The Difference Between Smoking, Barbecuing, and Grilling

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  June 2, 2022

Always the latest smoking tips & tricks?

Subscribe to THE ESSENTIAL newsletter for aspiring pitmasters

We'll only use your email address for our newsletter and respect your privacy

I love creating free content full of tips for my readers, you. I don't accept paid sponsorships, my opinion is my own, but if you find my recommendations helpful and you end up buying something you like through one of my links, I could earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Learn more

While the general term for grilling meat and food is called “barbecue” or “barbecuing” there are actually 3 distinct types of cooking meat and those are smoking, barbecuing and grilling.

These different methods of cooking meat determine their flavor, taste, and texture.

Here’s a brief explanation on how each cooking method works:

Smoking vs barbecuing vs grilling

Smoking

Unless you have that level of patience that only old and tenured people have, then I highly recommend that you do not try this method of cooking food.

This is because it can take days and even weeks to smoke and cure food as already stated earlier.

Unlike grilling and barbecuing meat, smoking them requires you to be finesse especially in determining when the meat is ready for consumption, because even just a small miscalculation in the timing, you can ruin the meat altogether.

The problem with prematurely smoking the meat is that while the surface layer may look cooked, the inner parts of the meat may not cook well due to the surface layer which had been dried out and hardened and it prevents heat from penetrating the meat.

How to buy a bbq smoker video
How to buy a bbq smoker video

This is the reason why smoking should not be rushed.

There are two ways to smoke meat and those are cold smoking and hot smoking.

For cold smoking, the temperature inside the smoker grill needs to be precisely between 68° to 86° Fahrenheit and is smoked until the meat has a smoky flavor but remains moist.

The goal of cold smoking is to accentuate the meat’s flavor and to make it very soft to the bite.

Cold smoking is good for:

  • Chicken breast
  • Beef
  • Sausage
  • Pork chops
  • Salmon
  • Scallops
  • Steak
  • Cheese

Note: Meats that undergo a cold-smoking process should be cured prior to consumption.

Hot smoking cooks the meat thoroughly and does not need to be cured before consumption. The required temperatures for hot smoking is between 126° to 176° Fahrenheit (do not exceed temperature above 185° Fahrenheit).

Even when hot smoking it is still desired for the meat to remain moist and soft.

Hot smoking is good for:

Read more: rotisserie chicken, delicious but is it good for you?

Smoking vs. Grilling

Smoking is different from grilling because it cooks meat at low temperatures and over long periods of time. Temperatures are usually kept at 225 to 275 degrees Fahrenheit and cooking can take anything from three to 15 hours and more. Most pitmasters use wood chips, pellets or chunks so they can get that nice smoky flavor that only wood can impart.

On the other hand, grilling requires you to cook at higher temperatures of up to 350 degrees Fahrenheit or more, but over a shorter period of time. Grilling doesn’t necessarily require wood chips or chunks and it allows you to open or close the dome according to your preferences.

How Does Smoking Work?

The key to making the perfect barbecue is to keep a low temperature and cook the food over a longer period of time. In theory, this sounds simple but in reality, it can be difficult to master.

To simplify, let’s start with the fuel.

You can use wood pellets, charcoal, gas or electricity. Wood chips or wood chunks can be added for that perfect smoky flavor.

The key is to keep oxygen supply under control to maintain low temperatures; hence smoking is called the “low and slow” method.

How to Do Your First Smoke

Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not able to master smoking from the get-go. It takes time for anyone and you’re no different. In the end, your meat will taste that much better when you know how much effort has gone into making it, so don’t be afraid to experiment and learn as you go.

Most experts recommend starting with something simple like a clean cut of pork butt. It’s easy to make and allows you to learn through trial and error without completely ruining your dish.

Next, consider buying a few combinations of spice rubs and some barbecue sauce to add flavor and take it from there. Of course, you’re going to need a good quality smoker to get a good final result, which is why we’ve compiled a list of the portable smokers on the market.

Barbecuing

Barbecuing is a method of cooking where you roast any meat and some vegetables (these are best) over an open grill on an open flame, oven, or other heat sources, usually with open grates and most often by using charcoal.

This style of cooking uses dry heat where hot air envelops the food, cooking it thoroughly inside and out with temperatures of at least 150° Celsius or higher.

It was the Spanish and British sailors who brought barbecue to American which they borrowed from the natives of the Caribbean islands.

The southern United States is where the American tradition of grilling originated and it goes way back prior to the 1776 Civil War.

bbq

Over the centuries people have adapted this cooking method all across the United States and their uniqueness was identified by the taste of the sauce for the grilled meat that they made.

This came the various styles of BBQ and even in other parts of the world countries and regions have also come up with their own version of barbecue.

Barbecuing is vastly different from smoking as it takes only some 30 minutes to a few hours to cook the meat. Add the sauce and you’re good to go!

Grilling

Grilling is also very unique compared to the other 2 kinds of cooking meat and its purpose is to char the surface of the meat and seal in the juices by creating a smoky caramelized crust.

Although a lot of people refer to barbecuing as grilling, grilling itself is not necessarily done on an open flame but can be done with oil on a flat surface without grates as well.

Grilling is the second most popular way of cooking food over high heat (barbecuing is the most popular) and while it has been copied by almost everyone in the world, no one has deviated from the standard cooking method yet.

Grilling meat in some other way than searing the meat surface and making it extra juicy would probably be inconceivable, although a true cooking genius might find a way.

For now, though, it shall be done the way it has always been done for over 200 years.

Grilling is good for:

Also read: this is how a smoker works with an offset smoker diagram and video

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Lakeside Smokers is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with BBQ Smoking (& Japanese food!) at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.