Deep frying turkeys and cooking them alternate ways is all the rage around the holidays. The risk of fire is concerning, at least to me, and before the big deep fryers and giant jugs of peanut oil were nearly as prevalent, I found a way to make a moist, delicious turkey every time.
So if you’re looking for an excuse to dust the snow off your grill and do something a little different this Thanksgiving or Christmas this could be the method for you.
What You’ll Need to Grill a Turkey
- Chili Powder
- Soy Sauce
- Chicken Bullion
- Olive Oil
- Stuffing (Your Choice, see advice below)
- Large Foil Pan
- Meat Injector
- Basting Brush
- Meat Thermometer
You clearly have two primary options when it comes to the grill, charcoal or gas. I’ll explain how to use each, but up front I will say at least for this particular dish, I prefer charcoal, because you are smoking the turkey at the same time you are cooking it. This can be accomplished with gas, but it’s a little more challenging.
If you have a dual burner grill where you can turn on one side and leave the other off that is ideal. If you don’t, it’s still possible. You’ll just need to be a little more vigilant of water levels.
Fill the large foil pan with water, and set it under the grill surface on the side where the burner is not lit. The turkey will actually sit over this pan, but more on that when we actually put the bird on the grill. Be sure the grill is positioned as far away from the burner as possible.
For now, light the other burner, and while you are prepping, let the grill warm up until the temperature inside is around 300 degrees. This is easily measured if you have a thermometer mounted in the lid of your grill. If not, use an oven thermometer. Adjust the heat on the burner so that this temperature stays as constant as possible.
For a smoky flavor you have a few options. You can either buy packs of smoke chips commercially designed to work with gas grills. Don’t lay them on the fire yet: wait until you put the bird on. If you don’t want to purchase these, you can make them by creating a foil pouch, filling it with damp wood chips, and cutting slits in the top.
With a gas grill, you may want to have more than one of these prepared, so when it stops smoking, you can just throw another on.
For a charcoal grill, you’ll be performing the same action: building an indirect fire. I use a chimney to light my coals, and use mesquite chunks. You can add applewood chunks, or even more mesquite if you wish, but first get the fire burning on one side of the grill, or if you are using a round one like a Weber One Touch, put the pan of water in the middle and stack the coals around the outside of it.
Get the temperature to around 300 degrees. To keep the fire going, you will need the ability to add charcoal later (we will discuss timing below), and to light it if need be. I have a separate smaller grill, and use the chimney again to warm the coals before I add them.
Like with the gas grill, be sure the fire is as far from the grilling surface as possible.
Mix a rub together of salt, pepper, and chili powder in a small bowl. You can use pepper to taste, depending on your (and your guests) taste for spiciness. Start with the ratio of two parts salt, two parts chili powder, and one part pepper. Wet your finger and taste a small amount, adjusting accordingly..
There are other simple options for rubs, and more complex ones. I find that the most flavor comes from a simple combination of spices. I’ll explain the why behind these spices in a few moments.
Keep the soy sauce handy: you’ll need it shortly.
You have options. I start with packaged stuffing mix. There are several brands to choose from, and Trader Joe’s even has a gluten-free option if you or your guests have those issues. I typically add my own onions and celery, and then cook according to the instructions on the package. Toward the end, I add a bit of the spice mix I have created. Stir thoroughly, and add a touch of soy sauce for flavor.
Note: I usually make two packages, depending on the size of the turkey. I like stuffing, so even if it does not all fit in the bird, I set the rest aside and warm it when the rest of the meal is almost ready. If you really want to be precise you can use figure it out exactly, or you can figure out how much stuffing it would take to stuff your entire house.
The Injection Mix
The injection mix is also simple: chicken broth and soy sauce. Between those two items (unless you have the low-sodium type, or you are on a low-sodium diet) provide plenty of salt. You can add a pinch of chili powder to the mix if you like, but it often clogs the injector needle. Again, keep it simple.
Once I have heated and combined the broth and the soy sauce, I put it in a tall, thin glass. This simply makes it easier to fill the injector than if you put it in a bowl. Set this aside for a moment.
Rub the turkey body down, including inside the cavity with olive oil. You can use melted butter if you prefer. Olive oil makes for a browner, crispier skin that has the added benefit of holding in the juices. (more on this in a moment)
Now rub the turkey down with the spice mixture you have created. Do so inside the cavity and out. Thoroughly cover the skin.
Note: the reason there are no amounts listed for the spices is the ratio suited to your taste is much more important. The amount will vary according to your taste and the size of the bird. I usually make quite a bit, as I rub the bird down liberally.
This is as simple as it sounds. Put the stuffing inside the bird. I thoroughly stuff both the rear cavity and the neck area, but you do not have to if you don’t want to. I bind the legs at this point until the bird is cooked at least most of the way.
Using an injector needle, draw the soy sauce and chicken broth mixture into the syringe and inject carefully in the turkey breasts and the meaty part of the thighs. You can inject the legs as well, but it is generally not necessary.
Get it on the Grill
Place the turkey on the grill above the pan of water. If you want to add a smoke chip pack in the case of a gas grill, or wood chips in the case of a charcoal grill, now is the time to do so. As stated above, you’ll want to replace these as the smoke subsides.
Keep an Eye on Things
In the case of either grill, you will want to check on your bird at least every hour, basting with a brush every time you lift the lid. I use the same mixture I injected to do this, but you may use butter, olive oil, or some other sauce.
Resist the temptation to inject more liquid at this point. Breaking the skin, which will rapidly start to brown, lets the juice out. One advantage of cooking a turkey this way is that it is never dry, unless you overcook it.
However, you may pierce the skin after hour number two with a long meat thermometer, so you can check the temperature near the breastbone. Careful not to touch the bone with the thermometer; this will give you an artificially high reading.
If you are using a charcoal grill, you should restock coals every hour. If things are not smokey enough, add some wood chips at this time as well. Otherwise, between hourly checks, leave the lid of the grill closed. This allows the water to circulate around the turkey with the smoke, and keeps temperatures even and things moist.
Speaking of the water, if the level gets low in the pan, add more. Letting the pan go dry will result in a drier bird.
So how long does it take to grill a turkey? Well, depending on the weight and how consistent you keep your grill temperature (vigilant is good) it will take 3 to 5 hours. The rule of 13 minutes per pound makes for a good starting point. Just make sure temperatures at the center of the breast have reached at least 165 degrees before you declare it done. When it is getting close, unbind the legs and wings, and let that skin brown up as well, usually about the last 45 minutes to an hour.
Once the turkey is done, remove it from the grill, and let it rest on the counter for 15 to 20 minutes. You may remove the stuffing at this time, but just don’t cut or pierce the skin.
That’s it. Yes, it takes more time than the popular deep fried turkey, but it is a bit healthier for you, and it turns out juicy and tasty every time.
Try it at your next big gathering, or this Thanksgiving. Feel free to reach out and let me know how yours turned out—leave a comment below.
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