How to Grill a Turkey Perfectly This Thanksgiving

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It's not the most common way to cook for Thanksgiving, but once you learn how to grill a turkey, you'll never want to make the bird any other way.

Let’s be honest: Cooking Thanksgiving dinner can be super stressful. Sure, it’s fun to hang with the whole family in the kitchen, but there are often too few burners and too little space in the oven to cook everything you want. It’s time for a change to the usual Thanksgiving menu. Put the turkey on the grill!

Grilled turkey not only cooks up tender and juicy thanks to our incredible marinade, but it also frees up the oven for your other favorite Thanksgiving recipes. Plus, the heat of the grill infuses the meat with an extra smoky flavor, especially if you’re cooking on a charcoal grill. Everyone will be reaching for seconds.

Benefits of Grilling Turkey

Grilling, in general, is a great healthy way to cook meat and poultry. Grilling requires using less fat than other, more traditional, preparation methods and studies have shown that it preserves certain nutrients, like thiamine and riboflavin, throughout the cooking process.

To talk turkey, specifically, grilling your bird is an excellent way to free up oven space in your home for other tasty side dishes. Additionally, depending on the size of your turkey, grilling can also shave off cooking time in comparison to traditional oven-roasted methods; up to 45 minutes.

If you like to experiment in the kitchen, grilled turkey is a great way to present something new to your family and is a must-try this holiday season. We promise that once you bite into the smokey, moist meat of a grilled turkey, you’ll never go back to your oven. Intrigued? Here’s how to become a turkey grilling master.

How to Grill a Turkey

This Thanksgiving turkey recipe comes from reader Ken Churches of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. It makes about 12 servings, so you’ll need a 12 to 14-pound bird. If you need to scale things up, stick with a more traditional roasting method. Anything over 16 pounds might be too big for the grill.

Ingredients

raw turkey and other ingredients for grilling turkey on a dark countertopLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

  • 2 cups water
  • 1-1/2 cups chicken broth
  • 1 cup reduced-sodium soy sauce
  • 2/3 cup lemon juice
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 2 large oven roasting bags
  • 1 turkey (12 to 14 pounds)

Tools You’ll Need

  • Charcoal Grill: Choosing a gas or charcoal grill will ultimately come down to personal preference. However, make sure to choose a grill that has enough vertical height to accommodate a turkey while still allowing air to circulate on all sides. Our Test Kitchen prefers the Weber Original Kettle Charcoal Grill for a genuine smoky flavor.
  • Instant-Read Thermometer: Regardless of the cooking method, this a must-have for preparing a turkey in order to confirm it has reached the proper internal temperature prior to carving and serving.
  • Oven Bags: Even though you’re grilling a turkey, these still come in handy for marinating.

Directions

Step 1: Mix the marinade

mixing marinade for turkey in a clear glass bowl, top viewLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

This is one of our favorite turkey marinades because you don’t have to heat any of the ingredients. That also means you don’t have to wait around for them to cool! Simply combine the water, chicken broth, soy sauce, lemon juice, minced garlic, ground ginger and black pepper in a large bowl. Set one cup aside for basting.

Editor’s Tip: Don’t forget to clean your grill thoroughly before you begin. Built-up crud can give your turkey an off-flavor, and it’s also the number one culprit of causing food to stick.

Step 2: Marinate the turkey

marinating the turkey in a large oven bagLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

We use oven roasting bags to keep cleanup nice and easy. To make sure the bags don’t leak, you’ll want to place one oven roasting bag inside the other. Then, put the turkey inside the inner bag and pour in the marinade. Seal the bags, pressing out as much air as possible, and turn them once or twice to coat the turkey.

Place the bags in a shallow roasting pan—just in case it leaks anyway. Refrigerate the bird overnight, turning the bag a few times to evenly distribute the marinade.

Step 3: Prepare the grill

top view of an outdoor charcoal grillLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

Prepare your grill for medium heat—somewhere between 325°F and 350°. On a gas grill, this is as easy as turning the burners halfway open. When the grill is preheated, turn off the burners on one side to create indirect heat.

A charcoal grill requires a bit more preparation, but you’ll benefit from extra smoky flavor. Place 50 to 60 briquettes in the grill and light them until they are covered in gray ash, about 30 minutes. Then, arrange them into an indirect heat pattern (see our handy guide on how to use a charcoal grill for more info).

Editor’s Tip: If you want to catch the drippings to make gravy from scratch, position a drip pan in the center of the grill underneath the grill grate. Line the hot charcoal briquettes lengthwise on each side of the pan and place the turkey over the drip pan.

Step 4: Ready the bird

a raw turkey sitting on the grillLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

Remove the turkey from the oven bags and discard the marinade. Pat the bird as dry as possible and tuck the wings under the turkey to help it cook evenly. Do this about an hour before grilling to allow the skin to dry out, which will result in crispier skin.

When the grill is preheated, place the turkey breast side down on the indirect heat side of the grill. Cover the grill, leaving the vents open to promote airflow. Cook the bird for one hour. (Reference our chart below if you’re grilling a larger or smaller turkey.)

Step 5: Turn and baste

basting the turkey with a basting brush while it is still on the grillLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

After an hour, turn the turkey so it’s breast side up and baste it with the reserved marinade. Add ten briquettes to the grill and replace the cover, cooking for another 1-1/2 to 2 hours. Set a timer to remind yourself to add ten additional briquettes every hour to maintain the heat.

For the best flavor, we also recommend brushing the turkey with the reserved marinade every 30 minutes.

Step 6: Let it rest

cooked turkey resting on the grillLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

Use a thermometer to check the temperature of the turkey; when it reaches 170°, the turkey is finished. Remove it from the grill. Loosely cover with aluminum foil and let stand for at least 20 minutes before carving. While you’re waiting for the bird to finish, whip up some stuffing, mashed potatoes and a green bean casserole!

How Long to Grill a Turkey

a digital meat thermometer in the grilled turkey showing 160 degreesLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

When it comes to how long it takes to cook a turkey on a grill, times differ depending on the size and weight of your turkey. When in doubt, always trust your instant-read thermometer to judge a turkey’s doneness. Turkey breasts should reach an internal temp of 160° and 170° for thighs after resting.

Type Weight Cook Time
Whole 8 to 12lbs 1-1/2 to 2-1/2hrs
12 to 14lbs 2-1/2 to 2-3/4hrs
14 to 18lbs 2-3/4 to 3-1/2hrs
18 to 20lbs 3-1/2 to 4hrs
20 to 24lbs 4hrs to 4-3/4hrs
Breast, Bone-In 4 to 6lbs 3/4 to 1-1/4hrs
6 to 8lbs 1-1/4 to 1-3/4hrs
8 to 10lbs 1-3/4 to 2hrs

Editor’s Tip: The cook times are based on a fully thawed turkey and moderate outside temperatures on a grill that’s 325°-375°. Keep in mind that cook times may need to increase slightly if your turkey is not fully thawed or if the outside air temperature is below 50°.

Grilled Turkey Tips

How Big of a Turkey Should I Buy?

In general, this depends on the appetites of your party and how much you want leftover (are we wrong to assume that everyone wants Thanksgiving leftovers?). A good rule of thumb is to buy 1 pound of turkey per person for birds up to 16 pounds. For birds over 16 pounds, you can plan closer to 3/4 pound per person. Keep in mind that if you want leftovers you may want to bump these numbers up by 1/4 to 1/2 pound per person.

For grilling, especially using indirect heat on a charcoal grill, a 12 to 16 pound turkey will be the best size. The drip pan will fit underneath, the turkey won’t cook right on top of the hot coals, and the cover should close, which is needed to regulate the heat.

How to Keep Turkey from Drying Out

close up of cooked turkey meatLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

As with any cooking method, you run the risk of drying out your turkey either by cooking it for too long or over too high of heat. Here are five quick tips for ensuring a moist bird on the grill.

  • Marinate or Brine: A good marinade or brine bath is a great way to not only introduce flavor but add moisture to a grilled turkey. For best results let your turkey soak, once fully thawed, in your brine or marinade for at least 24 hours. And don’t forget to dry it out really well before cooking.
  • Add Fat: Upon removing your turkey from its marinade or brine bath and patting it dry, add a slathering of butter, olive oil or even mayonnaise to the outside of your turkey and even under the skin. This extra layer of fat protects and insulates the turkey meat from hot spots in your grill that may cause parts of your turkey to cook faster than you want them to.
  • Baste: Basting can also be a great way to keep a turkey moist while grilling. Since the drippings of a turkey may be difficult to access or salvage on a grill, make an extra 1-2 cups of marinade and use it to baste your bird, every 30 minutes or so, while it cooks.
  • Flip the Bird: No, put that finger down. We don’t mean “flipping the bird” in that context (unless, of course, you do end up drying out your turkey). Start with your bird breast side down and then flip halfway through cooking to ensure the delicate white meat of your turkey gets cooked through but is shielded from the higher heat of the grill for the last half of cooking.
  • Let It Rest: We know everyone is hungry and your turkey smells delicious, but resist the urge to cut into your bird when it’s hot off the grill. Instead, tent the turkey loosely with foil and let it rest on a carving board for 15-20 minutes before carving it. This will allow all the juices to redistribute evenly through the turkey rather than leak out upon carving. This is the most common step (and turkey mistake) we see skipped.

Direct vs. Indirect Heat for Grilling a Turkey

Whether using a gas or charcoal grill, indirect heat is the way to go when preparing a turkey. Be sure to set you your gas grill accordingly and if using a charcoal grill, arrange your coals in a pattern that prevents any part of the turkey from sitting over a direct flame. Direct heat will be much too intense for turkey and cause it to cook too quickly. Learn more about indirect vs. direct heat.

How to Carve a Turkey

carved turkey slices sitting on a white rectangular plate, view from aboveLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

We all have that one uncle who somehow got appointed the official family turkey carver back in 1982. What happens when he wants to retire? Is someone else among your family well-versed enough in the bone, joint and muscular structure of a turkey to step up to the turkey plate and take over? Fear not. Here’s a quick overview of how to carve a turkey.

  1. Carve away the legs. Pulling the leg gently away from the body of the turkey, use a sharp knife or electric carving blade to separate the legs (drumstick and thigh) from the bird at the joint that connects the thigh to the body.
  2. Separate the drumstick and thighs. Cut into the joint attaching the drumstick to the thigh and divide into two portions. At this point, you can either leave the drumsticks and thighs whole or carve the meat off the bone. Your choice.
  3. Remove the breast meat. Use a knife to carve down the center of the bird along one side of the breast bone from head to tail. Then gently slide your knife under the meat and carve under the breast meat along the rib cage. Finally, separate the breast meat from the bird by carving along the bottom of the breast (near the wing joints) and carefully lift the breast meat off the body. Repeat on the other side.
  4. Slice the breast meat. Using a sharp knife or electric carving blade, cut each breast into 1/4-inch thick slices and arrange on a platter.
  5. Remove the wings. Locate the wing joints and carefully cut into them as you pull the wings away from the body of the turkey.
  6. Extra meat. Finally, you may either save the carcass as-is with any remaining meat intact and use it to make turkey broth or stock. You can also use a knife to carve off any leftover tidbits you may have missed from your first go-round.
Don't Forget the Sides!
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Lauren Habermehl
Lauren Habermehl is a recipe developer, food photographer and creator of the blog, Frydae. She is a prolific quoter of FRIENDS, lover of weekend DIY projects and procrastinating fitness enthusiast who enjoys exploring the Milwaukee-area with her husband, daughter and ugly mutt named Tyson Doodles.