How to Grill – Grilling and Barbecuing 101

flame kissing a skirt steak on the grill

Grilling vs. Barbecuing

Do you like to grill or do you prefer to barbecue? Did you know there was even a difference?

Chances are you’re a griller, which means you like to cook meat fast over a hot flame.

Barbecuing on the other hand is a slow process over a low indirect heat. This is the technique used to create melt-in-your-mouth pulled pork and fall-off-the-bone ribs.

How to Grill

The first thing you need is fire. And you have a few options. I’m going to start with the easiest method – gas grill.

You can pick up a simple gas grill for a few hundred bucks. You’ll also need a propane tank. Turn that bad boy on, push ignite and dinner is only minutes away.

A good gas grill will have a couple of burners, so you can adjust the heat. To start, I like to crank the heat to high to clean off all the leftover bits. Then, I adjust the temp for whatever I’m grilling.

Steaks and veggies do well with a high heat, but chicken and pork chops do better over medium.

I always recommend having an extra propane tank on hand. There’s nothing worse than running out of gas half way through grilling a turkey Thanksgiving Day.

One of the cheapest methods of grilling is with a kettle grill that uses charcoal. You can pick one up for about $50.

This method is a little more complicated because you will need to light the coals and adjust the heat using a vent system.

So why would anyone use charcoal?

Because it makes the meat taste so much better, assuming you don’t douse the coals with lighter fluid. Really, don’t do that.

I like using hardwood lump charcoal. It burns clean, lights quickly and imparts a hint of smokiness to whatever you’re cooking.

There are a couple of ways to light charcoal, but I’ve found the easiest method is with fire starters. You tuck one or two into the charcoal and light ‘em up. The flames will quickly spread. Let them burn for about 10 minutes before adding food to the grill.

Many of you may have or may be considering a pellet grill.

Unless you purchase a pellet grill with a sear station that allows you to easily remove or open the deflector plate, they’re not as ideal for open flame grilling. So I’ll share more about pellet grills in the barbecue section.

Campfire Steak and Eggs

There is one more grilling method that we can’t overlook – campfire cooking.

You don’t have to live in the middle of the woods to pull this off. A lot of people are adding campfire rings in their backyards nowadays. If you have one, you’ve probably cooked the traditional hot dogs and s’mores.

Now it’s time to take it up a notch. With a simple campfire cooking grate, you can turn that backyard kumbaya circle into an outdoor kitchen. Or create your own fire pit grill

Before you get started though, there is one very important thing you have to do – know your wood.

Avoid using pine or cedar. Both contain a lot of sap, and before you know it, your food will taste more like air freshener. If you’re buying wood in packaged bundles, read the label. Some actually say, not intended for cooking. The best bet is to go with a hardwood like hickory, apple, pecan, cherry, etc.

Build your hardwood teepee, light the wood and once it starts to glow, knock down the teepee to create coals. Place the cooking grate on top and you’re good to go. You can throw the meat straight on the grate, and you can use cast iron pans to create side dishes.

four packets on charcoal grill with coal on left

Direct vs. Indirect

Once you’ve picked out your grill and fired it up, there is one more very important tip that is the difference between being an average backyard griller versus the grill queen (or king) of the block.

Know how to handle the heat!

Most people cook over direct heat. This means that they set the grill temp and place the food right over the fire. This is the method you’ll use the majority of the time.

Indirect heat, on the other hand, is when you have heat on only one side of the grill. If you’re using a gas grill, you simply turn off half of the burners. If you’re using charcoal, you push the coals to one side.

If you’re using a pellet grill or ceramic cooker, your grill should come with a deflector or diffuser plate. This will block the direct heat.

You place the food on the side where there is no heat or on the grate over the deflector plate and close the lid. This creates more of an oven effect, and this is what advances you from griller to barbecuer.

slices of smoked brisket

How to Barbecue

Barbecuing is basically grilling slowly over indirect low heat.

Why would you want to cook the food slow and low?

Think of the barbecue as your outdoor slow cooker. When you put a roast in the slow cooker and leave it for 8 hours, it falls apart, creating a delicious dinner. Why? Because the meat’s connective tissue breaks down.

The same thing happens when you barbecue.

Set your grill up with an indirect heat zone and adjust the burners, grill vents or temperature dial to reduce the temperature to about 250F degrees. If you place a roast over the indirect heat and close the lid, after a few hours, the meat is incredibly tender.

Unlike a slow cooker, most grill lids don’t lock in moisture, so sometimes barbecuers will place a pan of liquid in with the meat. You can use stock, juice, beer, wine or even just water.

Another option is to wrap the meat in foil during the final hour of cooking, so the meat bastes itself.

Safety tip: Unlike a slow cooker, it’s not safe to start the barbecue and head to work for 8 hours. We are talking about fire here, so you want to keep an eye on it every now and then.

chunk of whiskey barrel on coals.

How to Smoke

Once you master grilling and barbecuing, you’re ready for the final chapter of Grill Smoke U – smoking.

Smoking is just barbecuing with the addition of flavorful hardwood. It uses the same indirect heat method.

If you’re using a charcoal grill, place 2-3 wood chunks on the grill. As they heat up, they’ll release more smoke than fire, creating that real barbecue flavor. Use the chunks instead of chips, because chips will burn up too quickly on charcoal. 

If you’re using a gas grill, that’s where the wood chips come in. Place the chips in a smoker box or even a packet of foil.

If you’re using a pellet grill, the heat is created by wood pellets. They feed into the grill to produce fire. When cooking at temperatures below 250F degrees, the pellets will emit more smoke.

Experiment with different woods. In my opinion, mesquite has more of a bitter flavor; whereas hickory is a little smoother, and apple and cherry are sweeter.

When smoking, don’t overdo the wood chunks or chips. You only need them for about a third of the barbecuing time. Otherwise, your food will taste more like smoke than meat.

Now that I’ve walked you through all of the basics, browse around and test out a few recipes. I’m confident that you can grill up, barbecue and smoke a great dinner.