Smoking Vs. Grilling: BBQ Showdown

If you want to become a grilling expert, it is important to learn about the two main ways to cook over an open flame: smoking and grilling. What are their main differences? Is the flavor from one different from the flavor from the other? We will consider these questions and more as we look at smoking vs. grilling in another BBQ Showdown.

What is the difference between smoking and grilling?

Smoking is an ancient method of preserving meats using smoke, indirect heat and low cooking temperatures. The original reason for using this method had more to do with preserving the meat than with flavor. These days, it is used mostly for the flavor and for making meat tender by breaking down the connective tissue in it.

Properly smoked meats acquire a smoke ring. This term refers to the layer of meat just beneath the exterior. It is especially visible in pork, due to the lighter color of that meat. It is the result of nitrogen dioxide from the smoke binding with a protein in the meat called myoglobin. Myoglobin is what makes meat red. It keeps myoglobin from oxygenating and turning brown. Smoke ring formation typically requires time along with smoke, which means that they may not occur with faster cooking methods.

Grilling is a faster way to cook meat over an open flame. Whereas the heat used to smoke meat is indirect and low, the heat used for grilling is direct and high. Grilling is not so much about breaking down collagen and making meat tender as it is about caramelizing the exterior and sealing in juices to keep the interior moist.

What about taste?

The flavor of grilled meat versus the flavor slow-smoked meat is the basis of yet another big culinary debate. Many chefs believe that the flavor of slow-smoked meat is superior to that of grilled meat; however, it is possible to have the best of both worlds with the use of wood chips or wood chunks. The ideal wood for smoking is thought to come from certain species of fruit or nut trees. Apple, peach and pecan woods are all thought to be excellent for slow-smoking meats.

Can you get a smoky flavor from grilling?

Yes, you can. One of the easiest ways to do this with a charcoal grilling is to add wood chips. Simply toss a handful of chips onto your smoldering coals to create smoke that will flavor your meat. You can also mix chunks of wood in with the coals to smoke meat for longer periods.

Is one healthier than the other?

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that grilling and smoking meats can be bad for you when done improperly. The reason lies in the presence of two carcinogens: hetero cyclic amines (HCAs) that result from browned and charred meats and poly cyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that are produced by wood and charcoal combustion.

While it is still too soon to form conclusions about the hazards posed by grilling and smoking let alone which is healthier, it is believed that you can minimize the risk by exercising care in a few areas.

  • First, avoid blackening meat to limit the amount of HCAs, and remove char wherever it shows up.
  • Avoid overcooking meat; well-done meat appears to pose the greatest risk.
  • Avoid smoking over softwoods, which are high in PAHs.

Grilling quickly without charring is unlikely to result in high concentrations of HCAs or of PAHs. Similarly, smoking with hardwoods will produce a cleaner smoke that is lower in PAHs. Since the meat is not grilled over direct heat, it is also unlikely to produce high levels of HCAs.

Does one method take longer than the other?

While smoking meat will often take several hours, most grilling is done in less than an hour. For example, steaks are usually grilled in a matter of minutes; brisket is usually smoked for as long as 12 hours.