Barbecuing vs. Grilling: What’s the Difference?

Grilling is hot and fast, while barbecue is low and slow. Despite the clear distinction between the cooking methods, the terms are used interchangeably—leading to confusion come summertime.
Don't call this "barbecuing" in front of a pitmaster.
Don't call this "barbecuing" in front of a pitmaster. / Hinterhaus Productions/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Summer is in the air, and so is the smell of meat being prepared outdoors. Though they’re sometimes used interchangeably, grilling and barbecuing describe distinct methods of cooking with fire. Before attending your next backyard cookout, make sure you learn the difference between the terms. 

What is grilling?

When people talk about barbecuing burgers and hot dogs, they really mean grilling. This category generally applies to any food cooked over the flame of a grill, whether it’s gas or charcoal. This method is best suited to food that can handle high heat, like beef, shrimp, chicken, vegetables, and tofu. Even if you prepare your dinner over indirect heat, it’s still technically grilling if you’re outdoors and the ingredients cook in a fairly short window of time. 

What is barbecue?

If you refer to charring hot dogs on the grill as barbecue in front of pitmaster, prepare to get some dirty looks. Barbecue refers to a specialized culinary technique that involves cooking meat over low heat (225°F to 275°F) for long periods of time. Long in this case can mean up to 24 hours, but a few hours is usually the minimum. In that timeframe, the gentle heat breaks down tough connective tissues, result in meat that literally falls off the bone. That’s why barbecue is usually reserved for tougher cuts of meat like ribs, pork shoulder, and brisket.

Instead of roasting over an open flame, barbecue is often cooked slowly via wood smoke. This results in the hallmark smoky flavor that’s associated with the cuisine. Home cooks without a pit in their backyard may opt to cook ribs in a smoker, but that’s not the only way to prepare barbecue at home. You can barbecue tough meat on the grill by moving it away from the flames to where the temperature is lower and closing the lid to trap heat and smoke inside. 

If you still can’t tell whether the Fourth of July barbecue you’re invited to is serving actual barbecue, use this rule of thumb: If a menu item was cooked for at least a couple hours, it’s authentic barbecue. Any less and it was likely grilled—or at least that’s the stipulation for American-style barbecue. Korean barbecue plays by different rules.