A Brief Guide About Meat Smoking, Grilling and Barbecuing

So, just what is meat smoking?

If you haven’t smoked meat before, you’ve probably at least read something about it or heard one of your friends talk about how they smoked a brisket, pork loin, or rack of ribs over the weekend, or maybe even how they smoked a turkey for Thanksgiving.

If that’s true, then you probably also heard them mention something about using a meat smoker or a smoker grill.

Well, guess what? Now you’re aware of just one piece of the meat smoking puzzle because there are actually 3 variations of meat smoking, each with a different purpose.

When your co-worker talks about how he spent 5 hours on Saturday ‘smoking’ a couple of chickens, he was actually barbecuing. “Wait a minute, I thought barbecuing was what I do when I fire up my gas grill, throw a couple of burgers and hot dogs on, and take them off the grill after a few minutes when they’re done?” Well, not exactly.

Read along and I’ll explain.

What’s the Difference between Smoking, Barbecuing and Grilling?

First of all, just to be clear, barbecuing is actually a type of smoking. The primary difference between smoking, barbecuing and grilling is the temperature at which the food is cooked. The basic rule of thumb is that the higher the temperature, the sooner your meat will develop a natural shell that smoke cannot penetrate. The more smoke that you want to soak into your food, the lower your cooking temperature needs to be over a longer period of time.


Grilling is the quickest and easiest method of meat cooking and is not considered a smoking technique. This is where you throw some burgers, dogs, or steaks on a tabletop charcoal grill and cook them in a matter of minutes. Grilling takes place under very high, direct heat – around 450 to 500 degrees F, ideally. The surface of the meat becomes charred rather quickly, thereby sealing in the juices. The outside may have a smoky flavor, but none of the smoke actually reaches the inside of the meat.

Barbecuing (Barbecue Smoking):

As mentioned previously, barbecuing is a specific type of smoking. It also happens to be the most widely known and most popular form of smoking. A more accurate name for barbecuing might be “cooking with smoke”. Barbecuing typically involves cooking a larger piece of meat like a whole chicken, a pork shoulder, or a beef brisket over indirect heat for a long period of time. The key is indirect heat at a temperature ranging from 200 to 250 degrees F. This lower heat and longer cooking time allows the smoke to soak into the meat, giving it that smoky flavor.

The smoke can be created by just about anything, even charcoal alone, but is normally generated by adding various types of hardwood chunks onto the heat source. When people talk about smoking meats, this is the process that they’re generally referring to, and from this point on we’re going to refer to it as barbecue smoking or simply barbecuing to keep things straight. Some other terms you might hear that refer to barbecuing are “smoke roasting”, “pit roasting”, or “pit barbecue”.

The secret to barbecuing is that there really is no secret. It basically boils down to simple physics and chemistry. You have to keep the temperature low and you have to keep it low for two reasons.

The first reason is that low heat allows the smoke to penetrate the meat, as was mentioned earlier. The smoke has to surround the meat from all sides and has to keep moving at all times. If the smoke is not kept moving, it can allow creosote to build up on the outside of the meat, making it bitter.

The second reason for cooking at a low temperature is to naturally tenderize the meat. The tough connective tissues within meat contain a protein called collagen. The slower you allow meat to cook, this collagen breaks down into a number of basic sugars which help to sweeten and flavor the meat. This is why you’re able to barbecue tougher pieces of meat that you normally wouldn’t want to throw on the grill.


The original purpose for smoking meat was simply to help preserve it. This was before the invention of freezers and refrigerators. Smoking can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days and is performed over a long period of time using almost no heat – anywhere from 52 to 176 degrees F.

There are two types of smoking: cold smoking and hot smoking.

Cold smoking is performed at temperatures in the range of 52 to 86 degrees F and usually within a smokehouse, although there are mechanical smokers available that give you enough control over the temperature, enabling one to cold smoke. Cold smoking allows the most smoke of any other smoking method to penetrate the meat. It’s important to note that cold smoking does not cook the meat.

Salmon (or other fish), bacon fruits and cheese are some of the delicious foods that are cold smoked. Sometimes ham or jerky is cold smoked.

Hot smoking is performed at temperatures of 126 to 176 degrees F. At these temperatures, foods are absolutely safe to eat because they are hot smoked in really high temperature. Nevertheless, these hot smoked foods can be reheated or recooked without altering the taste. Ham hocks, sausages and hams are often hot smoked.

Sometimes poultry is hot smoked after it has been cooked, but the result often tastes like ham. Jerky can be cold or hot smoked, but should be cured and dried first, if cold smoked. The curing/drying takes the place of cooking.

Smoke for Meat Smoking – What to use for smoke?

Technically, you could use just about anything that burns and creates smoke. But remember, this is going to soak into your meat and needs to add flavor, not diminish it. The most popular smoke flavor is created by burning hardwoods such as hickory, mesquite, oak or apple. You don’t want to burn softwoods like pines & firs because these softwoods contain resin in high quantities which in turn produce tasting soot if burned.

There are lots of hardwoods to choose from and should be chosen according to taste and by the type of food being smoked. Most of the smoking recipe and how-to books come with a chart that shows which hardwoods go best with which meats and at what temperatures. But it really comes down to taste preferences. Feel free to experiment.

For the wood to smoke, it obviously has to first burn. Many people like to use only the hardwood they use for smoke as their sole fuel source. This is fine, but it takes some mastery because you don’t want your fuel supply to burn out on you in the middle of a smoking session. Most smokers give you the option to use charcoal, electricity or gas as a fuel source and there are literally hundreds of varieties of smokers out there to choose from.