How to Grill a Turkey

Whether Rotisserie or Not, Grilling Means a Great Turkey

turkey cooking on a grill
Ernesto Andrabe / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

An oven will roast a turkey. A grill will roast it with flavor and character. Once you've taken your turkey out of the oven and put it on your grill, you won't go back. Whether put on a cooking grate or spun on a rotisserie, the grill will add a wonderful, smoky flavor and turn the skin into a deliciously crispy covering for moist and tender meat.

The Basics of Grilling a Turkey

There are a couple of things you need to know about how to grill a turkey. First of all there are a lot of factors that can influence how your turkey is going to turn out. Since you will be grilling indirectly with a low fire the weather will play a big role. This is especially true in the fall or winter months. The most important weather condition to watch out for is wind. Wind robs heat from outdoor cooking appliances, so watch it closely.

Whether you are going to use charcoal or gas makes a big difference. Gas will be easier. So depending on what you own, or what you prefer, ​be ready for the variables. You will need an indirect fire that will hold a steady temperature in the 300 F/150 C to 350 F/175 C range. If the weather isn't going to cooperate I strongly recommend gas. You can control the temperature much easier.

Grills, whether gas or charcoal work by heating air that moves around foods to cook them. This can dry out your bird quickly. You need to prepare for this and take an active part in keeping the moisture in your bird. Your best strategies are to ​brine, ​inject and baste your bird to keep it moist and tender.

What You Need

First you will need a turkey. It would be best to stay away from anything over 15 pounds. 12 pounds is perfect. A bird that is too big may burn on the outside before the inside can get cooked. I also recommend that you use a brine. This will help keep the breasts moist and the skin from burning. You will also want to use one of those V-shaped roasting racks to keep the turkey from moving around too much. This rack should be sturdy because it won't have a solid surface to sit on. I also suggest an oven thermometer to monitor the grill temperature when you open the grill. You will also want a smoke source, to get some wood chips for the gas grill or chunks for the charcoal grill. Try a fruit wood like cherry or apple. You could also use oak or hickory. Also, and perhaps most importantly you need a trusty meat thermometer. A fast or instance ready type would be best.

Most importantly you need plenty of fuel. If you are using a gas grill you really need an extra, full tank on hand. This is just a good idea anyway, but when you are planning a big meal you don’t want to loose an hour while you try and get a propane tank filled. If you are using charcoal, make sure you have plenty and that you have a way of lighting additional coals for the fire outside of the grill. A charcoal chimney really is a must if you use charcoal.

You will also need time. Since you will be grilling your turkey at about the same temperature you would in an oven you will need about the same amount of time to get your turkey done. Remember that grilling isn’t as exact as oven roasting so times will vary. Make sure you can adjust for that. Remember if the weather doesn’t cooperate or you start getting short on time you can always move the turkey to the oven and finish it off there.

Grilling a Turkey Step-by-Step 

  1. Prepare the turkey. This means removing everything from the body cavity, taking out any pop-up plastic timer devices and giving it a good wash in cold water. Pat dry and don't bother with tying up the bird. Trussing will only slow down the cooking of the thighs which you want to actually cook more than the rest of the bird anyway.
  2. Season or brine the turkey as desired. Remember if you do use a brine to rinse off any salt from the bird before you grill it. When the time comes prepared the grill. Remember that you will be grilling a large bird indirectly. It might be a good idea to take the turkey out to the grill before you light it to see about spacing and heating. This is especially important if you are using charcoal. With charcoal, you will want to make sure that you build the fire up in the right place. If the bird is too close then one side could cook too fast. You will want a drip pan under the turkey to prevent flare-ups and to catch the drippings. Add water to this pan periodically to maintain a moist environment in the grill and to keep the drippings from burning away. You can make great gravy from the drippings.
  3. As long as you are rigged for indirect grilling your rotisserie grilling will be pretty easy. You just need to keep a close eye on the bird to make sure that the skin isn’t burning and that heat is getting into the bird. If you are not using a rotisserie and you are on a gas grill set the turkey, breast side down on a well-oiled grate or roasting rack. If your grill allows you to have the heat on either side of the turkey then you will have an even heating area and you will only need to worry about turning the turkey in about an hour. If you are using a charcoal grill you want the coals in either a ring around the turkey or banked on either side of it. You want even heating so one side doesn’t cook faster than the other. Regardless of the grill try to keep the turkey away from the very edges of the cooking surface so that heat can flow around it.
  4. Your target cooking temperature is around 325 F. If you have an oven thermometer in the grill, set it close to the bird because this is the area you are most concerned with. If you are using a gas grill make the necessary adjustments to the control valves to hit your target temperature. If you are using charcoal you will want to keep a close eye on the temperature to keep it in the right range. Add additional burning coals as necessary.
  5. Turn the bird as needed. Depending on the arrangement of your grill you will need to turn or flip the bird during the cooking time. If you have a dual burner gas grill you will need to rotate the bird after about 30 minutes, flip and rotate 30 minutes after that and rotate after another 30 minutes. This keeps the hottest part of the grill from burning one part of the bird. You will need to continue this dance until the turkey is done. If you are set up to have heat all around the turkey or on two sides of it then you will need to flip the turkey after about an hour. Of course, this really depends on how fast the turkey’s skin is cooking. You don’t want the outside to cook too much faster than the inside. Use a meat thermometer to monitor the internal temperature. If the skin is getting too browned before the inside starts warming up, your cooking temperature is too high.
  6. After ​about 2 hours you really want to start testing the temperature. Your target temperature is 165 F. This needs to be the coldest part of the turkey since you need every little morsel at or above this temperature. Test in several places, but be patient. The internal temperature should only rise about 10 degrees every 15 to 20 minutes so don’t start poking your bird full of holes.
  7. Remove the turkey from the grill and let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes before carving. The resting period allows the juices to flow back into the meat.