Here’s my step-by-step photo guide for deep-pit barbecuing your Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter or anytime turkey. I describe in detail the process for digging the pit, choosing proper wood for good coals and cooking times on my earlier post, Deep Pit Barbecue Your Thanksgiving Turkey!
As long as I have a pit available, I will never again roast a turkey in the oven.
No more dreaded dry breast meat, no more basting, no more rising at 6am to stuff it in the oven. Just wake up at a leisurely hour, work on whatever other dishes you might have assigned to you (this year my aunt made an Excel spreadsheet to keep us all organized, but thankfully it wasn’t quite as bad as this), then dig up the turkey whenever the spirit moves you.
The turkey in these photos was 19lbs. I cooked it for 13 hours and it was just perfect. Falling-off-the-bone tender and so flavorful. Our one and only problem was… there were no leftovers.
My pit is 4 feet deep, so I was aiming for about 2 feet of hot coals. To get the fire started we loaded it with dry honey suckle branches which were pruned during the summer — perfect for kindling. The branches in the middle were cherry, and throughout the evening we stoked the flames with oak, cherry, apple and apricot wood. It took about 3 hours of steady burning to get 2 feet of coals.
Our turkey was a Shelton Free Range Turkey, which I picked up fresh from my local butcher. I stuffed it with fresh rosemary and sage, one cinnamon stick, one honey crisp apple, one lemon, a handful of cranberries, celery and a carrot. Once stuffed, I made small punctures all over the breast and inserted little pieces of sage and rosemary leaves with slices of fresh garlic and three whole cloves. Then I rubbed softened pastured butter into the skin and dusted on cayenne pepper, nutmeg, salt and pepper.
Put whatever you can’t fit into the turkey into the bottom of the extra-deep disposable aluminum roasting pan, then fill it with about an inch of white wine. Bend the edges of the pan up towards the ceiling to get it ready for being wrapped tightly with aluminum foil.
Wrap the turkey and pan tightly and completely, alternating your wrapping direction lengthwise and widthwise. I usually do about 4 layers. You want it as tight as possible because while cooking, the turkey will release a lot of delicious juices which you’ll want to be able to use for The Best Gravy In The World.
Now you’re ready for some burlap!
Wrap it with large burlap sacks. You could make due with one, but I used two. You’ll wet the burlap before setting it into the pit, but for ease of wrapping, leave them dry until it’s all wrapped and ready to go in.
For my own convenience, I opt to wrap my deep pit parcels in poultry wire as I have a lot of it lying around. But you can use plain ole’ stainless steel wire if that’s all you’ve got. Just make sure to wrap it all over, from all angles so nothing comes apart when it comes time to lift it out of the pit.
I simply secured the ends of the poultry wire with stainless steel wire (I wouldn’t risk using another kind of wire unless you know it will stand up to prolonged heat exposure), then I tied long pieces (about 5 ft) of wire to either side of the turkey for the lowering and lifting process. Please make sure they are balanced on either side — keep in mind that wine and those turkey juices!
Now that the turkey is wrapped, we can turn our attentions to the fun part of the cooking process: fire! Go ahead, embrace your inner caveman. He’s been there all this time, just waiting for you to cook with live flames. Give the poor guy a beer and let him stick around a while.
My inner cavewoman was entranced by the green and blue flames dancing around. Oooh, pretty. Let the coals die down until there are no more naked flames visible (sorry, cavewoman). Just glowing red and black coals.
Wet the burlap thoroughly then lower the turkey down into the middle of the pit. Quickly cover the pit opening with large metal pieces. The less oxygen available the better, so move fast. We had three large pieces of aluminum, so we laid a long steel stake across the opening, then layered the aluminum over that for extra support.
Now for the fiddly part. Fill in every conceivable opening with dirt. Fill in all around the edges and pay special attention to the top where you might have, like us, have layered the metal. Using a flashlight in the dark works especially well for spying those little smoke vents. Depriving the pit of oxygen is of utmost importance, so even if you think it’s sealed, check it again an hour later if possible, then go to bed.
Once you’ve enjoyed your lazy, relaxed Thanksgiving morning, setting the table at a slower-than-frantic speed because you know your turkey is taking care of itself, get your boots on, grab your shovel and go dig up that bird.
Move all the insulating dirt off to the side with a shovel.
Now hold your breath! You’ll feel a wave of anxious uncertainty at having embraced your inner caveman, but have faith and don’t let him know you have doubts…
… Because hurrah! It’s not one giant lump of coal! In fact, we moved rather slowly when setting the turkey in the night before, so the burlap is slightly burned. Usually it’s barely colored.
Now lift it up using those carefully balanced strands of wire.
Get your helpful brother and faithful steed to wheel it into the the house (optional).
Carefully unwrap it and cut away the burlap.
Oooohhh. Melt-in-your-mouth tender, flavorful turkey. Once it’s cooled you can simply pull it apart with your fingers. No turkey carving this year.
Quick! Get it ready for the dining table before it’s too late!
And remember, delicious turkey makes everyone sleepy. Even Skippy.