Even if you’re in charge, a substantial part of cooking Thanksgiving dinner is waiting for the turkey to happen. Sitting in the dining room, peering through that little oven window at it like it’s some kind of zoo animal. There is a better way. Cook your feast on the grill and you control the elements.
You add the smoke and the flavors. You change the temperature. You’re actually cooking your food, the same way you’re actually driving a car with a manual transmission. Ben Ford, chef at Ford’s Filling Station in Los Angeles, is a guy who believes in this kind of elemental sorcery. He’ll roast anything. His backyard looks like it was cast in a medieval iron forge. So he created a menu for us: a turkey smoked over sweet applewood and corncobs; ember-cooked potato packets he came up with for a camping trip; a grilled fig and dried fruit chutney; and grilled green beans with shallots and hazelnuts. If you’re going to cook Thanksgiving dinner with your bare hands, you want to end up with an impressive meal.
Here’s the Plan:
A few days before your feast, cut the kernels off four corncobs and leave the shorn cobs in your pantry to dry out. Then, the day before, brine the turkey. The recipe’s on page 54. On Thanksgiving morning, remove your grill’s grate and light half a chimney starter’s worth of charcoal. When the embers are red-hot with white ash, divide them into two piles on either side of the grill. Break a corncob in half and place one half on each pile along with a handful of fresh coals and a handful of applewood chunks. Put an aluminum pan between the piles to catch drippings.
Open all the top vents to allow air circulation. Open half of the bottom vents. Close the lid for about 5 minutes; you’ll start to see white smoke escaping through the vents. Place the turkey on the grate between the two piles of coals, over the drip pan. Every half-hour, baste the bird with melted butter, break a corncob and add half, as well as a handful of applewood chunks and a handful of charcoal, to each pile of embers. You may have to lift a corner of your grate with tongs to do this.
After about 6 hours, or 30 to 35 minutes per pound, insert an instant-read thermometer between the thigh and breast. When it registers 165 degrees Fahrenheit, you’re done. Remove the turkey from the grill, place it breast down in a roasting pan, and tent a piece of foil over it. Let it rest 20 to 30 minutes before carving.
Isn’t It Too Cold for This?
Unless it’s 44 below, the point at which propane is liquid, probably not. But it might be too windy. “Wind can blow away the bubble of warm air that insulates your cooker, and then you have to keep putting in fuel,” says Greg Blonder, physicist and expert at amazingribs.com. If you’re stuck in a squall, you can build a three-sided, roofless shed to divert the worst of the gusts. Just don’t block the vents.
If You’re Using a Gas Grill
Instead of using corncobs, fill a packet of aluminum foil with 3 cups cornmeal and 3 cups of wood chips. Poke holes in the foil. Preheat the grill to 250 F, then turn off the heat on one side. Place an aluminum pan on the side of the grill that is turned off and put a roasting rack in it. Fill the pan with 2 inches of water. Place the foil packet of cornmeal and wood chips on the hot side of the grill. Set the cooking grates in place and cover the grill with the lid until the packet starts smoking. Open the lid and put the turkey on the roasting rack. Close the lid to begin smoking the bird. Baste the bird with melted butter every half-hour.
2 cups kosher salt
1 cup sugar
1 quart apple juice
2 Tbsp black peppercorns
5 star anise pods
5 bay leaves
2 dried árbol chiles
1 Tbsp whole allspice berries
1 Tbsp juniper berries
Turkey Butter Rub and Baste
¼ cup onion powder
¼ cup paprika
¼ cup garlic powder
¼ cup kosher salt
¼ cup black pepper
1 Tbsp ground sage
2 cups unsalted butter, fully softened
2 Tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
1 Tbsp lemon zest
To Stuff the Turkey
1 large yellow onion, quartered
A handful of fresh thyme sprigs
Salt and pepper
1. Start with a 12-pound turkey. You’ll need a 28-quart cooler to brine the bird in before you smoke it, two 16-pound bags of natural lump charcoal, one 3-pound bag of applewood chips, an aluminum roasting pan, a basting brush, and your corncobs.
2. Remove the neck, giblets, and heart from the cavity. Discard the liver. Put everything else in an airtight container and refrigerate until you’re ready to make the gravy.
3. Bring 1 gallon of water to a boil. Add salt and sugar. Stir in the apple juice, peppercorns, star anise, bay leaves, árbol chiles, allspice, and juniper berries. Pour everything into the cooler. Add enough ice to make 2 gallons, about 12 cups.
4. Rinse the turkey and clean it out well. Put the turkey in the cooler neck first and place a heavy plate on top of it to keep it submerged. Put the cooler in a cool, dark place overnight.
5. The next day, remove the turkey, rinse it, and pat it dry with paper towels. Combine all the dry rub ingredients. Dust the body cavity with 1 tablespoon of that, and then add the rest to the softened butter, mixing well with a spoon, along with the thyme and lemon zest. Smear half of this butter rub under the skin of the breast and all over the outer surface of the skin as well. Put the remaining butter in a saucepan and place it near the grill. You’ll use it to baste the bird while you cook. Finally, stuff the cavity with the onion quarters and thyme sprigs.
It was meant to be cooked this way. It will taste better, too.
BY THE EDITORS
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At peak cooking time, about 30 minutes before the turkey comes off the grill, your layout should look like this: turkey over the pan, figs over the heat, and the potato packets down in the embers.
The Physics of Grilling: Barbecue Stall
You know how it goes: You put your meat on the grill and the meat gets hotter, like it’s supposed to. And then it gets to 150 degrees and the temperature stops rising. For hours. This is barbecue stall, the dreaded dead period when water evaporation is cooling the meat as quickly as fire is heating it. A good way to avoid it is to place your meat about 3 inches above a pan of water. “The water will generate a lot of humidity and the stall temperature will rise,” says Greg Blonder, our physics expert. “In the case of a turkey, you can often get the stall temperature to rise above the cooking temperature.” Which means it will be done before you have a reason to panic.
½ orange, peel and white pith removed
1½ cups dry white wine
1/3 cup sugar
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 cinnamon stick
1½ tsp coriander seeds
1½ tsp whole black peppercorns
6 figs, halved
½ cup dried cranberries
½ cup coarsely chopped dried apples
¼ cup raisins
1½ Tbsp minced -crystallized ginger
2 small pears (about 8 oz total), peeled, cored, cut into ½-inch pieces
Canola oil or other vegetable oil
1. Heat a saucepan on top of the grill. Add white wine, sugar, lemon juice, cinnamon stick, coriander seeds, and black peppercorns to the pan, cover it, and simmer for 15 minutes. Strain the mixture. Discard the solids. Lightly coat the grill with oil and grill the figs until they have a little color. It’ll take about 5 minutes. Let cool and quarter each fig half. Set the figs aside.
2. Return the liquid to your saucepan on the grill. Add cranberries, apples, raisins, and ginger. Cover and simmer until fruit is tender, about 10 minutes. Add pears. Simmer until pears are just tender, about 10 minutes. Cool to lukewarm. Stir in reserved orange segments and grilled figs. Makes 3½ cups.
Campfire Potato Packets
1 pound white potatoes, preferably White Rose (about 3 large), peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
5 sprigs fresh thyme
6 whole peeled garlic cloves
2 slices applewood-smoked bacon, chopped
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 bay leaves (fresh or dried)
½ tsp kosher salt (¼ tsp per packet)
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Once your turkey is roasting away, evenly divide your chopped potatoes into two piles. Make an aluminum foil packet for each pile: Cut three pieces of heavy aluminum foil the same size and lay them on top of one another to create a three-layer package. Mound half the potatoes in the center. Then make the second package with the other half.
2. Drizzle the olive oil over the -potatoes and scatter the bacon, thyme sprigs, and garlic cloves on top, dividing the ingredients evenly. Place one rosemary sprig and one bay leaf in each packet. Season each with ¼ teaspoon of salt and eight to 10 turns of pepper. Close the packets tightly.
3. About an hour before you’re ready to serve the turkey, put the packets directly on the embers in your grill (or on the hot side of a gas grill), for about 45 minutes or until the potatoes are tender, rotating them occasionally so they cook on all sides.
reen Beans with Shallots and Roasted Hazelnuts
1 pound green beans, trimmed
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, crushed
4 shallots, thinly sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup hazelnuts (roast these on a baking sheet for 5 minutes in a 350 F oven in advance, let cool, and rub the skins off with your hands; chop in a food processor)
1. Now that the turkey is resting, you’ve got space for a grill basket. Spread out the embers and add a few more handfuls of charcoal to even out the fire.
2. Toss the green beans with the oil, lemon zest, garlic, and shallots and season with kosher salt and black pepper. Set your grill basket on the grill. Grill until just cooked through, about 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer everything to a platter and sprinkle with the hazelnuts.
en Ford’s Turkey Giblet Gravy*
*Not cooked on the grill, but still tasty
Giblets, neck, and heart from one turkey
1 sprig fresh thyme
8 to 10 black peppercorns
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup dry sherry
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
1. To make the gravy, chop the neck into thirds and place it, along with the giblets and heart, in a saucepan. Add the thyme, peppercorns, and 4 cups water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer for 2 hours.
2. Pour the stock through a fine-mesh strainer into a large measuring cup. Add enough chicken stock to make 4 cups total. When cool enough to handle, pull the meat off the neck. Finely chop the neck meat and giblets and add them back to the stock.
3. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and salt and sauté, stirring often, until the onion is soft and translucent. Add in the flour, stirring constantly, until it browns, about 2 minutes. Whisk in the sherry. Add the turkey stock and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer, whisking often, for about 15 minutes, or until the gravy is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Add the thyme leaves and more salt to taste. Serve warm.
Unless you live in Miami, your grillside spectators are going to get chilly while all of this is going on. Keeping a cauldron of mulled cider gurgling away on your range is a great way to show off the fact that you’ve achieved stovetop zero and keep people happily buzzed while they’re waiting for food. You don’t have to make anything complicated. Jackson Cannon, bar director at the The Hawthorne in Boston who has hosted seminars on hot beverages through Boston University, recommends steeping a gallon of apple cider over low heat for two hours with an orange (poke a couple of holes in it first) and a cheesecloth packet of aromatic spices—a dozen cloves, two cinnamon sticks, a couple pieces of star anise, and a half-dozen or so each of whole allspice, juniper berries, and green cardamom pods. You can leave it warming on the stove for guests to ladle into mugs themselves, with a bottle of Laird’s Applejack brandy on the side for bespoke spiking. Just leave someone indoors to make sure the flame isn’t too high: Burning is the number one cause of cider failure. —Jolyon Helterman