There is a significant difference between smoking, barbecuing, and grilling. When grilling, you quickly seal in the juices from the piece you are cooking. Grilling takes minutes. Smoking takes hours, sometimes even days. Don’t be fooled by the common misconception that by throwing some wet wood chips over hot coals you can fully smoke your meat. At best you can only add some flavor on the outside because the moment the outside surface of the meat becomes dry and cooked, a significant barrier exists that prevents smoke penetration. A properly smoked piece of meat has to be thoroughly smoked on the outside and everywhere inside. Only prolonged cold smoking will achieve that result. Smoking when grilling is no better than pumping liquid smoke into it and claiming that the product is smoked now. Let’s unravel some of the mystery. All these methods are different from each other, especially smoking and grilling. The main factor separating them is temperature.

Smoking - very low heat 52° – 140° F (12° - 60° C) 1 hr to 2 weeks, depending on temperature
Barbecuing - low heat 190° – 300° F (93° - 150° C) low and slow, few hours
Grilling - high heat 400° - 550° F (232° - 288° C) hot and fast, minutes

The purpose of grilling is to char the surface of the meat and seal in the juices by creating a smoky caramelized crust. By the same token a barrier is erected which prevents smoke from flowing inside. The meat may have a somewhat smoky flavor on the outside but due to a short cooking time it was never really smoked. Most grilling is performed on gas powered units.

Barbecuing is a long, slow, indirect, low-heat method that uses charcoal or wood pieces to smoke-cook the meat. The best definition is that barbecuing is cooking with smoke. It is ideally suited for large pieces of meat such as butts, ribs or whole pigs. The temperature range of 190° - 300° F (88° - 150° C) is still too high for smoking sausages as the fat will melt away through the casings making them greasy. The baked sausage will taste like bread crumbs.

Barbecue is a social affair, people gather to gossip, drink, have fun and to eat the moment the meats are cooked. On the other hand, traditionally smoked meats are usually eaten cold at a later date. As barbecue brings people together, it is not surprising that everybody loves the event. Although barbecue is popular in many countries, nobody does it better than Americans. There, barbecue is a part of tradition like American jazz. It has become the art in itself with constant cookouts and championships all over the country. Although barbecued meats can be placed directly on the screen and cooked, in many cases they are first marinated. Marinades consist of many flavoring ingredients such as vinegar, lemon juice, and spices whereas traditional curing basically contains only water, salt and nitrite, sometimes sugar is added as well. To make great barbecued products the understanding of the following steps is required: controlling fire and temperature, moisture control, smoking with wood and the required time for barbecuing.

How Hot Is It?

Heat Temperature Pain tolerance
High 288-260º C, 550-500º F 1-2 seconds
Medium 260-204º C, 500-400º F 3-4 seconds
Low 204-150º C, 400-300º F 5-6 seconds
Very low 150 - 94º C, 300-200º F 7-8 seconds

The best method is to check the reading of the built-in thermometer if the unit has one. That will normally apply to units with covers. When barbecuing on an open fire you can use the "palm method". Hold the palm of your hand about 1" above the cooking screen and start counting seconds until the heat forces your hand away. This pain tolerance method needs some refining in each individual case and to compound the problem different publications provide different data.

Barbecue units can be divided into:

  • open fire units - camp fire using wood or charcoal fuel
  • factory made units using charcoal briquettes
  • factory made units using gas for fuel

The last group which cover barbecue units and grills, has become almost synonymous with outdoor cooking. This popularity is due to the easy operation and availability of inexpensive propane. Grills are ready to cook at a moments notice and are easier to maintain than an outdoor unit. On the other hand a simple camp fire barbecue is prettier to watch than all fancy units that were manufactured during the year. Have you ever seen people sitting around the propane grill, playing guitars and singing songs? Well, I think I have made my point.

Then there is a wonderful invention by Mr. Weber, known as the Weber kettle grill. This is probably the most sold barbecue unit in the world. Once when you know how to operate it well, you can produce great barbecued meats. Backyard barbecuing is what we normally associate with this type of cooking and the first factory made unit which was widely accepted by the public is the kettle barbecue described below.

The best approach for creating smoke is to periodically add pre-moistened wood chips into the hot coals. They will produce smoke and the meat will acquire a smoky flavor. Wood chunks are bigger than chips and may produce larger flames. Occasionally when fat drips on hot coals, flares will be produced but will do no harm. It will help to sear the meat surface and will go away when the grease will burn out. When too many flares take place the way to choke them down is by decreasing the vent opening.

To keep meats moist you either place a water pan inside or open the lid and baste them. A marinade can be used to fill the pan. Meat juices and fat will drop into the pan. Then they will evaporate, mix with smoke and baste the meat. You should see smoke exiting through a vent at all times. Hot coals do not need to be spread evenly and it is better to keep them in a small pile away from the meat. This prevents flares that might be created by the dripping fat.

There are many factory made units, some using charcoal but most fueled by propane.


Choice of Fuel

  1. Wood is the best but it is heavy and a lot of it is needed. It is difficult to control the combustion temperature especially in small units. For those reasons only a few restaurants use wood to generate heat. In large barbecue restaurants the system is designed in such a way that a product is kept a safe distance from a wood burning fire pit. When barbecuing meats at home much smaller units are employed, very often just a kettle grill. It is out of the question to burn logs as this will create large flames and the product will be ruined.
  2. Charcoal briquettes are the choice fuel for backyard barbecue as they are light, burn slow, and are easy to control. They produce a hot, long-lasting, smokeless fire. When using charcoal briquettes it may seem that smoke is generated even without the addition of wood chips. This is due to fat dripping on hot coals which burst into flames. The resulting flavor is the flavor of burnt fat. Charcoal is produced by burning wood in a low-oxygen atmosphere. This process removes the moisture, sap and volatile gases that were present in the original fuel. The final product is pure carbon.
  3. Lump Charcoal

    Irregularly shaped charred lump charcoal pieces. Very light, they burn hotter and faster than other charcoal types, producing sparks and crackling sounds. Lump charcoal gets hot in about 10 minutes.

    Charcoal Briquettes

    Lump ground charcoal mixed with natural starch and pressed into uniform size briquettes. Starch acts as a binder. They burn as fast and hot as lump charcoal. The advantage they offer is their uniformity which helps to create a smooth layer of coals.

    Modified Briquettes

    Lump ground charcoal mixed with natural starch, hard and soft coal powder (to raise and prolong heat) and limestone (to create coating of white ash). They produce longer and more even heat than other types. This is the most common American charcoal briquette that should be pre-burnt until covered with white ash. Adding black briquettes directly into the fire will create off flavors.
  4. Gas is predominantly used for grilling and it can supply a lot of heat instantaneously. To generate a smoky flavor when grilling presents a problem due to a very short cooking time. Adding a few wood chips will not cut it. A lot of heavy smoke must be generated and it is feasible to construct a small smoke generator from a little metal pan, about 5-6" (12-15 cm) in diameter, preferably made of stainless steel. The pan is filled with wood chips or sawdust and is placed on a hot plate to ignite the wood chips. Once they start producing smoke, the pan can be placed inside of the grill and the cooking process can be started. If there is an available burner inside of the unit the pan can be placed on it. Needless to say the pan should produce smoke before the meat is submitted to a cooking chamber. The charcoal should extend 3-4 inches beyond the piece of meat on the screen above. Otherwise the food will not cook properly. When adding wood chips to generate smoke, it must be kept in mind that smoke penetrates meat much faster at high temperatures. A traditionally smoked meat piece at 120° F (50° C) for 4 hours may acquire an over smoked bitter flavor if smoked at 250° F (120° C) for the same length of time.


Basic marinade includes water, vinegar, oil and flavorings. Often orange, lemon or pineapple juice are added. Don’t add too much sugar as it tends to brown and caramelize the surface of the meat. Keep in mind that a basting marinade is thin, it is not a sauce. The oil is always used in wild game marinades.

All purpose marinade Basting marinade
1 cup oil, 1/2 cup vinegar, 1/4 cup lemon juice, 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce, 1 Tbsp dry mustard, 1 Tbsp black pepper, 1/2 tsp cayenne 1 cup olive or salad oil, 1 cup vinegar, 1/2 cup water ( or red wine)

Spices such as allspice, onion or garlic powder, ground celery, thyme, ginger, juniper, rosemary, sage, parsley, marjoram, and dry mustard are often added. Use 1 tsp each except 1/2 tsp for ginger, rosemary and ground juniper. Curry powder imparts a characteristic flavor to food and may be used with wild birds.

In the wet smoking method marinade can be used instead of water when filling the pan. The pan should be placed under the meat to catch the meat juices dripping down. Then as the liquid evaporates, the marinade will baste meat with its own juices. If meat was marinated overnight, the marinade has picked up gamey odors and should not be used for basting purposes. Smaller parts may be marinated in wine marinade for about 6 hours. Then they are submitted to the smoking and cooking steps according to established rules.

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