BBQ or Grilling? The Difference Revealed!

Photos by MJ Klein

Recently I’ve been hearing people say they are going to “barbecue” something over the weekend. Naturally this is the time of year when people spend time by the grill, enjoying the outdoors.  But, is that really barbecuing?

Here is Taiwan “BBQ” is a common phrase for grilling food. Often I’ll walk into a grill restaurant and the staff will start parroting “bar B Q, bar B Q” trying to communicate what they do (as if having grills on each table isn’t clear enough). Normally I reply by saying “no, this isn’t barbecue” but because of the blank stares, I give up.

So, what’s the difference anyway?

Let’s start off with the Rules of Grilling:

  1. The grill must be hot!
  2. The grill must be clean.
  3. The grill must be lubricated.
  4. Cooking times are short.
  5. Cooking happens fast!

These rules define the process.

Back when I lived in New Hampshire, I would invite friends over for a steak lunch. I used pieces of real wood (white oak) and burned them down into coals. Then I would oil the grate on my cast-iron grill and throw a huge slab of thick T-bone or Porterhouse cut prime beef on the grill. In just a few minutes it would be grilled to perfection, with a nice wood flavor.  The entire process took about 45 minutes but it was well worth it!

This is not barbecuing by any means!

Remember, if it’s hot and fast, it’s grilling!

New Year's Grill & Booze Party

If what you’re doing resembles this, then you are absolutely without a doubt, grilling and not barbecuing

OK, so what is barbecuing then? If we’ve all been using the wrong term for all these years, what is it?

  1. Barbecuing temperatures are low (relatively speaking), on the order of 100C.
  2. Cooking times are long, requiring several hours or more.
  3. Fuel most often consists of real wood or wood products.
  4. Fuel likely requires replenishing during the cooking process.

I talked a little bit about using a smoker to BBQ food in several other articles. If you like this topic then they are worthwhile reads.

Outdoor Cooking Stuff

If you have one of these and you’re using it correctly, then you are BBQing!

However, even if you are using a grill, it’s still possible to barbecue with it. But how? As I pointed out, the grill is hot and cooking is fast with short cooking times. How can you slow cook with a grill?

It’s all about direct and indirect cooking. In the photograph of the grill above the fuel is directly under the food and the heat directly cooks the food. In the photograph of the smoker just above, we see that the fuel is off to the side (this is called a “offset” fire box) and the heat enters the cooking chamber below the food. You can use your grill for indirect cooking too!

Outdoor Cooking Stuff

I made a ring out of sheet metal for the center of the grill.  You can fill the outside with charcoal or wood and put the food on the cooking grate over the hole.  The heat will be indirect and the cooking time will be longer.  Put the top on the grill and BBQ away!  The ring is also useful if you want to grill a small amount of food with a large grill.  You can put the fuel in the center and use a lot less.

If you use a multi-burner gas grill you can light one burner off to the side, and put the food at the opposite side, and close the lid.  Easy!  Experimenting with indirect cooking is a great hobby with excellent rewards!

  • Fuels

This is a very important topic but it’s not very well understood.  Fuels make the difference between your food tasting great and you getting very ill from improper cooking techniques.

  • Charcoal

There are two types that concern us.  Lump charcoal, and so-called “briquettes.”  They are very different and require understanding of how to properly cook with them!

Lump charcoal is made from real wood and basically it’s nothing more than wood that’s been burned in a low oxygen environment.  Please see this article I wrote that includes a photograph of a charcoal burning mound.  Since lump charcoal is already burned, it is a suitable fuel to add to the cooking fire at any time.

Briquettes are very different.  They are made from wood sawdust and formed in a press using high pressure and chemicals to bind them.  These chemicals give the charcoal a distinctive smell in its unburned state and  that smell is present when the charcoal is burning down too.  When using briquettes, it is very important that you allow the charcoal to burn down and “ash over” before you use it!  This also means that if you need to supplement your fuel as you are cooking, you cannot directly add briquettes to the cooking fire!  I often keep a second fire going to prepare fuels that require burning down before adding.  It’s always a good idea to keep a bag of lump charcoal around because it’s a safe fuel to add directly to the cooking fire.

  • Wood

My favorite cooking fuel and used since the beginning of time, real wood is a steady and reliable source of heat (and light!) energy.  I often joke that I can look at a pile of wood and tell you how long you can cook with it.  This is because wood fuel is very consistent.  Cut pieces must be dried before using for cooking.  These days, cut firewood is kiln dried, but if you have a woodpile you must age the wood for at least a year before using it for cooking.  Like charcoal briquettes, you must burn the wood down before you can cook over it!  Burning wood releases chemicals much like the briquettes do.  Although entirely natural, these chemicals released by burning wood can make you sick if you eat food cooked over burning wood.  You want to cook food over burning embers. So, burn the wood until the entire surface is scorched before you use it.  Most barbecue aficionados will remove the bark from the logs because it can impart a bitter flavor to the food.  It depends upon what kind of wood you are using, but you can experiment and see for yourself.  My favorite type of wood is White Oak.  Red oak is often used for smoking fish and I’ve personally used it for salmon and pork.  Fabulous!

You should never use wood or any type of charcoal indoors!  These products release deadly carbon monoxide!

  • Gas

Gas is great if you are pressed for time or can’t light a charcoal fire.  Gas is instant-on, and always clean, so you can use it indoors too.  As long as your grill is designed correctly (and most are) you will still get that “grilled” flavor.  Personally I like the grill designs that use lava rocks and the flavor improves over time.

So, now that you know about grilling versus barbecuing, go ahead and use the commonly understood (but incorrect) term for charcoal grilling, but be prepared in case you meet someone who would beg to differ with you! barbecue

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  2. I love grilling… BBQ… eating… seeing your pictures… all of it!

    Since global warming is such a hot issue these days, I often ask myself what I can do to help in the battle. Since some say that methane is a more important factor than CO2 and cows are such a large contributor of methane to the environment… I pledge that this summer, I will eat more beef cooked on the grill than any other summer in previous years!
    Well… since 1994 at least. It will be tough to top 1994 when I worked in the meat department at Hy-Vee and we ate porterhouse at least once a week… but I’ll *try*.

    Have a great grillin’ (of BBQn’) summer!

    sqjtaipeis last blog post..The Last Wisdom Tooth

  3. MJ. Great article. What a wealth of information my friend and you hit the nail on the head. There is such a difference to the two techniques as you have stated. If I ever say we are grilling to my mates back in Australia they refuse to accept it, they say BBQing. It’s a BBQ we are cooking on.

    If you cook a juicy thick T-bone steak by BBQing it and not grilling it the taste is so different. I cannot tell you the amount of times I went to a friends BBQ where the heat coming of the fuel was unbearable to get near and trying to turn the food meant burnt fingers.

    It’s like using a camp oven out in the bush, you make a good old fashioned country stew, it needs to be cooked slowly over low even heat, not like I have seen others do by placing the camp oven on coals that are glowing red hot and heats the oven to a too hot and they burn all the vegetables and meat in the oven and it sticks to the bottom.

    Well written mate. I love the smoker you had back in NH. It was a beauty and would have been great for smoking fish.

    Bruntys last blog post..Golf, a BBQ, Lunch on a River in Isaan.

    1. Brunty » the only way to cook a steak is by grilling – in fact, if you BBQ it, you’ll be sorry you did as it will end up as a pile of mush! good point about the camp oven and heat. it’s about duration in some cases, and not about the temperature. i enjoy both ends of the spectrum for sure! thanks Brunty. glad to have you back!

  4. sqjtaipei » i can appreciate that you’re doing your part for global warming! i am too – which means i’m going to ignore it because 20 years from now, it will be “global cooling” just like it was in 1975. it seems that global climate change theory is based on publishing cycles, lol.

    porterhouse at least once a week – pffffft! that’s one thing i’m going to get when we go back to the US! i’m looking for a 2″ thick slab!


    1. MJ- I hear ya about global warming/cooling! That’s why I’m takin’ baby steps… I don’t want to swing it back the other way… lol

      yeah… my porterhouse were those that were still perfectly A-OK to eat but that the average customer wouldn’t buy because they turned a little brown or they *thought* they were too old… so I got them for… oh… $0.50 a pound or some such nonsense… my family also loved me when I showed up at the Labor Day picnic with a big cooler full of meat treats…

  5. MK,

    I love BBQ! BBQ pork is an awesome dish.

    I do like grilled steaks and fish too.

    I didn’t know we have to let the briquettes burn ot ash before using them. I always see people pouring them onto existing grills.

    owshawngs last blog post..Mother’s Day with CMIL

    1. owshawng » believe it or not i’ve seen instructions from grill/smoker manufacturers that direct owners to add fresh briquettes to the fire. this is bad! you can only do that with lump charcoal. if you see someone doing that, make sure that you don’t eat any of the food cooked on those coals until after they are ashed over.

  6. Hey, yeah, it’s like Taiwanese will call any sandwich in round bread (buns) “Hamburger”. Such as those with let’s say Tuna fish sandwich on a bun would be called Tuna Hamburger. Taiwanese wasn’t taught that the hamburger actually refer to the ground beef patty, not the bun, but since when hamburger was imported, it came in the bun; from then on anything that’s put in a bun would be a hamburger for Taiwanese.

    1. Shan » i’m always reminding my wife that there is no such thing as a chicken “hamburger” but she says it anyway! lol thanks for the clear explanation of the term usage by local people. great comments, Shan.

      1. I hate to ding you on a technicality. But they do sell ground chicken/turkey. But it would be called a chickenburger. Not a “chicken hamburger”. Can chicken burgers give you CJD?

        1. Colby » our comments are about how Taiwanese people use the term “hamburger”, so our discussion would be centered around what is available in Taiwan. ground chicken and ground turkey is not sold here. one probably could ask the butcher to grind some but it’s virtually unheard of – you would get stares. ground pork is the mainstay and it’s even difficult to find ground beef in Taiwan.

          i don’t know what “CJD” means, sorry.

  7. Next month I’ll be attending a huge BBQ. The Phantom Gourmet will be having their BBQ Beach Party at Boston’s City Hall Plaza (truck in a lot of sand). It will be June 18th thru 22nd.

    There will be 9 BBQ places from all over the USA and 1 from Australia there (you can go to to see who will be there). I went to it last year and WOW… talk about some great food.

    I’ll have one of my digital cameras with me and will take some pictures and put some on my Flickr page.

    1. Smokers Grills » now there’s a scary thought: someone who is in the business but doesn’t know the difference between BBQ and grilling? i’ve left this spamming comment as-is so people can decide for themselves whether or not you’re a complete fool.

      1. I’m not “in the business” as you say, but am interested in barbequeing and grilling and learning more! And, most people do NOT know the difference. They use the terms interchangeably. My comment was honest, too bad you took offense to it. Please feel free to delete this and my other comment if you so choose.

        1. Smokers Grills » oic. so you’re not in the business – you just sign your name “Smokers Grills” lol this is entertaining, so no, i’m going to leave the comments just as they are. nothing personal of course; i get the crap spammed out of me on a daily basis. normally the spam comments are gratuitous and are just links to a site.

          yes, people do use the terms interchangeably and one of the things that i dread is going into a grill restaurant and having the staff start parroting “BBQ! BBQ!” and pointing to the grills. that’s probably all they know how to say in English. come to thing of it, that very thing happened to me in B&Q this past week. i was looking at a gas grill and one of the staffers was pointing and saying “BBQ” over and over. i asked him if he was retarded or something.

          thanks for commenting.

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