An illustrated guide to charcoal-grilled turkey

Have you ever wondered how to cook a turkey on a charcoal grill? When it’s time to cook a turkey, it’s usually a holiday, and the kitchen is a madhouse. There are pies and casseroles and rolls to be baked, and the oven is never big enough for everything. Cooking the turkey outside is a simple solution — especially since there is often a grill cook or two around the house with nothing to do.

For years, the culinary highlight of our annual White Elephant party was a grilled turkey, which served dozens of hungry guests with minimal work. As I once wrote on Adventures with Meps ‘n’ Barry:

Barry discovered how easy it was to throw a turkey on the barbecue grill, so that became the central menu item. He’d take it off the grill as the party was getting in full swing and plop it on a platter in the middle of the table, next to a carving fork and knife. Then he’d walk away.

The guests would stand around, looking puzzled. “Who’s going to carve the turkey?” they’d ask. Finally, someone who couldn’t stand to wait any longer would just pick up the knife and start carving away. And Barry and I would give each other a high-five, since we knew how to cook a turkey, but didn’t want to admit that carving it was beyond us.

This past Christmas, Barry’s mother prepared a turkey on her grill, and we documented the process with the camera. It’s so easy, it’s worth buying a turkey any time of the year!

What you’ll need:

A large kettle-style barbecue grill (such as a Weber)
A large bag of charcoal – regular briquettes, not Matchlight
Lighter fluid or a chimney-style charcoal starter with newspaper
A rectangular pan (disposable foil pans work, but may leak) to put under the turkey
Optional: Hardware cloth to hold briquettes
Optional: Turkey lifter
Optional: Lid spacers — metal rods or 2×4’s wrapped in foil

  1. Before buying your turkey, measure the height of your grill lid from the grate that holds the turkey. If your turkey isn’t small enough to fit under the lid, you can use spacers to gain an extra inch or two. The spacers are illustrated in step #9. (The turkey may take a little longer to cook, but the results will be fine.)
  2. Light your charcoal, using either lighter fluid or a chimney-style charcoal lighter with newspaper.
  3. Meanwhile, prepare the turkey. Remove any giblets, wash the turkey, and tie up the wings and legs with wire or string. Rub the outside of the turkey with butter or olive oil. Important: This cooking method does not work with a turkey that’s stuffed. If you want stuffing, you’ll have to roast it in a separate pan in the oven.
    Preparing the turkey for roasting
  4. Once all the briquettes have a layer of gray ash on them, they’re ready to use. Using tongs, divide the briquettes into two piles, one on each side of the grill, with the rectangular pan in the middle. There should be about 25-30 briquettes on each side. The goal is to cook the turkey with indirect heat and catch the drippings in the pan. One way to make this a little easier is to create “baskets” out of hardware cloth to hold the briquettes on the sides.
    Dumping the charcoal out of the lighter
    Briquettes in place for cooking
    Adding charcoal before starting to cook
  5. Put a little water into the drippings pan.
  6. Place the grill on top of the charcoal and drippings pan.
  7. If you have a turkey lifter, put it on top of the grill.
    Putting the turkey lifter on the grill
  8. Put the turkey on the grill, centered over the foil pan. (in the photo below, the turkey was not perfectly centered, and the left wing was slightly scorched)
    Turkey on grill, ready to cook
  9. Put the lid over the turkey and set a timer for one hour.
  10. Optional: The spacers shown below are only needed if the lid does not fit over the turkey. In a pinch, when we discovered the turkey was too tall at the last minute, we used 2×4’s wrapped in foil, one on either side of the grill. But if you know ahead of time that your turkey is too tall, metal rods like these are an elegant solution.
    Turkey on grill with spacer rods in place
    Grill with lid on and spacers in place
  11. When an hour has passed, open the grill and add 8 or 9 fresh charcoal briquettes to the burnt-down briquettes on each side. There’s no need for lighter fluid. It’s easiest to do this if you remove the turkey to a baking sheet. When you put the turkey back, check to make sure it’s centered. You may also want to add a little water to the drippings pan.
    Adding charcoal every hour
  12. Repeat step #9 every hour until the turkey is done. The total time should be about 12 minutes per pound. Use a meat thermometer to be absolutely certain that it’s done.
    Turkey ready to serve
  13. If you want to make gravy from the drippings, use a baster to remove the drippings about a half hour before the turkey is done.
  14. Remove the turkey to a platter. Let it sit for 15 minutes on the counter before carving. If you put it on the table at a party, it will usually take about 15 minutes of discussion before one of the guests grabs the carving knife.

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