Grill-Roasted Turkey

The holiday turkey – centerpiece of holiday dinners growing up – always seemed to be a big deal to my Mom, aunt and grandmas, full of worry and angst that the turkey would turn out well. It always turned out great (OK, the year they cooked the turkey in the brand-new microwave oven was an exception!). As entertaining got to be too much for our parents, we took on Thanksgiving about 15 years ago. And we decided that the only way to do the turkey was on the grill. Fifteen years later, it’s still the highlight of the Thanksgiving meal.

I found a recipe for grill-roasted turkey in Williams-Sonoma’s Grilling cookbook. Over the years it has been modified some – mainly to take advantage of fresh herbs growing in my garden.

I’ve never had any grill other than an old-school Weber kettle with charcoal briquettes. I’m sure it works great on a gas grill too; I just can’t vouch for it. You’ll need to get started about six hours prior serving. Living on the West Coast, that means you get started at halftime of the Lions game.


Gallon Ziploc bag
Wood chips (hickory, mesquite or other)
Drip pan
Oven Thermometer (not instant read)
Kitchen knife
Cutting board
Big pan
Small bowl


1 Whole Turkey. The original recipe calls for 10-12 lbs., but I do 16-22 lbs. and never modify the quantities. If you buy a frozen turkey, defrost for several days in the refrigerator.
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 rosemary branches, about 6 inches long
3 lemons*
Kosher salt


6 hours before serving
– Place 3 handfuls of wood chips in the Ziploc bag and add water to cover; squeeze out most of the air.
– Remove the rosemary leaves from 2 of the 4 rosemary branches (easy way: grab the tip of the rosemary branch with one hand; pull your other hand toward the cut end; leaves will fall off easily).
– Chop the rosemary leaves.
– Place olive oil and chopped rosemary leaves in the small bowl.
– Quarter 2 of the lemons.

5:45 before serving
– Start the coals (use a charcoal chimney, not lighter fluid).
– Remove the turkey from the refrigerator.
– Remove giblets, heart and kidneys. Save for dressing.
– Pat the turkey dry with paper towels.
– Rub the turkey with the olive oil and rosemary.
– Sprinkle inside and out of the turkey with the salt and pepper.
– Tuck the lemon quarters and the other 2 rosemary branches inside the cavity.

5:15 before serving
– Move half of the hot coals to one side, half to the other.
– Place the drip pan between the coals.
– Add more coals to the fire and fill around the drip pan.
– Drop half of the wood chips on the fire.
– Place the grill rack over the fire.Place the turkey, breast side up, in the center of the rack, parallel to the drip pan.
– Put the thermometer in breast of thigh.


4:30 before serving
– Squeeze the juice from the third lemon. *Or 2 tablespoons of bottled lemon juice if you don’t have a juicer.

4:15 before serving
– Melt the butter in the small bowl.
– Stir together melted butter and lemon juice.

4:00 before serving
– Add more coals to the fire.
– Drop the remaining wood chips on the fire.
– Brush the turkey with half of the butter /lemon mixture.


3:00 before serving
– Brush the turkey with the remaining butter/lemon mixture.

2:00 before serving
– Check the temperature. Turkey is done when the thermometer reads 170 in the breast or 185 in the thigh (Fahrenheit).
– A 16 lb bird should be done at this time; a larger bird will probably need more time on the coals. The carved meat will still be warm when served.


:45 before serving
– This is the last time to remove from the fire if you want to serve on time!
– Let the turkey sit for a half hour before carving.

:15 before serving
– Carve the turkey.
– I like to remove the entire breast, then slice in the narrow direction. This gives cuts more like a steak. See below.


After dinner
– Save the carcass! You can use it to make your own turkey stock. There’s another entry with a great recipe for turkey stock.

How to carve a Turkey
These step-by-step instructions appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2008, and this has been my carving method of choice ever since. It works well with chicken too.



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