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smoking vs grilling

What are the Differences Between Smoking and Grilling? (7 Main Differences Explained for Beginners)

Contrary to popular belief, smoking and grilling are NOT the same thing! Sure, the layman uses the terms interchangeably. But if you’re aspiring to be a gastronomic pitmaster, it’s high time you learn how to distinguish between the two. So, what are the differences between smoking and grilling?

Granted, both are cooking terms and you might even use the same equipment to smoke and grill your food. But that’s as far as the similarities go. The differences lie in the cooking methods involved, particularly the amount of heat used and overall cooking time. Smoking is a low and slow cooking method and grilling involves a hot and fast cooking technique. Here are the main 7 differences between smoking and cooking:

CharacteristicSmoking Grilling
Cooking temperatureLowHigh
Cooking TimeSlowFast
Type of HeatIndirectDirect
FuelWoodGas, Charcoal, Wood
FlavorSmoky Caramelized
Size of meatLargeSmall
Type of meatTough cutsTender cuts

Keep reading as I uncover further details so you know what’s what.

The Main Differences Between Smoking and Grilling

Cooking Temperature

It’s no secret cooking food requires application of heat. The amount of heat involved in most cases determines the cooking method. When smoking food, you must use low levels of heat.

Cooking temperatures for hot smoking food should be between 125ᵒF and 175ᵒF. When cold smoking, the temperature should be between 68ᵒF and 86ᵒF. Why? If the temperatures are any higher, the outer parts of your meat cook quickly. When this happens, smoke can’t effectively penetrate the inner part of the meat resulting in an undercooked center.

Z Grills

On the other hand, grilling food requires higher cooking temperatures over a hot fire. Temperatures should be at least 350ᵒF and above depending on the food being cooked. For example; temperatures should be between 400ᵒF and 500ᵒF if you’re grilling steak.

Direct and Indirect Heat

Whether you’re using direct or indirect heat determines the cooking method. When smoking food, you rarely use direct heat to cook your food. Rather you’re using the smoke produced by the burning wood. And that’s where term smoking comes from.

Grilling foods requires the use of direct and conductive heat to cook it. Very little smoke is required for the process.

Cooking Time

When differentiating between smoking and grilling, the overall cooking times plays a huge role. To smoke food, you must dedicate more time to the process. The entire cooking time can range anywhere between an hour to even days.

Grilling seldom requires lengthy cooking times. A few minutes to just under an hour is all that’s required for your food to be ready.


smoking vs grilling


Type of Food Cooked

Z Grills

Certain foods are best for smoking and others are better suited for grilling. However, you’ll find a group of foods that can be cooked using both methods. To determine the type of food best for grilling or smoking depends on the cooking time and temperature involved as mentioned above.


Specialized equipment has been designed for smoking meat if you’re hoping to achieve best results. Most of the best bbq smokers feature metal chambers which, when heated, produce ample smoke.

It’s best to use wood smokers designed for smoking if you’re still learning the skill. You can use gas and charcoal smokers once you’ve mastered the smoking technique.

When grilling foods, you have more equipment to pick from given the versatility of the process. Grills are available in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Plus, they also use different heat sources such as gas, charcoal and electric grills.

Pick your desired grill depending on the food you want to cook. Opt for charcoal grills if you want to grill steak and burgers. Pick propane grills if you want to grill all kinds of foods including vegetables and hot dogs.

Foods Best for Smoking

The smoking process is ideal when cooking tough and chewy meat. Such cuts of meat will require considerable time and low levels of heat to penetrate before they’re done. Examples include:

Foods Best for Grilling

Grilling is a more versatile cooking method compared to smoking. You can cook a wide range of foods including meat, fruit and pizza. With regards to meat, the method works best with tender, leaner and softer cuts of a higher quality. The following foods require fast cooking and high temperatures:

When grilling food over a short period of time you’re preserving the tenderness 0f the meat. The end result is juicy and tasty food.

Skill Required

Generally, it takes some time and practice to master any cooking method. The same applies to grilling and smoking. But based on my experience, grilling is much easier than smoking. Maybe the fact that grilling food doesn’t require much time is the reason behind this. Even though it doesn’t need much skill, the process does require a lot of attention to avoid burning your meat.

Smoking is a lot more taxing. Which is why I’d advise you to start with easy cuts if you’re new to the world of smoking. A pork shoulder cut is more “forgiving”” to novice smokers. In other words, such meat cuts are much easier to smoke, not to mention inexpensive too. They give you a chance to experiment with different types of wood chips, seasonings, cooking temperature and time as you perfect your art.

As soon as you’ve mastered your smoking technique, you can move on to larger and tougher cuts such as brisket which are more challenging to smoke.

If you’re still a beginner to either smoking or grilling, you’ll find the tips outlined in this video handy.



Why You Smoke or Grill Foods

To better understand why you grill or smoke foods, it’s also good to explain why we do so. While both are cooking methods, smoking seeks to cook AND preserve food in the process. As you know, food tends to spoil over time. Smoking ensures food—in particular meat—lasts much longer. When the process is done correctly, your meat is tender and flavorful over a long period.

Grilling isn’t for preserving foods. Grilling serves to cook food for immediate consumption.

The Smoking and Grilling Process Explained

Meat contains collagen which is difficult to break down when raw. Collagen in tough meats is even stronger. The smoking process is designed to break down collagen to make the meat tender and easier to digest. It’s advisable to season your meat with seasoned rub or brine to make the process more effective and enhance the flavor.

Do you know there are two methods of smoking meat? Hot smoking and cold smoking. Cold smoking is done with pre-cooked meat and hot smoking is done when you want to fully cook the meat.

The idea behind grilling is to seal moisture and the natural juices inside meat. This process leaves your meat with a delicious caramelized crust on the exterior. The meat tastes delicious but over indulging in meats cooked at high temperatures may be linked to serious health problems.

Takeaway: To Smoke or To Grill?

By now, you’ve established smoking and grilling are two different cooking methods. So how do you decide on the right method to pick at any given time? Consider the following factors before making your decision:

  • Time: How much time do you have to dedicate to the cooking process? Opt for the grilling method if you want to cook foods that don’t take up much time. Choose the smoking method if you have time on your hands or if the food is for later consumption.
  • Flavor: When it comes to flavor, smoking food wins hands down. The smoking process gives your food a smoky taste difficult to achieve using the grilling method.
  • Size of meat: As discussed, larger meats are ideal for smoking and smaller cuts are better suited for grilling. Along with the size, consider how tough or tender the meat is.
  • Skill: If you’re still finding your feet as a pit master, start with grilling food since smoking requires a bit more expertise. Smoking requires a LOT of patience, practice and skill to nail it.

You have all the facts. Hopefully you can now differentiate between the two cooking methods. Can your friends count on you to set the record straight any time a disagreement arises about smoking and grilling?

What are the Differences Between Smoking and Grilling? (7 Main Differences Explained for Beginners)