What’s the difference between grilling and BBQ? In popular culture, people use these terms interchangeably, probably because both grilling and barbecuing typically involve cooking meats outside. But there is actually a real difference between grilling and BBQ, and if you don’t know it, you’re likely to use the wrong tools and get the wrong results.
The 4 major differences between grilling and barbecue involve:
Heat ♦︎ Time ♦︎ Type of Meat Used ♦︎ Smoke
1. HEAT: The most obvious difference between Grilling and BBQ is the amount of heat involved.
♦︎ Grilling is a high, direct heat method. High temperatures from either a gas grill or from glowing charcoal radiate directly below the cooking surface of the grill grate. Since the heat is only coming from one direction, the meat being cooked needs to be flipped in order to cook evenly. This direct form of heat transfer cooks the meat through radiation and conduction. Radiant heat from charcoal or gas flames and the heat energy in the grill grate transfers directly through conduction since the meat is on the grate’s surface.
Characteristic grilled flavors come from fat that drips off the meat hitting the heat source and generating smoke that seasons the food slightly. Hot coals and gas flames (as well as flames from grease flare-ups) are in the temperature range of 2,000-3,800°F (1,093-2,093°C), and the surface of the grill grate is in the temperature range of 500-700°F (260-371°C)—depending on how many coals are being used, how high the gas is turned up, and whether or not the lid is closed (the lid is generally left open for grilling). Those are some seriously high temperatures!
♦︎ BBQ is a low and slow, indirect heat cooking method. The heat source cooks the meat indirectly, meaning that the coals or flame are either far below or to the side of the meat. During the cook, the lid of the grill or smoker is kept closed, and the meat is cooked through convection heat transfer as the ambient heat circulates around the meat. These moderate cooking temperatures are in the range of 200-300°F (93-149°C)—a far cry from the high temps of grilling!
2. TYPE OF MEAT USED: Different cuts of meat require different levels of heat to cook properly.
♦︎ Grilling: Since the high heat will cook the meat so quickly, grilling is best suited to small, naturally tender cuts of meat. Steaks, chops, chicken breasts and seafood are perfect candidates for this quick cooking method.
♦︎ BBQ: Large, tough, sinewy cuts of meat with great amounts of connective tissue are ideal for the low and slow cooking process of barbecue. Taking a tough piece of meat and turning it into a tender, succulent masterpiece is at the heart and soul of traditional BBQ. Ideal meats for this cooking method include pork shoulder, brisket, and ribs.
These cuts of meat are heavily worked muscles of the animal, and as such, have very tough protein and contain a web of connective tissue.
3. TIME: Not only do different cuts of meat need different cooking temperatures, they need to cook for different lengths of time.
♦︎ Grilling: The high heat temperatures of grilling bring the meat up to their internal doneness temperature very quickly. The average cook time when grilling is only 5-20 minutes. The meats used for grilling should be small enough to be cooked thoroughly in a short period of time and be naturally tender. Low and slow cooking is necessary for meats with tough protein and high amounts of connective tissue. Examples of items well-suited for grilling are steaks, chops, chicken pieces, seafood fillets, hamburgers, and vegetables.
♦︎ BBQ: In barbecue, the lower temperatures and indirect heat sources take much longer to circulate around and transfer through the meat. Cook times are typically 2 hours and up—and can be as much as 18 hours, depending on the size of the meat being cooked. Not only is time required to bring the meat up to its target temperature, but the connective tissues (like collagen) in tougher cuts take time to unwind and dissolve. Even if you were to slice a thin piece pork shoulder and cook it quickly to its target temperature on a hot grill, it would be too tough to eat because the proteins and connective tissues wouldn’t have time to break down. Collagen begins to unwind in the range of 160-170°F (71-77°C) but it takes hours to break down. Only long slow cooks over indirect heat (“low and slow”) will effectively unwind the connective tissues in these tougher cuts. When the connective tissues do unwind, they turn into silky smooth gelatin and make for very succulent eating.
4. SMOKE: Smokey flavors take time to develop.
♦︎ Grilling: Smoke is not used in grilling. The high temperatures on a grill produce flare-ups, not significant smoke. However, smoke can be used in the hybrid cooking method called grill-roasting (read more about this in our recent posts Indirect Heat: Grill-Roasted Sweet Stuffed Pork Loin, and Indirect Heat: Grilling Tri Tip).
Smoke is the essence of barbecue. it is what differentiates barbecue from other types of cooking. —Meathead, AmazingRibs.com
♦︎ BBQ: Smoke is always used in BBQ. Wood chips and chunks are used in this lower temperature range (200-300°F [93-149°C]) to provide flavorful smoke over a long period of time. The type of wood used is a matter of personal preference.
♦︎ Speed: Instant-read probe thermometers are the best choice for grilling, and the Thermapen® is our #1 recommendation. The Thermapen allows you to quickly spot-check meat for its internal temperature without burning your hand. When correctly probing grilled meat (see our post, How to Temp a Steak: Getting it Right), the fast, accurate readings allow you to observe changing and differing temperatures from edge to edge in real time—you can be confident that you’ve captured the meat’s lowest temperature in its thermal center.
A fast, accurate thermometer is one of the simplest ways to improve the safety and quality of your food. We use our favorite thermometer, the ThermoWorks Thermapen Mk4, every day. —Master of the Grill, America’s Test Kitchen
♦︎ Leave-in probe thermometers are NOT recommended for grilling. The high temperatures involved with this cooking method (500-700°F [260-371°C] on the grill surface) are beyond the maximum temperature thresholds of these thermometers that are best-suited for the low and slow cooking method of smoking meat. See the table below:
There are some ThermoWorks Probes that are suited to very high temperatures and hot environments (like the Hi-Temp Flexibly Ceramic Probe) but they are specialized, typically more expensive and not recommended for grilling.
♦︎ Tracking not only the meat’s internal temperature, but the ambient temperature of your smoker is critical with low and slow cooking. Leave-in probe alarm thermometers are the ideal tools for the job. DOT®, ThermaQ®, and ChefAlarm® (pictured below) are all models that track the internal temperature of large roasts and whole poultry well over a long period of time during roasting and smoking.
♦︎ High Alarms: The DOT, ThermaQ, and ChefAlarm have high alarms that sound when the set temperature is reached. This is ideal for knowing when your meat has reached its internal pull temperature. When using an air probe to track the internal cook temperature of your smoker, you’ll know when the cooker has reached the high end of its temperature range and its time to close some vents.
♦︎ Low Alarm: ThermaQ and ChefAlarm each have a low alarm feature in addition to their high alarm. This feature is unique to ThermoWorks products. The low alarm is an important feature to keep your smoker within your target cook temperature range. The set low alarm will sound when the cooker’s temperature has fallen to the low end of the desired temperature range, allowing you to open vents or add fuel to keep your meat in the optimal cook range for the full duration of the cook.
♦︎ Max and Min: Both ThermaQ and ChefAlarm have max and min temperature recording. You’ll know the highest and lowest temperatures reached in the cooker and the internal temperature of the meat over the entire cook. These temperatures can be reset once the meat is pulled from the heat source to next track the meat’s temperature fluctuations during the rest.
♦︎ Dual Channel: The ThermaQ has two channels so you can track both the meat and cooker temperatures with the same device! It’s a favorite of cooks who are serious about barbecue.
An alarm thermometer isn’t the only device you need for your ‘cue. An instant-read thermometer (like the Thermapen) should still be at your side to spot-check internal temperatures after the meat’s high alarm sounds at the end of the cook. You want to be 100% sure you’ve captured the lowest temperature in the meat before you pull it off the heat.
Knowing the difference between grilling and barbecue isn’t just a good piece of information for your gee whiz file, it helps you know which of these top-rated devices to use in your outdoor cooking adventures. So now you know!