Grilling Thanksgiving Turkey
AlamyLet's face it: A lot of bad turkey gets served every Thanksgiving. The problem has less to do with human error (well, usually) than with avian anatomy. The simple fact is that the delicate white meat of the turkey breast cooks faster than the dark rich meat of the legs and thighs. So if you cook a turkey to a safe temperature (165 degrees F), the breast is almost guaranteed to dry out.
What's a griller to do?
Well, there's a simple solution to this problem. Actually, there are six: Brine it. Cure it. Inject it. Chop it. Smoke it. Grill it. All will give you every grillmaster's dream holiday bird -- moist, tender, smoky and bursting with flavor. Here's a quick rundown on each:
Brining is the process of marinating the bird overnight in a saline solution (saltwater). By the process of osmosis (remember your high school chemistry?), some of the brine is drawn into the turkey, making the meat both succulent and flavorful. Brining works great for both whole turkeys and turkey breasts.
Curing is a bit like brining, only you use a dry rub instead of a liquid. The salt draws some of the water out of the turkey. You might think this would make the bird dry. It doesn't. What it does do is give you a rich-textured bird and bold flavor. My turkey pastrami recipe, in The Barbecue! Bible, is a great example of this or check out our Best of Barbecue Pastrami on the Grill Kit.
You could think of the process of injecting a turkey as marinating from the inside out. Using a kitchen syringe (it looks an oversize hypodermic needle), you inject a mixture of broth, melted butter and other seasonings (such as cognac or Madeira wine) deep into the breast and thigh meat. This keeps the bird moist -- even after prolonged cooking on a grill or in a smoker. Not to mention the mad scientist machismo of brandishing the injector. (Raichlen's Rule #6: Never underestimate the importance of looking cool when you set out to grill. Rule #7? Never put coarse ground spices in an injector sauce -- they'll clog the needle.)
This refers to the "divide and conquer" approach to grilling. To keep turkey moist on the grill, start with thin slices of breast or thigh (as they do in Israel) or even finely chopped turkey (as they do in Russia and the Republic of Georgia) to make a sort of grilled skinless turkey sausage called shashlik. Small pieces of meat cook more quickly than large, so you can cook them through without drying them out. Below, you'll find a recipe for Russian ground turkey kebabs-again adapted from the new Planet Barbecue.
One of the best ways to keep turkey moist on the grill is to smoke it in the style of the American South. The closed cooking environment holds in not only the smoke, but the moisture. The low to moderate heat used in smoking cooks the bird without drying it out. By the way, smoked turkey is an excellent dish to make in the Weber 22-1/2-inch Smokey Mountain smoker or the Big Green Egg.
When working with turkey steaks (cut from the breast) or chopped or ground turkey, the best method is direct grilling. Work over a medium-high to high heat to sear the meat on the outside while keeping it moist in the center. Target temperature for doneness is 165 degrees F. To add flavor, spray the bird as it grills with olive oil, wine, or a spray marinade, such as our new Best of Barbecue Balsamic Ginger Spray Marinade.
The turkey is a bird near and dear to the American heart, for it's indigenous to the New World -- domesticated by the Aztecs long before the arrival of the Spanish. Benjamin Franklin regarded turkey so highly, he wanted to name it -- not the eagle -- our national bird. So how did a fowl with such deep American roots come to be called turkey? In the 16th century, many luxury consumer products came from or through Turkey. Thus, labeling this New World fowl a "Turkie bird" helped lend it cachet and commercial acceptance. Here's a new twist on an American Thanksgiving icon, and brining and smoking virtually guarantee your bird will be moist. Note: I prefer indirect grilling to smoking for turkey as smoking tends to make the skin leathery, while indirect grilling keeps it crisp.
More Thanksgiving Recipes and Tips:
- See all our Thanksgiving menus and cooking tips here.
- Prepare our Traditional Thanksgiving Dinner Menu.
- Find side dishes for your Thanksgiving feast.
- Browse all barbecue and grilling recipes.
Steven Raichlen, America's "master griller" (Esquire), is the premier teacher, evangelist, and all-around expert on the art of live-fire cooking. His eight Barbecue! Bible cookbooks include three national-award winners, two that have sold over a million copies, and six chosen as Main Selections of The Good Cook. The third season of his show, Primal Grill, seen in 95% of PBS markets, is scheduled to run in Summer 2010. Previously he hosted four seasons of PBS's popular series Barbecue University at the Greenbrier, now available on DVD, and now teaches seasonal sessions of Barbecue U at the Broadmoor in Colorado. Articles by him appear regularly in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and other magazines and newspapers. He lives and grills in Coconut Grove, Florida, and Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.