To many the idea of using a grill or a smoker for Thanksgiving makes about as much sense as getting that huge vat of peanut oil heated up to 350 degrees and attempting to set the house on fire while trying to deep fry the prize of the Thanksgiving meal. But once you know how to grill a turkey, you’ll probably think twice.
So why should you reconsider when it comes to the grill or smoker? Well let’s first dispel with some myths that surround current day grills and smokers and then we will talk about how it saves you time, frees up space in the kitchen and most importantly it tastes better.
Most people are slightly intimidated by their grill for one of two reasons. The first is that most grills are either powered by charcoal or propane. Let’s be honest both have a bit of danger involved in getting them lit and ready to cook. Ever tried to light a propane grill and the igniter didn’t strike until about the tenth click? Yeah, me too and I lost half of an eyebrow. And no matter how suave you are, it’s hard to look good with only one eyebrow for the holidays. Charcoal grills can be safer, but you are still dealing with the mess of the charcoal dust, the stink of the lighter fluid if you use it (don’t use it, please) and then the pain of managing and maintaining temperatures once it is lit.
Now we can all agree that most anything grilled or smoked over charcoal can be tasty, but it also taste a bit sooty if you don’t manage your fire correctly. We can also agree that propane, while easier, really doesn’t add any flavor to the end result unless you just count the char that you can get from the grill getting too hot.
Ditch the propane and charcoal and try wood pellets
So what if there was a way to have all the ease of propane but even better flavor than using just charcoal? Well there is, its pellet grills like Grilla Grill’s Silverbac and Grilla models and their kamado style grill the Kong. All three models will help you deliver the best results for Thanksgiving with less work. If you are unfamiliar with how a pellet grill works, it basically works very similar to your oven but has the advantage of using wood pellets as its only fuel source. What this means is that you set the temp you want; the control module heats up the grill to the set temp and maintains that temp just like your oven. It’s easy peasy lemon squeezy but has one distinct advantage over your oven, those pellets are providing smoke along the way. If you’ve never had a smoked turkey then you are truly missing out. Pellet grilling adds a great depth of flavor while doing everything your oven does.
How to grill a turkey: 12 turkey grilling tips
If you’ve never cooked a bird on the grill before, or you were less than impressed with your results, have no fear. This collection of twelve tips will turn you into a Thanksgiving legend.
1. It is better to cook 2 smaller birds than 1 large bird.
When it comes to grilling/smoking turkeys your instinct will be to buy the largest bird you can find. After all that 22lb bowling ball of poultry goodness is on sale and it only cost you 35 cents per pound after a $20 purchase with your super saver card right? Resist this urge. It is very hard to get all parts of a very large bird done properly without drying out other parts when it comes to the grill/smoker. Try to keep the size of your turkey between 12 to 18lbs. Generally speaking 15lb birds are the sweet spot as they have a really good ratio of breast size to thigh size and cook very evenly.
Having two birds to work with also gives you options. You can leave one whole for carving and spatchcock the second one. You can opt for two different flavor profiles and make even the pickiest of guests.
2. You probably need to cook it at a higher temp than you think.
Everyone knows that classic smoking phrase, “low and slow” and it’s a good thing, unless you are cooking poultry. Cooking at 225 degrees for the entire cook makes for a very rubbery turkey skin and that’s just not good eats. Turkey actually cooks best above 275 degrees. So how do you get that smokey rich flavor in your bird if you are cooking at a higher temp? Try this hybrid method that I use on all my turkeys. Start the bird at 205 degrees for 30-45min. At the 30-45min mark crank up the grill/smoker to 300-325 degrees and cook until the bird registers a consistent 165 degrees internal temp throughout all parts.
By moving the cooking temp up about 300 a few things happen. First and foremost that heat is enough to render out any fat under the skin and make it nice and crispy. Secondly the Maillard reaction takes place at around 300 degrees. That’s a fancy way of saying lots of golden brown deliciousness happens to the skin and it makes it a beautiful color. Lastly, your bird gets done a bit faster this aids in moisture retention.
3. Forget 185 degrees, it’s just not needed, but what is needed is a trustee instant read thermometer.
For a great many years everyone was afraid to eat poultry that did not reach at least 185 degrees. There is still some truth to that number, but not here for turkey. Your bird will reach its optimal juiciness, tenderness AND also be perfectly safe to eat when it reaches 165 degrees throughout. That last bit is key. It must be 165 degrees in every part of the bird, the deepest part of the breast, thigh, etc.
There is only one piece of gear that I recommend to measure this and that is a Thermoworks Thermopop. They are very reasonably priced, read temp very fast, but most importantly they are impeccably accurate. The ability to read quickly and accurately is paramount when it comes to turkey. This device is worth the investment and I carry one around with me everywhere.
4. To brine or not to brine that…is the question.
I was a very big fan of wet brining birds for a great number of years. That was right up until I had to start cooking 50 of them each Thanksgiving. Wet brining works, no doubt. It is also a messy, ecological disaster to deal with during the brining process and after when getting rid of all the contaminated brine. So if you do brine I recommend dry brining. This process requires little more than lightly coating all parts of the bird with a light coat of kosher salt and herbs and letting rest in the refrigerator or cooler for 6-8hrs. Once you are ready to cook, wipe off the excess salt with a damp cloth or rinse quickly in the sink. Be sure to dry the skin with paper towels though for optimal skin texture if you do rinse in the sink.
5. Injections, are they worth the time?
The long and short is that there are a great many ways to get flavor into your flavorless turkey. After all this poor creature was raised for its size as fast as possible and it had little time to develop things like flavor along the way. Injecting is a very easy way to get real flavor down deep in hard to season areas such as the thickest part of the breasts and the thighs. Yes, brining will ensure a moist bird, but it does not always guaranty flavor. Injecting is a sure-fire way to get the flavor exactly where you want it. Your injection does not have to be complicated to be great. You can melt down a stick of salted butter, add a teaspoon of garlic powder and onion powder and mix in about 1/4c chicken broth and it will go a long way to adding a very nice depth of flavor to your turkey. One thing of note here, never inject a hot bird with cold injection. It will slow down the cooking time. So spend a little time warming the injection through if you are injecting your bird in the middle of your cooking process.
6. But but butter…
Many of you have seen me and others take a stick of butter and separate the skin of a turkey and slide huge chunks of it between the skin and meat. Why? Well, because it’s tasty of course. I like to take a stick of butter soften it and then add in herbs such as thyme, sage, coriander, etc. (use your imagination and let your taste buds be your guide) and then reform this into a log of sorts and freeze it. When it’s time to cook the bird, I pull the compound butter from the freezer and cut it into large coins and distribute it throughout the bird under the skin. The frozen butter slowly melts over time as the bird cooks essentially basting the bird from under the skin and leaving these great pockets of herby awesomeness. This really works best with whole turkeys instead of spatchcocked birds. The spatchcocked birds just have too many areas in which the skin has been broken so the butter and herbs leak out too quickly.
7. So brine, inject or butter…which do you use?
I base my decision on which to use first and foremost on is my bird whole or spatchcocked and how much time I have. If I am cooking a whole bird and have lots of time, I would use all three for the ultimate turkey. If I were cooking a spatchcocked bird then brine and injection would be the way to go. If I didn’t have time to allow for brining then I would absolutely double down on the injection and do it in two stages. If you do have the luxury of time and can use all three methods take some time to plan out your herb and seasoning choices to balance them out. When you do this it really comes together in and makes a concert of flavors in your bird that will impress even that tough old bird Aunt Edna.
8. Stuffing or dressing…..
Always, always, always dressing. If you plan on grilling or smoking your bird remove the headache of cooking the stuffing in the bird. Make it alongside the bird in a pan and you now have the classic southern dressing. It’s safer, easier and just plain makes for a better turkey and better dressing. If you’ve never had smoked dressing you are missing out! A little light smoke adds a fantastic depth of flavor and it’s one more thing you can do out on the grill that keeps the oven open for other goodies.
9. Why am I not getting that beautiful color on my bird?
This one eluded me for a while until I remembered a trick we use when cooking whole hogs. We spray the hogs down with cooking spray to help them get that awesome George Hamilton color. Same thing applies with turkeys and doing this just prior to adding your herbs, spices or rubs to the bird really helps them stick to skin. It’s a little thing, but goes a long way to helping get that Normal Rockwell quality Thanksgiving feast.
10. Do I buy a super cheap turkey or a specialty bird?
Honestly, I always buy the super cheap turkeys. If you interject some basic knowhow and some of the methods described here you can take something you paid pennies a pound for into something that looks and tastes like a million bucks. Now, that is not to say I have anything at all against these premium free-range specialty birds that were raised on a beautiful farm in Iowa. Frankly I wish more of the meat we all buy were more of the slow raised, well cared for variety verses the large-scale growth facilities type that fills the big box stores. But I know that if we can make these “cheaper” birds taste great with these techniques then you can do the same with your special guest of honor.
11. The timing of the matter…
When it comes to turkey everyone seems to get tripped up on the time in several areas. The first area that everyone screws up is how long it takes to properly thaw. You want to allow at least 3 days, but if you are using your refrigerator for thawing allow 24hrs for every 5lbs of weight. If you are crunched for time then you can thaw in cold water bath. This will take 6 to 8 hours for a 15lb turkey and you will need to change the water every 30-45min.
Using the cooking method described above you are likely wondering exactly how long it will take your turkey to cook. As a very generalized rule allow about 14min of cook time per pound on average for 14-18lb birds. This algorithm does change slightly with birds below 13lbs and above 19lbs.
So you need to get your bird done 2hrs before the big meal to make room for other things in your grill, smoker or oven, will it still be good? In a word…yes. Just lightly tent your bird with foil and rest it in a cooler or even on the counter. The rest will do it good and allow the juices to redistribute a bit before carving.
12. Basting…wasting time
If you are bothering to brine, inject or put butter under the skin you can skip the basting. Frankly, even if you aren’t doing any of those you can still skip the basting. It adds virtually nothing to the end product moisture wise as the baste just runs off. The only conceivable benefit of basting a turkey on the smoker is the chance of more smoke being caught on the skin. That’s it and the little bit it adds isn’t worth the time.
Our favorite grilled turkey recipes
You may have never considered using the grill for your Thanksgiving turkey, but now that you’ve been armed with a wealth of turkey grilling knowledge, check out some of our favorite turkey recipes to take your Thanksgiving meal to new heights. From our citrus spatchcocked turkey on the grill to our jalapeno injection turkey, there are a lot of routes you can take when grilling your Thanksgiving turkey.
Some Thanksgiving grilling tips from our friends
As we compiled all of our ideas for this grilling guide we figured it would only help our cause to enlist some other prominent grilling and BBQ experts to get their thoughts on their favorite Thanksgiving grilling tips and recipes. First, we wanted their thoughts on the bird.
What is your number one turkey tip?
“Our number one tip for grilling a turkey is to spatchcock it. Spatchcocking, also called butterflying, means cutting out the backbone and flattening the turkey. This gives you a more even exposure to grill heat, and also makes the cooking much faster.”
– Martin Earl, Executive Chef and Culinary Editor at ThermoWorks
“Your average supermarket is literally stuffed (pun intended) with turkeys around Thanksgiving. Generally you will see “self-basting” turkeys (these will be the ones on super sale.) These are usually injected to add weight and moisture. Generally, don’t brine or heavily season any turkey that says something along the lines of “saline solution of up to xx% added” as you will have a too salty bird. Natural turkeys are minimally processed, and have a more natural turkey flavor. Kosher Turkeys are already brined in salt, so don’t brine or use a seasoning with a high salt component. Heritage turkeys have a much better flavor, but are generally leaner. These are turkeys from breeds before large-scale processors began breeding them for huge breasts (so you may not get as much white meat.) Wild Turkeys don’t really resemble the supermarket turkey. The meat will be much leaner, and have a stronger flavor, with much smaller amounts of white meat. If you’re not familiar with them (and enjoy them) don’t risk Thanksgiving with the family on a wild turkey, unless you are also cooking a raised one.”
– Melissa Cookston, Celebrity Chef and Winningest Woman in Barbecue
“While one can cook a turkey on a grill, you don’t really want to grill your turkey. That means you don’t want to put the bird directly over the flame. You can certainly use your grill to roast or smoke a turkey and, as long as you’re cooking the turkey outside, my number one tip is that you should definitely smoke it. Personally, I like to wrap the turkey in bacon and smoke the whole thing in my smoker, but I think it’s best just to spatch-cock the bird, cure it, apply a rub and smoke it on your grill.”
– Alex Benes, the “Sultan of Smoke” and Partner at Wood Ranch BBQ & Grill
What’s your favorite grilled or smoked turkey recipe?
“We love the smoked turkey recipe from J. Kenji López-Alt over at Serious Eats. Browned and beautiful, cooked to perfection, this smoked turkey will absolutely turn heads at the table and change minds about what a thanksgiving dinner could be. Butterflying (spatchcocking) the bird gives you lots of surface area to smoke, and the rub is delicious.”
– Martin Earl
“Generally, I try not to overwhelm any meat I cook with smoke, and with turkey that is especially important and the neutral flavor palate of turkey is easily overwhelmed. Poultry doesn’t have the collagens to break down over a long cooking time, like pork or even beef does, so it doesn’t have to go “low and slow.” I cook turkeys in my smoker at 275 to 300 degrees, as I think this is a good combination of allowing smoked flavors to develop while not drying out the turkey.” See her recipe here.
– Melissa Cookston
Why not grill the sides and desserts?
At this point it should be pretty clear that there are a lot of good reasons to grill your Thanksgiving turkey. What’s even better is that you have more space to cook more things in your oven while the turkey is being taken care of outside. You can typically cook 2 birds at one time depending on the model of grill you go with. Your stress level goes down because you now have more time. And you can finally stop hearing Aunt Edna say her turkey is better.
But it doesn’t stop with just the turkey. No, we are just getting started. The temp control on these modern grills is so good you can cook your sides and desserts on them as well. Ever considered smoked green bean casserole or smoked mac and cheese? Those are home run side dishes and reach an amazing level when some smoke is added, but now think about smoked pumpkin pie or smoked pecan pie. Yeah, your mouth is watering now. Everything gets better when it’s been kissed with the right amount of smoke.
So now you are thinking, that’s all fine and good but you haven’t told me “how” to do any of this. Fortunately for you we’ve got a full recipe section that covers these dishes and many more. Below we’ve listed some of our favorite grilled sides and desserts from our collection and also from some other grilling aficionados. We have everything you need to create the most delicious Thanksgiving yet. Take that Aunt Edna.
Our favorite grilled and smoked Thanksgiving sides
Who doesn’t love mac and cheese? This Thanksgiving favorite takes on a whole new flavor profile that will have your guests going back for seconds and thirds. Another amazing smoked side for Thanksgiving is brussels sprouts. These are so delicious you’ll need to make extra.
Our friends’ favorite grilled and smoked Thanksgiving sides
“If you want to mix it up this year, we recommend smoked mashed potatoes. They’re easy to make, especially if you’re already smoking something else. Boil potatoes, as you would to make your mash, but before you actually mash them, dry them off and throw them into the smoker for 5 minutes. That’s all the time you need to get a heady, appealing smoke. Now proceed with your favorite mashed potato recipe.”
“If I’m making dessert on the grill, I am taking the largest sweet potatoes or yams I can find and wrapping them in foil after I’ve rubbed a little oil and a good amount of Kosher salt on them. Then I throw the package directly onto the coals until the potatoes are very tender. While the potatoes cook, I am mixing butter, maple syrup and pecan halves together in a pot. Once the potatoes are done, I cut into them with the foil still on and pour a heap of the butter, maple syrup and pecan mixture on top of the flesh of the potato. You can sprinkle with cinnamon or nutmeg, if you like. This is a great, sweet way to end an all-grilled dinner.”
– Alex Benes
Grilled and smoked Thanksgiving dessert recipe favorites
We mentioned earlier just how tasty grilled and smoked desserts can be, but you really need to see for yourself. Check out these recipes and see if you’re not tempted to start doing all your desserts on the grill, not just for Thanksgiving.
Dessert favorites from our friends
“This smoked apple crisp from Steven Raichlen is a flavor-packed, unique and delicious end to a Thanksgiving feast!”
– Martin Earl
Additional Thanksgiving grilling links
Are you in need of even more ideas for Thanksgiving? Have a look at these links and find some further inspiration for firing up the grill this Thanksgiving.
- ThermoWorks Turkey Tips – provides expertise on how to properly cook turkey based on key temperatures.
- Grilled Side Dishes for Thanksgiving – from Outdoor Cooking Magic provides a number of creative ideas for grilled potatoes, vegetables and even bread.
- Our Best Thanksgiving Side Dishes – some mouthwatering Thanksgiving side dishes from the folks at Barbecue Bible.
- Thanksgiving on the Grill from Pinterest – The Grillinfools put together this incredible collection of images and links to Thanksgiving recipes from around the web. Check it out, but beware, you’ll end up hungry.