Dry Brined Grilled Turkey (Grilling Basics)
I’ve said it before: grilling is the best way to cook your Thanksgiving turkey. But, to my shame, I realized that I don’t have a grilled turkey recipe on the blog. Whoops.
I always rotisserie my bird…but that’s just me being a fanatic. Skip the rotisserie (and the trussing, and spitting, and extra equipment) and grill your turkey. It won’t be quite as perfect as the rotisserie version…but a grilled turkey is still better than any bird you’ll get out of the oven, or the deep fryer, and it’s a lot less work.
Now, this is going to look complicated, but, really, it’s not that bad. None of these tricks add much work; they just need planning ahead. And you can skip any of them you want. I have them listed in order of importance…Dry brining helps more than icing the breast, which helps more than U of fire, and so on. It’s a menu – you can pick the entries you want.
Still with me? Great. Because it’s time to get to work.
Over the years, I’ve picked up a lot of tricks to help cook the perfect grilled turkey. The most important one is how we season the bird.
Dry brine the turkey
Salt the bird a couple of days ahead of Thanksgiving, and stash it in the back of the refrigerator. (Thanks to Judy Rodgers’ Zuni Cafe Cookbook for the dry brining technique, and Russ Parsons of the Los Angeles Times for promoting it.)2
The next most important turkey tip is…
Don’t overcook the white meat
Ultra-lean white meat is overcooked if it gets above 160°F. Dark meat is full of fat and connective tissue, and it needs to cook to at least 175°F. Properly cooking a turkey is tough, and usually results in a trade off. Do you want dry, overcooked breast meat? Or tough, chewy legs? Dry brining the turkey helps the breast – brined meat will hold on to more liquid – but it can only help so much. The rest of my tips are trying to cook the legs more, while keeping the breast below 160°F.
Ice the breast This is a trick from Harold McGee, food scientist extraordinaire. Mr. McGee straps ice packs to the breast of his turkey, so it starts cooking at a lower temperature than the legs. I don’t want to disinfect ice packs when I’m done cooking, so I use a gallon zip-top bag full of ice. The turkey comes out of the refrigerator an hour (or two) before cooking, and the bag of ice sits on the breast, keeping it chilled while the legs warm up.
U of fire The turkey can’t cook over direct heat on the grill; it will burn way before it cooks through. So, we set the grill up for indirect heat, to grill roast the bird. The standard indirect heat setup is to split the coals into two piles on each side of the grill. Instead, I put the coals in a U shape on one side of the grill, so I can concentrate the heat on the legs, and away from the breast. Also, I prefer charcoal – it makes it easy to add a fist sized chunk of smoking wood in the coals. The coals will burn out before the turkey is done, so I add 24 unlit coals to the fire every hour to keep it going.
Thanks to Jamie Purviance, Weber’s grilling guru, for suggesting the U of charcoal in Weber’s Charcoal Grilling. And for being a grilling inspiration – the first turkey I cooked on a grill was following his recipe.
Rotate the bird Once again, I’m trying to keep the breast from overcooking. I start the bird breast side down in a roasting pan. The pan shields the breast from the heat for the first hour of cooking; after that, I rotate the turkey breast side up so it will brown.
Cook the breast to 150°F Now, for a walk on the wild side. The USDA safe minimum temperature for turkey is 165°F. We’re going to ignore that, go directly to the USDA Time/Temperature charts, and only cook the turkey breast to 150°F…OK, maybe 155°F.
Recipe: Grilled Turkey, Dry Brined
- Grill (I love my Weber kettle)
- Aluminum foil roasting pan (11“x15”, or an oval turkey roaster)
- Roasting rack (or use stalks of celery to hold the bird off the bottom of the pan)
- Gallon zip-top bag full of ice
- Instant-read thermometer (My ChefAlarm probe thermometer lets me set an alarm for the proper temperature, so I don’t have to lift the lid to check the temp.)
- I’m using a basic dry brine here, but any dry brine will work with these cooking instructions. My favorite dry brine is this one with orange and spices. Or, if I feel like kicking it up a notch (Bam!), I use a Cajun dry brine.
- Watch out for enhanced turkeys – look for the words “enhanced with a x% solution”. That means the turkey was brined at the factory. If the turkey is “Enhanced with a natural solution” of more than 6 percent, it already has enough salt inside of it. Cut the salt in the dry brine down to 1 tablespoon. If at all possible, get a natural turkey. Sure, that turkey going for fifty-nine cents a pound at the grocery store is a deal, but I’d rather pay extra for the natural turkey and do my own brining.
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And, if you don’t want to do any of them: a grilled turkey, salted right before cooking, plopped breast side up on the grate, cooked with indirect heat, coals added every hour – even then, it will blow away an oven-cooked turkey. Or a deep fried turkey – I know, blasphemy – but the grill-smoked flavor just works better with turkey.↩
Dry Brine Standard Disclaimer: a dry brine really isn’t a brine, it’s early salting. But the salt acts like a brine, pulling the juices out of the meat, then helping the meat re-absorb them like a brine. The result is deeply seasoned meat, with lots of turkey flavor.↩
My Samoan attorney advised me to add: If you are feeding infants, people with compromised immune systems, or people who like to sue penniless food bloggers, you should follow the USDA guidelines and cook the turkey until the breast measures 165°F in its thickest part. The dry brine will help, but you’ll probably want to pour some extra gravy on the white meat…or grab a drumstick before they disappear.↩