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.)
Grilled Turkey Dry Brined. My basic recipe for grilled turkey, with a simple dry brine to season the bird all the way through.
- 12 to 14 lb Turkey
- Fist sized chunk of smoking wood (hickory, oak, pecan, apple, or cherry – or use wood chips with a gas grill)
Basic Dry Brine
- 1/4 cup kosher salt (1 1/2 ounces of salt. I use Diamond Crystal kosher; reduce to 3 tablespoons if using Mortons kosher, which is denser).
- 1 teaspoon brown sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
- Dry brine the turkey: 1 to 3 days before it is time to cook, dry brine the turkey. Mix the dry brine ingredients in a small bowl, then sprinkle and rub evenly over the turkey. Make sure to rub some inside the cavity of the turkey as well. Put the turkey on a rack over a roasting pan or baking sheet, and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate, removing the plastic wrap the night before cooking to allow the skin to dry. (If you are only dry brining for 24 hours, skip the plastic wrap.)
- Prep the Turkey: One hour before cooking, remove the turkey from the refrigerator. Put the zip lock bag full of ice on the breast, not touching the legs or drumsticks, to chill the breast meat until cooking. Put the wood chunk in a bowl of water to soak.
- Prepare the grill for cooking on indirect medium heat:
- Charcoal Grill: For my Weber kettle, I light a chimney 3/4 full of charcoal and wait for it to be covered with ash. Then, instead of pouring it in my usual two piles on the side of the grill, I pour it in a U shape at one end of the grill – see the picture below. Finally, I put the wood chunk on top of the charcoal, and put the grill grate back in the kettle.
- Gas grill: Set the grill up for indirect medium heat, 325*F to 350*F. If you can, put all the heat on one side of the grill – instead of two outside burners on medium, set one outside burner on high, and leave the other one off. This concentrates the heat on the legs, which we want to cook more than the breast. For my Weber Summit, I preheat the grill on high for 15 minutes, then turn off all the burners except burner #1. I leave burner #1 on high and turn the smoker burner on high, and point the turkey legs at the lit burners. Then I wrap the wood chips in aluminum foil, poke a few holes in the foil, and set the packet of wood chips directly on one of the lit burners.
- Cook the turkey: Throw away the bag of ice. Put the turkey on the roasting rack in the roasting pan, breast side down. Set the pan in the grill, with the legs of the turkey inside the “U” of coals, and the breast facing away from the coals. Close the lid, and cook with the lid closed as much as possible.
- After 1 hour of cooking, flip the turkey breast side up, using wads of paper towels to protect your hands. Add 24 fresh charcoal briquettes to the grill, adding them to the burning charcoal, and close the lid.
- After 2 hours of cooking, add 24 fresh briquettes to the coals, and start checking the temperature in the breast with an instant read thermometer. (If the knobs of the drumsticks are looking too brown, cover them with foil to keep them from burning.) The turkey is done when the breast meat registers 155°F in its thickest part, roughly 3 hours of total cooking time – but go by the temperature. (The legs should register 175°F at that point.) Remove the turkey from the grill, and let the turkey rest for 15 to 30 minutes before carving.
- Carve the turkey: If you have a favorite way of carving a turkey, go ahead and use it. My preferred method: Cut the legs free from the body of the bird, and cut the drumsticks away from the thighs. I leave the drumsticks whole (my favorite part!) and slice the meat from the thighs in 1/2“ slices for dark meat lovers. Next, I cut the entire breast half from one side of the bird by working my knife down the keel bone from the top down to the wing, following the inside of the ribcage. Once the breast half is free of the bird, it is easy to slice into 1/2” thick slices on my carving board. I repeat with the other breast half. Finally, I cut each wing away from the carcass, and separate the drumette from the wing, and the wing from the wingtip. I arrange all these pieces on a platter and serve.
- 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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