Summer is around the corner, and that means barbecues and cookouts with friends and family. Grill classics like hot dogs, barbecue ribs, burgers, and steaks are always fan favorites for lunch and dinner. If you want to grill like the pros, it's important to familiarize yourself with the two main ways to cook meat: smoking vs grilling. They are both very different, and involve different preparation, equipment, and time. Here's a full comparison to help you decide which is best so you can become a grill master.


What it is: Smoking is a process of cooking and preserving foods, especially meat, with smoke and low, indirect heat. It has been used since the time of the cavemen to keep food from spoiling. With the modern use of refrigerators, it's used less for preservation and more as a method of adding smoky flavor and tenderness to meats, poultry, and fish by cooking them at a lower heat for long periods of time.

There's science behind it, too. Smoking breaks down the collagen in meat, making it melt-in-your-mouth tender. Use a dry rub or brine to add salt and flavor to the meat before smoking it for optimal results.

Equipment: Specialized meat smokers are metal chambers heated with either gas, charcoal, or wood chips to produce a low and consistent heat (from 200 to 250ºF) and lots of smoke. If you choose wood, each type of wood produces a different flavor, and there are plenty of options. Though gas and charcoal grills can be modified to smoke meats, it's easiest for novices to use smokers made specifically for smoking.

Characteristics: Most smoked meats have a smoke ring, a pink-tinged layer of meat just underneath the "bark," or crust, of the meat. It's created as the nitrogen dioxide in smoke prevents a substance called myoglobin from turning the meat brown. It's one of the hallmarks of slow-smoked meat, but, as it can be faked with pink salt or sodium nitride cures, many experts believe it's not necessarily a sure sign of quality.

Recipes to try: Try classic smoked ribs and brisket, branch out to smoked chicken and fish, or smoke a whole turkey for your next Thanksgiving dinner.


steak, pork
Paige Weiler

What it is: Grilling meat involves direct exposure to high radiant heat, often on grates held over a heat source such as charcoal or wood. It aims to lock in moisture and cook the inside by creating a caramelized crust on the outside of the food being grilled. Fun fact: backyard grilling as we know it developed after World War II, as the middle class moved to the suburbs.

Equipment: Grills come in all shapes, sizes, and heat sources, from charcoal to gas. Charcoal grills create a smokier flavor and are ideal for flavorful steaks and burgers. Propane-powered gas grills are more common and will work for all kinds of foods, from vegetables to hot dogs.

As for other tools, grill master Bobby Flay says that "an instant read thermometer is your best bet for making sure that meat and fish are cooked to the proper temperature." Tongs are also important for moving the food from grill to plate, and there are all sorts of gadgets to try if you're feeling fancy.

Characteristics: Grilling is a much faster process than smoking, as it uses direct heat to cook the meats or other foods. It creates a crusty, blackened char along the outside of meat, which studies have shown can be unhealthy when eaten excessively. More versatile than smoking, you can cook pizza, vegetables, or even fruit on a grill.

Recipes to try: Give salmon, burgers, or pizza a try at your next cookout, and for the vegetarians out there, try some of these meat-free foods that cook perfectly on a grill.

Smoking vs Grilling: Which One to Choose?

cheese, lettuce, hamburger, tomato
Angela Kerndl

The biggest difference between smoking vs grilling is time. Smoking can be an all-day process with constant temperature monitoring to make sure the meat cooks through evenly. Grilling is more accessible and much quicker, but smoking gives a tender and flavorful product that's nearly impossible to replicate.

The size of the meat is also an important factor in choosing whether to smoke or grill, as larger meats like ribs and briskets benefit from large smokers and smaller meats like chicken and steak cook better on a grill. No matter which method you pick, you'll serve delicious food for friends and family at this summer's barbecues.