The California Cook: Our best turkey tweak yet

A turkey is grilled using hickory chips. It frees up the oven.
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

For something that is the centerpiece of almost every Thanksgiving dinner, the turkey gets surprisingly little attention. At least from most normal people. They tend to stuff it, roast it and forget it. And then they complain about how boring turkey is for another year.

Not at my house. I love the big bird, and I’m always trying to find new ways to make it even better. And I’ve got to say that my newest improvement may be the best yet.

For years, my Thanksgiving ritual revolved around soaking the big bird in a big bucket of brine that kept it juicy and well-seasoned even after a long roast. Then I discovered I could get the same improvement in moistness and flavor by dry-brining — simply rubbing the turkey with kosher salt (1 tablespoon for every 5 pounds of weight). No more juggling that big bucket and, in fact, the texture is even better, meatier.


Last year, I played with flavoring the salt with different spices, herbs and citrus zests, and that worked well too. I thought my turkey-tweaking days were done. But then a reader e-mailed and asked whether this spiced brining could work for turkey on the grill. And a new fire was lighted.

The challenge to cooking turkey on the grill is obvious: size. But so are the potential advantages: Imagine bringing your own lightly smoked turkey to the table, and also think about having your oven freed up for the crucial work of other last-minute cooking.

Video: Food editor Russ Parsons shows you how to carve the turkey.

At first I was intimidated. The biggest thing I’ve ever grilled before was a 6-pound leg of lamb. Even the smallest turkey is about twice that size. My first thought was to spatchcock it, as I sometimes do with grilled chicken: Remove the backbone and flatten the bird so that it will lie flat on the grill and cook evenly. But then I realized how I’d feel bringing a turkey to the Thanksgiving table that looked like it had been run over by a car.

So I decided to take a gamble and just try to plop the whole mountain of meat on the grill intact. Surprisingly, it worked perfectly, and it couldn’t be easier.

Trolling barbecue websites and cookbooks, I found all kinds of suggestions for how best to do this. Put the turkey on a roasting rack; put it in a roasting pan; start it on the breast and turn it to the back; start it on the breast and turn it to the sides and back, ad infinitum.

I’m a simpler-is-better kind of cook, though, so for my first try I decided to cut through the clutter and simply put the turkey on the grill on its back and leave it at that. It worked perfectly. Two hours later, I had a gorgeous, mahogany-brown smoked turkey. No muss, no fuss, no bother. Why complicate things?

The particulars

There was some fine-tuning along the way.

• First, two hours is a long time for anything to be on the grill. In order to keep the turkey from burning, you have to be sure to wait to put it on until after the coals have died down enough to be covered with a fairly uniform layer of gray ash; you want the temperature to be between 300 and 325 degrees.

• Tuck the extremities (drumsticks and wingtips) securely to the bird to keep them from scorching.

• Cook over indirect heat. That’s not easy to do with something as big as a turkey; what works best is to bank the coals against either side of the grill. Find an old loaf pan and put it in the center to keep the center free. Even better, fill the bottom of the pan with ash from your last fire to help prevent any flare-ups.

• You’ll probably need to add more briquettes along the way, so have them ready (they don’t need to be lighted). A half-dozen on each side every 45 minutes should do the trick. My grill comes with “wings” on both sides that lift up to allow the addition of briquettes. If yours doesn’t, you’ll need to lift the entire grill up to add them; make sure you have a table nearby to rest the turkey on — and that it’s covered with newspaper.

• Choosing the right-size turkey is, of course, imperative. You want to be sure there’s at least an inch clearance between the tip of the breast and the grill cover, which means you shouldn’t try a turkey bigger than 15 to 16 pounds.

• If you want more than a faint smoky flavor, you’ll need to add wood chips. I prefer hickory, but experiment and use what you like best. Be judicious, though. With the long smoking, the flavor can get overpowering and bitter. I found that about 1/4 pound of wood chips, soaked, gives the right amount of smoke for most turkeys.

Turkey dry-brined and grilled this way tastes great just as it is. The skin is dark and crisp; the meat is moist and flavorful and lightly perfumed with smoke. But of course, there’s nothing that can’t be made better.

I experimented with a couple of spice rubs that I thought would complement the hint of smokiness. The first is a mixture of warm pepper spices — black pepper, allspice, cloves and a hint of cumin — with orange zest added for a little citrus lift. I also tried one that goes in more of a roast-chicken direction with combined dried mustard, thyme and lemon.

Both work well, but the flavorings are subtle. And as delicious as a simply smoked turkey is all by itself, you might just want to leave well enough alone. At least until next year.