What's the Difference Between Barbecuing and Grilling?

What's the Difference Between Barbecuing and Grilling?

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Grace Elkus
Jun 12, 2018
(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Many of us use the terms "barbecuing" and "grilling" interchangeably. For example, you've likely invited friends and family over for a backyard barbecue, where you're serving up grilled burgers and dogs. If we're getting technical (and we are), that's not actually a barbecue. Here's why.

The Difference Between Barbecuing and Grilling

Although barbecuing and grilling both refer to cooking food outdoors over a heat source, they aren't interchangeable terms for the same cooking technique. The most important factors that differentiate the two are the type of heat used and the total cook time.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

What Is Barbecuing?

The term barbecuing refers to cooking meat low and slow, either on a grill or a smoker. The meat — often large, bone-in cuts such as ribs, pork shoulder, pork butt, or brisket — is cooked over indirect heat (away from the flame) for at least a few hours and often the entire day, until very tender and falling off the bone. According to Mark Bittman in his cookbook How to Grill Everything, barbecuing is often done between 225°F and 275°F, and requires the food be surrounded by wood smoke for part of the cooking time.

Welcome to the party! In addition to being a cooking method, the term barbecue is also widely used to refer to social events, where friends and family gather outdoors (typically in the summertime) to enjoy the barbecued food. Both the specific type of food served as well as the details of the gathering vary across the country — primarily by region, but also by state, city, and even counties.

Our Best Slow-Cooker Barbecue Recipes

It might not be traditional, but we at Kitchn often mimic the effects of barbecue in our slow cookers, which cooks meat slowly and gently with moist cooking rather than smoke.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

What Is Grilling?

Grilling is what you're likely doing more often on your grill: cooking food quickly over direct heat at high temperatures. Whereas barbecuing is low and slow, grilling is hot and fast, and gives food a quick sear. If you're cooking seafood, steak, hamburgers, hot dogs, sausages, pork chops, or boneless chicken breasts, chances are, you're grilling. Vegetables and fruits are also popular foods to grill. At-home grilling is most often done over a gas or charcoal grill.

Don't worry — you can still use barbecue sauce on your grilled foods (phew!). Just be sure to slather it on at the end of the cook time, since the high heat can cause the sugars in the sauce to burn.

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