How to Grill the Perfect Turkey

Cooking your Thanksgiving bird on the grill or smoker can make the best holiday turkey ever. You also get the side benefit of freeing up your oven for cooking those favorite side dishes. If you're cooking your turkey on the grill for the first time, here are a few turkey blunders and how to avoid them.

1
Undercooked or Unevenly Cooked Turkey The guests are gathered, ready for the holiday meal, and you slice the pretty browned bird only to find that the turkey is done in some parts but woefully under cooked in places. This is NOT the way to start off your meal but it doesn’t have to happen.
  • An evenly cooked turkey starts with proper thawing. Otherwise, the still frozen parts will be raw or rare when the rest of the turkey is finished. Allow plenty of time to thaw your turkey in the fridge – the FDA recommends about 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds.
  • Cook by internal temperature, not times or appearance. Looks can be deceiving and time/temp recommendations are rough guidelines. Use an instant read digital thermometer to verify that your turkey has reached an internal temperature of 160 degrees in the breast meat and at least 175 degrees in the thigh meat.
  • In my opinion, the absolute best way to evenly cook a turkey is to “spatchcock” it, meaning to cut out the back bone and flatten it out. Take a sharp pair of kitchen shears or a sharp knife and cut along each side of the spine. Remove it, flip the turkey over, and then press down firmly on the breast bone, flattening it out.
turkey, Thanksgiving, turkey prep Spatchcocking a turkey isn't hard and is absolutely worth
2
Dry Turkey

Ever bite into a piece of turkey that was dry and just turned to sawdust in your mouth? Cooking to internal temperatures as mentioned above will help prevent that but here are a few additional ways to keep your turkey flavorful and juicy. Be careful with these treatments if you have an “enhanced,” “pre-brined” or “always juicy” turkey as they have already been brined or injected at the processing plant.

  • Soak the already thawed turkey in a flavorful brine.
  • Injecting your turkey with a butter based injection is an instant flavor boost and doesn’t take extra soaking time like a brine does. A simple injection for turkey is ½ cup each of butter, white wine and honey. Heat that up with a few sprigs of fresh herbs and allow to cool. Remove the herbs and inject into several places across the breast, thighs, legs and wings.
    Brine turkey in this mixture for about 1 hour per pound, keeping it at 40f or below.
3
Over Smoked Turkey

A hint of wood smoke is an excellent supporting flavor for turkey but it should not be the dominating flavor. It shouldn’t taste like your turkey died in a forest fire. Poultry accepts smoke flavor very easily so you want to use a light hand in using smoke as a seasoning.

Avoid heavy white smoke, you want a light grey/blue or even invisible smoke. Wait until the fire is burning cleanly and the thick white smoke has cleared up before putting your turkey on the grill or in the smoker. Be careful with your wood choices. Hardwoods like hickory and oak can be quite strong so use them sparingly. Fruit woods such as apple or cherry are a little more accommodating. Choose your woods to complement your flavor profile. I like a combination of hickory with orange and bourbon. The Char-Broil Deluxe Digital Electric Smoker makes smoking your turkey extremely easy and does a great job imparting a light smoke flavor.
char-broil-types-of-wood.jpg Pictured left to right: hickory chunks, alder chips, apple wood chunks
4
Burned Turkey If you cook at too hot a temperature or too close to the heat source by the time your internal temperatures hit 160 degrees your turkey will resemble a meteorite on the outside.
  • For me, the optimum cooking temperature for turkey on a grill is medium, about 325 degrees.
  • Using a raised cooking grid or using an indirect grilling set up will help gently cook your turkey all the way through.Spatchcocked turkey on raised grate
5
Rubbery Skin You want your turkey’s skin to not only look golden but also to be slightly crisp so you can bite through it instead of stretching a piece of skin like a rubber band as you try to eat.
  • A dry brine is a great way to flavor your turkey and still get crisp skin.
  • After prepping your turkey, set it uncovered on a tray in your refrigerator for an hour to 90 minutes. This will air dry the skin which helps get a crispy crust when finished cooking.
    Grilled Orange Bourbon Turkey Not only does spatchcocking help evenly cook your turkey, I think it makes a nice presentation.
6
Grilling or smoking your turkey is a sure bet to making your Thanksgiving special. Now that you know the possible pitfalls and how to avoid them, you should definitely give it a try.
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