Bird on a Fire

How did the homeliest bird on the continent become not only our country’s holiday feast favorite but also the home cook’s equivalent of the Hope Diamond?

But there it is. The double-ugg-ugly of poultry has been transformed into the double-breasted beauty of the Thanksgiving platter. And over the four centuries since Europeans first decided that the turkey might look better without feathers but with cranberry sauce, we Americans have devised about a thousand ways to prepare this bird.

We roast it. We fry it. We stuff it — or we don’t.

We drown it in brine. We suffocate it with smoke. We submerge it in a vat of boiling oil — which is really less of a culinary technique than an engineering one.

Mostly, we worry. Will the breast meat be moist? Will the skin be crispy? Will the bird be fully cooked by the time the dressing, the potatoes, the green bean casserole and the biscuits are all ready — and before Uncle Shickey passes out from one too many glasses of pre-meal holiday cheer?

Yes, it’s a lot of pressure. But for the past 20-plus years, Cuisine Stupide has prepared whole turkey just one way: on a charcoal grill.

We don’t brine. We don’t shove butter, garlic cloves or anything else under the skin. We don’t inject anything using a syringe (when, exactly, did that become a kitchen tool, anyway?). We simply wash the bird, throw some lemon slices and herbs into the cavity, and put it on our Weber kettle grill.

We got the idea all those years ago from a brochure published by the National Turkey Federation. And the result has never disappointed: golden brown on the outside, moist on the inside, with a nice but not overpowering smokiness, thanks to the addition of mesquite to the fire. In addition to producing a great-tasting bird, the outdoor grilling method leaves the kitchen available for all of the other elements of the feast. It’s also faster than a conventional oven; I leave the top and bottom vents of the Weber wide open, which effectively turns the grill into a fast convection roaster and makes brining unnecessary.

Yes, it’s intimidating to put so much bird — and so critical an element of the family table — over an open flame. But once you’ve done it this way, you’ll never go back. Even Martha Stewart is now a convert.

Grill-Roasted Turkey

  1. Thaw and clean your turkey. A 14-pounder is about the biggest you can fit on the 22-inch Weber. Pat it dry, season the skin liberally with salt and pepper, stuff some aromatics into the cavity, and place the bird breast side up on a greased wire rack.
  2. Soak two to four chunks of mesquite in hot water. Using a chimney starter, ignite 60 charcoal briquettes. Once they are hot, stack them along opposite sides of the bottom of the grill (Weber makes snap-in wire rails that help keep the charcoal in place). Put the mesquite chunks on top of the lit coals; put a 9-by-13-inch foil drip pan in the middle of the bottom grate; set the top grill grate in place with the handle holes above the coals; and center the racked turkey above the pan.
  3. Close the lid, but make sure the top and bottom vents are wide open.
  5. After one hour, and every hour thereafter, open the grill lid just long enough to drop nine more briquettes through the handle holes onto each pile of coals. Tent the turkey with aluminum foil if the skin starts getting too brown.
  6. Depending on the outside temperature, the wind and, who knows, the S&P 500, it should take 10 to 15 minutes per pound to cook a whole turkey this way. Start checking with an instant-read thermometer at the lower end of that range: 170 degrees in the breast, 180 in the thigh, and you’re done.
  7. Let the turkey rest at least 30 minutes before carving. During that time, rescue the drippings pan for the makings of the smokiest, best gravy ever.
  8. Eat until you hurt. It’s the American way.

2 thoughts on “Bird on a Fire”

  1. You make me want to be a better griller. Seriously, it’s been a while since I used a Weber. So you had me until the toss extra briquettes through the the handle holes part. As I’m visualizing briquettes being all the way down at the bottom beneath those two racks (one holding a 14 lb turkey)…if I was standing in front of a Weber, I’d probably get it. That aside, sounds delectable and worth trying!

  2. It’s not as hard as I made it sound. There is really only about five inches between the top and bottom racks, so slipping the new briquettes through the slots is easy — as long as you’ve got tongs or asbestos gloves. The main thing is not to push the coals into the drip pan, which sorta ruins the gravy makings.

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