Most people cook their Thanksgiving turkey the typical way: in the oven. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But have you considered throwing your turkey on the grill or the deep fryer? Not only is it a delicious alternative, but you’ll free up your oven for tackling sides and desserts. Preparing your turkey centerpiece a different way also gives you a convenient excuse to take a moment away from the festivities to go “check on the bird.”
There’s no one right way to cook a turkey outside. Some people swear that roasting your holiday bird in the Big Green Egg is the best. Others say firing up their Traeger pellet grill is the only way to go. And the truly brave among us will tell you deep fried turkey is the ultimate Thanksgiving delicacy. And don’t forget about the classic Weber Kettle, found in countless backyards nationwide.
For most of you, the “right” way will be to use whatever grill you already own. That said, we thought it would be worthwhile to try four popular methods for cooking turkey outside and put the results up for a jury vote among the CNET Home team.
In the end, the results were pretty conclusive. Here’s how it all went down.
Let’s talk turkey
Table of Contents
All four of the birds we cooked were basic, frozen supermarket-brand turkeys, packaged in brine and sourced from the local Kroger. They all came in between 16.2 and 16.5 pounds.
They took four days to thaw in the fridge, aided by a few hours wading in a cold water bath. If yours are already thawed, even better. After that, I butterflied (aka spatchcocked) three of them, and left the bird destined for the fryer intact.
Spatchcocking puts the dark meat closer to the heat, and the white meat further away. Since white meat cooks faster than dark, the arrangement helps the breast and thigh to finish in unison.
Next, I hit all the turkeys with a light sprinkle of kosher salt and an herb rub. Kudos to amazingribs.com for this powerful turkey recipe inspiration. I then placed them in the refrigerator overnight, where they sat until cooking time arrived the next day.
Turkey method 1: Big Green Egg
Kamado-style grills like the Big Green Egg are typically made from enameled ceramic. Because of that, they’re superb at retaining heat. They also keep lots of moisture locked inside the cooking chamber, which can help keep your turkey juicy.
To start, I filled my test Egg with Big Green Egg-brand oak and hickory lump charcoal. I also nestled a chunk of applewood inside the coal pile as well. With the fire lit, I placed the ConvEGGtor accessory (feet up) inside the fire bowl. This ceramic heat shield sits between food and the coals, and it’s necessary for indirect roasting or smoking.
I also took advantage of the SmartFire barbecue pit controller. The gizmo enabled me to easily bring the Green Egg’s fire up to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Best of all, it kept the Egg humming along with minimal supervision.
A thermocouple probe borrowed from our testing lab provided heat readings throughout the cook. My target temperature was 160 degrees, and three hours later the bird hit that mark.
Turkey method 2: Deep fryer
Deep frying a turkey is an intense, potentially dangerous cooking method. You’ve probably heard the various warnings about accounting for oil displacement, among other things. I’ll suffice it to say here that you shouldn’t undertake to deep fry a turkey without reading up thoroughly or working with someone you trust who has experience. To do the job, we used a specially made turkey fryer kit. It included a large metal pot, a sturdy stand and a propane burner.
After performing a displacement check with the turkey and water, we then poured three gallons of peanut oil into the pot, and lit the burner. After 15 to 20 minutes, the oil reached frying temperature, 350 degrees. Wearing protective gear (heat-resistant gloves, eyeglasses and apron), my colleague Steve slowly lowered the turkey into the oil, using the metal stand and hook that came with the frying kit.
Lowering the bird into the oil is a critical, and dangerous moment. Moving too quickly here, or not thawing your bird completely could cause hot oil to splatter, or it could set off an eruption of oil outside of the pot. We avoided that. With the turkey successfully submerged, we let it fry. After 50 minutes, the internal temperature at the breast hit 160 degrees, our stopping point.
Turkey method 3: Traeger pellet smoker
I’ve long had respect for Traeger wood pellet grills, specifically the Timberline 850 I reviewed a while back. Without fail, this smoker has transformed everything I cooked inside it into something remarkable. I’m happy to say that turkey was no exception.
After cleaning out the firebox, I ignited the grill and brought its temperature up to 200 degrees. I then placed the turkey on the lowest grate, and inserted the grill’s meat probe into the bird’s left breast. After that I closed the lid, and activated the Traeger’s “super smoke” mode for 30 minutes. It’s designed to feed wood pellets into the firebox, where they smolder at low temps for maximum smoke creation. I used Traeger’s own signature blend of pellets: a mix of hickory, maple and cherry hardwoods.
In total, the smoker needed three hours to bring the turkey up to the correct temperature of 160 degrees. It took a little doing since the right breast cooked faster than the left one. Two thirds of the way into the cook, I rotated the turkey 180 degrees. That ramped up internal temperatures on the bird’s left side to match its right.
Turkey method 4: Weber Classic
I first filled a charcoal chimney starter two-thirds full with briquettes. I didn’t use anything fancy, just good old Kingsford Blue. Once I lit them and let them smolder, I dumped the coals on the Weber Classic’s charcoal grate. Then I roughly arranged them in a pile that hugged the left side of the kettle. I grabbed a chunk of applewood and put it on top of the coal bed too.
Next I placed an aluminum drip pan to the right of the coals, and filled that with water hot off the boil. Finally I lowered the cooking grate into the kettle, then carefully put the turkey on the grill’s right side (over the drip pan).
For the record, both the lid vent and the cooker’s bottom vent were halfway open. I also monitored both the grill temperature and internal turkey temp (breast) with thermocouples. Soon after closing the Weber, things got hairy. From a previously steady temperature of 325 degrees, heat levels plummeted to 150 degrees in 20 short minutes.
I had made a classic newbie mistake. I’d let the coals sit too long in the chimney starter before adding them to the pit. I also opened the lid soon after adding the bird for a peek. Now I was paying the price. I salvaged the situation by starting a fresh chimney of coals, which I added to the Weber with haste.
Once I brought the fire back to life, the heat spiked upwards so I had to tweak the air vents numerous times. Flame flare ups forced me to shift the bird’s position often too.
The final verdict
With all the turkeys cooked and off the grill, we conducted a blind taste test with 10 members of the CNET Home team. We tallied votes on numbered note cards, and only I knew which turkey came from what outdoor cooker. The results were clear and unmistakable.
4th place: Big Green Egg
This beloved kamado brand produced a nicely roasted turkey, with a good amount of color and flavor. That said, our panel judged the Big Green Egg’s turkey to be their least favorite. In fact, six out of 10 tasters rated it as their least favorite. I personally wasn’t blown away by the texture of the skin. It wasn’t as crisp as I prefer. And while the meat wasn’t dry, neither was it as juicy as the other birds I cooked. What I found most disappointing was that I didn’t taste much of the applewood smoke flavor at all.
3rd place: Deep fryer
When we pulled our fried bird out of the vat, it had turned a hue of golden brown. The skin definitely had some crispness, but it lacked overall crunch. And when we cut the turkey open, the meat was tender but oily. It wasn’t bad, it just didn’t live up to our deep fried turkey fantasies. Six out of 10 voters put the fryer bird as second to last in our turkey test group.
2nd place: Traeger Timberline 850
When I pulled the bird out of the Traeger Timberline, its skin had a lovely brown color. It had some crispness too, though it could have had a touch more texture and crunch. Carving into this turkey though, revealed its true charm. Its meat was the juiciest of all our sample birds. Best of all, the Traeger really brought out the natural turkey flavor, balancing it nicely against the sweet smoke in the background. Our panel agreed. Three out of 10 tasters voted this turkey their favorite, and four out of 10 rated the Traeger bird as their second choice.
1st place: Weber Classic Kettle
I admit I didn’t expect the Weber Classic kettle to cook up something that great, especially since it took some work to stabilize the cooking temperature. I certainly didn’t think it would roast a bird that was outrageously good, but that’s exactly what happened. The turkey came out with a thick crunchy crust. It was bark-like, the sort of thing I expect to see on a brisket, or a butt of nicely smoked pork. The meat was moist and tender too, and had a good deal of smoke flavor. There was even a visible smoke ring.
I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. The bird that came out of the Weber was also the favorite among our panel tasters. Five out of 10 panelists judged it as their favorite. Three out of 10 tasters also voted it in at second place. Another indicator was that this is the turkey people chose when they went back for seconds, and thirds.
Closing thoughts: Respect that old Weber
I now have newfound admiration for the old $129 Weber Classic kettle grill. Yes, it’s inefficient and burns a lot more fuel than a kamado. Yes, it leaks heat and fills your backyard with a ton of smoke. And yes, it’s a completely manual cooker with no Wi-Fi connection, sophisticated smarts or snazzy wood pellet drive system.
What it can do, I’ll argue, is significantly more important. It can transform a lowly supermarket turkey into a thing of beauty, and festive deliciousness. It’s also why I’ll be firing up the old Weber when it’s time to make turkey this Thanksgiving. Perhaps you should consider doing that, too.
If you use a grill this Turkey Day, then you’ll need to clean it afterwards. Plus, check out our guide on finding the grill type that is best for you.