Nothing seems to get the backyard chef in more of an uproar than the issue of which method of cooking is the best. Grillers, with their gas patio cookers love the convenience. Flame it on, let it heat up while you’re seasoning steaks and chopping vegetables, then throw it all on the grill. Cooking time: 15-20 minutes. Great for the after work cookout. Charcoal people will tell you that propane gives food a harsh flavor. The only thing for them is good clean charcoal (no glued press board or pre-added lighter fluid please). Charcoal, maybe with a little pre-soaked hickory or apple chips for smoke to give food a natural, off the grill taste.
Barbecue is a process of slow cooking meat over a low fire. Throwing burgers or chicken on the backyard grill (gas or charcoal) is not barbecuing. Barbecue has many meanings depending on where you are. Sometimes it means cooking a whole animal (usually pork) in a pit. In the Southeast its how small cuts of meat are cooked in wood burning ovens. Typically, barbecuing is a long, slow cooking process with hardwood fires in an enclosed oven or pit.
Smokers can be the most diehard of all. Put your hot-pepper rubbed brisket in the smoker for 6-8 hours. Marinate in your sauce of choice, wrap in foil and drop it into a pile of smoldering coals (or the oven at about 180 degrees if you like) to slow cook for 10 hours or so. Since barbecuing is a slow cooking process, smoking is a method of barbecuing. Only the tools might look a little different. Recently there has been a large influx of smokers on the market, making smoking easier, and more popular.
Though fisticuffs may ensue, I maintain that there is no comparison. Each has its own advantages and histories. Grilling, meaning literally to cook on a grill, is probably the oldest type of cooking. However smoking is probably an older method of food preparation (though the evidence isn’t very strong one way or the other). When the Spanish came to America they found the natives placing meat on racks to dry. The Native Americans would build smoky fires around these racks to keep the bugs away and to aid in preserving the meat. This process was very slow. Later people moved the meat and fire into smoke houses or chimneys to control the heat and improve the quality of the flavor. Hence, the barbeque as we know it was born. Barbequing was very popular among slaves who usually had access to very poor cuts of meat. Slow cooking was the best way to make tough meat palatable. Even today one of the most popular meats to slow cook is brisket, a notoriously tough cut of beef.
As for which is best for you, consider your needs. I believe it is best for the novice to start with a basic gas grill. They are easy to maintain, easy to use and so convenient. But with the growth in sales it is easy to find all types of equipment as well as books for recipes and techniques. The thing to remember is that whether you’re grilling, barbecuing or smoking there are different techniques and different recipes.