Purists beware; you might not like what you’re about to read about preparing the traditional Thanksgiving Turkey. I believe that while oven-roasting a turkey gets it cooked, grilling that bird results in a turkey that’s cooked with immense flavor. Being “turkey experimental non-purists,” I also recommend smoking and frying your bird as alternatives, but that’s a blog for another day.
Turkey is significantly more flavorful when grilled. I encourage you to try this immensely flavorful method this holiday season. The key ingredient is to brine your bird first. Brining infuses extra moisture to your turkey stopping it from drying out during cooking whether you oven-bake, grill, smoke or deep fry your bird.
Specifically, brining is defined as
“A salt marinade causes meat tissues to absorb water and flavorings by breaking down proteins. This is why brining is a popular method of preparing a Thanksgiving or Holiday turkey. Any moisture loss while roasting still produces a juicy and flavorful turkey”.
Start the night before
To properly brine a turkey you need to start the night before you plan to cook and serve your meal. You need at least 10 to 12 hours set aside, a large enough container to hold your turkey and enough brine to cover your precious bird. Also, don’t forget salt, water, seasonings, and enough room in the refrigerator. A large stock pot, large oven roaster, or a 5-8 gallon very clean plastic bucket would make a perfect container.
The key to determining the container size is determined by allowing yourself enough room to turn the turkey, so it needs to be big.
Now on to the fun part.
The turkey must be cleaned out and completely thawed, if frozen (although we always recommend a fresh bird).
It’s important to note that the turkey should not be a self-basting or Kosher turkey. Self-basting and Kosher turkeys have a salty stock added that will make the turkey too salty.
Make the Brine
To make the brine, use a ratio of 1 cup of iodine-free salt to 1 gallon of very clean, very fresh, chlorine free water. You’ll need more than 1 gallon of water but that’s the ratio to aim for. Ensure that the salt is completely dissolved before adding the seasonings you choose. Make sure you don’t add anything that contains extra salt.
“Brines can be spicy/hot with peppers and cayenne, savory with herbs and garlic, or sweet with molasses, honey and brown sugar. Whatever your preferred taste, there are a large number of brine recipes available, or better still, experiment with the flavors you love”.
- 1 (12– to 20-pound) turkey, not kosher, saline-injected, or otherwise pre-salted
- 3 oranges
- 3 lemons
- 1/2 cup fresh sage leaves – roughly chopped
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon of whole peppercorns
- 5 large garlic cloves – smashed
- 4 quarts water
- 250g kosher salt (1 cup Morton, or 1 3/4 cup Diamond Crystal, or 3/4 cup table salt), plus more if needed
Note: Peel lemons and oranges with a vegetable peeler and use this peel in the brine solution. Leftover lemons, oranges, sage and your choice of herbs can be used to make stuffing for the turkey.
Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in a stock pot or large saucepan on the stovetop. Once boiling, add salt and stir until dissolved. Add the citrus peels, chopped sage, bay leaves, peppercorns and garlic. Return water to the boil (2- 3 minutes) and then remove from heat. Allow the brine concentrate and flavoring ingredients to cool and then stir in the remaining 3 quarts of water. (If your pan is too small, transfer to another larger container.) Check the temperature of the brine. It should cool to lukewarm or room temperature.
If you like to experiment with your flavors, as we do, you can make up a brine recipe choosing from some of our favorite flavors, like apple or apple cider (not apple cider vinegar), honey, citrus, brown sugar, rosemary, thyme and spices like cinnamon and cloves, whole peppercorns, bay leaves, bouquet garni, ginger, maple syrup, and parsley. Create your recipe to tie in with flavors in the vegetable dishes you’ll be serving.
Cook for 2-3 minutes, or until all of the salt and sugar have dissolved. Allow the brine to cool completely. And next place all ingredients your flavoring ingredients into a pot and bring to a simmer. Follow guide as outlined.
- Carefully place the turkey in a container and pour in enough brine to completely cover the turkey with a few inches covering the top of the turkey. It’s important to not have any part of the turkey above the surface of the brine.
- Next, place the container, turkey, brine and all in the refrigerator. The turkey should sit in the brine for at least 10 hours but not more than 24! Brining for too long will destroy the flavor. If you’re using a smaller than 10 pound turkey, cut down on the brining time or reduce the amount of salt in the brine.
- When you’re ready to start cooking, remove the turkey from the brine and rinse it off in the sink with cold water until all traces of salt are off the surface. Discard the brine. Pat dry turkey.
- Cook your turkey as per your choice of cooking methods. This is where we may lose the purists as we highly recommend grilling your turkey. Grilling a turkey is not sacrilege or verboten. Many early Americans didn’t have stainless steel indoor ovens and leveraged many of the grilled turkey recipes and methods they learned from their native American friends.
Grilled Turkey recipes – the basics
There’s many factors that influence how your turkey is going to turn out, so paying attention to the basics is very important. First of all, since you’ll be grilling indirectly with a low fire the weather plays a significant role, especially in late Autumn and Winter. Although a cold temperature plays a role, the most important weather condition to watch out for is wind.
Wind robs heat from outdoor cooking appliances, and due to its very nature comes and goes in wisps as opposed to a steady temperature, so watch your grill temperature closely.
“The choice between the use of charcoal or gas makes a big difference. As a rule of thumb, gas will be easier due to time of year. All in all, depending on what you own, or what your grilling method preference is, be ready for the variables”.
To begin, you need to create an indirect fire that will hold a steady temperature in the 300° to 350° F range. This is where the power of a gas grill comes into play. If the weather isn’t going to cooperate we strongly recommend gas, simply because it’s much easier to control the temperature.
What you need to get started
- First you will need a fresh or completely thawed turkey, and it must be brined as we discussed previously. We recommend a 12 pound bird and to stay away from anything over 15 pounds as the larger bird may burn on the outside before the inside can get cooked.
- We also recommend a V-shaped roasting rack to support the turkey and keep the turkey from moving around too much. This rack should be sturdy because it won’t have a solid surface upon which to sit.
- We also suggest an oven thermometer. This important tool will help monitor the grill temperature when you open the grill.
- You may also want a smoke source. Get some wood chips for the gas grill or chunks for the charcoal grill. Try a fruit wood like cherry or apple, or use oak or hickory.
- Also, you need a good meat thermometer.
- Most importantly you will need plenty of fuel. If you are using a gas grill you will surely need an extra, full tank on hand. If you are using charcoal, make sure you have plenty on hand and that you have a way of lighting additional coals for the fire outside of the grill. A charcoal chimney starter will help here and is a must if you use charcoal.
- It is important to have something to catch the drippings from the cooking turkey. You can use the drippings for making a sauce and the prevention of the drippings will help save your patio or driveway from unwanted stains. We recommend a shallow roasting pan to catch the drippings.
- You will also need time. Since you will be grilling your turkey at about the same temperature you would in an oven you will need about the same amount of time to get your turkey done. Remember that grilling isn’t as exact as oven roasting so times will vary. Make sure you can adjust for that.
Grilling a Turkey – Step by Step:
Step 1: Clean and Prepare Your Bird – Prepare the turkey. This means removing everything from the body cavity, taking out any pop-up plastic timer devices and giving it a good wash in cold water. Pat dry. Do not bother with tying up or “trussing” the bird. Trussing will only slow down the cooking of the thighs which you want to actually cook more than the rest of the bird.
Step 2: Season, or Brine the Bird – Season or brine the turkey as desired. See the brining section above. Remember if you do use a brine, be sure to rinse off any salt from the bird before you grill it.
Step 3: Prepare Your Grill – When the time comes, prepare the grill. Remember that you’ll be grilling a large bird indirectly, using the indirect heating method (keeping the turkey away from being directly over the hot flame or coals). It’s a good idea to take the turkey out to the grill before you light it to check about spacing and heating. This is especially important if you’re using charcoal. With charcoal you’ll want to make sure that you build the fire up in the right place so as not to have the hot coals directly underneath the bird. If the bird is too close then one side could cook too fast.
You’ll need a drip pan underneath the turkey to prevent flare-ups, to catch and save the drippings, and to prevent drippings from staining those expensive patio bricks or your driveway. Be sure to add water to this pan periodically to maintain a moist environment in the grill and to keep the drippings from burning away. (Use the dripping to make great gravy!)
Step 4: Gas or Charcoal Grilling? If you’re set up for indirect grilling, using your rotisserie will be pretty easy. You just need to keep a tight eye on your bird to ensure that the skin isn’t burning and that heat is getting into the bird. If you are not using a rotisserie and you’re on a gas grill set the turkey, breast side down on a well oiled grate or v-shaped roasting rack. If your grill allows you to turn the heat on and/or off on either side with multiple burner controls on the opposite side of where you place the turkey then you’ll have an even heating area. This mean you’ll only need to worry about turning the turkey in about an hour.
If you’re using a charcoal grill you want the coals in either a ring around the turkey or banked on either side of it. You want even heating so one side doesn’t cook faster than the other. Regardless of the grill being gas or charcoal, try to keep the turkey away from the very edges of the cooking surface so that heat flows around it.
Step 5: Set Your Temperature -You’re shooting for cooking temperature of around 325°F. If you have an oven thermometer in the grill, set it close to the bird because this is the area you need to be most concerned with. If you’re using a gas grill make the necessary adjustments to the control valves to hit your target temperature.
If you’re using charcoal you’ll want to keep a close eye on the temperature to keep it in the right range. Add additional burning coals as necessary.
Step 6: Turn Your Bird – Depending on the set up or arrangement of your grill you need to turn or flip the bird during the cooking time. If you have a dual burner gas grill, rotate the bird after about 30 minutes, flip and rotate 30 minutes after that and rotate after another 30 minutes. This keeps the hottest part of the grill from burning one part of the bird. Continue this rotation until the turkey is done.
If you are set up to have heat all around the turkey or on 2 sides of it, then you need to rotate the turkey after about an hour. Of course this really depends on how fast the turkey’s skin is cooking. You don’t want the outside to cook too much faster than the inside. Use a meat thermometer to monitor the internal temperature. If the skin is getting too browned before the inside starts warming up, your cooking temperature is too high.
Step 7: Check Your Bird’s Temp – After about 2 hours start testing the internal temperature of your grilled bird. The target temperature is 165° F even at the coldest part of the turkey since you need every little morsel of meat at or above this temperature. Be sure to test in several places. But be patient. Wait for the temperature to record properly, so don’t start poking your bird full of holes.
As a rule of thumb, the internal temperature of a bird should only rise about 10° every 15 to 20 minutes from start to finish using the grill temperature of 325° F.
Step 8: Remove and rest the bird – Remove turkey from the grill and let it rest for at least 10 to 15 minutes before carving. The resting period allows the juices to flow back into the meat and create the perfect texture for carving and eating.
Step 9: Carve and serve – Carve the bird. You’ll notice the second you start to carve your turkey that the brining has helped it retain moisture. The first bite will sell you on brining and grilling turkeys forever. And after you’ve tried this, you’ll want to brine all your poultry. Serve and enjoy.
Step 10: Enjoy your friends and family – Celebrate what has been given to us and the freedom we have to celebrate our healthy addiction to grilling.