3 Reasons to Grill Your Thanksgiving Turkey

By Bob McCarthy

Not so long ago, had someone told you they were cooking their Thanksgiving turkey on the grill, you'd have either thought a) they were crazy or b) their oven had died at the worst possible time. Now, grilling or smoking the holiday turkey is all the rage, as are creative recipes that highlight the unique flavors you can only get from grilling....like, say, this recipe for Maple Bourbon Brined Turkey.

Thanks to the recent popularity of grilling and the growth of gourmet outdoor cooking, more people than ever are taking their turkeys to the backyard. While twenty years ago you might have worried about grilling or smoking the biggest meal of the year, today's cookers are more than capable of handling Thanksgiving dinner.

A quality grill can perform every bit as well as a top tier kitchen oven, and with the advent of Bluetooth thermometers like the iGrill2, you can monitor cooking temperatures from the comfort of your kitchen while prepping sides and entertaining guests. Even better, many pellet grills and automatic temperature controllers can be programmed to lower the heat when the turkey is done, preventing overcooking and drying out while keeping the meat warm.

If you've never given any thought to using your grill for a holiday dinner, here are 3 reasons to prepare your Thanksgiving turkey outdoors.

Everything Tastes Better on the Grill, Including Turkey

Cooking your turkey on the grill opens up the possibility of a whole new layer of flavor: smoke. Whether you choose to grill your turkey on a charcoal grill, gas grill, or pellet grill, you can infuse your holiday turkey with rustic wood smoke flavor.

Cooking your Thanksgiving bird on a charcoal grill or smoker will add a more robust flavor, combining the richness of the charcoal with the smokiness of the wood. For a heavier smoke flavor, use wood chunks. For a slightly less smokey flavor, use wood chips. Each type of wood has its own distinct flavor, and poultry holds up well to hickory, pecan, apple, cherry, maple, and oak. Just as each wood has it's own signature flavor, different brands of charcoal infuse food with a slightly different taste. For instance, Basques Sugar Maple Lump Charcoal has a sweeter taste and scent than most charcoals

A pellet grill, on the other hand, infuses food with a gentle smoke flavor. The hardwood pellets, which are made of compressed sawdust, burn very cleanly, producing a smoke flavor that is present without being overbearing. It's the type of smoke that people who generally don't like smoked food will enjoy, because it's complimentary. In fact, don't be surprised if many guests don't immediately identify the delicious flavor as smoke.

For those who have a gas grill, you can still add smoke to your turkey with a wood chip tray and wood chips or A-Maze Tube and hardwood pellets.

Using a Grill at the Holidays Frees up the Oven

It should be obvious, but a big turkey takes up a lot of oven space. By the time you fit a 20 pound Tom in the oven, there's not much room left for cooking the sides. And, please, don't sleep on the sides. While it's true that the turkey is the star, your guests will be disappointed, if not downright angry, if their freshly carved turkey breast isn't surrounded by mounds of stuffing, sweet potato pie, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, gravy and whatever else they can fit on their plate.

So how do you cook all those sides when the turkey is hogging the oven? You could cook them ahead of time then keep everything warm on a chafing dish or warming tray. But that crowds the counters and sides that have been sitting around warming for hours aren't nearly as good as sides served fresh from the oven. Or you could cook the turkey on the grill, freeing up the oven for everything else. Not only does that spare your counter from being overrun with foil-covered trays, it saves you from having to prep and cook those sides three hours before guests arrive.

Cooking Outside Extends Entertaining Space

Have you ever noticed that everyone congregates in the kitchen at the holidays? With all those people coming and going, snacking and mingling and making the rounds between the refrigerator and the appetizers, the house gets cramped pretty quickly. And it gets hot. How many times have you had to open a window or door on Thanksgiving just to let out a little of the heat from the oven and the hot air from your uncle's endless opinions?

Here's a simple solution. Perhaps you've also noticed that when you have a cookout people gravitate toward the grill. Take advantage of that, and the nice weather that much of the country still enjoys at Thanksgiving. If you cook on the grill, bodies will follow, alleviating some of the congestion from the kitchen and living room, especially if you also put the beer and wine in a cooler. Plus, it'll give you a good excuse to step outside for some fresh air.

Grilling or smoking the Thanksgiving turkey is easier than you think. If this is your first time, read more about direct vs indirect grilling and how to turn your gas grill into a smoker. And, no matter how you prepare your dinner, do yourself and your guests a favor and make sure you have a reliable meat thermometer.