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Grilling the Bird: A Non-Traditional Thanksgiving Turkey

Yes, you can grill a turkey, but there are a few rules to follow for a better bird

While the traditional Thanksgiving Day turkey comes from the oven, all browned and juicy, sometimes it is fun to mix things up a little. Grilling is one way to prepare a delicious bird and save oven space for all the other goodies. There are, however, a few rules to abide by if you want a tender charcoaled bird.

Grilling performs better with smaller cuts of meat. The whole concept, of course, is to cook it fast at a high temperature. However, larger cuts - even whole birds - can be successfully grilled with that delicious charcoal-y, outdoors-y flavor if you use indirect heat. That means the coals will have to moved to one side or in a perimeter and the meat will be offset from the fire. You can even retrieve drippings for gravy.

You'll need plenty of charcoal as the pile will need replenishing throughout the cooking process. That's the case with all indirect cooking, including smoking. The fire needs to remain at a steady temperature for safe and even cooking, too. That means a bit of babysitting and a good in-grill temperature gauge.

There are not set times that can be predicted with any particular size turkey. The cooking time will depend on many other factors: outside temperature, wind/windless conditions, and the size of your grill. Buy a smaller bird for grilling - one that will leave plenty of space between the breast and the lid for circulation. Use a good food thermometer to test the doneness at breast and thigh when you think the turkey is getting close.

When transferring the bird from the grill and vice versa when it's done, use sturdy tongs and spatulas - perhaps an extra hand or two. Piercing will release too many juices.

Turkeys tend to run dry when grilled, so it is essential to apply a baste as needed throughout the cooking time. Oils and butters can be applied, but no sugary marinades. These will caramelize and cause burning. If you have a special sweet sauce, save it for the last 15 minutes.

If you wish, add a few pieces of water-soaked hickory in a small pan underneath the bird. However, if you must have drippings for the gravy, use a roaster or aluminum pan and a turkey rack. Place all on the grill and keep the lid closed as much as possible. When the bird is about 45 minutes away from being done (in your estimation), remove the pan and place the bird directly on the grill.

If you need to bone up on getting a good charcoal fire going, read this.

Never stuff a turkey that is going on the grill. It's an invitation to bacterial growth as the innermost portions will be very slow to heat. Plus, imagine the taste of charcoaled dressing and you'll understand the second reason - just pretty horrid in taste.

You can also cook a turkey on a propane-fired grill using the same method - indirect heat. And don't forget smoking for that wonderful woodsy aroma and several hours of conversation while tending the fire.

If you are cooking a turkey in pieces, which is highly recommended, place the smaller portions at the farthest locations from the heat. Turkey cutlets, wings, and legs can be grilled over direct heat. Leave the skin on while grilling to retain moisture and remove when done.



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