Research: Grilling vs. BBQ

Thursday, December 15, 2016
Food research is always fun, but I find I tend to gravitate to one type in particular: The “Versus”. The world of food is wonderfully complex, but that means that similar things often get confused as identical. “Versus” helps us sort things into their rightful categories, and as a bonus, you get to show off your smartypants knowledge at your next party! Today's “Versus” came to me from a Four Courses listener, who noted that we’d be talking about grilling on an episode, and begged us to use proper terminology when differentiating between grilling and barbecue. People do often use those terms interchangeably, so let’s try and get them back in their proper places and figure out what makes them unique.

According to the listener, in order to call something barbecue, it should be cooked at low temperature for a long time, and will usually involve a BBQ pit, rather than just a standard charcoal or gas grill. We also bandied around the necessity for sauce being involved. Poking around for opinions from professionals, we found that they definitely back the listener up on this.

Grilling is described as taking place over charcoal or gas at high temperatures, while BBQ involves cooking over smoldering wood at a much lower heat. The heat applied on the grill is much more direct than that of a BBQ pit. Also, grilling is done so that the meat will caramelize, while BBQ is more about smoking it.

Now, we come to the curious bit. Absolutely none of the sources we consulted on this mentioned the necessity for a sauce in order to call something BBQ. Not in any way, shape, or form. Sauced or unsauced, it seems that the only thing that matters when assigning a taxonomy is the mechanism for cooking the meat. Throwing BBQ sauce onto something grilled doesn’t magically make it barbecue, and since there’s nothing out there called “grill sauce”, society is probably doomed to eternal confusion about the differences between the two methods.

So, when summer rolls around again, by all means, enjoy your cookouts and impress people with your mad phat meat skillz. Just make sure you tell your guests that you’ll be grilling (not barbecuing) some tasty goodness for them, lest they be disappointed when they show up to discover that you haven’t been slowly smoking that pork shoulder for hours on end over smoldering wood chips.