There’s a lot of confusion and misconceptions about the difference between grilling, barbecuing, and smoking. Even among professional chefs, the three terms are used interchangeably, adding to the confusion among the general public. Despite the casual substitution of one word for another, grilling, barbecuing, and smoking are three different, individual cooking techniques.
The difference between grilling and smoking is that grilling is a fast, high temperature method of cooking, while smoking is done over a period of hours at low temperatures. The term “barbecue” also describes a low temperature and slow cooking method, but there are subtle differences that differentiate it from the technique of smoking.
Grilling is the most basic and easiest form of cooking over fire for most people to grasp. In fact, when most people say they are having a barbecue, they really mean that they are grilling. Grilling involves temperatures in excess of 500 degrees Fahrenheit and is a quick cooking technique. Meats and vegetables that are grilled take minutes to cook rather than hours. When a person places food on a hot grill, several things begin to happen. First, the high temperature of the charcoal or gas fire begins to sear the meat. When this happens, the outside becomes tough, creating an impermeable barrier, which traps the moisture of the mean inside, creating juicy, tender morsels of meat. Not only this, but as the outside begins to sear, it also begins to brown. A complex series of chemical reactions called the Maillard reaction takes place as the browning begins. The meat forms a crusty, caramelized outer layer that is deep and rich in flavor. This caramelized outer layer is the reason that foods that are roasted, fried, grilled, or browned in a skillet taste better than the same foods that are boiled in water. Not only does the browned, crispy layer keep the moisture in the meat inside its flesh, but it also keeps smoke from getting into the meat and penetrating it deeply.
A lot of people are under the impression that grilling meats is the same as smoking because they see what they think is smoke as they grill. Gas and charcoal, the two most common forms of grilling fuels used at home today do not produce smoke on their own. Instead, what people are seeing when they grill is smoke coming up from the charcoals or gas burners due to oils dripping from the food and burning. True smoking is a completely different process than grilling. Smoking is a low temperature and slow process that is carried out under indirect heat, which means that the object being smoked is not directly above the fire. In order to smoke foods, cooks throw in pieces of wood chips into the fire. As these pieces begin to smolder, they release pungent smoke, which can permeate the food. In order for the smoke to penetrate meats fully, the temperature of the fire has to be low in order to stop the outside surface of the meat from sealing in the juices as in grilling. Generally, smoking is done at temperatures that are below 200 degrees Fahrenheit for hours at a time. The long cooking time is a requirement for the smoky flavor to go throughout the meat. The smoking process also acts as a preserving technique, as the salt and smoke in the process help to draw out moisture, which bacteria that are responsible for spoiling thrive on. In addition, smoked foods are usually eaten cold or at room temperature. Herein lies the subtle difference between smoking and barbecue. While barbecued foods are smoked at low temperatures over a long period of time, they are generally eaten right away after cooking while they are still hot. True smoking, also allows the smoke flavor to penetrate cuts of meat more fully than barbecuing, although some experts would disagree.
While barbecuing, grilling, and smoking are terms that may be used interchangeably in casual conversation, they are inherently different from one another. Knowing the three techniques can make all the difference in the end result, producing food products that are dramatically different from one another.