In the Northwest, outdoor cooking holidays aren’t limited to Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Get ready for a new contender. That would be Thanksgiving.
Forget the sideways rain, the wind and chill. Get yourself outside with your smoker, grill or deep fryer for a new way to cook turkey — turkey al fresco.
Grilling, smoking and deep frying your turkey could be the Olympic events of the turkey cooking world. They involve fire, boiling oil, smoke and more smoke. There’s enough carcinogens to scare any mother or doctor. If you’re not careful, it could lead to a 911 call.
The advantages are many. There’s outdoor bonding time for those who don’t want to get caught up in the cooking chaos indoors. Cooking a turkey outdoors also means you’ll free up oven space for all those side dishes. And don’t forget the easy cleanup. It’s all outdoors, so you can just leave cleanup for later.
The ultimate proof is in the taste. Five years ago, we took a day off from work and experimented to test three popular outdoor cooking methods: grilling, smoking and deep frying. This year, we revisited that story and retested our methods. We improved them and wrote more detailed instructions. Here are those methods.
ON A SMOKER
Time commitment: Lengthy. This will take several hours longer than cooking a bird in the oven, but the time it takes depends on your smoker, the size of the bird and how good you are at keeping an even fire and heat. During two tests, ours took six hours from beginning to end for a 10-pound turkey.
Level of difficulty: Challenging.
Attention level: Moderately high. You can’t leave the smoker unattended for long. This is a good activity for a group of friends or family members to undertake. Take shifts.
The wood: We used lump hardwood hickory. Mesquite is a good match for turkey. Cherry wood will give turkey a sweet, mildly smoked flavor. We used 15 pounds of wood, a mixture of dry and soaked. You may use more or less, depending on your smoker. You can buy the wood at outdoors stores or big box stores such as Home Depot or Walmart.
Turkey details: Keep the bird small. We recommend a 10-pound bird. Larger birds take too long to reach a safe internal temperature. If you need more meat, cook two smaller birds at once.
Brine: We brined our turkey the night before in a solution of 1 cup salt, 1 cup brown sugar and 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar, and enough water to submerge the bird.
Prepping the turkey: Remove turkey from fridge an hour before smoking. Be sure to rinse and pat dry the bird. Remove the packages from the neck and body cavities. Turkey needs to be completely defrosted. Do not stuff, it will increase the cooking time.
Rub: We rubbed the skin with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and then a dry rub consisting of 2 teaspoons of kosher salt with 1/2 teaspoon of fresh ground black pepper and 1/2 tablespoon each of fresh rosemary and thyme leaves. You can use almost any rub you like.
Vessel: We placed the turkey on a roasting pan fitted with a rack. Be sure to use something you don’t mind getting blackened in the smoker. If you don’t want to ruin your roasting pan, then cover it in foil. You can use a foil pan for smoking, but use something to keep the turkey elevated so it cooks evenly and doesn’t stew in its own juices.
To truss, or not? We skipped the trussing. Our sources warned that parts of the bird may be undercooked if the turkey is trussed. We simply tied the legs together.
The smoker: We used a large Brinkmann Smoke’N Pit offset smoker, but a smaller smoker or an electric smoker will work. You should follow the manufacturer’s directions on your own smoker for best results.
Extra tools: You’ll also need an oven thermometer to monitor the temperature in the smoker and an instant-read thermometer to take an internal temperature reading of the turkey. Place a bowl of water in the smoker to generate some steam.
The temperature: Our sources recommended keeping the smoker temperature between 180 and 220 degrees. Be careful not to let the temperature get low. Harmful bacteria cam multiply at lower temperatures.
The technique: On our first test, we smoked the bird for five hours in an offset smoker, followed by a one-hour finish in the oven. We were tempted to smoke the bird until it reached a safe internal temperature of 165 degrees, but were concerned about the turkey taking on a bitter flavor from too much smoke. We also were worried that smoking the bird was taking too long and would be an unrealistic project for a Thanksgiving dinner. On our second test, we smoked the bird completely, which took just over 6 hours total to reach a safe internal temperature. The smoke flavor was very pronounced. Less time on the smoker will lessen the smoked flavor.
As with all smoking, it’s all about trial and error. The most important thing to remember is to check the temperature on the smoker every 20-30 minutes and tend the fire as needed. Also, be sure to monitor the level of smoke in the smoker. Too much smoke can turn the meat bitter.
Things to remember: If the turkey is taking too long to cook, don’t be afraid to pull it off the smoker and finish it in the oven to a safe internal temperature.
Resting: Tent the bird and let it rest for 30 minutes before carving.
Safety precautions: Locate the smoker a safe distance away from your house. Do not smoke indoors or in the garage. Also, be careful when feeding the fire. Use protective gloves and tongs.
The result: A very tasty and lightly smoked turkey that was extremely flavorful. You’ll have a fork fight on your hands for the last of the dark meat. Leftovers (what little was left, that is) made phenomenal sandwiches.
IN A DEEP FRYER
Time commitment: Minimal. From start to finish, it took less than an hour to prep and fry a 10-pound turkey. Depending on your manufacturer’s directions and size of your turkey, it may take you less or more time. It’s very important to follow the directions supplied by the manufacturer of your fryer.
Level of difficulty: Easy, but dangerous if you don’t follow the directions.
Attention level: High. You have to closely monitor the oil. Hot oil can catch on fire. Do not ever leave it unattended, not even for a minute.
The setup: There are dozens of outdoor turkey fryers on the market, ranging from $40 to $125 or more. The setup we used was an economical $50 setup with a sturdy 12-inch burner base, a propane gas tank and a large 30-quart frying pot. Ours came with a turkey stand with a star-shaped base and a hook for submerging and lifting the turkey. We highly recommend you buy a kit with those tools, as well as thermometers for monitoring the oil and turkey temp. You should use a turkey fryer setup that is made especially for frying turkeys outdoors. Don’t try rigging something together. Don’t fry a turkey on your stovetop. This is strictly an outdoor event.
The turkey: We fried a 10-pound turkey. It’s best to fry a smaller bird. A large bird would require a larger pot than the typical 30-quart pot that most turkey fryers come with. Frying a large turkey in a small pot is a recipe for disaster.
Turkey prep: The turkey must be fully defrosted, never fry a frozen bird. Take bird out of fridge an hour before cooking. Be sure to rinse the bird and pat it dry. The bird needs to be as dry as possible so the grease doesn’t splatter when you submerge. Remove the packages from the neck and body cavities. We separated the skin from the turkey and rubbed butter, salt, rosemary and thyme between the skin and the body. You can use just about any kind of rub or brine. We lifted the bird onto the turkey stand that came with the turkey fryer and tied the turkey’s wings and legs to the body with kitchen string. On a second test, we fried the turkey free-form without tying. It cooked less evenly. We recommend tying the bird. Do not stuff a bird that you are frying, it will skew the cooking time.
The oil: Use peanut oil. It’s an oil that has a higher smoke point (the higher the smoke point, the higher the temperature can safely get). Keep the oil temperature between 325 to 350 degrees, but never higher. If it gets higher, turn off the burner and remove the pan and let it cool, then return to the burner and relight the flame. Use a thermometer to closely monitor the oil temperature.
How much oil to use? A good 30-quart pot should come with a fill line that usually takes about 3 gallons of oil, depending on the size of your pot. Follow the manufacturer’s directions for filling the pot. Do not overfill; the oil could overflow when you lower the turkey in the pot.
Safety equipment: You’ll need a thermometer that is made for measuring the temperature of hot oil. Place the thermometer in the hot oil and keep it there to monitor the temperature continuously. You’ll also need a thermometer for the turkey. Invest in an internal thermometer that can survive inside a frying turkey. You’ll also need a pair of goggles and a sturdy pair of gloves for lifting and submerging the bird. You should use the turkey stand and hook that come with the fryer to submerge and lift the turkey, for the best results. Do not stick your hands or tongs into the hot oil to remove, that’s just a bad idea.
Safety precautions: Be sure to locate the fryer outdoors, at least 20 feet away from any structure. Hot oil catches on fire and would ruin your Thanksgiving, not to mention your house. Also, be sure to wear gloves and safety goggles when submerging and removing the turkey from the fryer. Keep a fire extinguisher near, just to be safe.
When placing the turkey into the hot oil, the safe thing to do is to remove the hot pot from the burner, turn the fire off and slowly lower the turkey into the hot oil. Then, with help, lift the pot back onto the burner, then relight the burner once the pot is safely on top of the burner. Repeat the process when lifting out the turkey to check the temperature of the bird. Do not remove or lower a turkey into oil that is near a flame. Use the stand and lifter that come with your fryer.
Frying: Keep an eye on the temperature and the kettle as the turkey fries. Have a fire extinguisher handy, just in case. Turn off the flame immediately if you run into any trouble.
Cooking time: Depending on the manufacturer’s directions, your experience will vary, but our 10-pound bird cooked in about 40 minutes. Many books we consulted recommended three to four minutes of cooking time per pound. Be sure you place the internal thermometer in the breast. It should hit 165 degrees.
Resting: When the turkey has reached a safe internal temperature, turn off the burner. Use the lifter that came with the fryer to remove the bird and place the bird on a large piece of clean foil on top of several layers of newspaper and tent immediately with foil. Rest for a few minutes until oil drains off. Use a large baking pan to carry the turkey inside so you can avoid dripping oil on the kitchen floor. This is a two person job. Rest for a total of 30 minutes before carving.
The result: A tasty and very juicy bird with extremely crispy, delicious skin. For outdoor cooking techniques, deep frying is the speediest way to get your turkey on the table. It’s also the best way to get a juicy turkey.
ON A SPIT
Time estimate: Two to 2-1/2 hours, depending on size of turkey.
Level of difficulty: Moderate.
Attention level: Low.
Equipment: We used a Weber gas grill with an electric rotisserie attachment. Weber grills, with their indirect heating method, seem well suited to rotisserie cooking. If you are using another brand or a charcoal grill, check the manufacturer’s suggested cooking method.
Turkey preparation: We used a small 10-pound turkey, a nice size that cooked evenly and didn’t flop about. You can go larger, but it might be more difficult to balance on the roasting spit. Remove packages from neck and body cavities. Rinse and pat dry. Slather with vegetable cooking oil. Apply rub. Truss with string or tuck and pin wings and legs into place with small skewers. Fix the turkey on the rotisserie skewer. Secure tightly onto brackets, and test to see if it’s well-balanced when rotated. Do not stuff the bird, it will skew your cooking time. Our sources said you can brine or not brine, it’s up to you.
Here’s the rub: We recommend a dry spice/herb rub for flavor and appearance. You could use any kind of prepared poultry rub, or create your own. An easy one: 3 tablespoons each fresh rosemary, thyme and tarragon (half of the amount if using dried herbs), 1 tablespoon pepper, 1 tablespoon kosher salt. Apply liberally over the skin and inside of the cavity.
Grill preparation: Ideally, you’ll want a place out of the rain. Remove grills. Preheat to high. Some grills will require a roasting pan to catch drippings.
Roasting: Lower heat to medium heat when you put the turkey on the rotisserie. Check periodically to make sure bird still is secured. You could mop with chicken stock, white wine or your choice of basting sauce if desired. When internal temperature reaches 165 degrees in the thickest part of the breast, remove from grill. Use oven mitts to remove from skewer. Rest for 30 minutes before you carve.
The result: A relatively quick and easy way to enjoy turkey al fresco. The meat was evenly done, moist and imparted with the smoky flavor that you won’t get from an oven. As an added bonus, cleanup is easy: Just burn off any drippings with the grill on high.
We consulted a number of books for our cooking experiment. The ones we found most useful and used as guidelines for our cooking techniques are:
• “Grilling 1-2-3,” published by Meredith Publishing for Home Depot.
• “The Cook’s Illustrated Guide to Grilling and Barbecue: A Practical Guide for the Outdoor Cook.”
• “The Big Book of Outdoor Cooking and Entertaining,” by Cheryl and Bill Jamison.
• “Taming The Flame,” by Elizabeth Karmel.