Grilling, Smoking, or Barbecuing: Is there a difference?

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Grill loaded with burgers

What is the difference between smoking, grilling, and barbecuing beef? And which cuts are good for grilling, smoking, and barbecuing?

With Memorial Day this weekend, now is a good time to know the difference between smoking, grilling, and barbecuing beef. Memorial Day is the second-most popular grilling holiday of the year, according to a survey from the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, with some 58 percent of consumers planning to light up the grill Monday.

And, seven in 10 U.S. adults own a grill or smoker, the group said.

With that in mind, it’s good to know the difference between smoking, grilling, and barbecuing.

Smoking is the process of combusting wood chips, chunks, or logs to generate smoke, which contributes to the complexity of flavor and color of the surface of any meat. Smoke should be thought of as an ingredient that can be added during both grilling and barbecuing applications, said Michael Cressman, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).

At minimum, smoke should be hot enough to register 125 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter to ensure that the meat is being cooked while it is being smoked. However, most commercially available, store-bought smokers produce heat in the range of 225 to 275 degrees Fahrenheit, he said.

Grilling is the process of cooking meat between 350 to 550 degrees Fahrenheit on a grill that is typically either propane or charcoal. Meat can be grilled either “directly” or “indirectly,” which refers to the proximity of the meat to the heat source.

For example, a boneless ribeye steak should be grilled directly over a heat source of 500 to 550 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure a seared exterior that is full of color, texture, and flavor, Cressman said.

A stuffed flank steak pinwheel, however, should be grilled off-set (indirectly) to a heat source of 350 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit to allow for a more gradual and even cook.

Beef cuts that are good for grilling are the cuts that come from the middle of the animal, are inherently tender, and tend to have a lot of marbling, which is the little white flecks of fat throughout the meat. Generally speaking, the more marbling a cut of meat has, the more flavorful and juicy that meat will be once it is grilled.

This includes cuts of beef from the rib, short loin, and sirloin, which includes bone-in and boneless ribeye steaks; strip steaks, T-bone steaks, porterhouse steaks, and the tenderloin; and the top sirloin, respectively.

Barbecuing, on the other hand, is the process of cooking meat using low, indirect heat for a longer period of time to allow the meat to become tender and moist. Generally, the temperature of the heat should range from 200 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

When slow-cooking beef, lean cuts of beef—those with little marbling and external fat—are a good choice. This is because slow-cooking allows connective tissue and muscle fibers to break down, tenderizing what otherwise would be a tough cut of meat. These cuts tend to be from the muscles the animal uses for walking and are made up of the most connective tissue with little fat.

These tougher cuts of beef are generally found in the round, chuck, and brisket and include retail cuts such as the eye of round, chuck roasts, and brisket, respectively.

For tips on how to grill the perfect burger, visit go.osu.edu/bestburger.

However, whether you are grilling or barbecuing your meat, it’s important that you monitor the temperature of the meat when cooking in order to avoid foodborne illness.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture advises consumers to use a food thermometer to accurately measure whether their meat is cooked to a high enough internal temperature to destroy any harmful bacteria, such as salmonella and E. coli, that may be present.

According to the USDA, the safe, minimal cooked internal temperature for ground meats—including beef, pork, veal, and lamb—is 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Whole-muscle cuts of beef, pork, and lamb—such as steaks, pork chops, and lamb chops—can be safely consumed at a cooked internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit. All poultry, such as turkey and chicken, should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

To get the most accurate temperature reading, you should place the meat thermometer in the geometric center of the thickest part of the meat.

In addition, the USDA says you should allow a three-minute rest time after removing the meat from the heat source.

During this rest time, the internal temperature of the meat remains constant or continues to rise, while the juices within the meat are given time to evenly distribute, ensuring a more desirable eating experience.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

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