Introduction: Roasting a Turkey in a Charcoal Grill
A 22 inch or larger charcoal grill works very well for roasting a Thanksgiving turkey.
+ This gets the men out of the house and allows them to bond over adult beverages without getting in the way of the women.
+ It is like having another oven available and allows other things to be prepared in the regular oven while the turkey is cooking outside.
+ The turkey will have a delightful hint of smoke in its taste.
I regret I do not have an actual turkey cooking to include in the illustrations.
Step 1: Make Protection for the Sides of the Grill
First, I made a shielding band of sheet metal to protect the finish on the sides of the grill from the very hot coals. Whether you do this or not is your decision.
In the photo, the red loop identifies a joint between two pieces of sheet metal. You can see a couple of pop rivets. The yellow lines show the top and bottom of the side protector band of sheet metal. The white paper shows how to develop a pattern for cutting the sheet metal sections.
Remove the grates from your grill. Hold a piece of paper against the side of the kettle where the charcoal grate goes. Trace the outline of the ledge that supports the charcoal grate to get the right curve. Draw a curved line parallel to this one about 3 1/2 or 4 inches away from this one. Use this as a pattern to cut sheet metal sections. Fit these sections to the inside of your grill and mark them for alignment. Remove these sections from the grill. Drill holes and fasten the sections together with pop rivets. When finished you will have a sheet metal band that fits the inside of your grill just above the charcoal grate.
Step 2: Preparations
Thaw an 8 to 12 pound turkey. See a web site on cooking a turkey for times and directions to thaw a turkey. Remove the giblets from inside the bird. Baste or rub the turkey down according to your preference. Do not put stuffing inside the bird. Do not cover the bird in a paper bag. If you wish, you may put aluminum foil around the wings to keep them from over-cooking.
Place the turkey in a disposable aluminum roasting pan. Form the pan around the turkey so it fits the bird closely.
Place a metal meat thermometer about two inches into the breast. The thermometer should not touch bone. It should have a large, easy to read dial. If it has a "bug" you can set to indicate where the needle should be when the bird is done, set it to 185 degrees F. The thermometer is optional if your turkey comes with a pop-up "done" indicator. However, sometimes the pop-up indicators fail.
Step 3: Start the Fire
After trying a variety of tools and methods for starting a charcoal fire, my favorite is a chimney fired by newspaper sheets from below. In about 25 minutes you have a roaring charcoal fire. (Place two full sheets of crumpled newspaper under the chimney. Fill the chimney or most of it with charcoal. Light the newspaper with a match. Only one match is necessary. Watch to be sure the newspaper did not go out and make sure the coals begin to ignite. You can hold your hand over the charcoal a few seconds. If the charcoal is igniting, you will feel heat from the coals rising in the chimney.) Be careful with a chimney full of hot coals. When pouring them out, a coal can come out of the bottom and land on your leg or your foot.
Start the fire outside of and away from your grill. You will move the coals to the grill after the turkey has been placed into the grill.
You will need to do some backwards calculations to know when to start the fire. The cooked bird will likely set for a few minutes before you begin to carve it. Carving will take a few minutes, too. Starting the coals will require 30 minutes or more. The turkey will need 3.5 hours to cook and possibly more, depending on the size of your turkey, the temperature you maintain while cooking, the ambient outside temperature of the day and the wind conditions. Windy days require more cooking time.
Step 4: Place the Bird Into the Grill
Remove the grill lid and the cooking rack and set it aside for the day. Open all of the grill vents. Set the turkey and the disposable roasting pan into the grill in the center of the charcoal grate.
Pour your hot coals into an old pan. Use tongs to place the coals between the grill's side protectors and the disposable aluminum roasting pan. Heap extra unlit coals as high as you can on top of the burning coals. The black ellipses in the graphic are coals.
Step 5: Cooking
You will use two thermometers, one for meat in the bird's breast to know when the meat is done and a metal one for candy making that dangles from the upper vent holes to know what the air temperature is inside the grill. The use of these two thermometers is what gives some precision to cooking a turkey this way and makes it a very practical replacement for a regular oven.
The temperature under the grill lid can easily rise to more than 450 degrees F., especially at the beginning. Use the bottom vents to choke off air and bring the temperature down. Watch the candy thermometer in the grill lid. When it begins to drop in temperature open the bottom vents a bit. The thermometer lags what is happening with the coals and you do not want the temperature to go too low, either. A temperature of 350 to 375 degrees F. is nearly ideal. Try not to let the temperature fall below 325 degrees F.
If you need to increase the temperature, add more coals and allow more air into the grill.
Step 6: Stoking the Fire
The coals you loaded into the grill at the start are not enough to cook a turkey over more than 3 hours. Every 45 minutes lift the lid and tamp the burning coals with tongs. You will be surprised at how much ash falls off of the coals and how few there suddenly seem to be. Pile new unlit coals on top of the burning coals and close the lid. The new coals will ignite in a few minutes. The candy thermometer will register a dramatically lower air temperature inside the grill for a few minutes, but it will come back to a more accurate reading in a short time.
Step 7: Checking the Temperature of the Meat
Position the grill lid so the vent holes are above the meat thermometer in the turkey's breast. As the cooking time nears completion, remove the candy thermometer from the vent holes and shine a flashlight through a vent hole while looking through another to read the meat thermometer. Do not let too much smoke get into your eye. It stings.
When the meat reaches 185 degrees F. remove the lid. Use a couple of pairs of large pliers to lift the turkey and its disposable pan out of the grill. Set it on a platter and carry it inside for carving. There may be just a little ash on the turkey's skin, but you can wipe that off.
Close the grill and its vents and allow the charcoal to snuff itself out.
Enjoy the turkey.