How to Grill Your Turkey on a Gas Grill

September 17, 2012 13 Comments

How to Grill Your Turkey on a Barbecue

Something Different – Grilling Your Turkey

I wanted to share with you a novel way we cooked our turkey one year while we were still living in Park City, Utah. We grilled it on the barbecue. Now I’m sure many of you are saying to yourselves, “RG, get real. We’ve been grilling our bird for years. Get with the times.”

But this home cook has been doing his bird in the oven for as long as he has been cooking turkey and gotten along very well thank you. So I’m reading this article in Cuisine, one of my favorite cooking magazines, that described the in and outs of grilling a turkey, and I asked my wife if she wanted to give it a try.

She agreed and we fired up the grill. That is, I turned on the gas. In fact, I don’t think I would attempt this without a gas grill because a 12-pound bird takes 2.4 hours to cook. I don’t know how you would keep the coals hot for all that time.

Besides not being dried out and having a wonderful hint of smoke flavor, the biggest advantage of grilling a turkey is it frees up your oven for all those other side dishes so important at every Thanksgiving meal.

You know how it is when you are trying to heat up your Scalloped Oysters and bake your acorn squash, and keep that pumpkin pie warm while at the same time juggling that basted butterball. With all that extra room you will have in your oven, you can come up with a few more side dishes to amaze your family and friends. No one is leaving your table early this year.

Whether you are grilling or roasting a turkey, the trick is to cook the dark meat to a minimum of 170 degrees F without drying out the breast meat. Easier said than done. Traditionally when cooking a bird in the oven, I use all sorts of tricks to prevent this from happening including basting, covering the breast with tin foil, or putting a layer of fat on top of the breast (bard).

Tips For Grilling a Turkey

What I learned from the Cuisine article is to use rotation. Start out cooking the turkey on one side, flip to the other side, then flip again so the breast is up and the legs point to the back of the grill, and finish with the breast up and the legs pointing to the front of the grill. Easy enough but be careful. That gobbler gets hot.

  • Thawing Tip – Allow 6 hours for every pound of frozen turkey. A 12-pound turkey will take 72 hours, that’s 3 days. Another safety tip is to defrost your turkey or any frozen fowl in your refrigerator.
  • Trimming Tip – I’ve heard this in some other cookbooks and it makes sense. Cut out the wishbone for easier carving. I do this whenever I roast a chicken too.
  • Seasoning – This is the fun part. After you rinse the bird in cold water and pat it dry, you will want to season it. I like to slide a couple of fingers under the skin near the breast area and loosen it up until I can fit my whole hand under the skin. I work it around slowly and carefully until I have most of the beast skin loosened and then season it with your favorite family rub recipe. Don’t forget to season the turkey cavity as well. No stuffing please. Make it in your lonely oven.
  • Trussing (or tying up the bird with butcher’s string) Tip – One reason we truss chickens and turkeys is to make them look better when served and easier to carve at the table. Who wants to bring a turkey to the table that looks like it is trying to fly away?

Equipment

You will need something to catch the drippings from the cooking turkey so you can use them for making a sauce and to prevent the drippings from staining your driveway. We just purchased a new Weber grill since we moved back East and I was thrilled to see they are now designed to hold a small tin foil pan to catch the grease. I would still use a shallow roasting pan to catch the drippings. Check your grill to figure out what size you will need before you start or you will end up running to the supermarket that is most likely closed for the holiday. I’ve been there.

You will also need an instant thermometer to check the temperature of the bird since I’m hoping you are not depending on the pop up that comes with some turkeys. If you do decide to depend on the pop up, the bird will be so dry you better be sure to have lots of gravy. And if your grill does not come with a build in thermometer, you will need to purchase a cheap oven thermometer to keep track of the grill temperature.

Grilling Technique

The way this works is by using indirect heat. That is, you only turn on one side of the grill and place the turkey on the other side. By doing this, you are effectively slow-roasting the bird. You will be cooking the bird with the lid closed just like you keep your oven door closed when you roast a turkey in the house so it will be important to monitor the heat. You will control the temperature by opening and closing the grill lid. If the interior temperature seems to be getting a little too hot, open the lid for a few seconds to cool it off.

I remember cooking our turkey on a crisp, cold day, running back and forth from the football game on television to the grill outside all the time thinking this is not going to work out but it did and we were thrilled with the results.

Timing the rotations

As I mentioned above, there is a lot of flipping and flopping and turning that goes on with this technique so be prepared with some oven mitts or gloves or something so you don’t burn your hands. The formula for determining when to rotate your turkey is thus: Take the weight of the turkey and multiply it times 12 minutes per pound and divide by 3. Therefore a 12-pound turkey would calculate as follows: 12 lbs x 12 min./lb = 144 minutes divided by 3 = 48 minutes per rotation. well not really, but read on.

Start out by preheating your grill to 350° F.

Stage One – On the side of the grill that is not on, place the turkey on its side so the wings and thighs are facing down and the legs are pointing to the back of the grill. Allow cooking for 48 minutes but being sure to monitor the grill temperature so it doesn’t get too hot or too cool.

Stage Two – When this is done, flip the bird over so the other wings and thighs are facing down with the legs now pointing to the front of the grill. Allow this to cook for anther 48 minutes while you are either watching the game or preparing one of your many many side dishes.

Stage Three – Flip the bird so it’s on its back with the breast facing up and the legs facing the back of the grill. In this position you will cook the bird for half the amount of time or 24 minutes. I was so worried about keeping the grill at a constant 350 degrees F and it turned out it just worked itself out perfectly.

Stage Four – Rotate the bird so its legs are facing the front of the oven and grill for approximately 24 more minutes. I say approximately because we want to start checking the bird with our instant thermometers and continue grilling until the breast meat reaches 165 degrees F.

To give the bird an incredible color, the recipe in Cuisine suggests you coat the bird with a cranberry glaze during Stage 4. They warned me keep a close eye on it as to not darken (burn) the skin with the sugars from the glaze but I was a little careless. I’m not sure if it was the wine or an exciting football game, but the overall appearance was a little darker than I would have liked so be careful.

Last modified on Thu 31 July 2014 10:38 am

Comments (13)

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  1. Irene says:

    Greetings~ Yes, one more thing I have to be grateful for this Thanksgiving is finding your article about grilling a turkey. I’m 55 years old and have only attempted preparing a turkey breast a few times…with minimal success. This year, I bought my first gas grill and feeling ready to take on a real turkey, got myself a 15 pounder. Everything’s feeling good…except…I have no idea how to cook it. I surfed the web a bit before I came across your EXCELLENT article. I appreciate all the details and pictures you put in it.

    I’ll be getting the tools you suggested today and look forward to enjoying a wonderfully cooked turkey tomorrow. Thank you soooooo much for your article and all the time and effort of your web site… Irene

  2. Steve says:

    Your article on grilling a turkey was awesome. I used it to cook a 22 pound turkey on a Weber natural gas BBQ. I have to admit I was extremely nervous since it was my first time grilling a turkey. If it wasn’t for your article, I would have been lost. Thanks again! Can’t wait to cook one again.

  3. Val says:

    I have a Weber gas grill – 3 burner style. I was thinking I would turn off the middle flame and leave the outside burners on. What I am confused about is a drip pan. Weber grills have those ‘flavor’ bars over the actual flames. Do I just put the drip pan directly on the flavor bars? And if so, will the drippings stay in liquid form? I can’t imagine having Thanksgiving turkey with no dripping-made gravy! Thank you for your help! Also, do you put any wood chips on the grill?

    • Nancy Pollard says:

      So happy to see the Reluctant Gourmet is alive and well. I am cooking a turkey on my new Weber Genesis this afternoon and have never done so, so I googled it and saw your site. Thanks for the tips, will let you know. Sending lots of love and hugs to you and Meg and family.
      Nancy
      Still in Park City :)

  4. dallas mcmillan says:

    Great way to cook bird. My grill is 4 burner with flavor bars, so I cook in the middle at 350-375 degrees, directly on the grate. put the drip pan under the grate on top of the flavor bars over unlit burners. only burners 1 and 4 are used, so you don’t have to rotate the bird. i season with butter and a home-made bbq rubinvolving sea salt, garlic and onion powder, a dash of paprika and either cajun seasoning or memphis bbq seasoning depending on my mood! add some hickory chip smoke and voila! Southern BBQ grilled turkey!

  5. Mark Stone says:

    followed these directions las time and the Turkey turned out better than any I had ever cooked, on the grill or off. Frankly, I think keeping your grill at 350 may be key to success….

  6. Matt says:

    Total perfection. I’ve done turkeys numerous times in the oven, with mixed results, and was nervous about making the switch to the grilling method. This is by far the most straight-forward, idiot-proof way of getting the perfect bird.

    Highly recommend brining for at least 12 hrs beforehand, then liberally putting olive oil and whatever rub one chooses. We took our bird out of the refrigerated brine about 45 mins before it went on the grill.

    We have a 3-vertical burner Weber Genesis, and only ran the far right-hand side burner. That alone kept the grill temp at 350, which was perfect. Also put a small aluminum tray filled with soaked hickory chips over the live burner, beginning at pre-heat, and added a cup of “fresh” soaked chips every 45 mins or so.

    The tip to use a roasting rack inside the aluminum drip pan is great advice — if the bird & grill sizes allow, highly recommend putting the bird/rack/pan combo on the grilling surface, to reduce exposure to direct flame. (We put the hickory chip pan directly on the “flavorizer” bars over the live burner, and removed the grilling rack above.

    16.3-lb bird cooked to absolute perfection based on the formula in the article, which worked out to be 65 mins, turn, 65 mins, flip, 32 mins, turn, and 32 mins to completion.

    Thanks again for helping grill a bird that some very exacting foodies deemed to be a wonderfully moist and delicious meal — easily the best we’ve ever done.

    • The Reluctant Gourmet says:

      Matt, hurry for your success and thank you for your informative comment. After reading this, I may just have to go back to the grill. Happy Holidays

  7. Bonnie says:

    Our power has been out for the last 8 days due to an ice storm during this Christmas season, and still is out until who knows when! Yikes! Our Christmas turkey thawed and needed to be cooked. I looked on the trusty internet for information on grilling a turkey and found your site. Your directions were clear and easy to follow. So my husband and I decided to give it a try. We have a small gas grill so were a little concerned if it would work. I figured out the rotation schedule for our 16lb turkey and proceeded to follow your directions for each stage, adjusting the time to suit the low cooking temp. The grill didn’t hold the 350 degree temp, more like 250 degrees, probably due to the very cold weather and the wind. Also that little grill probably just doesn’t run as hot as a larger grill. I also added broth to the pan periodically during the roasting process. When the internal thermometer was at 165, I checked the other side in the breast and it wasn’t quite there yet, it was only at 152. I rotated the turkey again and kept roasting until the temp on that side was at 165 also. The whole roasting process took about 5 hours but the little grill did the job! And it was SO worth it! My husband and I agreed that this is the best tasting turkey I have ever made! In the past 43 years! We will definitely do this again even though we have power to run the oven. Thanks for the tips!

  8. Amy Levine says:

    Grilled my first turkey (21 lbs) last night for a group of 20+ people. Followed these steps precisely, and it was AMAZING! We have some finicky eaters amongst our friend’s kids, and even they said, “This is the best turkey I ever had!” Truly, the best compliment a chef can receive ;) Thanks for publishing this.

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