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Is it BBQ or is it Grilling?

Is it BBQ or are you really Grilling?

Two methods of cooking that are widely misunderstood are barbequing and grilling. Most people think that anything you put on a grill outside can be called either. Others think that barbequing is cooking on a grill using barbeque sauce. Then there is another group that thinks that anything you put barbeque sauce on is called “barbeque”.

Adding to the confusion is our American way of using verbs as nouns and vice versa. You can barbeque meat. You can go to a barbeque. You can go to a party and eat barbeque. You can even go to a barbeque and eat barbeque. And not only that, you can even spell the word a number of different but acceptable ways.

In reality, however, barbequing and grilling are two completely different methods of cooking that are determined by the heat source. Both are done outside because the smoky element of the dish is important.

Let’s start with grilling. When you grill food, for example a steak, you use direct heat. In other words, you place the steak directly over the coals or gas grate. The heat and smoke rise and directly cook and smoke the meat. The cover of the grill is open.

On the other hand, when you barbeque something, you use indirect heat and create an environment like an oven with your grill. In other words, you place your coals on each side of the grill with an open space in the middle. (If you are using gas, you turn on the side grates but not the middle one.) The food you are cooking is then placed in the middle and the lid is closed. It’s just like roasting or baking food in your oven. You can have barbeque sauce on it, but what makes it barbeque is the cooking method, not the ingredients.

This is also why tender meats (like tenderloin and other steaks) are usually grilled and tougher meats are usually barbequed. Tender meats are delicious when quickly cooked and toughen when they are left on the heat too long. Tough cuts (like pork shoulder and ribs) remain tough if quickly cooked (grilled) but become tender when cooked slowly over a long period of time.

To complicate matters even more, barbeque can often be a combination of both cooking methods. The meat is seared on a hot grate (grilled) and then moved to a cooler place within the grill to slowly finish cooking because if it’s left on a hot grate the collagen in the meat won’t have time to break down and it won’t be tender before it’s burned. Now it’s being barbequed.

All of this makes the difference between northern and southern “barbeque” a little easier to understand. A northerner will expect his barbeque to be slowly cooked in a tomato based barbeque sauce. Southern sauces, on the other hand, lean more toward mustard and vinegar bases and have a significantly different taste. It is, however, all the same meat (usually pork or beef ribs or shoulder) and it’s all done by the same cooking methods. It’s just the ingredients that differ. It’s all seriously good.

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