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BBQ vs. Grilling vs. Smoking: What’s the Difference?

In Southern California, you’ve probably heard the terms grilling and barbecuing used interchangeably. But what, then, is smoking? The simple answer is, grilling is light cooking over a hot fire. Barbecuing involves low heat and slow cooking, while smoking means cooking with smoke, also on low heat and for much longer periods of time. 

Meat, fish and poultry can be smoked and barbecued, while vegetables, fruits and other foods are usually grilled. Low temperatures and long cooking times help soften up tough cuts of meat and make them juicy and tender. 

The great part is that you can use the same equipment to do all three. But if you’re a dedicated pitmaster, then you might consider purchasing a smoker.

Barbecuing 101

Barbecuing is usually about cooking large cuts of meat, like whole pork shoulders, rib roasts, beef briskets, slabs of rib or even a whole turkey. To properly BBQ these large chunks of meat, you’ll need low temperatures ranging from 190℉ to 300℉. The challenge is to maintain the right temperature for the many hours it will take to fully BBQ the meat. This is fairly easy to do on a gas grill, since all you have to do is adjust the knob. But on a charcoal grill, you’ll need to add fresh coal every hour.

You could also use charcoal baskets to heat the food indirectly and slowly. Adding wood chips, or chunks, will help add some smoke and give the BBQ a smokier flavor.

Grilling 101

Grilling involves cooking food over a fire with temperatures at 350℉ and higher, for under an hour. Grilling is best for cooking tender cuts of meat, such as ribeye steak, strip steaks, T-bones and short loin primal cuts. Cooking the meat hot and fast will help the meat retain its moisture and flavor.

Smoking 101

Smoking involves using chunks or chips of mesquite, hickory, apple, or cherry wood to cook the meat with smoke and add a distinct flavor to the meat. You’ll have to maintain temperatures ranging from 125℉ to 175℉ in order to cook the meat thoroughly and keep the outer parts of the meat from cooking to soon. Smoking is definitely a craft that takes a lot of time to nail down. Be prepared for cooking times as long as 24 hours.

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