Avoid these classic–and often hilarious–mistakes that Sunset readers have made when grilling their Thanksgiving turkeys

Tales of turkey-grilling disaster: Sunset readers write in
Meat master Bruce Aidells reads your horror stories

Over the past few years, we’ve collected a choice bundle of stories from readers about ill-fated attempts to grill turkey for Thanksgiving. We found the tales so entertaining, and the authors’ collective plea for help so persuasive, we published a turkey-grilling lesson, in cartoon form, in our November 2012 issue—starring Bruce Aidells, an authority on meat cooking and author of several books, including The Great Meat Cookbook (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012; $40).

For a good laugh—and to know that you have company in your struggles to successfully grill a turkey—read on. And to master the technique, see sunset.com/turkeygrill for our turkey-grilling lesson.


New barbecue gets christened

A friend had been serving delicious hickory-smoked turkey at his poker parties for years. After having another friend build us a brick barbecue, my wife and I decided we’d try smoking a turkey, our first, just like my poker buddy.

I carefully followed his instructions: grate lowered as far as it would go with the coals stacked to the far side; hickory chips and coals added every so often; close the hood, leave the bird alone, and let it cook for three to four hours.

We headed off to do some shopping. When we returned an hour later, I glanced toward the backyard and saw the barbecue smoking like crazy. I slowly lifted the hood and saw our turkey totally burned to a crisp. And I won’t even tell you how long it took us to clean the inside of our new barbecue.



A tradition is kindled

It’s Thanksgiving 2007. The house is full of hungry people; the table is formally and beautifully set, with the good china and silverware, for 18 friends and family to squeeze around.

Because we have large gatherings and share the leftovers, we always do two turkeys. One is cooked traditionally in the regular oven, and the main one is done outside on the barbecue. I have been grilling for years, am very good at it, and can grill anything perfectly. After barbecuing our turkeys every year for so many years, I have it down to a science.

Or so I thought. This year, I got involved with our guests and didn’t check on the barbecue for a bit. My wife was in the back room, whose window looks out at the area. She dashed to find me, proclaiming that the turkey was on fire! Figuring she was confused or joking, I smiled at her and continued chatting with friends. Of course, she interrupted with some vehemence and forced me to go look at my annual barbecued turkey.

Oops! It was flaming! That bird was hot! The drippings had somehow missed their catch pan and ignited, and that turkey was indeed on fire! Completely charred skin! I turned the hose on the bird, dousing it thoroughly. I started to throw it in the garbage can, but my wife again interrupted me to decree that, heck, we might as well finish cooking the darn bird and see how it turned out.

So, like any good husband obeying the wife, I finished grilling that turkey, and brought it inside to our amazed and amused guests. I carved it up, and you know, my wife was right. That may have been the best turkey ever! Extra flavorful, of course, but still very juicy, tender, and beautifully done. Not only that, our guests who love turkey skin still ate some of that burned, crispy skin—it certainly had no fat left in it! We all voted that the turkey should flame every year going forward. By comparison, the oven-roasted beauty was so normal, and therefore not nearly as good as that flaming bird turned out!



The trash-can turkey

For rock climbers from California, the ideal place to spend Thanksgiving is Joshua Tree National Park. While the chill of winter threatens the rest of the state, Joshua Tree boasts an exquisite variety of climbs and comfortably warm temperatures. So when a group of us decided to spend Thanksgiving 2004 in “J Tree,” I immediately took over planning for the event that was perhaps more important than the actual rock climbing: the turkey.

My vision was of a proper Thanksgiving bird—a beautifully browned, succulent masterpiece. The fact that we were camping, however, made achieving this vision a challenge in creativity. After considering and rejecting other ideas, I found a recipe for a “trash-can turkey” on the Internet. The authors swore by it. Why not, I thought, and I began planning.

The concept was as follows. In a barbecue pit, you hammer a piece of rebar vertically into the ground. On the top of that rebar, you affix a ball of tinfoil. After seasoning the outside of the bird, you place it onto the ball. If you wish, you can set foil pans underneath the bird to catch the fat drippings to make gravy. You then place a 10-gallon metal garbage can over the turkey, making sure that the bird does not touch the inside of the can. At the base of the can, you arrange a ring of charcoal. On top of the can goes another layer of charcoal. The bird, enclosed in this makeshift oven, cooks for 2½ hours, after which one (theoretically) has a beautifully browned Thanksgiving turkey dinner.

As I gathered the equipment for this cooking adventure, my big fear was that the turkey would be undercooked. I could visualize myself carving into pink, raw flesh on Thanksgiving night, scrambling to figure out how to cook the bird through, as people milled around cold and hungry. When talking to my dad (an excellent cook) about the plan, he suggested wrapping the garbage can in a chicken-wire collar, and sliding coals between the wire and the can so that they piled up vertically, encasing the can in heat. I loved the idea, and added chicken wire to the shopping list.

After a Thanksgiving morning of spectacular climbing, we knocked off early and headed back to our campsite to get dinner going. We lit some coals, assembled the setup just as the recipe told us to, and added our own special chicken-wire heat collar. As the bird cooked, we threw together some stuffing, drank wine, and watched the setting sun turn the granite boulders orange and red.

Checking the progression of the roasting turkey was no easy task since it was enclosed in coals and wire, but we decided that after two hours, we would see how it was coming and adjust the cooking time accordingly. We shone our flashlights in the barbecue pit, and the crowd eagerly waited as I disassembled the wire cage. I cleared off the charcoal from the top and base of the trash can, lifted the can up over the turkey, and …

The turkey had been completely obliterated. In its place hung charred flesh that resembled a character from a grotesque horror film. The pans that had been set to catch the drippings were filled with ash. For a moment we stared in shock at the ball of tinfoil and blackened turkey remains, and then burst out laughing. We had cooked a turkey in a trash can—we had just done it way, way, way too well. It was a good thing the stuffing was delicious.



Turkey with a side of house

Remembering this event now is pretty funny. I had read an article on how to prepare the grill for the perfect holiday turkey. So naturally I set out to be the perfect hostess and produce this glorious Thanksgiving meal.

Our brand-new Weber grill was prepared perfectly, according to the article. I put the bird on. Everything was going smoothly and on schedule.

Our guests began arriving, wine was poured, and appetizers presented. In the midst of arriving guests and enjoying family and friends, I neglected to put the lid back on the grill. Needless to say, when I went to check on its progress, not only was the turkey on fire, but also the side of the house! Fortunately, we did not have to call the fire department, and we were able to control the blaze with only slight scorching to the house. However, the turkey was not so lucky; it was a total loss.

Thank goodness for understanding guests, an abundance of other tasty dishes, more wine, and lots of laughs. To date I have not tried grilling another turkey, but I do think about it.



Trial by fire

I was not quite sure if the 3-foot flames would reach the wood-shingle roof or the old-growth oak trees in the backyard, but by Thanksgiving 2003, I now understood the necessity of having a fire extinguisher on hand in the home.

Since I wouldn’t be traveling home for the holiday that year, I decided to fix a traditional feast. As a novice Thanksgiving chef, I waited until the last minute to shop for groceries and had to purchase a fresh bird. My dad, grill master extraordinaire, was known for barbecuing the most tender, juicy, flavorful turkeys. Perhaps, I thought, I had inherited his BBQ genes, and I began to prepare my trusty Weber pot. My dad gave me careful instructions about how to create a ring of briquettes around the drip pan, establish the perfect temperature with the coals, and place the turkey on the grill. Confident my turkey would emulate my dad’s, I lit the briquettes.

Once the coals were hot and the turkey was grilling, I continued to check the bird’s progress. Everything seemed to be going well until I noticed a small flame flickering from the bottom of the grill. I didn’t think much of it and put the lid back on the barbecue. The flame continued to grow and began shooting out of the vents in the bottom of the pot. Hesitant to ask for help, I waited to call my dad, who would’ve been about to sit down to the big family feast in Oregon. The inferno continued, and I started to worry about the roof and trees at my rental. When the flames shot up 3 feet off the grill, I knew it was time to call Dad.

By the time I got hold of my parents, the whole family (about 15 people) was arms-deep in mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and, of course, the golden bird. It was hard for my dad to understand me through my panicked cries for help, and probably more so through his own laughter at my Thanksgiving disaster. He had never experienced flames like mine in his grilling past. Dad explained that, clearly, I had started a major grease fire on the grill and instructed me on how to put it out.

My aspirations of my “golden” bird flew the coop, and in its place landed the “dirty-char” species. My poor bird was not only charred black, but also encrusted with dirt from the rescue effort. Finally, after many laughs and glasses of wine, we sat down for our first vegetarian Thanksgiving feast.



The bird takes a dip

My grilling nightmare was on Thanksgiving a few years ago. My husband loves to grill. He is a Weber man and truly makes the best turkey. Friends had mentioned that when they grill their turkey, they lay bacon strips across the bird to baste it while cooking. In my desire to prepare the most flavorful turkey for the family, I thought that if three strips of bacon are good, eight or nine would be better. So when my husband went to take his shower, I checked the bird … and added six more strips of bacon.

When my husband came out of the shower, smoke was billowing out of the grill. When he removed the lid, we had a full-on grease fire. He quickly grabbed the bird and plunged it into the pool. Needless to say, the bird was black and crisp. Being the resourceful person that I am (and knowing that 12 family members were landing at our house in an hour), I scrubbed the bird as best I could and did the carving out of view.

Guess what—the turkey got rave reviews and howls of laughter. No one detected a tinge of chlorine aftertaste.


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