How To Grill A Turkey Outdoors This Thanksgiving

The safest way to celebrate amid COVID-19 is outside. Learn how to cook a turkey al fresco in record time with little prep beforehand.
Spatchcocking a turkey, which requires removing the backbone, allows the bird to cook much faster.
Anna Hampton
Spatchcocking a turkey, which requires removing the backbone, allows the bird to cook much faster.

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If we do gather this year for Thanksgiving, it’s now common knowledge that it’s better to do so outdoors and at a safe distance. Some folks are experts at frying or smoking whole turkeys outside, which takes a good bit of experience and specialty equipment.

If you don’t have all that, but you do have a grill and outdoor space to host, here is a recipe to get the turkey done in record time outside with a little prep beforehand. You can serve folks more safely where they can gather around in the crisp fall air, and leave the kitchen open for all those sides and desserts!

Here are a few tips for prepping the turkey for the grill:

Allow for thawing time. If you’re buying your turkey from your local grocery store, keep in mind it may only come frozen, in which case you should allow for thawing time in the fridge. This can take up to three days, depending on the size of the bird. Look for all-natural turkey ― you don’t want it salted or injected with any saline solution, since you’ll be using a dry brine.

Spatchcock your bird. You can grill a whole turkey, but spatchcocking (also called butterflying) cooks more evenly, drastically reduces cooking time and still keeps the bird in one piece. You remove the backbone with a sharp pair of cooking shears, then flip it over and use both hands to press down hard on the breast side until it cracks and is flattened. Get the instructions here.

Or buy your turkey already broken down in individual parts. You can also buy individual turkey pieces. This saves even more cooking time and it makes it easier to move them around on the grill. And if your crew isn’t into dark meat, you can stick to breasts or vice versa. You can then present your main dish on a platter without having to wrestle a huge bird in front of your guests.

A spatchcocked turkey is covered in a dry brine.
Anna Hampton
A spatchcocked turkey is covered in a dry brine.

Use a dry brine. This is an easy way to get crispy skin and tender meat. Pat the skin dry and use kosher salt and a spice blend to cover the bird. Customize your spice blend to coordinate your vibe and sauce/gravy combo. You could go traditional with dried rosemary, sage and thyme, or you could mix it up with a barbecue-style seasoning. Dry brine should be rubbed on the turkey (and a bit under the skin if you’d like) and then the bird should be kept in the fridge 24-36 hours before grilling. The longer the brine, the more tender the meat.

Season your grill. Prep the grill before you put the bird on it. Turn the heat on and scrape any of the old mess off the grill. Dip a paper towel or cloth into olive or vegetable oil, then wipe down the grates using a pair of tongs.

Check the temperature with a digital thermometer. A great digital thermometer such as a Thermapen will help determine when it’s time to take the bird off the grill. We’re ultimately looking for 165 degrees Fahrenheit in the thickest part of the bird. However, don’t be afraid to pull it off the heat a little before it hits 165, as it will continue carryover cooking. And don’t open the lid too much during cooking, as heat escapes quickly each time and the grill will take longer to come back up to temp, resulting in a longer cooking time.

Use a digital thermometer to check the temperature of both the light and dark meat.
Anna Hampton
Use a digital thermometer to check the temperature of both the light and dark meat.

Go nontraditional with the sauce. This year is already nontraditional. Why not pick a unique sauce, such as barbecue sauce, chimichurri or mushroom gravy to pair with your grilled bird that you can make separately while the bird is cooking?

Get the full turkey recipe and instructions below.

Anna Hampton

Spiced, Dry-Brined Grilled Turkey With Garlic Herb Butter

For a 12- to 15-pound turkey

Cooking time: Approximately 60-90 minutes

Serves 8-10

For The Turkey

  • 1 turkey, 12-15 pounds, whole, quartered, or cut up into individual pieces, fresh (or thawed if frozen)
  • Fresh thyme, herbs and lemons, for platter garnish

For The Spiced Dry Brine

  • 3 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon thyme
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon hot mustard powder
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper

Mix salt and spices together in a bowl and set aside. Makes 1/2 cup.

For The Garlic Herb Butter

  • 1 stick butter
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup fresh herbs such as rosemary, parsley, chives or thyme, minced
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Melt butter in a small saucepan gently over medium-low heat. Add garlic and cook for 2-3 minutes. Turn off heat and add herbs, lemon juice and salt.

For the turkey prep: If spatchcocking, on a large cutting board, remove the backbone using kitchen scissors and a sharp knife. Score the breastbone lightly with a knife from the inside. Turn the turkey over and press down firmly on the bird using two hands to crack and flatten the breastbone. Invert the legs and thighs, and tuck the wings behind the breasts and pat dry. If using turkey parts, remove from packaging and pat dry completely.

Lay turkey flat on a sheet tray, making sure it is as dry as possible, and cover all sides with the dry brine spice mixture. Refrigerate, uncovered, for up to 36 hours. Let rest at room temperature for 1-2 hours before grilling.

To grill the turkey: Light the grill and clean grill grates. If using a gas grill, turn the burners on along one side of the grill, leaving the other side off for indirect cooking. If using a charcoal grill, light the coals, then move them to one side. Cover until the grill reaches 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Put turkey, skin side up, on the indirect side of the grill and close the lid. After 45 minutes, baste with the herb butter. After one hour, baste again, and check temperature with a digital thermometer. If using quarters or cut-up parts, turkey may be done at this point. Make sure to test both the dark meat and the breast, as the dark meat may take longer. Look for 165 degrees or just under. If grilling a spatchcocked turkey, you may need another half-hour to 45 minutes on the grill, basting again every 15 minutes. Pull the turkey off the grill when it has reached the proper temperature, and let it rest.

Once the turkey has rested, about 20-30 minutes, cut up and serve on a platter with lemons and herbs for garnish.

The dry-brined turkey, before it's been basted with garlic herb butter.
Anna Hampton
The dry-brined turkey, before it's been basted with garlic herb butter.

Note: To add a smoky flavor to the grill, wrap some wood chips in a small aluminum foil packet with a few holes cut in the top. Add the packet to the grill grates when the turkey goes on.

Note: While the turkey is resting, you can throw some vegetables on the grill tossed in olive oil, salt and pepper, such as carrots, Brussels sprouts or baby potatoes to serve alongside.


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