Tri Tip 101: BBQ vs. Grilling

Although “BBQ” is the catch-all term for every type of outdoor cooking, it is important that you do not confuse barbecue with grilling. Tri tip tastes great on the grill and even better barbequed. So, what’s the difference? Here are our definitions, based on widely held beliefs within the vast BBQ community:


Barbeque is a slow process over low heat. Usually, smoking is involved – mostly through using soaked wood chips. The meat is flavored by the smoke, which provides the unique BBQ flavor. Barbeque is cooked using indirect heat; the meat is not placed directly over the burning coals and/or wood. The best tri tip I’ve ever tasted (and made) was BBQed – this is the method used by grill masters to cook ribs, pulled pork and brisket.

Since BBQing involves smoke, this method requires a covered grill. That being said, it also requires the cook to have PATIENCE and SELF-CONTROL – you must leave the grill alone over a long period of time! Trust me – it will be worth it!  Our video How to Smoke Tri Tip Using Wood Chips demonstrates this method.

Should you use charcoal or wood?  How do I set up my grill for the indirect heat method?  What is the best kind of wood to use for smoking? How do I maintain a consistent heat? ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS AND MORE INFO ABOUT SMOKING COMING SOON!



Grilling is cooking over a hot flame (usually over direct heat) for a short time. The “hot-and-fast” method is preferable for dogs and burgers, and grilled tri tip tastes amazing as long as you don’t rush through it.  For more on our method, see our video How to Grill a Tri Tip Roast.

There are some who argue that cooking with charcoal is better than cooking with natural gas (typically propane). Arguing is stupid, so my contribution to the “which is better” debate is simply this – which of these is the most important?

TIMEFRAME: Charcoal takes 15-20 minutes to heat up and get prepped in the grill; you can have your gas grill preheated to your desired heat within 5 minutes. If time is the issue, USE GAS.

COST: There are two things to consider when discussing cost – grills and materials. Propane grills are more expensive than charcoal grills – usually 2-3 times more expensive when comparing similar attributes (grilling space, name brand, durability, customer ratings). Concerning materials, charcoal is relatively inexpensive compared to propane. You can get about 6-8 cooks out of a large bag of charcoal; based on experience, about 25 one-hour cooks on medium heat from a propane tank. However, the cost to refill propane is more expensive than buying a second and a third bag of charcoal. If money is the issue, USE CHARCOAL.

CONVENIENCE: Once you get the coals going, you need to spread them in the bottom of the grill. Equally dispersing heat in a charcoal grill is impossible, but you can have a consistent heat through a gas grill. Along with this, you can easily adjust your heat levels for the entire cook with gas – charcoal grills require you to find the hot and cool zones. Cleanup is much easier with a propane grill. The advantage goes to USING GAS.

FLAVOR: This one is a bit tricky because you will often use rubs or marinades to give your tri tip a great flavor. Charcoal provides some smoke flavor to tri tip. Using too much lighter fluid does not affect flavor as long as it doesn’t get on the cooking grate (which can be transferred to the surface of the tri tip). A slight advantage goes to CHARCOAL.


A FINAL THOUGHT: Even though there is a difference, go ahead and call it BBQ if you want. BBQ snobs love correcting the uninformed, but nobody likes them. Get out there, cook up some amazing grub with the method that works best for you – and make the world a better place one tri tip at a time!