The Difference Between Barbecuing and Grilling

Though most cooks tend to think of "barbecuing" and "grilling" as the same thing, the two cooking methods are different. Here's a closer look, with insight from our Test Kitchen.

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When the weather is nice, there’s nothing like making dinner outdoors, over an open flame. But what do you call this cooking method—grilling or barbecuing? The methods are similar, so it’s no wonder many of us use the terms interchangeably. But the two techniques are quite different.

We asked Taste of Home’s culinary editor (and resident pitmaster) James Schend for his insight.

What Is Grilling?

“Grilling is what the vast majority of people are doing when they use these terms,” James says. “This can be done in two main ways: over direct or indirect heat.”

The tried-and-true method for cooking thinner cuts of meat like chicken, chops, burgers and hot dogs is direct heat. You cook your grub directly over the heat source, which sears the food quickly. This kind of heat is also ideal for playing around with grilled fruit and vegetables.

What about indirect heat? This is “when foods are cooked at low to medium heat and the coals or flames are off to one side,” James explains. You should stick to this method for heftier cuts like roasts, ribs and whole chickens. You also want to grill over indirect heat if you plan on baking on the grill.

What Is Barbecuing?

“While grilling can be done fairly quickly, barbecuing is the epitome of low and slow cooking over indirect heat,” James says. He notes that smokers are the go-to for a BBQ but a grill can work for this method, too. And temperature is key when it comes to barbecuing.

“The cooking temperature remains fairly constant between 225° and 275°F. The most iconic characteristic people are looking for from barbecue is that smoky flavor and aroma. Traditionally these meats are cooked over a fire with plenty of flavorful wood added to create the smoke for part of the cooking time.”

Your best bets? James says hickory, apple and mesquite sit at the top of the list.

How to Master Grilling and Barbecuing

James has a few brilliant tips to ensure your fare comes out perfectly each and every time.

  • Make sure your grill is clean. “Foods sticking to the grill grate is one of the biggest pet peeves of most backyard grillers and one of the biggest culprits is not cleaning the grill grates. The easiest way to clean a grill is right after you take the food off; the grill and any bits of food or sauce on the grate are still hot. The mess can easily be scraped away with a wire brush.”
  • Resist the temptation to flip. “We’ve all seen that guy who tosses burgers or steaks on the grill and then constantly moves them around. Don’t be that guy. The best thing you can do is put the steak on the grill and then leave it alone until it starts to naturally release from the grate. Then flip it, preferably over an area of the grill that didn’t have food on it before. If you shuffle food around the grill, the food will cook unevenly and is more likely to stick.”
  • Put the fork down. “You know those beautiful, long forks that come in many grilling kits? Use them for toasting marshmallows but don’t bring them to your grill. I’m a firm believer in using long-handled tongs to turn and remove foods from the grill. Forks will pierce the meat, causing all the juices to come running out.” Find more essential grilling tools from our Test Kitchen.
  • Watch the heat. “The biggest mistake I see most people making is they work over a fire that’s too hot. They usually end up with food that’s charred on the outside and underdone on the interior. Medium to medium-high heat is usually the sweet spot for almost all foods.”
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James Schend, Taste of Home Deputy Editor, Culinary, contributed to this article.

Camille Berry
Part of the third generation in a family of restaurateurs, Camille was born with a passion for cooking and food. She embarked on a career in hospitality where she excelled as a sommelier and wine director. This hospitality experience has given her a wealth of first-hand knowledge about how to pair all manner of drinks with food—plus some serious kitchen skills. These days, she's hung up her wine key in favor of a pen and covers all aspects of food and drink.