Barbecue vs Cookout: What’s the Difference?

Barbecue vs Cookout: Are You Using the Correct Term to Describe Your Summer Party?

Ah, grilling in the summer time. Inevitably, when you go to someone’s house for a gathering involving some type of grill in the summertime, you will hear certain terms describing the event when you are invited. It could be a barbecue (or barbeque, or BBQ) or a cookout. The debate over which term is correct, “barbecue vs cookout”, has been hotly debated between people across the country for years.

But really, what’s the difference between the two terms? Why do some people use one or the other? Read on to learn the differences between barbecue vs cookout.

Barbecue vs. Cookout: It Depends Where You Live

The differences and similarities between barbecue vs cookout really depends on where you are from, or where you live in the country. The meaning of these terms will vary between the Northeast, Midwest, South, and other parts of the country. For people in the Northeast and Midwest, the meaning of “barbecue” and “cookout” are very similar. This is when friends and family come together on a warm summer day or evening to grill hot dogs, hamburgers, corn on the cob, chicken, or veggies. The word, barbecue, can be a noun, verb, adjective, or a sauce. The word can be spelled “barbecue” or “barbeque.” The other term, “cookout”, can also be used. Oftentimes, “cookout” and “barbecue” are used interchangeably. On the West Coast, the term, “barbecue”, is used more often than “cookout” when referring to food gatherings featuring a grill.

Barbecue vs Cookout: How It Changes Down South

For Southerners, the meanings of barbecue vs cookout are quite drastic than other areas of the country. Down South, a “cookout” means grilling food outside. The cookout menu features foods like hot dogs, hamburgers, and other easy foods. A “cookout” involves fast cooking over a direct heating source, like a gas grill. Direct heat is responsible for grill marks on hamburgers. Direct heat is also great for searing meat to give it color and a crisp skin.

In Texas and other southern states, a “barbecue” is much different and involves a much larger scale event than what they consider a “cookout”. Simply inviting friends over and firing up the gas grill isn’t a barbecue. Barbecues are whole day affairs, where attendees get the pleasure of relaxing in lawn chairs and smelling meat slow cooking over a fire for 6-8 hours.

Barbecues & Indirect Heat

A “barbecue” involves slow cooking over an indirect heating source. Indirect heat is a zone created adjacent to the heat source. The food is still going onto the grill or over the fire, but with indirect heat the items you’re cooking are placed in an area heated by the flame, but not directly in contact with it. Common indirect heating delivery methods at barbecues are pits or smokers. Common barbecued foods include North Carolina pulled pork, Texas beef brisket, Memphis ribs, a whole hog, and many more depending on where you are.

Barbeques take careful preparation, like getting the meats ready the night before and smoking them for many hours on the indirect heating source. This is obviously much more complex than tossing some hamburgers or hot dogs on the grill. Never make the mistake of inviting a southerner to a BBQ and only serving hot dogs and hamburgers. They’ll be extremely disappointed and have something snarky to say about it. In some regions, calling cookouts “barbecues” is disrespectful and insulting to the barbecue, a sacred style of cooking that has strict rules and guidelines.

Barbecue vs Cookout: The History

If you look at the history of barbecue in America, ‘Barbecue’ is, in fact, originally a Southern culinary tradition. People from all ethnicities from the South would be shocked if they arrived at a “barbecue” and there were only hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill. So why do some groups in the U.S. use “barbecue” when “cookout” should be used?

The confusion developed after World War II, in the 1950’s, when the “barbecue grill” debuted. Part of the American Dream was to have that grill in your yard and “barbecue” hamburgers and hot dogs with your family and friends. Hence, the term “barbecue” started to be used for these events. So, in a sense, both uses of ‘barbecue’ are correct. But, the tradition outside of the South is altered enough to be nearly unrecognizable to people who hold the original tradition dear.

Barbecue vs Cookout: The Verdict

So, let’s recap what makes up the original “barbecue” tradition:

  • The cooking method involves meats being cooked with indirect heat.
  • Charcoal or wood and a “low and slow” cooking process.
  • Meats include pork, ribs, brisket, chicken, even fish, game, and goat. By definition, it should be something more than hamburgers or hot dogs.
  • All-day event – barbecues have to take several hours or the better part of a day to cook. Think 6-8 hours just for the cooking. This does not include the time it takes to eat and enjoy all of the food!
  • Foods are generally messy – recommended that you do not wear fancy clothes to a barbecue. Think fall-off-the-bone meat.

And then a “cookout” is made up of the following:

  • The cooking method involves fast cooking over a direct flame.
  • Gas grills are commonly used at cookouts, but charcoal, electric or portable grills could also be used.
  • The cookout food list includes meats like hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and hot dogs.
  • Generally, cookouts are not all-day cooking events. The grilling of burgers and hot dogs can take 15-30 minutes, depending on the number of guests.
  • You can wear whatever you want to a cookout. The food is not as messy as at a barbecue. Just be careful with the ketchup and mustard on that hot dog!

Regardless of which term you like to use, either barbecuing or cooking out, it’s all about good food. There’s nothing better than enjoying meat on some sort of fire during the summer months. Once we get past the arguments and debate over barbecue vs cookout, we can all move on to what is most important: enjoying great food with family and friends.

Breakaway – Cape Cod’s #1 Grill & Patio Superstore:

If you’re into the traditional “barbecue”, you should check out one of Breakaway’s pellet grills from Green Mountain Grills. Browse either the Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, or Jim Bowie grills to get yourself ready for your next all-day “barbecue” event. If you’re preparing for a “cookout”, browse any of our gas or charcoal grills from Weber, MHP, Napoleon, or our other grill brands.

Take advantage of Breakaway’s “Universal Grill Care Coverage” on the purchase of your next grill. This includes the assembly and delivery of your new grill, recycling and disposal of your old cart-style grill, and a new tank of propane (or if buying a natural gas grill, you will get a new natural gas hose). Remove the hassle of buying that new grill. Breakaway will take care of all of the hard work for you.

Breakaway also carries other patio products for your next gathering, including fire pits, patio heaters and outdoor cookers. We carry replacement grill parts, grill accessories, and more. If you need to repair your grill or refill your grill’s propane tank, we can also help you with that. Make sure your next “barbecue” or “cookout” goes off without a hitch. Call us at 508-398-3831, visit one of our store locations in South Dennis or Mashpee, or contact us today for more information.


Monday – Saturday: 9:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Sunday: Closed.

435 Rt. 134 South Dennis, MA 02660
Next to Mid Cape Home Centers

Phone: (508) 398-3831


Monday – Saturday: 9:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Sunday: Closed.

17c Trinity Place Mashpee, MA 02649
Next to Boston Interiors

Phone: (508) 539-1674