BBQ 101 – Everything You Need To Know About Barbecue In One Place

BBQ, barbecue or Bar-B-Que, not many methods of cooking seem to cause so much debate among fellow men.

Is it even a method of cooking, many would argue it’s a type of food?

The Oxford English dictionary actually defines it as both a verb and a noun. A barbecue can be the name of an event, i.e. a gathering outdoors where meat is cooked over an open fire. Or it can be the name of a piece of equipment used to cook meat. 

It can even be the name of the food cooked on the grill itself, as in “all the barbecue you can eat”.

Perfect bbq

Barbecue can also be the act of grilling food as in to barbecue the meat. Webster’s dictionary describes the word barbecue as a transitive verb:

  • 1
    to roast or grill on a rack/revolving spit over a source of heat (such as hot coals). 
  • 2
    to cook in a highly seasoned vinegar sauce.

What can’t be disputed is the fact that barbecue is the oldest form of cooking or food in the world.

Read on to learn more from this ultimate guide to BBQ.

The History of Barbecue

To barbecue meat at its most basic level is to cook it over an open fire.

Something which, throughout most of history, we have had very few other ways to do. We haven’t always had gas cookers, convection ovens and microwaves.

It’s argued that cooking meat dates back about two million years to the age of homo erectus, the ape-like creatures just before Neanderthal man.

Harvard anthropologist, Richard Wrangham, suggests a breakthrough in evolution occurred by accident. An ape dropped some meat in a fire.

Apes learning to cook very quickly changed the evolution of the human being. First of all, cooked food is more calorific, which allowed the apes to grow stronger and nourish their brains more.

Next, our ancestors would have learnt to hunt with flint axes and primitive knives, teaching them social skills and strategy. And the big breakthrough would come when these ape-like men learnt how to control fire.

The history of barbecue is fascinating, especially the development of spits or racks for roasting a whole animal slowly.

Spit-roasting was the most common barbecue cooking method for many years around the world. Soon after the Iron Age started, grid irons were developed, similar to the grates we use on a modern grill.

Spanish barbacoa

The Spanish and the New World Barbacoa

Let’s jump forward to the Spanish settlers and the beginning of the all American barbecue, otherwise we could be here all day.

It’s very rare that anybody gives the Spanish the proper credit for laying the foundations of what was to become the modern barbecue.

The word barbecue is actually though to derive from a native American word for a spit, which the Spanish misheard as barbacoa. Samuel Johnson, the British lexicographer and one of the first writers of a dictionary, listed the proper spelling as barbecue in 1755.

The arrival of hogs with settlers from Jamestown led to the ever popular slow cooking and smoking of meat we know today. Many of the barbecue enthusiasts of the Carolinas to this day will insist a barbecue can only ever be pork.

They forget the original “barbacoa” could have been fish, lizards and other game cooked by the native Americans.

The Rising Popularity of the Barbecue in the Americas

Although, strictly, barbecue was not invented in the US, not many other nations can hold a flame to the way it’s ingrained in our society.

The settlers quickly copied and adapted the ways of the native Americans. Often they would build a simple wood-burning grill made from mud, fitted with a steel plate that could act as a griddle.

Barbecue, especially the low and slow methods, was an effective way of cooking tougher cuts of meat.

Smoking was found to be an effective method of preserving meat, as the smoke removed the moisture needed for bacteria to grow. Even George Washington had a large smokehouse at his plantation in Mt. Vernon.

Smoked ribs

Smoked rib​s

The flavor of slow-cooked, smoke-roasted meat with plenty of sauce grew in popularity in the South.

It was a cheap way to entertain a lot of diners at one time and was often used as a picnic for church gatherings or a way of lobbying votes. Towards the end of the 19th century, barbecue restaurants started to open up, and barbecue became a kind of food rather than just a method of grilling.

What Exactly Is Barbecue?

Which brings us back to that eternal question, just what are we talking about when we say barbecue?

Is it the act of grilling or cooking food, or is it the actual food produced when you “barbecue”?

As we saw earlier, even the dictionaries can’t decide.

Of course, as the popularity of barbecue has grown, the USDA couldn’t help but stick their nickel’s worth in.

The Code of Federal regulations in 1985 stated that any barbecue meat labelled as such should be cooked in a dry heat from the burning of hard wood or hot coals. That effectively rules out many of the gas barbecues, restaurant style smokers or electric grills.

Barbecue had many snob enthusiasts or deniers who are keen to point out what is and isn’t true barbecue.

Today’s modern society uses the word barbecue which has stretched for hundreds, if not millions, of years around the world.

It encompasses many techniques and foods, in America alone, it can be split into four styles.

The Four Main Styles of Barbecue in the United States 

We’re not talking about chicken, beef, pork or roadkill, but rather the four major regional variations on slow cooked barbecues.

There are no strict rules about what differentiates them from each other, just as there are no rules for grilling versus barbecue. 

In general, they all place meat on some kind of platform to be heated, either directly by hot coals or burning wood, or sometimes indirectly too.

Carolina Style Barbecue

Carolina barbecue

Most aficionados would argue this is the original style of barbecue.

An abundance of pork in the Southern states means most Carolina barbecues use pork. Any cut of pork will do, from the pork butt (actually shoulder) to the ribs, or even the whole hog.

They don’t normally use too much rubs, but rather a sauce base. Depending on whether you are in North or South Carolina, this can vary from a thick mustard sauce to a clear vinegar based sauce, respectively.

The tang from the vinegar means the sauce cuts through the fat in ribs or shoulder, to flavor the meat while cooking. 

Texas Style Barbecue

texas barbecue

As you would expect, with Texas, it’s all about the beef.

They may occasionally throw in some chicken or perhaps pork ribs as a garnish, but in general it’s beef served with a side of beef and more beef. Cuts like beef brisket or beef short ribs are cooked with a dry rub, which is often based on mustard or chilli powder.

Any sauces they use tend to be a basting or mop sauce with heavy flavors from bold ingredients. These can include ground chillies, hot sauces, cumin, meat drippings and sometimes beer or coffee.

If you want the end result to be “wetter,” that will involve dipping the meat into the bucket of mop sauce before serving.

Kansas City Style Barbecue

kansas city barbecue

Kansas style barbecue is the one most people are familiar with, especially their barbecue sauces.

The familiar barbecue sauce of a thick tomato base with plenty of sugar originates in the Kansas City style of barbecue. A barbecue in Kansas will usually consist of pork, pork ribs and chicken, all slathered in that sweet barbecue sauce.

Even the rubs for a good Kansas City style recipe will consist mainly of brown sugar with a few herbs thrown in.

Kids tend to love Kansas style barbecue. It’s important that Kansas style barbecued meats are cooked slowly over a lower heat, otherwise all that sugar turns into a charred lump.

Memphis Style Barbecue

memphis barbecue

Finally, we have Memphis style barbecue, which is similar to the Kansas style but without all the sugar.

Instead, Memphis barbecue rubs tend to be more spicy. Meats like pork ribs or shoulder/butt are cooked without a sauce, but will occasionally be basted while cooking.

Without that sticky sauce splattered all over the meat, Memphis barbecues are not as messy as a Kansas style. Many would argue they’re not as much fun, with the only sauces normally found at the table for dipping.

The sauces will be less sweet, generally thinner and maybe tangy, like the Carolina sauces.

Barbecue Around the World

In America, we might have backyard barbecues as a social gathering.

In Hawaii, traditional feasts and celebrations feature digging a pit. A pig is usually buried in a sand pit and cooked for hours before being served up with live music and a dance party.

One of the more common restaurants popping up in neighborhoods across the states is the Brazilian barbecue. 

Here, meat is roasted on long skewers over an open fire pit, before being served at the table straight off the skewer.

Argentinian “asado” menus employ a similar grill but use large slabs, often whole animals, over the open fire pit.

Korean barbecues usually consist of an all-you-can-eat buffet, where you choose thin strips of meat cooked with rice. These will sometimes use Japanese-style hibachi barbecues set in the table. And of course there is the ubiquitous Mongolian barbecue, which is neither Mongolian nor a barbecue, rather a stir-fry from Taiwan.

It’s commonly argued that true barbecue is only American.

An American classic, it’s perfect for when those Fourth of July parades have died down, or just tailgating at the local football stadium. Throw some meat on that grill or in the smoker for a taste of the good ole US of A.

A Look at the Barbecue Techniques

When it comes to cooking meat over an open fire, there are four distinctive cooking methods.

Although we are going to focus mainly on grilling and smoking in this article, let’s take a look at the four types.

To avoid confusion with other worldwide barbecues, let’s refer to them as BBQ, the common American abbreviation we all use today.

Roasting on a BBQ

Roasting chicken on a bbq

If you own a kettle BBQ or gas grill with a hood, you can try roasting whole birds or large slabs of meat.

In effect, you are turning your grill into an oven where the heat circulates freely around the meat. This helps the meat to cook more evenly and avoids the charred spots you often get with grilling.

Charcoal grills can be easy to set up for the roasting method, with you placing charcoal in the two outside thirds of the grill.

This leaves the middle free of direct heat for that roasting effect. On a hooded gas grill, simply don’t turn on the middle burner, just the outer two.

Once the grill reaches temperature, just place the meat/bird on the empty part of the grill where there is no direct heat. I personally recommend placing the meat in a tray to avoid any direct heat from the coals (if using a charcoal grill).

Adding a little liquid to the tray can help keep the meat moist as it cooks, and create a steam effect.

Spit-roasting is another popular method of roasting poultry on a BBQ.

Set the grill up the same way as for roasting and ensure the lid can close without catching the rotisserie. One of the best things about spit-roasting is the meat will baste itself as it turns around on the spit.

BBQ Braising? Really? Yes You Can

Braised sandwich on bbq

Although grills are traditionally used to quickly cook meats like burgers or steaks, they can also be used to braise meat.

Traditionally, you would braise meat by browning it first in a dutch oven before adding a flavorsome braising liquid. Cooking for several hours this way, in an oven or stove top, will result in a tender, melting meat.

Similar to the roasting method, you set up your BBQ with a lid, like an oven.

The big advantage of using an outdoor grill to braise is the different areas of direct and indirect heat. You can quickly brown the meat for extra flavor before braising, and glaze it over the direct heat when cooked, to give it a saucy crust.

Gas grills tend to be better for braising as you have more control over both the indirect and direct heat needed for this method.

If you are a pit master genius though, you can set up the grill for indirect heat by banking the charcoal against the sides, as in roasting techniques.

Grilling on a BBQ: Now You’re Talking

grilling on a bbq

This is the most common method of cooking on a BBQ, in fact most BBQs are referred to as outdoor grills.

A method that uses direct heat, it’s perfect for cooking those hamburgers, steaks, hot dogs and chicken breasts. The higher heat sears the meat on the grill and ensures the moisture stays inside of the meat.

With fattier cuts of meat, like pork chops or rib-eye steaks, a high heat will help render down that fat.

This results in the most succulently cooked meat and that instant melt-in-your mouth effect. Whole chickens cooked using the grilling method benefit from spatchcocking, to ensure they cook more evenly.

If you’re worried about meats being too tough or lacking flavor, you can always add a marinade. Just be careful when the marinade or fat drips on to the coals or burners it doesn’t flare up.

As one of the most popular BBQ techniques, we will be looking in more detail at the grill method of cooking later.

Smoking: The Ultimate Low and Slow Technique

smoking meat

This is what BBQ is all about.

That smoky flavor you only get from a BBQ and a long slow cook for the most tender meat, especially with less expensive, tougher cuts. Smoking meats is truly a game changer and has a dramatic effect on the way the meat cooks.

If you enjoy the taste of hickory, cherry or applewood smoke infusing your meat, smoking is the way forward.

You do need to exercise care when using stronger woods like mesquite or sap tree wood, like pine, as they can be too pungent for many guests. Smoked meats often tend to be more moist than grilled foods, and fall off the bone much easier.

While smoking meats may have previously been used for preserving them, many people now use it for the smoked flavor. Most of the larger grill companies have recently released new high-tech smoker grills to meet this rising popularity.

We will focus on the many benefits of each type of smoker later.

The Art of Grilling

For the majority of BBQ enthusiasts, grilling is where the true magic begins.

That perfectly seared steak, the caramelized to perfection crust on a pork chop, or that extra sizzle on the sausages. Although most BBQ chefs like to think of their craft as an art, there is a reason why BBQ tastes so good—and that’s science.

Getting creative on the grill, as with all forms of cooking, is actually a form of chemistry. As the heat from the grill hits the meat, it forces the food into chemical changes. Grilling meats not only adds flavor, but removes bacteria and makes food easier to digest. 

Nobody wants to don a scientist’s lab coat for too long; we would rather be throwing a few more steaks on the grill.

However, understanding the science behind grilling can take your experiments with BBQ food to another level. It will also make you seem so much more knowledgeable at that next BBQ competition.

Never a bad thing among other grill professionals.

A (Very) Brief Science Lesson

Let’s start at the very beginning.

Meat consists of muscle from some form of animal. It is made up of approximately 75 percent water, 20 percent proteins, 5 percent fats and carbohydrates.

In each muscle cell, there are two proteins, actin and myosin, which are made from amino acids and bonded together by collagen.

Amino acids can be charged with salt ions to increase the water-holding capability of the meats, which explains your marinades or brines. It’s basic osmosis like we all learned at school. But more importantly in grilling is a reaction named after the 20th century French chemist, Louis Camille Maillard—store that name for your next BBQ trivia quiz.

The Maillard effect dictates that meat will brown as the amino acids and sugars mix together at higher heats.

Browning of the meat tends to start at about 250 degrees Fahrenheit, as the meats sugars and proteins react with each other to form an unstable structure, which breaks down into various compounds.

These add more savory flavors and caramelize the meat with a higher temperature, resulting in more intense browning. 

Put simply, use salt to prevent the meat from losing moisture, and a higher heat to add more browning and complex flavors.

The subject of BBQ food science is a complex one, but we would rather do our experiments on the grill than a bunsen burner.

This YouTube video from the American Chemical Society offers up a few chemistry-backed tips to improve your grilling.

The World of BBQ Grills

BBQ aficionados argue that you will only get that intense sear, or browning, of meats from an outdoor grill.

The next question is: what type of grill do you choose?

There are many options available to you, including charcoal grills, gas burners/grills, electric grills and disposable grills.

Below we look at each type before answering some more commonly asked questions about the most popular grills.

Each has its own pros and cons, what might be right for one grill enthusiast may be wrong for another. Mainly, it comes down to a choice of personal preference.

Charcoal Grills

Charcoal grills are the go-to grill of the more traditional BBQ enthusiast.

Normally they use charcoal briquettes or lumpwood to fuel the fire for cooking.

Most enthusiasts, including myself, would argue you can only get that distinct BBQ taste from a charcoal grill—without wood or coals you don’t get that flavor-packed smoke.

charcoal grills

Pros

  • Ideal for the purist. Charcoal or natural wood gives that grilled, smoky flavor.
  • Charcoal grills tend to be hotter, around 700 degrees Fahrenheit, for that perfect searing of meat.
  • A charcoal grill will also be cheaper to buy. Prices can start from as little as $20 for a basic bucket-style grill.
  • Easier to set up and more portable than larger gas or electric grills.
  • Charcoal adds to the romance of cooking over an open fire you rarely get with electric or gas grills.

Cons

  • The time involved. A charcoal grill will often take up to 45 minutes to an hour to reach the required temperature.
  • You will also have to wait for the charcoals to die out or cool down before you can even think about cleaning the grill
  • The cost. An average grill of 40 briquettes will cost around $2.50 each time. 
  • They can also be illegal. Many apartment complexes or public parks now ban charcoal or wood-burning grills.

Gas Grills

Gas grills are currently the most popular type of backyard grill in the states.

In a 2017 survey by the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, 64 percent of respondents indicated they owned a gas grill.

They can either be run on a choice of propane gas or the natural gas you already receive from your utility company.

Weber Summit 7470001 Grill

Although many would argue the merits of propane or methane, there is—in reality—not much difference.

If you already have natural gas in your home, getting a link to the outdoor grill can certainly be more convenient and cheaper too.

Pros

  • Convenient and time saving. 
  • Less time cleaning. Once switched off, a gas grill will quickly cool down. No messy ash to get rid off and no waiting several hours to empty or clean.
  • More temperature control. With a dial operation and multiple burners, gas grills offer more versatility.
  • Cost-effective. An average 15 pound tank of propane will cost around $15 and give you 15 or so grill sessions. At $1 a grill, that’s a whole $1.50 cheaper than your average charcoal grill. 
  • Natural gas grills can be even cheaper still.

Cons

  • Flavor. The biggest opponents of gas grills argue you simply don’t get that BBQ flavor with gas. 
  • Gas grills tend to be more expensive to purchase. The options for gas grills normally start around the $200 mark. To purchase a gas grill which is more durable and made of something like stainless steel will cost $500 upwards.
  • Maintenance of gas grills can be higher. When you need to replace a part it may be expensive. Gas valves, gas lines and heating plates will all occasionally need replacing, for safety.
  • Can be harder to set up and certainly less portable than a charcoal grill. Remember you will need gas: either a propane tank or a line. A gas grill is not as convenient for those impromptu days out or a tailgate party at the local stadium.

Electric Grills

Electric grills are a relatively new development in the BBQ world.

Despite offering some advantages, they have not proven to be too popular. In the survey we mentioned earlier by the HPBA, electric grills only accounted for nine percent of all backyard grills.

These grills, as the name suggests, are powered by electricity using heated grill plates and require no fire.

Electric grills

For people who live in the city and may be prohibited from using gas or charcoal BBQs due to fire regulations, they can be ideal. But the taste leaves a lot to be desired if you are looking for that BBQ flavor.

Pros

  • ​Easy and safe to use. No messing about trying to ignite anything, just a push of a button or turn of a dial.
  • ​They can be used both indoors or outdoors. Without any naked flames, electric grills produce much less smoke than a gas or charcoal grill.
  • Size. Electric grills are available in small compact table top units which can be used where space is at a premium.
  • Larger patio electric grills are also available; these can feed 20 people and upwards.
  • Cost. Many of the electric grills you find are now less than $100. A simple George Foreman grill could be used as an outdoor grill if you wanted. Although, a premium electric grill from a company like Weber can run up to about $400.

Cons

  • Flavor. You may still get the same griddle pan marks but there’ll be none of that distinctive BBQ smokiness.
  • Temperature many not be as easy to control as gas grills. Electric grills usually have a low, medium and high setting. A radiant heat is created, with coils powering on and off when they reach temperature or the temperature drops.
  • Water and electricity don’t mix. The heating element of an electric grill can’t be submerged in water.
  • You need electricity. Gas or charcoal is much easier to transport.

Other Types of Grill

If you can’t decide between gas, charcoal or electric, there are hybrid grills or wood pellet grills available.

These can offer the advantages of all types of grill, but tend to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. 

A hybrid gas grill may offer a compartment for charcoal briquettes or possibly lava rock coals for those meat drippings. 

A wooden pellet grill will use electricity to fire the wood, but produce a smoke effect with a more sustainable and longer-lasting fuel.

Other grills include portable grills, disposable grills or even DIY grills which you can build in your backyard.

pellet-smokers

Portable grills can be either propane or charcoal, but have one thing in common: they are easy to transport. Weber, and other well-known manufacturers, offer some miniature kettle style grills, while there are also smaller propane grills available.

Although portable grills may offer a smaller cooking area, for an outdoor picnic or that perfectly grilled hot dog before a game, they can be perfect.

The ultimate portable grill for many is a disposable one. These normally take the form of an aluminium tray filled with charcoal and a metal grate which you simply toss in the garbage when you’re done.

(Just make sure it’s completely cold or extinguished first—nobody appreciates a burning trash can BBQ!)

DIY Grills

If you can’t find a grill you really like, building your own is another option.

The most common DIY grill is traditionally the oil drum style grill. Simply take an old steel drum, preferably not an oil but something less toxic, like honey, cut away and make a stand. 

Depending on the design you choose, it could even be portable—click here for a very good Instructables page on how to make your own barrel grill.

For something more permanent and much more sturdy, you could consider building a brick or concrete grill in your backyard.

Your imagination is your only limit, and the availability of heat-proof bricks, of course. Your design could include storage for charcoal, a work surface and even a gas ring for keeping those sauces hot.

Most of the cheaper portable grills you can buy are something you could make yourself.

A simple turkey roasting tray with a drip pan grate can provide a quick impromptu grill.

Other items, like an old tool box, a large wok or terracotta plant pot can also be used—you just need something fireproof that can hold the lit charcoals, and a grate to place the food on.

Charcoal or Gas: Which is Better?