Written By Chef Peter Martin

When it comes to Thanksgiving, I admit it, I am a staunch traditionalist.  Fluffy mashed potatoes, glistening ruby red cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes slumbering beneath a blanket of toasty marshmallows  and stuffing redolent of sage, all surrounding the centerpiece, a beautiful golden turkey with crackling skin and moist, tender flesh.  In my opinion it doesn't get much better than that.  

As a chef I have often times been tempted to try and improve on this theme by bringing new techniques and exotic ingredients to the Thanksgiving table.  And while most of these have been great culinary successes, I have found that they left something to be desired when it comes to the comfort of these traditional dishes.  However few years ago I started a new Thanksgiving tradition at home which is not a big change but adds a new and welcomed element to our Thanksgiving table.  Grilling our turkey has added that new element to our table and still meets my standard of fitting in with a day filled with comfort foods.

The method of "Grilling" is really a misnomer.  Grilling infers cooking directly over a flame.  It is a high heat method of cooking.  If we were to "grill" a whole turkey we would end up with a nasty dish, burnt on the outside and raw on the inside.  What we really are attempting to do is roast-smoke our turkey.  In other words, we are going to barbeque our bird, but I hate to use that term as many people associate barbequing with meat doused in a thick, spicy, sweet tomato sauce.  So, for the sake of simplicity, I will continue to refer to grilling, though what we really will be doing is barbequing this bird.
Before we get into the "how-to" of grilling our turkey, we need to go over the equipment we will need:  

  • The most important piece of equipment you will need is a covered, kettle style grill (charcoal preferably as that is what I will be discussing here).  Without a covered grill you really are out of luck as what we will be creating is in essence an oven.
  • You will also need at least 10 pounds (more for larger birds) of charcoal briquettes and about 2 cups of wood chips soaked overnight in water.  Which type of wood chips you use is up to you and your tastes.  For turkey I like the subtler flavors of fruit woods or hickory nut hulls but again use what you like.  
  • An instant read thermometer is the other necessity.  
  • Beyond that there are a couple of things that will make your job much easier but are not absolutely necessary:  First is a grill grate with hinged sides. 
Weber makes one and it makes it a lot easier to add more coals than lifting up the whole grill grate.  The second item is a chimney starter.  You will need a place to fire up more coals as the cooking progresses and a chimney starter makes it very convenient and easy to transfer the coals to the grill.
Once you have all your equipment together, then it's time to start.  But when to start?  That is a good question.  I usually do a 12-16 pound turkey and it takes approximately 2 ¾ to 4 hours to cook.  A larger bird will take longer: 16-20 pounds about 3 ½ to 5 hours and a 20+ pound bird 4 ½ to 6 or 7 hours.  It is hard to give definite times due to not only the size of the turkey but also the ambient outdoor temperature as you are grilling and the amount of wind.  These all affect cooking times.  Just remember if you are falling way behind you can always increase the amount of charcoal you use (within limits).  Once you have determined your eating time and your start time for cooking then make sure you pull the thawed turkey out of the refrigerator 1 hour prior to that starting time.  20 minutes before you want to start cooking go ahead and light up 45-50 charcoal briquettes.  Return to the turkey, remove the neck bones and giblets, to use these for broth for gravy and for basting and then season it as you like. Remove the plastic that holds the legs together and that plastic pop up tool they put in turkeys.  That thing is useless as they usually don't pop until about 180 degrees, by which time your turkey breast will be like sawdust.  I usually only season with salt and pepper though herbs and/or garlic is quite appropriate also.  Make sure to season the inside of the bird as well as the outside.  A quick side note about brining:  Personally, I don't like to brine.  Not only do I think it alters the flavor but almost all turkeys that you buy at the grocery store have already been injected with a brine.  If you brine one of these birds you run the risk of making it too salty. If you follow these directions carefully you will end up with a moist bird anyway.  If you choose to brine anyway, then go ahead and brine as you normally would and then just follow this recipe from the point where you pull your turkey out of the brine and pat it dry.

Sorry, but we will not be stuffing this turkey.  It alters the cooking, risking a dry bird. Smoke is a wonderful thing, in moderation, but serving both smoked turkey and smoked stuffing would be overkill, and would overpower all the other flavors on your plate.  I do, however, like to stuff the bird with 2 oranges cut into quarters and a very large handful of fresh sage.  These will add subtle elements to the turkey.  Feel free to add other herbs, fruits, onion or garlic if you prefer. 

About 20 minutes after you lite the charcoal it should be ready to use.  To make sure it is ready, check to see if it is fully covered in a layer of white ash.
Place the charcoal on the bottom grate of the kettle grill and spread them out along the outside edge, leaving the center open.  Place the grill grate on the kettle and cover for 5 minutes to allow the grate to heat up.  When hot, brush the grill lightly with oil and place the turkey, breast side up, in the center of the grill.  Add about ½ cup of your soaked wood chips and cover.  Check the bottom vent to make sure it is opened about ½ and open the top vent about 1/3 of the way to allow the smoke to escape.  You want to give the smoke an escape route so that it doesn't stay in contact with the turkey very long.  You are creating a chamber where the smoke just gently kisses the turkey on its way up and out.  If you allow the smoke to sit too long in the chamber it starts to deposit its impurities on the meat creating a harsh, bitter flavor.

After 20 minutes start a new batch of about 30 charcoal briquettes, either in your chimney starter or somewhere else and allow them to burn for 20 minutes.  Do not add them directly to the grill.  This will slow down your cooking and the unburned briquettes will flavor your turkey with a chemical taste.  While waiting for these briquettes to burn down, go inside and bring 2 cups of turkey broth to a boil, add ½ stick of butter and a handful of herbs of your choice and/or minced garlic.  Again I like to use fresh sage.  Boil until butter is melted and herbs are wilted.  This will be your basting liquid.  When the new batch of coals are ready, remove the cover from the grill, baste the turkey, add the new coals (again spreading them around the edge of the grill, and out from under the turkey), add another ½ cup of wood chips and cover again.  Don't worry if, at this point, the top of the turkey is already looking like it is starting to brown.
This is caused more by the smoke than by cooking at this time.  Continue this process of adding new coals every 40 minutes, basting every time you add the new coals and adding more wood chips.  It is important that you do not check the turkey between charcoal additions at this point.  Grills are not like ovens and they can't recover their heat nearly as quickly, so opening that grill too often will significantly affect your cooking time.  After about 2-2 ½ hours check the temperature.  Using an instant read thermometer I always check both the breast and the thigh.  Once the temperature reaches 140 check the temperature every 20 minutes, even if you are not adding more charcoal at that time.  If the breast seems to be cooking much faster than the thighs you might have to cover the breast with foil to slow down the cooking, though if all is going well the breast should only be a few degrees hotter than the thighs.  Once the thighs reach 160 degrees, quickly remove the turkey from the grill and immediately tent the whole thing with foil.  This will allow the turkey to still cook, coasting slowly to approximately 165-170 degrees.  Make sure you allow the turkey to rest like this for at least 15-20 minutes.  Not only will this allow the turkey to finish cooking but it will also help prevent the turkey from releasing all its juices when sliced.
Okay, so grilling a turkey is a little more work than just roasting it in the oven and it might be a little cold outside, but the flavors you achieve will be well worth the effort.  Besides, there is one other reason to grill your turkey.  It keeps you out of the clutches of crazy Aunt Sue, who smells like cats, away from Uncle Fred and his smelly, cheap cigars, and away from the inevitable fight with Cousin Jeff, whose politics are the complete opposite of yours.   Either way, I hope you find this to be a welcomed addition to your T-Day festivities.  Happy Thanksgiving!!!!