall flavorful piece of meat for you and your family to enjoy and remember! Keep calm and carry on barbecuing and grilling!

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