Why You Should Grill Your Thanksgiving Turkey
Plus, 10 tips guaranteed to help you get it right.
Elizabeth Karmel knows her way around a grill. The Greensboro, North Carolina native has been in the grilling game for 25 years, including 10 as the founding executive chef of New York City barbecue restaurant Hill Country. So, it’s no surprise that a woman whose motto is “If you can eat it, you can grill it!” plans to grill her turkey this Thanksgiving—and is a huge proponent of you doing the same. But why? By freeing up precious oven space, you can keep the pies at the ready, and all those vegetable sides ready to roll. Plus, Karmel declares, “everybody loves a grilled turkey, and you become the hero of Thanksgiving. You bring that turkey in from the grill, you’re gonna get a standing ovation.” And if you do it right, you should be able to shave about 45 minutes off the cooking time of a 14-pound bird.
Sounds good to us! Using her orange-clove-peppercorn brine, we tested Karmel’s basic grilled turkey recipe, and it was a delight—super-juicy, very slightly smoky, easy, and packed with flavor. But we learned a lot as we grilled, so here are 10 tips—from Karmel, the pro, and one amateur griller—for a more gorgeous bird.
1. Practice Makes Perfect
If you don’t use your grill often, it's worth reserving a weekend evening prior to Thanksgiving to practice. Follow the whole recipe, soup to nuts. You don’t need a million sides, and your family and friends will love that they have an extra turkey opportunity. (Not to mention those next-day sandwiches!) Trust us, if you’re hosting for T-Day, you’ll be glad you did a dress rehearsal.
2. Know the Difference Between Direct and Indirect Heat
Direct heat means that the flames and heat source are immediately below the bird. You don’t want that, warns Karmel: “You’ll burn the bottom of the bird.” (For a simple diagram explaining the difference, click here.) “With indirect heat you don’t need to touch the food; it’s cooked by the rotating heat,” says Karmel. “If you’re new to grilling, think of indirect heat as roasting or baking; direct heat is broiling.”
3. Preheat the Whole Grill for 15 Minutes
If using a gas grill with three burners, as we did, it’s important to let them all fly at high heat for a full 10-15 minutes—and then kill that middle burner, just before plopping on the bird. You want the grill good and hot, says Karmel. Position the turkey depending on the direction of the burners themselves; if you have vertical burners, your bird should be vertical. If horizontal, position it horizontally. (This helps the turkey cook evenly along its length.)
4. Get a Grill Thermometer
You want a meat thermometer for the bird itself, but it’s also worth spending $5 for a grill thermometer, says Karmel. The dials on the outside of a gas grill often don’t reflect the interior temperature accurately: You’re aiming for a grill temp of 325 to 400—but that may mean you have to kick the outside dials up to 600. Keep an eye on the grill thermometer when you occasionally check on the bird.
5. Watch Out for Wind
Our burners blew out a few times without us even noticing. “Wind is the only thing that affects the cooking time,” says Karmel. “If it’s not windy, it doesn’t matter how cold it is outside, but wind has a tendency to blow out burners.” Her tip? Before turning on the grill, stand nearby for a minute: If you notice it’s in a windy spot, relocate it to a protected area.
6. Save the Drippings in a Shallow Pan
You’re going to want to catch those drippings for gravy, but you don’t want your bird to sit too deep inside a pan, which could prevent the bottom of the bird from cooking evenly. (We learned this one the hard way). Your best bet is to get one of those 3-inch tall aluminum pans from the grocery store and prop the bird up on a bed of root vegetables or aluminum foil logs. Just make sure the pan’s rim isn’t so tall that it covers the turkey legs.
7. If You Stuff, It’ll Add Cooking Time
“You absolutely can stuff the bird,” says Karmel, “but when you do, it adds a lot of time to the cooking time, because you have to cook it until the center of that stuffing comes to temperature.” That's why she prefers her stuffing Southern-style—known as “dressing”—cooked on the side. As for the bird, “I’d stuff it with aromatics—an orange with some cloves stuck in it, an onion, and a little bit of celery.”
8. Oil Is Key to a Prettier Bird
It’s crucial to oil the whole bird. Not only does this keep it from sticking to the grates or drip pan, it makes for a beautiful finish. Karmel likes olive oil for a classic taste, but her cheffiest trick is to quickly brush on maple syrup or citrus-y Southern Comfort—“something with sugar that’ll help caramelize the top.”
9. Give Your Grill a Tuneup
If you have time, call your local hardware store—or wherever you bought your grill—to ask if they do tune-ups. “You want to make sure it’s clean, there are no clogged burners, and everything’s working and is up to par,” says Karmel. One tuneup annually should do the trick.
10. Be Creative on the Gravy Front
Keeping the turkey straightforward is a wise move if you’re grilling the bird for the first time, but gravy is a fun place to get think outside the box. Karmel’s recipe is wonderful, and almost like a French sauce thanks to a few glugs of white wine and butter. She created it for “people who didn’t like gravy because it was too gamey.” Those people, she declares, “end up lapping it up.” But you could also add a touch of orange zest to the gravy, a few springs of rosemary or sage as it simmers, or even a “a tiny bit” of maple syrup or good unfiltered apple cider.
Because it’s Thanksgiving, and let’s be honest, a little bit of showing off is a-OK.