BBQ, Grill, Smoker – What’s The Difference?

bbq vs smoker vs grill

BBQ, Grill, Smoker – What’s The Difference?

Summer is around the corner and it is just about that time to call your friends and family over for a nice cookout. With that being said, no cookout is complete without the right equipment and there is no shortage of options when it comes to outdoor cookware. So, between a BBQ, grill, and smoker, what is the best choice, and what is the difference between the three?

The biggest difference between barbecuing, grilling, and smoking is in the cooking time and the type of heat that each requires. Each method can provide a unique and distinct taste. All three of these options get the job done, but choosing the best method comes down to the cook’s preference. 

So, whether you choose the barbecue, grill, or smoker, it is best to do your research before purchasing so that you can get the optimal idea of what you should expect out of each method. In this article, you will get a better idea of the differences between the three methods and what end result to expect when doing each. 

What Is Barbecuing?

What-Is-Barbecuing

Barbecuing is arguably the term most people are familiar with when it comes to outdoor cooking. Barbecuing is a style of cooking that is popular in southern states of the United States. You may have heard of Texas- or Memphis-style barbecue before and each of these styles are distinct from one another.

What differentiates barbecuing from grilling and smoking is the manner in which the food is cooked. The term many use is “low and slow” which describes the lower temperature and lower heat typically used on a barbecue. Barbecuing is usually done at a temperature of anywhere between 190 degrees and 275 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The purpose of the “low and slow” method is to allow the meat to become more tender and take on more of the flavor you seasoned it with before you started the barbecuing process. The barbecuing technique creates the optimal taste for many types of meat, specifically brisket, pork, and ribs, and different kinds of steaks.

The end result that barbecuing has on your food is what makes barbecue-style food so desirable and why so many restaurants focus their menu and name around barbecue-style food. The meat ends up being flavorful and juicy and falls right off of the bone in most cases. With that being said, barbecuing is very different from grilling and smoking. 

Different Styles of Barbecuing 

Different-Styles-of-Barbecuing

A common misconception is that a barbecue is a type of cooking appliance and not just a style of cooking. There are several different barbecuing techniques, each of which can deliver unique results to your food. Most places that you travel to, use different styles of barbecue. Let us take a look at some of the most common techniques.

  • Direct Cooking
  • Indirect Cooking
  • Smoke Cooking with wood chips

These are styles in terms of the actual cooking of the food. When you hear Texas-style, Memphis-style, or any other regional style of barbecue, it is often a combination of the cooking method, the types of foods cooked, and the sauces used on the food as well. Regardless of location, the three methods above are common cooking techniques.

Direct Cooking

Direct cooking is the most common method used in barbecuing. It involves directly grilling over a heat source. This method is great for fish, steaks, and more thin slices of meat. It is fast and effective and it is why most chain restaurants prefer this method over other barbecuing techniques.

The downfall of the direct cooking method is that larger meats will burn before they can take on the flavors of the marinated spices you applied to them before placing them on the grill. You may have to leave your meat marinating for several hours to counter this drawback of direct cooking.

Indirect Cooking

The indirect cooking technique is perhaps the most effective style of barbecuing when it comes to making sure your meat takes on the taste of its seasoned spices and gets cooked completely. Some meats need to be cooked using the indirect method because direct cooking will burn the outside of larger meats without fully cooking the inside.

Indirect cooking is a simple technique that involves leaving your meat to slow roast on the side of the grill that is not directly under the fire. Barbecuing using this technique will take a little bit longer, but you will be able to guarantee that your whole chicken or other large cuts of meat are fully cooked on the inside and outside. 

What Is Smoking?

What-Is-Smoking

Barbecuing and smoking are similar, but unlike barbecuing, the main goal of smoking meat is to enhance the smoky flavor of the meat. You can achieve this by enclosing the meat over the heat of the smoking wood you are cooking with. The similarity with barbecuing comes in that smoking also uses the “low and slow” method.

One of the caveats of smoking meats is the lengthy duration it can take to achieve optimal results. Smoking meats can take anywhere from six to eight hours and some thicker cuts may take up to 20 hours. The length is the reason why you will not typically see smoked meats at your family barbecue or get-together event. 

  • Cold Smoking
  • Hot Smoking

When it comes to smoking meats, the two methods above are the most commonly used. The cold smoking method is not necessarily used for cooking but instead used as a technique to enhance the flavor within food or meats that have already been cooked. Cold smoking is done at a temperature between 70 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Hot smoking is the more common method and is usually done at a temperature between 300 to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Aside from enhancing the smokey flavor, the purpose of hot smoking is to fully cook the meat. Many restaurants smoke their meats ahead of time in anticipation of future orders from their customers. 

Different Types of Smokers

There are several different types of smokers that can all produce unique results for your food. One of the ways to differentiate smokers is how they generate heat. Some smokers use wood pellets, others use coal, and others use any number of other materials to enhance smoke. 

  • Stick burners
  • Charcoal smokers
  • Pellet smokers
  • Gas smokers
  • Electric smokers

These five types of smokers use specific methods when it comes to smoking meats. The difference in the process can be as minuscule as the material it uses to create smoke, but each method can produce a unique cooking experience for your meat. Let us take a closer look at some of these preferred methods of smoking.

Stick Burners

The name says a lot about this style of smoking. Stick burners rely on wood as their one and only source of fuel. This method requires a lot of close attention due to wood being so flammable and the potential for overcooked food being so high. The cooking experience can be very different depending on the model you purchase.

Cheaper smokers are known to be leaky, flimsy and they often struggle to retain heat. If you are cooking with a cheaper smoker, you will need to pay constant attention to your cooking. This method requires a little bit of patience and practice, but it can be a very effective smoking method for your meat. 

Charcoal Smokers

You are likely very familiar with this method as many commonly used grills operate using charcoal. Charcoal smokers do not require as much attention as stick burner smokers. The only caveat to charcoal smokers is the necessity to always have charcoal around before cooking. Some of the more commonly used charcoal smokers include:

  • Bullet smokers
  • Ceramic kamado ovens
  • Drum smokers

Once you fill your smoker with the necessary amount of coal, you can adjust the temperature and place your desired foods on the grill over the goal before closing the lid and letting the smoking process begin. The majority of your smoke will be produced by charcoal but you can enhance it by adding small chunks of wood. 

Pellet Smokers

Pellet smokers are simple to use and work efficiently. A pellet smoker is thermostatically controlled and thus gives you the ability to monitor the temperature that your smoker is working at. All you need to do is set the cooking temperature you want to cook your food at and the smoker will do the rest of the work for you.

Pellet smokers use pellets of sawdust and toss them into a firepot to then combust and create the smoke and heat needed for the machine to operate effectively. As easy as pellet smokers are to use, many believe that the lack of human touch in the cooking process can cap the potential of the food cooked in the smoker.

Gas Smokers/Electric Smokers

Gas smokers use propane tanks to cook, but it does not produce smoke on its own. You will need to add wood chips or chunks to the smoker to produce the extra heat required to create the smoke. This is another smoking method that does not require a lot of attention from the cook.

If you plan to cook for long periods of time, make sure to have multiple propane tanks on hand. Once a propane tank runs out of fuel for your gas smoker, it will no longer produce any heat. Gas smokers are often an expensive grilling option due to the prices of a propane tank and its fueling costs. 

Electric smokers require water, wood chips, and heating methods to produce the necessary heat required to produce smoke. The smoke from an electric smoker will give your food a very different smokey taste than a smoker using a live-fire would give you. Electric smokers often leave a bland taste and cap the potential of your food.

What Is Grilling?

What-is-grilling

Grilling meat is the most common method of cooking meat and it is typically what you will get at a barbecue or outdoor get-together. Unlike barbecuing and smoking, the grilling is fast and the food is cooked directly over the heat of the grill to encourage a faster process. Most grilling is done between 320 to 550 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The high temperature expedites the cooking process while also giving the food a good sear and char. When grilling, it is important to not overcook your food because then it will be at risk of losing its tenderness and flavor from the natural juices of the meat. Grills are a common household appliance and you can even find public grills at a park.

Most grills run on gas or charcoal, but more modern grills run on are developed as infrared grills. Grilling is also one of the most common forms of cooking at restaurants. Most places that have steak or chicken on their menu offer a grilled option. Aside from chicken and steak, grilling is great for several different types of foods such as:

  • Burgers
  • Hotdogs 
  • Seafood
  • Sausages
  • Vegetables (corn, zucchini, bell peppers, onions, asparagus)
  • Fruits (pineapples, pears, melons, pears, avocado)

Grilling food is also a healthier method of cooking because it can help you lower your caloric intake because grilling melts off excess fat from your meat. So, the next time you are invited to an outdoor barbecue, what you will likely see is food being cooked on the grill at high temperatures and fast cooking times.

Different Types of Grills

Different Types of Grills

Grills are found everywhere from your neighbor’s backyard to the local parks around your community. There are several different types of grills to choose from and they each offer unique qualities designed to enhance the grilling experience. Perhaps the most common type of grill is the gas grill, but here are some of the other well-known grills.

  • Charcoal grills
  • Pellet grills
  • Kamado grills
  • Electric grills
  • Portable grills

Many of these grills have different variations, but the style of grilling that they each promote is consistent regardless of the variation. Let us take a closer look at some of the different types of grills as we continue to show the difference between barbecuing, smoking, and grilling. 

Gas Grill

Gas grills are the most commonly used grills in the market and many enjoy their convenience and effectiveness. It is easy to cook with a gas grill and perhaps even easier to clean up afterward. Gas grills require very little prep time before cooking and they can produce delicious food at a rapid pace. 

Gas grilling does not produce the same unique results that barbecuing and smoking techniques produce, but it can still make for great-tasting and flavorful food. Gas grills are ideal for beginners that have never grilled before because they simplify the grilling experience down to the need to only know temperature and time. 

Charcoal Grills

Charcoal grills are also commonly found and used around the world. The biggest difference between gas and charcoal grills is in the way they produce heat. As the name would suggest, charcoal grills use store-bought charcoal to fuel the source of the grill’s fire. You then heat the charcoal and create a layer of heated coals to cook your food.

Pellet Grills

Pellet grills give you a best of both worlds scenario in that you get all the benefits of flavorful grilled food while also getting a hint of the taste you get from the smoking method. Pellet grills are fueled by flavored wood pellets and you can use several different flavors to enhance the taste of your food.

  • Maple
  • Cherry
  • Apple
  • Pecan
  • Hickory

Pellet grills are as close to a grilling/smoking combination as you will find. They are easy to control and cook on and cleaning afterward is easy as well. Despite the similarities this method has to smoking, it is still a grilling method and therefore not entirely the same as pellet smoking.

Many pellet grills are electric so you can control them like you would a thermostat. They have different settings you can program. You have to be careful about power outages with electric appliances, though, as any loss of power will ruin your cook.

Electric Grills

Electric grills are designed for more indoor cooking and are commonly used for healthier style grilling. Electric grills run on electricity and should not be used indoors if they produce smoke or large fires. 

These grills are thought of as more of an at-home, quick dinner solution. They typically run small in size and can fit on your kitchen countertop. Fuel costs are non-existent and cleaning up after use is also very easy. 

Conclusion

Grilling, smoking, and barbecuing all result in delicious and flavorful food, but there is no denying the differences between the three. All three have distinct cooking methods, and the main differences come down to temperature and time.

Barbecuing takes a few hours and is typically cooked at a low heat between 200 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Smoking can be done at a low heat of 70 to 90 degrees for a cold smoking method or at 350 to 400 degrees for a hot smoke. Finally, grilling is done between 320 to 550 degrees and will typically take very little time.

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