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Home | Cook Your Thanksgiving Turkey on the Charcoal Grill

Cook Your Thanksgiving Turkey on the Charcoal Grill

Turkey on the grill

This year, as I've done for several years now, I'll cook our Thanksgiving turkey on the charcoal barbeque grill. This is, in my humble opinion, the best way to cook a turkey, hands down. And it frees up the oven for more important Thanksgiving fare, like pie, stuffing (and more pie).

Here's what you'll need to cook up your turkey on the grill. My method is optimized for your standard 22-inch Weber charcoal grill, so your mileage may vary with other kinds. I have no idea if this will work on gas grills, so if you try it and it doesn't work don't blame me.

Turkey on the grill

Here's what you'll need to round up:

  • A turkey, preferably 20 pounds or less
  • Olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Fresh herbs and aromatics like onions, lemons, and garlic
  • Charcoal
  • Wood smoking chips—apple, hickory, alder, mesquite, or whatever you like
  • A medium-sized foil pan
  • One bottle of white wine (I used sauvignon blanc; inexpensive plonk like “Two-buck Chuck” is totally fine here)

We started off with 12-pound a free range turkey from Diestel Turkey Ranch. Diestel's birds have a great old fashioned turkey flavor, and are really worth the extra money. You can go up to about 22 pounds or so, but any bigger and you might not be able to fit the lid on your grill. This happened to me one year when I tried to cook a big 24-pound bird. Closing the lid is important, since we're not really grilling so much as roasting/smoking the turkey on the grill.

This recipe works fine with either brined or plain birds. We usually dry brine the turkey ahead of time (see Serious Eats' Food Lab guide to brining for all the details), but it turns out fine without it, too. You can also buy one of those pre-brined ones which means one less thing you have to do.

Dry it thoroughly inside and out, if necessary. Make sure you remove the giblets in their bag (I forgot to do this once… yuck). Rub it all over with olive oil, and liberally season with salt and pepper, or just pepper if you've brined the turkey. Stuff the cavity with the onion, lemon, and herbs—I just grabbed a handful of stuff growing in our herb garden, but rosemary, sage, thyme, and oregano all work well.

Soak a cup of wood chips in water for 30 minutes. Build a medium sized charcoal fire, and when the coals are ready, divide them evenly into two piles on opposite sides of the grill. Scatter the wet wood chips on top of the coals. This will create smoke which will in turn give our turkey a subtle smokiness.

Turkey on the grill

Place your foil pan between the piles of coals, and pour in your bottle of wine. (You can pour yourself a glass if you want, too.) The wine will add moisture and a little flavor to the turkey. If you don't want to use wine, you can substitute chicken broth or even water.

Turkey on the grill

Put the grill grate on, making sure you position the handles over the piles of coals, as shown in the photo. Place your turkey on the grill, cover, and adjust the vents on the lid and on the bottom of the grill so they’re about half-way open—you want a pretty slow fire here so the turkey gets cooked through evenly.

Turkey on the grill

Now go back in the house and watch football or something for a while. You’ll want to check on your bird every half hour or so, adding two or three charcoal briquets to each side if needed.

Cook your turkey until the temperature in the thickest part of the breast reads 161ºF. Our test bird took about 3 hours. Remove from the barbeque and let rest, tented with aluminum foil, for half an hour.

Congratulations—you've barbequed your Thanksgiving turkey! Taste it, and you'll probably decide to do it this way again next year.

Making Gravy with Your Grilled Turkey

Gravy is the glue that binds Thanksgiving dinner together, and cooking the turkey this way does complicate things a little in the gravy department. The good news is that gravy is no problem, but you'll have to use a slightly different technique than you're used to.

I usually start off by making a stock by simmering the turkey neck and giblets with some low-sodium chicken broth (4 cups or one 32-ounce container will do) and a carrot, an onion, and a celery stalk. Let this simmer for a few hours while you prepare and cook the turkey.

When the turkey is done and resting, remove the foil drip pan and its contents (the wine and turkey drippings) from the grill. In a large saucepan, make a roux with 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour and 4 tablespoons unsalted butter. Slowly add the turkey stock you prepared earlier and some of the drip pan contents to the pan and whisk in. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until thickened and gravy-like. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

The proportions of turkey broth and drippings are up to you. The drippings will impart a smokey taste to the gravy, so use more for a stronger flavor, and less for something more subtle. You'll also want to use less of the drippings if you're cooking a brined turkey, since they'll be pretty salty.

Needless to say, you shouldn't stuff a turkey that you're cooking on the grill. Just make it in a pan in the oven and you'll be set.

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Marin Holiday Guide 2023