Grilling Techniques

12 Dos and Don’ts to Cook the Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

Turkey on grill

Is it just me, or does America seem even more Thanksgiving-obsessed than ever? Practice turkeys. Turchettas. Turduckens. Brining kits. We just can’t seem to wait for this festival (make that orgy) of food, football, and family (not necessarily in that order).

T-day may be the country’s favorite secular holiday, but it’s a bad time for Meleagris gallopavo. According to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey on Thanksgiving. That statistic is even more remarkable when you factor in our foreign-born population and vegetarians.

It’s no secret that turkeys destined for the Raichlen table never see the inside of an oven. No, our turkeys cook in one of my many grills or smokers. Because my staff and I field so many questions from people determined to cook at least part of the meal outdoors this Thanksgiving, we decided to publish our Turkey Dos and Don’ts list early. In a separate blog post, we’ll also share recipes for our favorite side dishes—you guessed it—all cooked on grills or smokers outdoors.

  1. Do buy an organic or heritage turkey. Better texture and flavor and you know it was raised wholesomely and humanely. For me, the ideal size is 12 to 14 pounds; I’d rather cook two birds this size than one 24-pound monster.
  2. Don’t buy turkeys that have been pre-injected with saline solution. Why pay for water (up to 15 percent for some turkeys) when you can brine the bird yourself—without chemical additives. (Read the fine print on the packaging.) Note: birds labeled “kosher” have already been pre-brined and will be unpleasantly salty if you brine them a second time at home.
  3. Do buy a fresh turkey. Or if it’s frozen, budget enough time to thaw it in the refrigerator. Figure on 24 hours for every 4 pounds, so a 12-pound turkey needs 3 full days. If time is tight, submerge the unopened turkey in a sink full of cold water (40 degrees or less). Replace the water as necessary to keep it cold.
  4. Don’t attempt to thaw a frozen turkey at room temperature. The outside will thaw; the inside won’t; and you increase the risk of bacterial contamination.
  5. Do remove the giblets from the main and front cavities. Smoke the turkey liver to make pate. Smoke the neck, heart, and gizzard to make smoked turkey stock.
  6. Don’t stuff your turkey. By the time the dressing reaches a safe temperature of 165 degrees, the turkey itself will be irredeemably overcooked. (Not to mention the stuffing steamed and gummy.) Instead, spoon the dressing into a large cast iron skillet and smoke-roast or indirect grill it to maximize the ratio of buttery crisp crust to moist center.
  7. Do keep the bird moist by brining, injecting, or spreading butter under the skin. A soak in a saline solution (brining) adds moistness to the meat and keeps it there. Injecting lets you shoot melted butter and broth deep into the breast and thigh meat. Spreading butter or herb butter (and why not, sliced truffles) under the skin is a traditional French technique for keeping the breast moist and flavorful, plus it gives you supernaturally crisp skin.

  8. Don’t spatchcock your turkey. Yeah, it’s all the rage to remove the backbone and cook the bird flat in an attempt to keep the breast meat moist. But turkey is the undisputed centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal and shouldn’t look like it got run over by an all-terrain vehicle. Remember, we eat with our eyes as well as our palates.
  9. Do smoke-roast your turkey on a charcoal grill or gas grill fitted with a smoker box or smoker pouch. You need a moderately high heat (325 to 400 degrees F) to crisp the turkey skin. But wood smoke adds a tremendous depth of flavor. That’s why I prefer to smoke-roast my turkey (indirect grill it with wood smoke) over traditional low heat smoking.
  10. Don’t smoke your turkey low and slow. Yes, you get moist meat and a great flavor, but the skin will be tough and rubbery. There’s an easy work around: smoke the turkey at 225 to 250 degrees until you reach an internal temperature of around 130 degrees. Then increase the smoker temperature to 350 degrees (or move it to a grill set up for indirect grilling), brush the outside of the bird with melted butter, and indirect grill it until the skin is crisp and brown and the bird is cooked through.
  11. Do baste your bird with melted butter or olive oil or bacon fat (or a combination). Baste once an hour to help the skin brown and crisp. Don’t baste with turkey stock or barbecue sauce, which would make the skin soggy.
  12. Don’t serve your turkey hot off the grill or smoker. Lay a sheet of foil over it (don’t bunch it around the bird or you’ll make the skin soggy) and let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes. This relaxes the meat and makes it more juicy.

A few final tips:

Lest you look like the biggest turkey at the feast, don’t run out of fuel on T-Day! (Remember, most stores will be closed for the holiday.) Stock up in advance on charcoal, wood, and smoking chips or chunks. If your set-up relies on propane, make sure you begin the cook with a full tank.

Place a large disposable roasting pan underneath the turkey if you want to collect drippings for gravy. This year, I’ll be smoking pre-made turkey stock alongside the bird for gravy with incomparable flavor. I did this for the Thanksgiving episode of Project Smoke and it was a huge hit with the crew.

Have a game plan for transferring the turkey from the grill or smoker to the kitchen. Meat claws and insulated food gloves are a big help.

Click here for recipes from the Thanksgiving episode of Project Smoke.