Grilled Food Vs. Barbecue: The Dishes That Cause Division

To ardent barbecue devotees, using the terms "barbecue" and "grill" interchangeably is downright blasphemous. To those who don't care, it's simply a matter of regional dialect. Throw "cookout," "barbeque," "bbq," barbecue sauce variations, and homonyms describing cooking frameworks into the mix and you're bound to see some tempers flare while others stand around in confusion.

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For the sake of sanity, this post aims to bring clarity to the differences between the two dishes by focusing on cooking methods alone.

Grilled Food

  • This type of fare generally constitutes any meat that is cooked relatively fast over direct heat. In many cases, grill masters will create a two-zone setup to help with temperature control. Items like steaks, hamburgers, chicken pieces, and hot dogs are brought to a suitable level of doneness over indirect convection heat and then moved to the direct heat zone for searing.
  • In the indirect zone, temperatures can range anywhere from 225ºF to 275ºF. This is low enough to prevent any browning action from taking place.
  • In the direct zone, temperatures are upward of 500ºF. This is high enough to trigger the Maillard reaction where the meat's natural sugars caramelize and form a dark, flavorful crust.
  • Grilled foods can be coated in barbecue spices and sauces, but that does not make it barbecue.


  • True barbecue requires the "low and slow" method of cooking as smoldering smoke imparts a sweet, smoky flavor and helps cook the meat. The process can take several hours with ideal cooking temperatures ranging from 225ºF to 275ºF.
  • Dry hardwoods such as hickory, oak, pecan, apple, and mesquite are best for barbecue. It's crucial to manage smoke levels throughout the cook as too much smoke can cause food to taste bitter and ashy.
  • Large and cheap cuts of meat like pork butt, brisket, ribs, and whole animals are perfect for barbecuing.
  • There's usually a stall period where the internal temperature of the meat plateaus between 150ºF and 160ºF for a few hours. The meat essentially sweats during this time as moisture moves to the surface and evaporates. This process dries the exterior and creates the delicious dark bark that's a vital part of the barbecue experience.

There's no denying that there's something primal and ritualistic about cooking over open flames. We shouldn't let parts of speech or differences in region destroy the experience. Whether you're grilling or barbecuing on a grill or barbecue at a cookout or barbecue, what matters most is that the food tastes great.

Have you ever been in a barbecue versus grilled food debate? Which side are you on?  Here's a few other links to more barbecue related topics that are sure to spark up an interesting debate next time you have friends and family over to barbecue:

Hit share to help others understand the difference between these two cooking processes. You might just save someone from a black eye.