It’s not tricky or slow, you don’t need an enormous barbecue, and a turkey cooked over the coals is a succulent, crisp-skinned joy
• In pictures: how to carve a turkey
Tue 20 Dec 2011 10.00 GMTFirst published on Tue 20 Dec 2011 10.00 GMT
A fully cooked, barbecued turkey
The fully cooked, barbecued turkey. Photograph: Oliver Thring
If you’ve never barbecued a whole turkey before (neither had I until a couple of days ago), I’d like to suggest it as an option this Christmas. It’s certainly the only way I’m going to cook turkeys from now on. Maybe chickens too. Barbecuing the bird is laughably easy, rather less frightening than deep-frying it, and quick. After two hours and 15 minutes, a 5kg turkey emerged golden, succulent and full of flavour. The dark meat was gamey, the breast juicy, the skin crisp and even.
Barbecuing the Christmas bird frees up your oven for potatoes or whatever else you’re cooking. You only need a kettle barbecue, a bit of charcoal and a meat thermometer. (You could of course use a gas barbie too, on a low setting and without the burner(s) directly under the bird lit.) The practice is particularly popular in America for the Thanksgiving roast.
Brining a turkey
Brining a turkey. Photograph: Oliver Thring
I followed Heston’s advice – as lots of people seem to be doing this year – by brining the turkey the night before. In 10 litres of water, it sat with 800g of salt (more than a whole tube of Saxa) for 13 hours, looking like something by Damien Hirst.
The trussed turkey
The trussed turkey. Photograph: Oliver Thring
It then desalinated for an hour in fresh water which I changed every 15 minutes. I trussed the bird to retain some of its moisture, but this step is inessential. Lemon, rosemary and thyme in the cavity, a load of lemon juice over the skin, a nice smearing in butter, and on it went.
Setting up the barbecue for indirect cooking
Setting up the barbecue for indirect cooking. Burning coals on either side, drip tray in the middle. Photograph: Oliver Thring
This kind of barbecuing calls for indirect heat – the bird sits on the grill with the coals underneath off to the sides. Rather than grilling a steak directly over ferociously hot coals, with indirect grilling the heat circulates round the oven and is reflected from above by the barbecue’s curved lid. The temperature is trickier to maintain than in a conventional oven, but in practice this doesn’t matter too much as long as you top up with additional fuel when necessary.
Make sure your coals have cooled down sufficiently before you start. They’re ready when they’ve developed a thin surface covering of white ash, and then you bank them up to the edges of your kettle. Keep a vigilant eye on them: you’ll probably need to add more after an hour. (The extra coals should be alight and up to temperature – a chimney starter is the easy and safe way to light and distribute them.)
Barbecuing using indirect heat
Barbecuing using indirect heat – the turkey goes on the griddle over the drip tray. Photograph: Oliver Thring
I placed a little container of water underneath the bird to catch the juices – reduced, these went into the gravy, and the water also helps to maintain a little humidity in the barbecue. I also basted the turkey every half-hour or so with thyme and rosemary steeped in melted butter. With sprouts and bacon, Delia’s failsafe cranberry sauce and roast potatoes cooked in lard, it was a lunch I should have more often.