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How to cook Thanksgiving turkey outside without an oven

Why limit your Thanksgiving prep to the kitchen? We took four birds outside to put a Big Green Egg, a Traeger pellet grill, a classic Weber kettle and a deep fry rig to the test.

What's the best way to cook thanksgiving turkey outside? We take the plunge, and dig in to find out.

Chris Monroe/CNET
This story is part of Holiday Survival Guide 2019, featuring tips on the best ways to manage the holiday season.

Most of you will cook your Thanksgiving turkey indoors, the typical way: in the oven. But have you considered throwing your turkey on the grill? What about deep frying? You'll free up your oven for tackling sides and desserts. Preparing your centerpiece a different way also gives you a convenient excuse to take a moment away from the festivities to go "check on the bird." 

There's no objectively right way to cook a turkey outside. Some people swear that roasting your holiday bird in the Big Green Egg is the best. Others say firing up their Traeger pellet grill is the only way to go. And the truly brave among us will tell you, deep fried turkey is the ultimate Thanksgiving delicacy. And don't forget about the classic Weber Kettle, found in countless backyards nationwide.   

For most of you, the right way will be to use whatever grill you happen to own. That said, we thought it would be worthwhile to try four popular methods for cooking turkey outside and put the results up for a jury vote among the CNET Smart Home and Appliances team. 

In the end, the results were pretty conclusive. Here's how it all went down.

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1:19

Let's talk turkey

All four of the birds we cooked were basic, frozen supermarket-brand turkeys, packaged in brine and sourced from the local Kroger. They all came in between 16.2 and 16.5 pounds.

I butterflied (spatchcocked) three of our four test turkeys.

Chris Monroe/CNET

They took four days to thaw in the fridge, aided by a few hours wading in a cold water bath. If yours are already thawed, even better. After that, I butterflied (spatchcocked) three of them, and left the bird destined for the fryer intact. 

I gave our turkeys a generous amount of herb spice rub, and a separate light sprinkle of salt.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Spatchcocking puts the dark meat closer to the heat, and the white meat further away. Since white meat cooks faster than dark, the arrangement helps the breast and thigh to finish in unison. 

Next, I hit all the turkeys with a light sprinkle of kosher salt and an herb rub. Kudos to amazingribs.com for this powerful turkey recipe inspiration. I then placed them in the refrigerator overnight, where they sat until cooking time arrived the next day.

With the Big Green Egg up to temperature, and its ConvEGGtor heat diffuser accessory in place, it's time to cook. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

Turkey method 1: Big Green Egg

Kamado-style grills like the Big Green Egg are typically made from enameled ceramic. Because of that, they're superb at retaining heat. They also keep lots of moisture locked inside the cooking chamber, which can help keep your turkey juicy. 

To start, I filled my test Egg with Big Green Egg-brand oak and hickory lump charcoal. I also nestled a chunk of applewood inside the coal pile as well. With the fire lit, I placed the ConvEGGtor accessory (feet up) inside the fire bowl. This ceramic heat shield sits between food and the coals, and it's necessary for indirect roasting or smoking. 

We kept an eye on temperatures of two of the three grills with thermocouples linked to a data logger.

Chris Monroe/CNET

I also took advantage of the SmartFire barbecue pit controller. The gizmo enabled me to easily bring the Green Egg's fire up to 325 degrees Fahrenheit (163 C). Best of all, it kept the Egg humming along with minimal supervision.

A thermocouple probe borrowed from our testing lab provided heat readings throughout the cook. My target temperature was 160 degrees, and three hours later the bird hit that mark. 

We carefully lowered one of our turkeys into a vat of hot oil to fry. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

Turkey method 2: Deep fryer 

Deep frying a turkey is an intense, potentially dangerous cooking method. You've probably heard the various warnings about accounting for oil displacement, among other things. I'll suffice it to say here that you shouldn't undertake to deep fry a turkey without reading up thoroughly or working with someone you trust who has experience. To do the job, we used a specially made turkey fryer kit. It included a large metal pot, sturdy stand and a propane burner.

When frying turkeys, special heat-resistant gloves and other protective gear is a must.

Chris Monroe/CNET

After performing a displacement check with the turkey and water, we then poured three gallons of peanut oil into the pot, and lit the burner. After 15 to 20 minutes, the oil reached frying temperature (350 degrees). Wearing protective gear (heat-resistant gloves, eyeglasses and apron), my colleague Steve slowly lowered the turkey into the oil, using the metal stand and hook that came with the frying kit. 

Lowering the bird into the oil is a critical, and dangerous moment. Moving too quickly here, or not thawing your bird completely could cause hot oil to splatter, or it could set off an eruption of oil outside of the pot. Luckily we avoided that. With the turkey successfully submerged, we let it fry. After 50 minutes, the internal temperature at the breast hit 160 degrees, our stopping point. 

Turkey method 3: Traeger pellet smoker 

I've long had respect for Traeger wood pellet grills, specifically the Timberline 850 I reviewed last year. Without fail, this smoker has transformed everything I cooked inside it into something remarkable. I'm happy to say that turkey was no exception.

With the Traeger ready, I put the turkey on the lower grate. I then fired up the wood pellet grill's supersmoke mode.

Chris Monroe/CNET

After cleaning out the firebox, I ignited the grill and brought its temperature up to 200 degrees. I then placed the turkey on the lowest grate, and inserted the grill's meat probe into the bird's left breast. After that I closed the lid, and activated the Traeger's "super smoke" mode for 30 minutes. It's designed to feed wood pellets into the firebox, where they smolder at low temps for maximum smoke creation. I used Traeger's own signature blend of pellets, comprised of a mix of hickory, maple and cherry hardwoods. 

In total, the smoker needed three hours to bring the turkey up to the correct temperature of 160 degrees. It took a little doing since the right breast cooked faster than the left one. Two thirds of the way into the cook, I rotated the turkey 180 degrees. That ramped up internal temperatures on the bird's left side to match its right.  

I created an indirect heat zone on the Weber Classic Kettle, then placed the turkey on the cooler side.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Turkey method 4: Weber Classic

I first filled a charcoal chimney starter two-thirds full with briquettes. I didn't use anything fancy, just good old Kingsford Blue. Once I lit them and let them smolder, I dumped the coals on the Webber Classic's charcoal grate. Then I roughly arranged them in a pile that hugged the left side of the kettle. I grabbed a chunk of applewood and put it on top of the coal bed too. 

A hefty chunk of applewood went directly on the coals.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Next I placed an aluminum drip pan to the right of the coals, and filled that with water hot off the boil. Finally I lowered the cooking grate into the kettle, then carefully put the turkey on the grill's right side (over the drip pan).  

For the record, both the lid vent and the cooker's bottom vent were halfway open. I also monitored both the grill temperature and internal turkey temp (breast) with thermocouples. Soon after closing the Weber, things got hairy. From a previously steady temperature of 325 degrees, heat levels plummeted to 150 degrees in 20 short minutes.

I had made a classic newbie mistake. I'd let the coals sit too long in the chimney starter, before adding them to the pit. I also opened the lid soon after adding the bird for a peek. Now I was paying the price. I salvaged the situation by starting a fresh chimney of coals, which I added to the Weber with haste.

Once I brought the fire back to life, the heat spiked upwards so I had to tweak the air vents numerous times. Flame flare ups forced me to shift the bird's position often too.

Tasting and verdict

With all the turkeys cooked and off the grill, we conducted a blind taste test with 10 members of the CNET Smart Home and Appliances team. We tallied votes on numbered note cards, and only I knew which turkey came from what outdoor cooker. The results were clear and unmistakable.  

Turkey on the Big Green Egg came out good, but wasn't the best of the birds we tasted.

Chris Monroe/CNET

4th place: Big Green Egg

This beloved kamado brand produced a nicely roasted turkey, with a good amount of color and flavor. That said, our panel judged the Big Green Egg's turkey to be their least favorite. In fact, six out of 10 tasters rated it as their least favorite. I personally wasn't blown away by the texture of the skin. It wasn't as crisp as I prefer. And while the meat wasn't dry, neither was it as juicy as the other birds I cooked. What I found most disappointing was that I didn't taste much of the applewood smoke flavor at all.

Here's our turkey as it came out of the fryer. It was golden brown, a little oily.

Chris Monroe/CNET

3rd place: Deep Fryer

When we pulled our fried bird out of the vat, it had turned a hue of golden brown. The skin definitely had some crispness, but it lacked overall crunch. And when we cut the turkey open, the meat was tender but oily. It wasn't bad, it just didn't live up to our deep fried turkey fantasies. Six out of 10 voters put the fryer bird as second to last in our turkey test group.     

After three hours, the turkey in the Traeger was done, and looking very nice.

Chris Monroe/CNET

2nd place: Traeger Timerline 850

When I pulled the bird out of the Traeger Timberline, its skin had a lovely brown color. It had some crispness too, though it could have had a touch more texture and crunch. Carving into this turkey though, revealed its true charm. Its meat was the juiciest of all our sample birds. Best of all, the Traeger really brought out the natural turkey flavor, balancing it nicely against the sweet smoke in the background. Our panel agreed. Three out of 10 tasters voted this turkey their favorite, and four out of 10 rated the Traeger bird as their second choice.  

Despite setbacks and battling the grill for proper cooking temperature, that turkey that it made was fabulous. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

1st place: Weber Classic Kettle

I admit I didn't expect the Weber Classic kettle to cook up something that great, especially since it took some work to stabilize the cooking temperature. I certainly didn't think it would roast a bird that was outrageously good, but that's exactly what happened. The turkey came out with a thick crunchy crust. It was bark-like, the sort of thing I expect to see on a brisket, or a butt of nicely smoked pork. The meat was moist and tender too, and had a good deal of smoke flavor. There was even a visible smoke ring.

The Weber-cooked turkey had crunchy, crispy, bark-like skin. Its meat was tender too and had a delicious, smokey flavor. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

I wasn't the only one who felt this way. The bird that came out of the Weber was also the favorite among our panel tasters. Five out 10 panelists judged it as their favorite. Three out of 10 tasters also voted it in at second place. Another indicator was that this is the turkey people chose when they went back for seconds, and thirds.

Respect that old Weber

I now have newfound admiration for the old $109 Weber Classic kettle grill. Yes, it's inefficient and burns a lot more fuel than a kamado. Yes, it leaks heat and fills your backyard with a ton of smoke. And yes, it's a completely manual cooker with no Wi-Fi connection, sophisticated smarts or snazzy wood pellet drive system. 

What it can do, I'll argue, is significantly more important. It can transform a lowly supermarket turkey into a thing of beauty, and festive deliciousness. It's also why I'll be firing up the old Weber when it's time to make turkey this Thanksgiving. Perhaps you should consider doing that, too.

Originally published earlier this month.