How to Cook a Turkey over Charcoal
What you need to know to deliver the goods
Cooking a turkey for Thanksgiving can be overwhelming. It is the star piece of food for one of the highest pressure meals of the year. While cooking it over fire adds another layer of complexity, it can also add layers of tastiness. To help you on your journey, should you choose to take it, I spoke with Mona Johnson and Jaret Foster of Portland-based Tournant, an outdoor catering and event company that focuses on over-fire cooking. It’s no surprise that Thanksgiving is their favorite holiday. Below are their tips to deliver the goods without burning your hands.
Befriend the Brine
“When it comes to cooking any poultry over fire—but turkey in particular—a good wet brine is going to be your best friend,” Foster says. “It imbues flavor and moisture while seasoning the bird throughout.” There are an incredible number of brine recipes online to choose from, but even just salt water will help immensely as long as you submerge the bird in it for at least 24 hours.
Use the Right Fuel
One important caveat: never use briquettes. “Briquettes are made with cast-off sawdust from sawmills that is compressed with chemical,” Foster says. “If you have access to seasoned hardwood or fruitwood, use that—there is more flavor in there.” Lump charcoal—wood burnt in the absence of oxygen—is a good alternative that can produce delicious flavor. The folks at Tounant like Lazarri Mesquite Charcoal and I’ve had good luck with Cowboy Charcoal.
Mind Your Heat
“You need to know where your heat is, as well as where it’s going,” Foster says. “There is nothing worse than when you are almost done cooking and your fire dies out. We keep what we call a mother fire going which we can draw coals from as needed.”
Take it Slow
Slower cooking temperatures render the turkey’s fats better and leaves you with a juicier bird. “Slow and low is your friend,” Foster says. But be mindful of your coal placement. “Don’t be afraid to move them around. If it is cooking too quickly, move coals from directly below the bird so you have more indirect heat,” Johnson says.
Cook the Parts of Your Bird Separately
While carving a whole turkey at your Thanksgiving table is iconic, cooking all parts of the same animal at the same time introduces a few problems. “They have such different cooking times,” Johnson says. “Commercial turkeys are bred to have enormous breasts and often by the time the legs are cooked the breast is overcooked.” Foster recommends cooking the leg and thigh in a slow braise and roasting or grilling the breast separately.
Braise Those Thighs
“Turkeys have a great deal of connective tissue in their legs and thighs,” Foster says. “Breaking that down in a slow braise really helps.” Utilizing this technique gives you a distinctly different type of meat than the classic white breast meat you can get by grilling. If you want to conduct this braise outside, it’s a great opportunity to cook with a Dutch oven. “Brown the leg and thigh in some fat, then do some aromatics—some celery, some onions, some garlic—then back in with browned meat then a bottle of wine,” Foster says. He said that you can choose red or white wine, or use just about any stock as long as you let that go as slow as you can. Then bring it to a slow simmer with the lid on over the fire. As long as there’s liquid in there, you can’t really overcook it, but do so until it is fork tender.
“Taking the backbone out (spatchcocking) is going to make it easier to cook evenly,” Foster says. Once you’ve done that, he recommends placing the bird skin-side down on the grill over low-medium heat and laying something heavy—a brick or cinder block or cast iron pan—on top. That flattens it out for even cooking and creates nice, crispy skin.
Trust Your Senses
“We encourage people to trust their senses,” Johnson says. “It is how it looks. It is how it sounds. Smell is a lot of it. You can tell if something is cooking too quickly and needs to be moved into lower heat.” Just watch out for acrid or burned smells.
Use a Thermometer
“Always have a digital instant-read thermometer for temperature testing—no one wants to serve raw turkey,” Johnson says.
“Our number one fire tool is a pair of long tongs,” Foster says. That way you can move coals around without getting too close to the heat. Foster recommends a pair that’s 15-to-18 inches long.
Protect Your Hands
“We use thick leather gloves because you have more dexterity than with a towel or mitt,” Johnson says. If you do use a kitchen towel, it’s going to take a beating, so make sure it is one you don’t mind burning or soiling.