Grilling vs. Barbecuing vs. Smoking

Ribs, brisket, and veggies smoking on a grill.

When you’re using a grill, you might not always be grilling.

Yes, you read that right — grills are capable of a few different cooking methods, which we classify by temperature and the type of heat used on food. Grilling, barbecuing, and smoking all produce delicious results when done correctly, so it pays to know the differences between each technique and how to pull them off.

  • Juicy burger being grilled on high heat
  • What Is Grilling?

    Grilling is all about high, direct heat for short periods of time. Aim for temperatures of 450 degrees Fahrenheit or higher when grilling, with the high end reserved for searing steaks, veggies, and other relatively thin meats. Because the goal is to expose one side of your food to huge amounts of heat rather than surrounding it with convective heat, grilling is most often done with the lid up. Burgers and hot dogs are also among the most popular grilled dishes, though it’s acceptable to keep the lid down for part of their cook.

  • Juicy burger being grilled on high heat

  • Saucy ribs being barbecued on a grill
  • What Is Barbecuing?

    Many people throw around the term “barbecue” when referring to anything cooked on a grill, but true barbecuing is done on moderate heat around 350–425 degrees. This cooking style generally relies on indirect heat from a two-zone setup along with a closed lid to promote convection heat within the grill. By bathing in indirect heat for anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours, food like bone-in chicken breasts or ribs receive a beautifully cooked exterior while remaining tender and juicy throughout.

  • Saucy ribs being barbecued on a grill

  • Ribs, brisket, and veggies smoking on a grill.
  • What Is Smoking?

    Though smokers are specifically designed to handle this cooking technique, it’s still possible to smoke meat using a grill. “Low and slow” is an easy-to-remember guide for smoking — your grill's target temperature should be between 175–250 degrees, and cooks last hours at a time so huge cuts of meat like brisket and pork butt can be cooked all the way through while achieving the perfect bark. Indirect heat is necessary to accomplish this, and you can even put wood chips in your gas grill to further recreate the effects of a smoker.

  • Ribs, brisket, and veggies smoking on a grill.

At a Glance:

Grilling Barbecuing Smoking
450 degrees and up 350–425 degrees 175–250 degrees
Direct heat Indirect heat Indirect heat
Steaks, burgers, veggies Bone-in chicken, ribs Brisket, pork butt