Difference Between Barbecue and Grilling

Unless you are an avid outdoor cooker, you might not know what’s the difference between barbecuing and grilling?

Most people tend to use these two terms interchangeably although they technically mean different things.

In this article, I will give you the basics about these two methods of preparing meat as well as the detailed requirements of each.


Barbecue is a unique type of cooking which is used all over the world. Although it may differ in some aspects, the traits are quite similar.

Barbecuing simply means to slow cook meat over a low temperature for long periods. Various forms of this method can be found in the US, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

The reason for barbecuing is that certain cuts of meat contain more connective tissue and are more dense than others.

Basically, the more the muscle is used by the animal, the tougher and more dense it will be. That’s why cuts of meat from around an animal’s legs tend to be the toughest while those from its back tend to be the most tender. The muscles around the legs do much more work than those on the back, thus are much more dense.

To cook these cuts of meats, you have to go “low and slow”, low temperatures over a long period of time.

If you were to try to cook these cuts of meat at high temperatures, you’d wind up with a tough, chewy piece of meat charred to a crisp on the outside and uncooked on the inside.

Low and slow ensures that all of the meat is cooked thoroughly and gives time for the fat in the meat to render (aka melt) giving you the juiciness one associates with barbecue.

An Interesting History

What is called barbecue today has quite an interesting history.

Most people believe that it can be traced to the Taino of the Caribbean. Their version of barbecue was called barbacoa. It was made by digging a hole in the ground and creating some embers. They would then cook their meat over these hot coals for long periods.

The method of slow cooking meat eventually spread with the Spanish to Mexico and finally to America.

Even today, barbacoa is made in the same way as the Taino made it. The meat is slow-cooked over a fire and topped with maguey leaves. It is a staple of Mexico and is quite a popular street food. Various places in Mexico use different meats to make the barbecue.

American Barbecue

Most people agree that barbecue was first made in America around the 1800s. It is believed that the Cowboys were the first to slow cook their meat for long period of time to make it tender. Others believe it started with pig farmers in the south. They would let them roam in the wild, which made their meat quite tough.

However, it is quite clear the barbecue was an important part of southern culture. Cuts of meat that could be barbecued were cheap and could feed lots of people. Because the pits were large, lots of meat could be cooked at once and barbecue became a natural choice for church gatherings and other social events.

The first barbecue restaurants were more of pits than restaurants. They were usually just a concrete floor with a corrugated roof and some rough walls. Barbecue pits were among the few places where people of all ethnicities congregated.

Barbecue evolved differently across America depending on what animals were available and how they were served. North Carolina is known for mainly chopped pork that is served with a vinegar sauce. In the central south, folks prefer to have their pork pulled. In Memphis, the barbecue is served with a tomato-based sauce mixed with molasses and peppers. In Texas, beef is king and the brisket is the all-important cut of meat.

An example of a barbecue pit


Grilling is done to char the meat’s surface so that all the good juices can be sealed inside. It is done all over the world in different cultures, although the same basic guideline remains.

In all cases, meat is cooked over a direct heating source for a short period of time. Grilling in America is done over both charcoal and gas grills. If you can afford, you can even use an infrared grill.

It is a great method for cooking tender meat such as chicken, pork chops, beef loin strip steak, and ribs.

When talking about grilling, heat is king.

Since grilling takes less time than barbecuing, the heat level and the food position in relation to the heating makes a huge difference. Thus, it is important to have some knowledge about direct and indirect heating.

Grilling with Direct Heat

This simply means grilling your meat by placing it directly over the heat source.

Direct heat is great for cooking small pieces of meat at high temperatures for a short period. It is mainly used to make burgers, pork chops, chicken, and even fish. It gives you a crisp outer layer and a juicy center.

When using direct heat, try to keep the lead closed for as long as possible. It helps to preserve moisture, which keeps the food from drying out.

Grilling with Indirect Heat

This method of grilling is a bit tricky to master. However, if you can manage to do this, you are well on your way to becoming a grilling expert.

The basic concept here is cooking the meat slowly over a heat source that is close but not under the meat. Some of the foods that use this method are turkeys and chickens.

Indirect heat works great for gas-based grills. With two burners, you will turn one burner to a medium heat and cook on the side without a heating source. In all cases, you must remember to keep the lid on the grill to prevent heat and moisture from escaping.

If you are using charcoal, the same concept will apply. Push all the hot charcoal to one side and place the meat on the other side.


So there it is, you now know what’s the difference between barbecuing and grilling and the way heat is used.

Be sure to check out our other in depth guides such as the differences in regional barbecue across America and when you should grill with the lid up and down.

If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below.

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My name is David and I'm the founder and primary writer for this site. I have been an avid grilling and barbecue enthusiast for over 9 years now and I started this website to share my knowledge and experience with those looking to get into this fun and tasty hobby.

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