Barbecue vs. Grilling: What’s the Diff?

BBQ vs Grill

Question: Do you know the difference between the barbecue and grilling?

Second Question: Do you care?

I was getting ready to grill a few burgers when my neighbor walked over. We struck up a conversation about yard work, planting and my grill. You would never guess that an innocent conversation would turn into an outdoor cooking learning experience. It started when he asked a very innocent question. “Getting ready for a barbecue?”

“Nope,” I responded. “I’m firing up the grill for some burgers.”

“That’s what I said; you’re getting the barbecue going.”

“No barbecue; just some burgers tonight.”

“Yep, I love a good barbecue.”

I realized that the conversation was going around in circles. Before I go any further I should state that different parts of the country refer to outdoor cooking in different ways and manufacturers and packaging designers have blurred the difference between grilling and the barbecue process. There is a distinct difference between the two types of cooking methods. In addition there are many style and variations of both the grilling and barbecue process.

One a side note: For the purpose of this article anything cooked in a crock pot is not barbecue.

Barbecue as a Verb or a Noun

In many parts of country the term “barbecue” is used to describe any outdoor cooking. It could be grilling with any type of fuel, using a full outdoor stove and kitchen setup, using a smoker and everything in between.  In this case the word is often used to describe an event such as a party or cookout. “Hey guys, come over this weekend! I’m having a barbecue.” Maybe you’ve heard something like this, “I barbecued the heck out of those chicken breasts.”

What is grilling?

This is where the confusion is for many people. Take a look around Outdora at the wide selection of grills and outdoor cooking items. There are complete outdoor kitchens, grills, pizza ovens, smokers and more.  You may notice that a large number of items are listed as grills use the direct heat source cooking method. This means that you would cook your chosen food item on grates directly over a preheated heat source. The temperatures, for this conversation, are often medium high to high heat and the fuel source could be gas, propane, charcoal, wood, pellets or a combination such as propane with wood chips for smoke flavor.

Think of a steak hitting the hot grates of a grill and hearing that sizzle… can you hear it? That’s grilling. Cooking directly over your heat source with cooking times often not lasting longer that several minutes. How long does it take to cook a burger, chicken breast, salmon on a cedar plank, a pork chop, veggies or a steak? In most cases the cooking times are short. The food is done, plate it, call the kids to grab a bun and enjoy dinner.

What is the barbecue cooking process?

In general, the barbecue cooking process is defined as cooking using an offset and or low heat source with maintained and constant lower temperatures in a closed chamber utilizing wood or wood chunks in order to provide flavor. The barbecue cooking process by nature requires longer cooking times due to the lower temperatures. The way this works is that the lower temps created by an offset heat source, let’s say 225 degrees, allows the meat to cook slower which creates a chemical process that eventually renders off excess fat and break down connective tissue allowing for tenderness. Think of ribs grilled over high heat and those slow smoked. While both may taste great, the slow smoked version will more often than not be tenderer than the grilled version. Grilling does not always allow for the rendering process to happen because of the higher temps because the meat reacts differently. This is why better cuts of meat are often used on the grill because better cuts may be naturally tender where as cuts such as ribs and buts may be tougher which would require the longer and slower cooking process.

Variations – you bet!

Confused? Don’t be. Here is the general rule of thumb. Grilling is cooking directly over a heat source often at medium high to high temps and the barbecue cooking process is using an indirect heat source with a constant low and maintained temperature over a longer period of time. Now, add in covered grills, pellet smokers, combination grill and smoker setups, cooking a whole hog in a pit or cowboys slow roasting dinner on the range — the variations are endless. If you are a Ceramic Kamado Grill owner you already understand the variations that are available.

See question number two.

Refer back to the beginning of the article where I ask two questions. The first one is answered now that you have a basic understanding of the two cooking methods. The second question is; “Do you Care?” In all honesty I would have to say that I don’t really care if I’m eating grilled surf and turf with a side salad or slow hickory smoked ribs with a side of slaw and homemade cornbread. And I’m sure it does not matter to your guests when they belly up to the table. What is important is being able to utilize the different cooking methods to your chosen meal which will be easier if you’re wondering why your grilled ribs are tough or your slow smoked ribs are not done in twenty minutes.

Bonus Grilling Tip – Flavor

A great way to add extra flavor to your outdoor cooking is by using flavor enhancers that are not used on the food as in a marinade or a rub. You can add flavored water and spices to a drip or water pan. You can add wood chips such as hickory, apple, mesquite and more. Some grills and smokers have these features built in or you may need to purchase a universal item to hold something such as wood chips. Before using any item like this please consult your grill manufacture or retailer. A great example of these would be the Big Green Egg wood chips found on Outdora .


Kent Whitaker, known as The Deck Chef, is a cookbook and culinary writer. His books are available nationally and include Smoke in the Mountains – The Art of Appalachian Barbecue, Checkered Flag Cooking – Tailgating Stock Car Racing and the state by state Hometown Cookbook series which he co-authors with Sheila Simmons.  To date the series includes the Tennessee Hometown Cookbook, The Georgia Hometown Cookbook, The Mississippi Hometown Cookbook, Louisiana, Texas and South Carolina.

Kent is the winner of the Emeril Live Barbecue Contest on Food Network and Gold Medal recipient from the American Authors Association in the culinary and cookbook genre. You can contact Kent via email – thedeckchef[at]hotmail[dot]com or visit him online at

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