So there’s this semi-awkward confusion or contention between the proper terms for different cooking methods that most people don’t care about and use interchangeably, but technically are not the same. Using these terms correctly will not cure world hunger or solve world peace, they are not significant in the scope of things, but it is good to know the difference if you’re going to be talking about the subject. What two terms am I referring to, you ask? Well, it is none other than Grilling and BBQ’ing, or excuse me, Barbecuing. Maybe you do or don’t know the difference, maybe you do or don’t care, but regardless of which side of the fence you picnic on I thought I’d set the record straight real quick since we are going to talk about the different types of Grills and BBQ’s you can use to cook with.
Grilling: Grilling is described as cooking any type of food with a high and direct source of dry heat that uses thermal radiation as the method of heat delivery, as opposed to convection(oven) or conduction(saute pan). The heat can come from any direction and when it comes from above it is often called “Broiling” which is not to be confused with “Braising” which is to cook something in a pan covered or uncovered with a minimal amount of liquid, usually only up to 1/3 submerged.
Barbecuing: Barbecuing is a Low & Slow method that uses indirect heat and smoke to mount unique flavors into the meat before the cooking process is complete. Barbecuing relies more on convection heat to achieve the final product and is typically a dry heat cook, but can use water pans for humidity and mop sauces or spray to maintain moisture over extended periods of time. 150-250 degrees is the usual cook temperature range for this method.
~You can grill up some burgers and you can BBQ some ribs, but you would not grill up some brisket or BBQ hot dogs. You can attend a BBQ (noun), but depending on how the food is being cooked, they are not necessarily Barbecuing (verb).~
Ok great, now that we’ve got that out of the way let’s talk about cookin’ some food! Shawn Rae teases sometimes that we own not one, or two, but three grills/bbq’s. However, to my defense, I do use all three of them and they each have their own area of advantage where they shine best. Everyone is familiar with the classic gas-powered grill that can handle all the hot dogs and burgers that you can throw at it. Gas Grills are fast and efficient, they can produce a good amount of heat and take only a couple minutes to turn on and be ready to go. These are great for short cook time items like steaks, dogs, and burgers; they do not work well for long cook items like shoulder roasts, ribs, or briskets. For these larger items you need a BBQ and there are two major styles to consider.
Charcoal pits from your classic round Weber all the way up to a full-barrel style with an offset smoker are versatile and can both Grill and BBQ. You can BBQ indirectly on a higher heat by building the fire on one side of the barrel and then placing your meat on the other. If you have the offset smoker you can smoke for extended periods of time without rushing the food through the cooking process; you have much more control with an offset smoker style. These models also usually have a variable height grate to bring the coals up and down from the main cooking grates. You can Grill at extremely high heats right above your coals and get a great sear when cooking directly. If you can only buy one type of cooker then I think this one covers all your bases by being able to grill directly, bbq indirectly, and smoke at a threshold temperature.
As I see it, the only downside is that you have to be very involved throughout the entire cooking process. It can take up to an hour to get the coals fully fired up and ashed so they are ready to go; it is not as instant as a gas grill or as automatic as a pellet smoker. This cooker style is like the stick shift version of a car, it is manual for the best control and in the same sense, manual labor, because you are always having to work to keep the fire going the whole time. The benefit is ultimate control of how often the smoke intervals go and you can change the cook temp at will, but while everyone else is watching the Super Bowl you are managing the fire every 20 minutes. Also, the flavor of charcoal cooked meats is non-replicable and gives you that really classic BBQ flavor. Pellet smokers get a better smoke penetration, but don’t bring any char flavor to the table.
|Full offset position from firebox.||Closest offset position for a higher heat smoke/cook.|
This is the coldest part of the BBQ, furthest from the firebox. A pan of water helps create humidity which improves the ability of smoke to stick and penetrate the meat.
This is the hottest side of the BBQ and is point blank to the smoke intake. This picture is the “before” for the pic at the top of the blog.
Pellet Smoker :
Pellet Smokers bring a huge level of convenience to the cooking experience, we will consider these the automatic version as opposed to the stick shift aspect of the Charcoal Cookers. Pellet smokers use assorted wood pellets in whatever kind you are looking for just like you use for smoking in a charcoal cooker, but instead of them just being the flavored smoke, they are also the fuel. At the smoke setting, the pellets just smolder and put off great amounts of clean-burning smoke. At higher settings, the pellets really cook-off and create ample amounts of convection heat with much less smoke, but even on a high temp cook, you are getting the flavors of the wood pellet you chose as opposed to just getting the base charcoal flavor. The upside to this is a great smoke flavor and deeper smoke penetration, the downside is that there is never a charcoal flavor introduced. This type of cooker is best used as a smoker and an oven, but it does not really grill well at all. You can get it hot enough to cook a steak, but it is more like cooking a steak in the oven. You won’t really get any searing on the outside or crust/bark since the meat will be fully cooked long before that develops with this cooking method.
Pellet smokers really excel at smoking and have the added benefit of being digitally managed by a thermostat like your oven is. You can set a temp and the smoker will maintain that based on it reading the internal temp of the barrel and adjusting the number of pellets added to the firepot. The biggest advantage is zero fire management, it is as close as you get to a “set it and forget it” approach to BBQ. You can set your brisket up to run overnight and safely go to bed and wake up to your roast being 3/4 done already as you start your day. You can throw your ribs on and go do that last-minute grocery shopping for your Super Bowl party as well as sit down and enjoy the game with everyone. It doesn’t Grill and it doesn’t give you a char flavor to your BBQ, but it can smoke like nobody’s business!
As an honorable mention, I will touch quickly on a vertical propane smoker. It has all the benefits of a pellet smoker in as it has an automatic thermostat, a regulated fuel source and excels at smoking, but it runs on propane and needs to have the wood source swapped out every so often. It can employ a tray of water and get a really humid smoke for maximum smoke adhesion and moisture retention in the meat, but it doesn’t really work like a convection oven as well. It is designed for high volume smoking and jerky making. Some models are better than others, but I consider this an add on piece once you have a good BBQ setup.
|Pellets load in the box for feeding into the auger and are digitally controlled.||The auger moves the pellets down to the firepot and a fan stokes the flame.||Digital thermostat controller adjusts the auger and fan to achieve the desired cooking temp|
We covered three types of cookers, each has its own niche and skillset. The gas grill is fast and furious, very easy but not suited for complicated or long cooks. The Pellet smoker is amazing at smoking, fully automatic and low maintenance, but doesn’t grill/sear and has no char flavor to it. The Charcoal cooker is the best merger of all the cooking methods. It takes the most work to set up and operate, but you can get a great sear and char flavor on quick-cook foods or you can do long low and slow cooks and either smolder smoke or BBQ with smoke. For me, the Charcoal is the clear winner if you can have only one as it can do all three jobs rather well. I have one of each because I cook often enough I like having the right tool for the job.
|Kabobs cooked on the Charcoal cooker|
|Ribs and Boston Butts cooked on the Charcoal Cooker|
|Pastrami cooked on the Pellet Smoker|
|Ribs cooked on the Pellet Smoker|