How (not) to Cook a Turkey-under-a-can




This Instructable describes how to barbecue a turkey under a (clean) paint can in just under two hours. This isn't the only Instructable on turkey-can-barbecue methods, but I have had very positive results with it. As noted in the title, I will also present a few does and don'ts along the way, as well.

Why cook a turkey under a can? Well, because...

+ you can avoid heating up your kitchen for hours of turkey cookin'
+ you can avoid burning your house down with a deep fried turkey fire
+ it is a pretty quick way to cook a 12 lb turkey.
+ it is a good, cheap way to feed a large group of people.
+ it is a good way to cook a turkey without access to a kitchen.
+ all the guests you invite over to share your turkey will either say, or think to themselves "this will never work, I hope he has Dominoes Pizza on speed dial."
+ when the turkey comes out golden, tender and delicious, they will all eat their words. Literally!

You will need...

+ a 12 lb turkey, thawed (this can take a few days in the fridge, so get your frozen turkey ahead of time)
+ one stick of butter
+ an injection marinade for turkey and injector (optional). There are several recipes online... google is your friend.
+ a new 5 gallon metal paint can (not plastic)
+ two charcoal chimneys
+ at least 10 lbs of charcoal, more if it is a cold day
+ lighter fluid, if you like big fires, want to scare your wife or children, or just enjoy the madness of a Y-chromosome.
+ newspaper kindling to light the chimneys
+ long handled barbecue grill lighter
+ large size, heavy duty aluminum foil
+ welders gloves
+ barbecue tongs to move the coals around
+ a "stake"

The stake is the only potentially specialized piece of equipment. Mine happens to be a stainless steel "T". The shaft is about 2 feet long, slightly pointed at the end, as it must be pushed or driven into the ground. Welded to the top of the shaft is a two inch cross piece, to help hang the turkey on as it cooks. My uncle made the stake for me in the machine shops where he works, as he gave this kit to me as a gift (packaged in the nice green tub you see to the right in the picture). Anything that provides the same function as described, and will stand up to the cooking heat should work.

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Step 1: Prepare the Turkey

The turkey needs a small amount of preparation. The giblets and neck should be removed. Bend the turkey wings behind the bird (i.e. put the bird in a full-nelson). If you are injecting with marinade, inject the night before up to an hour or so before cooking. Salt and pepper the outside and inside of bird. Just before cooking, divide the stick of butter in half. Shove a half between the skin and meat over each breast.

Step 2: Prepare the Cooksite

Prepare the cooksite about 30 minutes to one hour before starting to cook.

Crumple some news paper and stuff into the bottom of the charcoal chimneys. Set down upright on a non-flammable, out of the way surface. Fill each chimney with charcoal. Douse with lighter fluid to your level of risk tolerance. Light the paper. In my experience, if I can get the kindling to light well, the charcoal takes about 30 minutes to get going.

While the charcoal gets going, lay out about a 2 ft x 2 ft square of heavy duty aluminum foil on the ground. I usually have to fold together two pieces of foil. Weight the corners with rocks or bricks. Drive the stake into the center, so that 12 to 18 inches is above the foil. There should be just enough above the ground so that the turkey's legs just touch the foil when hanged on, and the paint can will invert over the bird and sit firmly on the ground.

Step 3: Put the Turkey Under the Can

Hang the turkey on the stake. The legs of the turkey should just touch the aluminum foil, but the turkey must be low enough that, when the can is inverted over the bird, it sits firmly on the ground. Adjust the stake for optimal bird placement.

Invert the paint can over the bird. Be certain the opening of the can sits flat on the ground. Dump the now whitish charcoals in the chimneys around the can. Be sure to wear the welding gloves when you do this! Use the charcoal tongs to evenly spread the coals around the can.

When you are initially sighting the turkey cooking spot, chose a place away from any structures, and in an inconspicuous place. The heat of the charcoal will scorch any grass under the foil, so chose an out of the way place (in front of the front door is probably not a great idea).

Step 4: Wait...

Now we wait...

1 hour and 50 minutes, to be exact. Do not peek. Do not raise the can. If it is cool or windy (less than 50 F, steady wind), you might want to add another chimney of charcoal after 1 hour. This is a judgment call.

So, just relax. My uncle says the bird takes a 6 pack of beers to cook. If my aunt is within earshot, he says it takes three beers.

Step 5: The Moment of Truth...

After 1 hour and 50 minutes have passed, you can remove the can. You should hear the bird sizzling. Put on the welders gloves. Use the charcoal tongs to pull back the charcoal from the can.

Fetch all of your skeptical guests...

Remove the can and bask in the oohs and ahhs.

Step 6: Remove the Bird.

Cover the coals with another piece of foil, or fold over the foil on the ground to cover the coals. Place a large pan near the bird hanging on the stake.

Wearing the welders gloves, carefully remove the bird from the stake. At this point, if this is your first time, you will notice that the bird is very VERY tender. It will have a tendency to fall apart, and into the coals if you let it. Put the pan close, cover the coals as best as you can, remove the bird as swiftly and cleanly as possible, and pray.

Nothing stifles those oohs and ahhs more quickly than a bird dropped in the charcoal. If you do drop the bird, raise your arms high and shout, "Fear not, I am uninjured." This may distract your guests just long enough to brush the ash off the turkey...

Take the bird to the kitchen or picnic table, carve, and serve. This is the most tender, juicy turkey. You will rule the day. Everyone will want to be your friend. Enjoy your moment in the sun!

Clean up is pretty easy. I usually wash the stake in the dishwasher. I scrub some of the cooked on ash and fat off of the paint can with a steel wool pad. When the can is fairly clean, I rub the can inside with some vegetable oil, to keep the rust down.

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    21 Discussions


    7 years ago on Introduction

    I would suggest making sure your can is not galvanized or enamel coated either. Both of those can release very toxic substances when heated to high temperature, that would soak right into the meat through smoking.


    9 years ago on Step 6

    That outfit and smile says this is one FUN Thanksgivin' bash!  You must be in SoCal or Arizona with those shorts!  Great instructable as well.  I do have a question regarding the actual barbequeing: I have a badass huge grill/smoker that I'm fully intending on using this Turkey Day...I suppose my question is do I make any adjustments or just set the paint can over the turkey on top of the grill; I HAVE to collect the drippings for gravy, which is why I am adament about the grill.  Tips please, intrepid BBQ'd Turkey Master!

    2 replies

    Reply 8 years ago on Step 6

    I'm thinking, to collect the juices from the turkey while using kovo's plans, you could use a angelfood cake pan, with the stake through the center hole in the pan, to collect the juices, as long as the cake pan is steel, and not aluminum. I guess I'm a little late, but perhaps this could be useful to future readers as well. Thanks for the plans, kovo.


    Reply 9 years ago on Step 6

    Hmmm, good question...

    I think one of the reasons this works so well is that the can forms a low pressure seal with the ground, keeping lots of moisture in with the bird. Also, having the bird up on the rod keeps it from sitting in its juices, which may or may not be important. I think if you can recreate that situation on a grill, it will likely work.

    That said, the only way I have ever tried this is as you see in the 'ible (in fact, I will be doing it again in a few days). I would say, try it on the grill and see how it works. But, you might want to try before Turkey day if you have lots of guests on the way...

    There are methods for grilling turkey directly, and grilled turkey is very good as well.

    Best of luck, and please post your methods and results! Happy Thanksgiving!


    8 years ago on Step 2

    If you're using a chimney starter, there's no reason to use lighter fluid. The whole point of a chimney starter is to avoid the nasty smell and aftertaste of lighter fluid. If you want to insure that your charcoal gets lit, then just drizzle or spray a tiny bit of vegetable or canola oil onto your newspaper before crumpling it up. The oil will make the paper burn both hotter and longer than it would otherwise, and I've never had the charcoal fail to catch when using this technique.

    2 replies

    Reply 8 years ago on Step 2

    But lighter fluid is so much fun!

    Good tip with the oil on newspaper. I am definitely going to try that out.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Looks like a very good way to cook a yardbird.....I'm itchin' in anticipation to try this. I would suggest you edit, and specify the paint can is metal and not the empty plastic paint cans from you big box hardware store.

    4 replies

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Another thing to watch out for is that the metal can doesn't have a lining (like you see inside acidic food cans) and that seams are not sealed with solder.  We do the same thing with #10 cans (think large office coffee cans) with chicken. 

    Putting an apple on the top of the post keeps the bird from slipping down and keeps moisture in the 'oven'.

    Otherwise I have cooked turkeys like this under large terra cota pots and it works great...just like the clay pots you use in the oven.



    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks for the comment, and I have made the edit. Oh, and which Yardbird will you be cooking? Hopefully not Clapton...


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    Clapton looks a little pale for my liking.... I was thinking Charlie Parker....I love soul food :)


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Though not a fan of Turkey (probably through poorly cooked, dry, horrible xmas Turkeys), I would love to try this out, my mother's partner works for a paint manufacturer so can get hold of paint tins of varying sizes, from the small pots to huge barrels... :D All I need now is a bigger yard to try it in!!! :P

    1 reply

    10 years ago on Introduction

    Great instructable, I've done this with a chicken and I can't wait to upgrade to a turkey! On a side note, you should never grill/roast anything so close to your house, especially charcoal.

    1 reply

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    On a side note, you should never grill/roast anything so close to your house, especially charcoal.

    You better believe it's a bad idea! Maybe saggy vinyl siding will become a new landscaping craze...

    Thanks for the comment. I have a colleague who does this with chicken as well.


    11 years ago on Introduction

    Well done (the instructable...and the bird presumably).


    11 years ago on Introduction

    This is very cool. I think I'll try this at home!