This year I will be deep-pit barbecuing my Thanksgiving turkey. Sadly, I don’t have any photos of the process to share with you (yet!), but since I’ve had such fantastic results each time I’ve cooked turkey this way, I wanted to share the idea and detailed steps for your Thanksgiving consideration.
I got the deep-pit barbecue idea last year purely out of necessity. I had spent April — October raising three white turkeys named Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter: two quiet toms and a friendly hen. I insisted on those names so I could avoid attachment to these shy, cooing, inquisitive birds. Ultimately Christmas received a Presidential Pardon when a fellow turkey lover took a liking to him and bought him to be the stud turkey for his hens at home. Lucky fellow.
Because I had never before raised animals for food, I put off their slaughter a bit too long in a subconscious attempt to avoid the inevitable. I realized this modern breed of turkeys were not meant to live very long. They grow extremely quickly until they’re so large their hearts give out. They were feathery time bombs, so there was no point in trying to keep them as pets.
Once I set my jaw and gathered the courage to drive them to the processing plant, I wound up with a 30 and 40 pound turkey, respectively. For those of you wondering, that is a LOT of turkey.
After the initial mourning period one always feels when processing an animal you raised yourself, I realized I had a large, heavy problem on my hands: there was no way either of them were going to fit in my oven. What to do?
Deep frying was out of the question for the same reason: no pot would fit either turkey. The only thing to do was channel those clever worldly folks frequently profiled on Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations who barbecue whole pigs deep in the ground. Deep pit barbecue.
How does it work?
Well, there are a couple methods: one that works with oxygen via a chimney for faster results (looked complicated) and one that works without oxygen for slow results which avoids the risk of burning.
I opted for the latter pit and started digging.
I dug. And dug and dug. I dug a pit four feet deep, four feet wide and four feet long (yes, just me and my shovel!). Most pit plans suggest lining with brick, so I did so along the bottom and about two feet up on all four walls. I didn’t bother permanently setting them with cement, I just angled them so they were pretty stable. Their main purpose is to evenly retain heat.
Please note that you must use brick designed for heat so they won’t explode when you light your fire! And please don’t use stones unless you can guarantee they haven’t been exposed to water in the past couple million years or they’ll explode too. Most brick has been designed for heat — I’m just throwing out a word of caution.
If you’re only planning on cooking turkeys and other smaller roasts, your pit doesn’t need to be this big. I had those No Reservations pigs in mind, so I made mine a bit larger. For a 20lb turkey or smaller you likely only need a pit 2 – 2.5 feet deep and wide enough to allow the turkey about 4-6 inches of space all the way around.
Once lined with brick, it was ready!
The wood to use for this kind of barbecuing is hard wood that won’t impart an overwhelming flavor. This process doesn’t smoke the meat because there won’t be a supply of oxygen, but certain pine trees with lots of resin should be avoided. Try oak, various fruit tree woods, mesquite, hickory, alder, birch, maple or similar. For a good idea of the various flavors of wood, check out barbecuewood.com. It’s meant more for smoking and traditional barbecue, but it will you an idea of what I’m talking about.
Mainly, please do not use wood that contains resins, glues, stains, oils, plastics or any other toxic (and bad tasting) additives.
You’ll need enough wood to continuously feed your fire for 2-4 hours, depending on the size of your pit — the bigger the pit, the longer you’ll feed it. The goal is a nice, deep bed of coals that will stay hot for a long time.
Prepare your turkey by seasoning it and setting it into a disposable turkey roasting pan. Cover the turkey and pan tightly with aluminum foil to seal it (3-4 layers preferably), then gently cover it with wet burlap sacks. Secure the entire bundle with wire so it can’t slide around or break when you lower it into, or pull it up from the pit. Sometimes I’ll tightly wrap poultry wire over the top of the burlap, and then with regular wire so it’s extra secure.
Tie long wire pieces to each side that you will use to lower the turkey into the pit, ensuring they’re long enough to remain outside the pit area so you can easily grab them to lift it back out again. Please balance the wires so your turkey doesn’t tip!
When the wood has burned down to red coals at least a foot deep for smaller pits or two feet for larger ones, lower your turkey into the middle, carefully cover with a metal lid and seal off the edges by lining them with dirt until you can’t see any smoke escaping. After an hour check the edges again. Smoke can be sneaky!
I salvaged a large 5ft x 5ft piece of steel for my lid, but most metals can be used provided they are strong enough to keep from bowing down over the heat of the fire.
We cooked our 40 lb tom turkey for 16 hours which was just right. My turkey this year will be 20 lbs so I’m estimating 10-11 hours. The beauty of this cooking technique is that without oxygen the heat will stay constant and low, which means the turkey will cook fully but won’t dry out from overcooking, even if you leave it in a couple hours longer than you need to.
Every time I do this, it seems unbelievable that it will work. I always hold my breath when unwrapping the wire, but it’s always perfectly cooked, moist, flavorful and incredibly delicious. Turkey has never been my favorite meat, but cooked like this it’s completely gorgeous. No dry breast meat in sight!
For my last two turkeys I used Cajun seasonings which wonderfully complimented the naturally sweet turkey flavor. Stuff the cavity with a halved yellow onion, a head of unpeeled garlic, three stalks of celery, a halved green bell pepper and a halved lemon. Massage softened grass fed butter into the skin then sprinkle all over with a combination of celery salt, black pepper, paprika (sweet/mild), cayenne pepper (very spicy), garlic powder, thyme and oregano. Fill the turkey pan with about 2 inches of white wine, then wrap with aluminum foil and the rest.
If a Cajun Thanksgiving isn’t your thing, this cooking process will work well with any other seasonings if you prefer something else.
I will be taking lots of photos of the process next week and posting them so you can see how I did it. Because I have found this such a reliable way to produce incredible turkey, I wanted to share it with you before the big day in case you are tired of dry, oven roasted bird and want to give it whirl yourself.
It also creates a fun night before Thanksgiving, crowding around the fire pit while your coals burn down, making s’mores, hot dogs and throwing back a couple cold ones or sipping on Bailey’s-laced hot chocolate.
Start a new tradition. Get digging!