Let's go back to where this story began, 491 years ago with Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes. He was a Spanish historian and writer, who was part of the discovery of the New World. At some point, he encountered a band of Taino Natives cooking meat on woven wooded sticks over coals, so he asked them what they called the grill, and they responded, "Barbacoa."
He was the first person to write the word “barbacoa” in his history book, De la Historia General y Natural de las Indias. And over time, the word Barbacoa worked its way around the Caribbean and ended up in English dictionaries as barbecue or barbeque. The Oxford dictionary lists bbq as both a noun describing the grill and a verb describing the cooking style.
So the original meaning of the term barbacoa was, indeed, a grill. Does that make barbecuing and grilling synonymous?
Let's consider this. When your grill grate is made of wood, you have to position it high above the fire so it does not burn. Considering this, the meat was most likely being cooked with hot smoke as much as it was being cooked with fire. And historians discovered that this method of smoking was also used by the Natives to flavor their food and help preserve it. So even though the origin of the word barbecue was used to describe a grill, that grill was technically a smoker.
So what about grilling?
The history of grilling begins long before barbecue, when man first tamed fire, about 500,000 years ago.
Today, when we think of grilling, we go straight to the backyard grill, where we make a fire to cook our hot dogs and hamburgers.
Although barbecue and grilling have the same roots, today they are two very different styles of cooking. Let’s take a look at the differences between the two.
4 Ways That Barbecue Differs from Grilling
Before we get to the differences, what do the two styles of cooking have in common? Well, they both utilize fire and a grill grate. From there, the styles diverge in four distinct ways:
- Cooking Time
- Cooking Temperature
- The Cuts of Meat
- Smoking or Non-Smoking
Every animal has different types of meat requiring different preparation and cooking methods to make them tender and delicious. It is the main reason we have two kinds of cooking styles to handle the various cuts.
Let’s look at each method:
The Characteristics of Barbecue
- Cooking time – Long, low, and slow. From four to twenty-four hours
- Cooking temperature – Low temperatures, about 225°F (107°C)
- Cuts of Meat – Large, tough, fatty meats full of connective tissues such as ribs, shoulder, butts, and brisket
- Smoke – The key ingredient is smoke from aromatic wood like hickory or mesquite
The Characteristics of Grilling
- Cooking time – Short, hot, and fast. Five to fifteen minutes
- Cooking temperature – High temperatures, 500°F (260°C) or greater
- Cuts of Meat – Thin or ground cuts such as steak, burgers or chicken breast
- No Smoke – The meat is not on the grill long enough for smoke to impart much flavor.
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Digital Instant Read Meat Thermometer ($10.10 on Amazon)
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Using Marinades and Spices
Almost every chef and pitmaster sprinkle a little salt and pepper on everything they grill or smoke. However, there is a big difference between grilling and bbq when it comes to using dry spices (rubs) and wet marinades.
You’ll find stronger seasonings, both wet or dry, for barbecue compared to grilling. The long cooking time allows the flavors to work their way into the meat, while the lower temperatures don’t burn, carbonize, and turn the surface spices bitter.
In contrast, when grilling at high temperatures, rubs on meat tend to burn, so rather than add more flavor, it just tastes bitter and off-putting.
Also, when it comes to grilling meats, it is wise to avoid wet marinades as the moister prevents browning. Especially when it comes to the grill marks that are a commonly loved sign of a perfectly grilled piece of meat.
Remember, browning isn’t just a sign of having been cooked, due to the Maillard reaction, of proteins and sugars caramelizing, it’s an added layer of flavor. Unfortunately, wet marinades can prevent it.
Adding Barbecue Sauce at the Right Time
Barbecue sauce adds a sweet and spicy flavor to any meat or poultry. Because it usually contains sugar, it will burn above 350°F (177°C). You don’t add it until the last hour if you are barbecuing.
Typically, you don’t add barbeque sauce at all when grilling because it will very quickly burn. However, you can add it during the last few minutes of cooking for a nice glaze.
Where is the fire?
The big difference between grilling and barbecue is the location of the fire.
With grilling, your meat sits over the coals for very hot, quick direct cooking.
Barbecuing uses an offset or 2-zone fire for indirect heat, which means the food cooks slowly by convection or indirect heat, like an oven. The food is not directly cooked by being over the heat source.
Both grilling and barbecue typically use charcoal or briquettes as fuel. However, because barbecuing uses indirect heat, many pitmasters use wood for their fires as it adds extra smoke and the flames do not contact the meat like they would in a grill.
Two Styles of Cooking
Hopefully, now you can see the difference between BBQ and grilling, and why you need to learn both methods if you want to cook all and any cut of meat.
Large and tough cuts require long slow cooking to break down connective tissues. For example, if you cut a slice of beef brisket and slapped it on the grill like a burger, you would barely be able to chew it.
Barbecue offers the right amount of heat and plenty of time to tenderize any tough, sinewy cuts. You just have to wait a few hours before you can eat it.
On the other hand, grilling ‘gets things done.’
High heat and fast cooking mean you can eat in minutes, not hours. That’s why we love our steaks, burgers, and hot dogs because they cook fast, and can be eaten quickly. You can feed a crowd in a hurry right from the grill.
Each style has its advantages, and now you know the difference.