10 Pro Tips for Grilling Your Thanksgiving Turkey

You'll free up your oven for extra pies and get to cook (and eat) outdoors. What could be better?

Elizabeth Karmel knows her way around a grill. The Greensboro, North Carolina native has been in the grilling game for over 25 years, including 15 as the founding executive chef of the New York City barbecue restaurant, Hill Country. So it's no surprise that this woman (whose motto is "If you can eat it, you can grill it!") is a huge proponent of grilling the Thanksgiving turkey.

You’ll free up precious oven space for your pies and all those delicious vegetable sides you’ve planned. And if you live in a warm (enough) climate, you can take the party outside and fire up the grill for the main turkey cooking event.

"Everybody loves a grilled turkey, and you become the hero of Thanksgiving," Karmel says. "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! 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 gorgeous bird.

01 of 10

Practice, Practice, Practice

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.

02 of 10

Go With Indirect Heat

Direct heat means that the flames and heat source are immediately below the bird. You don't want that.

"You'll burn the bottom of the bird," warns Karmel. "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."

03 of 10

Preheat the Whole Grill for 15 Minutes

If using a gas grill with three burners, as we did, let them all fly at high heat for a full 10 to 15 minutes—and then kill that middle burner, just before plopping on the bird. You want the grill nice 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.)

04 of 10

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 F to 400 F—but that may mean you have to kick the outside dials up to 600 F. Keep an eye on the grill thermometer when you occasionally check on the bird.

05 of 10

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.

06 of 10

Save the Drippings in a Shallow Pan

Catch those drippings for gravy, but don’t let your bird sit too deep inside a pan, which could prevent the bottom from cooking evenly. (We learned this one the hard way.) Your best bet is one of those 3-inch tall aluminum pans from the grocery store. Prop the bird 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.

07 of 10

If You Stuff, Budget for a Longer Cooking Time

"You absolutely can stuff the bird," says Karmel. "But when you do, it adds a lot to the cooking time, because you have to cook it until the center of that stuffing comes to temperature." Karmel 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."

08 of 10

Oil Your Bird

It's crucial to oil the whole bird. Not only does this keep it from sticking to the grates or drip pan, but it also makes for a beautiful finish. Karmel likes olive oil for a classic taste, but her chef’s trick is to quickly brush on maple syrup or citrusy Southern Comfort. "Something with sugar that'll help caramelize the top."

09 of 10

Give Your Grill a Tune-up

Ask at your local hardware store—or wherever you bought your grill—if they do tune-ups. "You want to make sure it's clean, there are no clogged burners, and everything's working and up to par," says Karmel. One tune-up annually should do the trick.

10 of 10

Be Creative With the Gravy

Gravy is a fun place to 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 says, "end up lapping it up." But you could also add a touch of orange zest, a few springs of rosemary or sage as it simmers, or even "a tiny bit" of maple syrup or a good unfiltered apple cider.

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