Featured image of a smoked turkey with sides for Thanksgiving with text over it that says, 'A Guide to Lighting Up the BBQ on Thanksgiving'.

A Guide to Lighting Up the BBQ on Thanksgiving

There is a huge array of options for home cooks looking to impress with their grilling skills on Thanksgiving. Though you may be tempted to cook a turkey in an oven bag as tradition dictates, consider letting your senses be your guide instead. Who doesn’t love the scent of a perfectly grilled turkey leg? Or better yet, isn’t a delicious, moist, smoked turkey more flavorful than anything you’ve made indoors? And beyond turkey: have you ever found yourself in an oven traffic jam as a line of casserole dishes competes for space on your counter? If you’ve struggled with any of these, we’re here to help you make this Thanksgiving special with a how-to about smoking a turkey on a pellet grill, as well as some BBQ tips for cold weather and Thanksgiving BBQ recipes.

Smoking a Turkey on a Pellet Grill

What can make a turkey have a juicier, more well-rounded flavor than many of the most well-intentioned oven recipes? Smoking a turkey on a pellet grill! While the traditional aromatics–celery, carrots, onions, and herbs–are classics for a reason, they can still be incorporated into a decent-sized turkey via a dry rub, and take on a whole new dimension thanks to smoking.

A raw uncooked turkey covered in oil and herbs and spices next to some raw, cut vegetables.

Before you get the grill going, you should first ensure that you’ve either purchased a brined bird or that you brine it yourself. When selecting your turkey, you should be looking for one that is 15 pounds or less in order to ensure the bird is cooked through. Once the turkey has had time to brine, you should also rub it all over with oil (olive oil or butter will work) and a dry rub in order to ensure maximum flavor.

Next comes prepping your grill. In a pellet grill, you should ensure there’s adequate space above and below the bird in order to allow the smoke to flow. Consider using apple, hickory, or cherry pellets for a nice complementary flavor.

Cooking smoked turkey takes some time: up to seven and a half or eight hours, depending on the weight of the bird. The BBQ experts over at Hey Grill Hey say you should plan for about half an hour of cooking time per pound of bird if you’re cooking at 225 degrees.

While the turkey is smoking, keep a drip pan underneath to prevent any flare-ups. You can throw some stock and aromatics in that drip pan if you like to hit the bird with one last dose of flavor, or you could also wait for the drippings to collect and then use them to add an extra wow factor to homemade stuffing completed in the oven.

A cooked turkey covered in some garnishes and seasoning and oil resting on a pan while its internal temperature is taken.

During this time, you can monitor the temperature of your bird and grill with a dual-probe thermometer. This is a much safer and more effective way to monitor the temperature of your turkey. The USDA says your bird should reach 165 degrees before it’s safe for consumption, so monitor the turkey in a thick section like the breast to ensure the cooking process is complete. Using a thermometer also allows you to avoid constantly reopening the grill, which can allow drafts in and throw off the temperature inside the grill.

Once the turkey is done, a solid 30-minute rest will likely be enough time for the flavors to fully incorporate and the meat to reach the right temperature for serving.

BBQ Tips for Cold Weather

When you’re barbecuing in the cold, you have to be wary of accidentally lowering the temperature in your grill. This can prolong the cooking process and potentially ruin your Thanksgiving meal if you’re not careful.

If your grill is movable, one of the first things you can do to be mindful of cold weather grilling is moving it to a place that’s protected from any wind. If your smoker is prone to temperature swings, you should also keep a close eye on it and expect that your bird may take a bit longer to cook than it otherwise would.

Wood and charcoal on fire and smoking.

You should also keep in mind that you may need some extra pellets, propane, charcoal, or wood to keep the fire steady in colder or more blustery conditions. It’s better to be over-prepared in this arena than underprepared–you don’t want your smoker running on fumes.

Finally, remember an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Keep your grill somewhere safe from the elements and/or covered when not in use, especially in the summer. No sense giving yourself a nasty surprise once the weather warms up! You can check out our recent blog post for more tips and tricks for cleaning your grill.

Thanksgiving BBQ Recipes

Turkey isn’t your only grilling option for Thanksgiving! Ham, butternut squash, and all the other grilling classics are also an option for the holiday. After all, isn’t the whole point of Thanksgiving simply to gather together and give thanks for what we have?

Glazed smoked ham that is sliced on a board with fresh pineapple and orange slices and other sides surrounding it.

If you’re looking to impress your guests with a smoked ham for Thanksgiving, Kingsford recommends buying a smoked or cooked ham from the grocery store and grilling it at home. The technique calls for you to score the ham in a crosshatch pattern, rub it with seasonings, then light up your grill. The temperature on the grill should reach 325 degrees, at which point you can add your seasoned ham and wait for it to get up to 120 degrees on its own. Then, give it a deliciously sweet glaze, let it rise in temperature a bit more, and then remove to cool.

If you’re interested in another fall vegetable, or catering to the vegans and vegetarians at the table, consider some grilled butternut squash. Though squash takes well to a sweet and savory glaze, this surprising recipe from Food and Wine calls for shallot and white wine vinegar to give your butternut squash a lighter flavor. It’s the perfect counterpoint to all the other heavy dishes at the table!

And of course, feel free to go wild with whatever other grilling recipes you’re more fond of. If you’re searching for methods to squeeze some extra cooking time out of your grill and leave the oven open for stuffing, we have a guide to plenty of vegetarian BBQ ideas to keep your guests happy and impressed with your range–pun intended!

The Thanksgiving season is one of the most delightful culinary moments of the year. Regardless of whether your guests expect a turkey or something unexpected, Thanksgiving is a great opportunity to pull out your grill and help make the day a memorable one.


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