[Editor’s Note: This is the recipe. Many of you complained of eye strain trying to follow the actual recipe on my original post. If you want the whole diatribe that describes the “experience” click here. Also, if you were listening to On Point with Tom Ashbrook on National Public Radio today that was me “Dan in Augusta” talking about Beer Butt Turkey.]
Beer Butt Turkey and Turkey Brining
Here’s our timeline: we get the bird into the brine around noon the day before we cook it. We let it soak for 8 hours, drain, put it in the fridge overnight and put it on the grill around 11am for a 2:30 pm dinner. This is based on a 13 pound bird in a large pot.
This is really two recipes in one. One for brining, one for cooking the turkey. If you don’t brine the bird overcooking it will dry out the bird.
Let’s start with the brine recipe:
1 cup table salt
1 gallon water
2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup fresh rosemary leaves (cut back about 1/3 if you use dried)
1/2 cup fresh thyme leaves (cut back about 1/3 if you use dried)
2 apples sliced
2 oranges quartered
2 cans of chicken broth (regular can)
1/4 cup of fresh basil (cut back about 1/3 if you use dried)
1 small onion, peeled and quartered
handful of those little peeled baby carrots (or 1 carrot, peeled & cut into 1-inch chunks)
1 stalk celery, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 stick unsalted butter (you can used salted butter just back off on the table salt mentioned above).
Avoid fancy salt, like Kosher or crusty sea salt. They don’t measure the same.
With the chicken broth: experience will determine if using no-sodium and/or no-fat tastes better. We used lower-fat but regular sodium.
Toss everything listed into a large pot. The best method to use a deep fry turkey pot and if possible the fry basket that many deep fry kits come with. Put everything in that basket/bucket. Bring it to a boil just to make sure everything is blended. (i.e melt the butter and dissolve the sugar and the salt). Put the pot in a sink full of cold water to cool of the contents of the pot. Drain and refill the sink as the sink water gets hot. When it has cooled add some ice (but not a lot) to the brine. If the ice doesn’t melt quickly then you are ready for the bird. You’ll also see a scum from the butter starting to form.
Keep the brine level as low as possible at the start because you will have to adjust the level in the pot/bucket with more icy water after you put in the bird.
If the bird has its legs bound with a wire un-bind them so the brine can get to everything. You can use the wire to lift the bird when brining is finished. Remove the wire before cooking the bird.
Put the bird in the pot and add icy water to bring the level up to cover the bird. Use a measured container to pour the icy water so you know how much liquid you use. The basic recipe is 1 cup salt per gallon. That will brine a turkey in 4-6 hours. The method I’m using assumes that you will probably have about 2 gallons of liquid. This would call for the bird to brine about 6-8 hours. If you go beyond 2 gallons then 8-12 hours. Pick the inner basket up and down to force the icy water and brine solution to mix. Make sure you don’t pour the icy water directly on the bird and fill it’s inner cavity with just water. By picking it up and down the brine will get inside the bird. If you have one of those lifting rods for deep frying turkeys you can use that.
If you don’t have a pot then you can use a bucket, which is usually smaller so keeping the water level low at the start is important. If you have a big bird and a small bucket you might want to ice down the sink water to get the brine much colder. Place a plastic trash bag in a bucket and put the turkey in. Pour in the ice cold brine. Fill it up to cover as much of the bird as possible, if not completely. If you need to add add water make sure to pour it on the side of the bucket then stir it around to get the water mixed in. Remember that you have to let its inner-cavity fill with brine. Use the formula above on how long to brine. You can twist-tie the bag closed. The plastic bag is used to keep sloshing down when you move it. A large roasting bag is best since it is designed to be in contact with food. It also helps in getting rid of the veggies and stuff in the brine.
Make sure the brine is cold before putting in the bird. Putting it in warm/room temperature brine will just increase the chance of food poisoning.
Then move the pot/bucket to the refrigerator for 6-8 hours depending on the volume per cup of salt.
One advantage of brining is that the bird, after soaking at fridge temperature, is the bird is more evenly thawed.
It will cook much more evenly.
When time’s up remove the turkey from brine, rinse and let dry on a rack or in a large tray in the refrigerator for 8 hours before cooking. Drain it as best you can making sure the cavity isn’t holding any excess water. Using a fry basket really helps when draining the brine. Putting it in the fridge helps dry out the skin so it will crisp up some or at least brown a little. Brining makes a turkey hold more moisture during cooking. But the skin might refuse to brown. The rack/tray should have plenty of paper towels under it to keep from spreading the joy of salmonella around the fridge.
The last time I did the bucket method I pulled out the bag in the sink when the brining was finished. Popped a hole in the bottom to drain the brine then moved the bird to a drying rack, making sure that brine collected in the sink didn’t make it back in the bag.
Now for the bird part of the recipe.
The following ingredients should work for just about any size turkey since it all goes into the same size beer can. The smaller the bird, the less fruit you need to cram in. When you can’t cram in any more you stop.
1 thawed turkey 8-15 pounds. Larger than 15 pounds becomes a challenge.
1 Foster’s “Oil Can” (the really big one)
2 Cups White Wine- we used Chardonnay
Handful fresh Rosemary (less if dried)
Handful fresh Basil (less if dried)
Handful fresh Thyme (less if dried)
1/2 stick butter
6 strips of thick sliced bacon
Limes or lemons (we used limes)
Dry rub of choice
Super Wide Aluminum Foil
2 throw away turkey size roasting pans
Gas grill with full tank
2 Beer Butt Chicken stands (improvise if need be)
Digital remote thermometer (optional but you need some kind of thermometer to check the bird’s internal temp at the end).
Combine butter, wine and herbs in a small sauce pan, heat until butter is melted. Don’t boil as this might weaken the wine’s flavor to soon.
Open and pour out the beer. Cut the top off of the beer can.
Place warm butter, wine and herb combination in the can and place the can in the roaster pan. We did a 13-pound bird and we used 2 stacked disposable roasting pans to give added strength. (The bottom pan should be clean at the end, save it for the next time). Build up a small aluminum foil base around the bottom of the can in the roasting pan. Wrap some aluminum foil around the end of the drumsticks about halfway up the drumstick. That’s to keep them from being over cooked since they will closest to the heat source.
There are several sources of Beer Butt Chicken stands that are small circular stainless steel stands that have a round center that hold a regular beer can. Don’t buy the large Beer Butt Chicken stand that is a large tray with a can holder in the middle. The ones I use are about 8 inches tall.
Put two of these beer can holders in the pan, just forward of the Oil Can, in the corners.
First remove any wires that were holding the birds legs together. If you don’t you won’t get the bird to sit up right.
Put the bird down on the can. If you are wrestling with a 10-13 pound bird you need to be careful or you will spill the beer can mix all over everywhere. As you lower the bird have someone guide the two drumsticks into the two beer butt can holders. Once down the Oil Can should be flat and the beer butt can holders should be propping up the turkey. Make sure it isn’t leaning in any one direction.
The reason why you need to have something sturdy, like these beer butt chicken holders, is that a turkey as it cooks starts to loosen up and things start to shift. If you don’t prop it up enough the bird will fall over about 2 hours after you start and things will get real messy. You can improvise like building up aluminum foil around the legs but too much might over insulate the bird.
If you have a probe-type thermometer that let’s you read the temperature while the bird cooks now is a good time to insert it. Make sure you get it to the thigh bone area. That cooks the slowest. When that area hits 180 degrees F, you should be good. When in doubt cook a little longer. Brining a turkey gives you a fudge factor by helping the bird hold the moisture in. You can overcook it a bit and it won’t dry out like a non-brined turkey would.
After getting the bird stable on the beer can and the two leg supports put quartered oranges and limes down the neck of the bird. In reality you are probably just plopping them straight into the beer car. Once full, stop. You can experiment by adding some of the lime wedges into the open skin area that has been pulled away from the breast area. Some people like putting in some apples. Pull the loose skin over the opening like a bald man’s comb-over so that the neck area full of limes and oranges is sealed.
Wet the bird with wine or lime juice so it will hold the rub. Rub dry rub all over the bird. There are several meat/poultry rubs you can buy or you can make your own with crushed pepper, salt and other spices. We used “The Chef’s Meat Marinade Seasoning” from Alden’s Mill House. Place bacon slices in a flower shape across the neck of the bird and secure with toothpicks. Try angling the toothpicks so they won’t rip the aluminum foil. The toothpick attached bacon will hold the neck closed and keep the steam in plus provide a drizzle of grease to keep the skin from drying out. (This is a holdover from non-brining days. Brining helps the skin stay moist. If you like some crispiness then use one or two slices to hold things shut). If you are concerned about undercooking the first time you try this and cook longer that recommended then the combination of bacon and brining will help keep the bird from drying out too much.
Tent the entire bird with aluminum foil so there are no openings except for the thermometer cord.
Place the tented bird on a pre-heated grill and cook for a minimum of 3 hours or until the thigh temperature reaches 180. Don’t slam down the lid. Most lids are slanted. You might have to slide the bird backwards so the lid will clear. If you have bunches of toothpicks pointing outward they will most likely tear the aluminum foil when they get hit with the grill lid. Adjust accordingly. This is where having the roasting pans is important. You can slide the bird back and forth. If you follow Beer Butt Chicken principals of putting the can directly on the grill you have to wrestle a 13 pound bird around a grill heated to 400 degrees.
Three hours is the time we used with a 13-pound bird. The rule of thumb is to set temp at around 450 degrees and cook for around 2-1/2 hours for a 8-10 pound bird and three hours for 10-14 pound bird. And once the lid is shut don’t open it until time is up. That’s why a remote digital thermometer comes in handy. The internal temperature is the deciding factor. Our grill’s gauge runs high and I think it’s off by 50 degrees. No two grills are the same. There is no exact formula for the cooking time. Experience pays here.
Once the lid is closed keep it closed. No opening the grill unless you have a grease fire going or something. No showing Aunt Martha that there’s a turkey in there.
I set all three burners to the lowest setting and was reading slightly over 500. The internal thermal thermometer immediately started rising and hit 100 degrees in 5 minutes, and 180 within an hour. That’s not good. We obviously stuck the probe in something other than the thigh. But all was not lost. I monitored the temp and it rose to about 205 at about 1 hour and 10 minutes and stayed there. We were still cooking but not so much that it was over cooking the bird. If the internal temp runs upwards of 230-250 etc then you are probably overcooking it.
After 2 hours I cut back (in this case turned off) the heat on the outer burners and turned up the heat on the center burner under the beer can. That kept the mix boiling and steaming the inside of the turkey, the grill’s temperature constant and it kept the legs from overcooking.
If you don’t have a remote probe you could use a meat thermometer. When the time is up, open the tent and stick a meat thermometer in and see if the thigh bone area hits 180. If not then tent it up the best you can and go some more. But realize once you open the tent the bird will dry out quicker.
The turkey will probably look nice and brown on the outside but it’s still moist and juicy where the skin attaches to the bird. Be careful because the skin can slide off when you pick it up. The aluminum foil on the tips of the drumsticks will keep them from drying out and burning. The wings are another matter. They usually dry out and are kinda crispy. If you wrap them in bacon and/or foil they will less likely be dried out.
You need some heavy duty gloves to get the bird off the grill and off the beer can. The can has had 3 hours to adhere to the turkey under high heat. If done right the can will come out easily. The can is now filled to the top with boiling hot liquid so be careful. If you pick the bird up at an angle the can might come flying out and hit you with boiling mush. Using the gloves reach underneath and twist the can to break any hold it might have. Don’t tilt the bird too much or you will slosh out the boiling mush. Grab the bird and slowly lift it straight up. If you are lucky the can will simply stay put and you got a free bird to plop on the plate for serving. If the can doesn’t drop after lifting it about 6 inches stop. The last thing you want is to have that can drop about a foot and cover you with scalding liquid. Have someone help and free it. If you can’t get the can to twist and break free, you could pop the bottom of the can with a sharp object and let the liquid drain into the roasting pan. Once empty you can then turn the bird around without worrying about it sloshing out and burning you. Well, you have less to worry about but those limes and oranges are still pretty hot. A screw driver rammed in the can can be used to twist it out. This is when you find out the Heiniken can was a mistake.
This is one of the hardest parts. You must lift and man-handle a large hot slippery bird and not damage the skin so it looks pretty on the carving plate. Make sure you are using clean gloves.
Let the bird rest for 15-20 minutes before carving.
Words of Wisdom before you try this:
This calls for the lid to come down and stay down until the bird is done so using a charcoal grill is risky. If you have to constantly open the top to add charcoal in a 2-4 hour period then you’ll never keep the heat constant.
Turkeys are loaded with water and fat, especially after brining. The excess water and fat has to go somewhere. If you follow the Beer Butt purist method of having the can sit directly on the grill to “better transfer the heat” then better don’t do it on the deck or the balcony of your apartment. The escaping liquid will fill up the beer can and overflow (remember you got some oranges and limes sharing space in there). Most grills have a small drip pan underneath. This will overwhelm the pan and stain the deck. That’s the good scenario. The bad scenario is where the fat (remember there’s bacon involved) causes a flash fire and while you’re watching the ball game your bird is going up in flames.
The beer butt method of cooking is safer in my opinion than deep frying. There’s lots of tales about people burning down the house…. or severely burning themselves. It still uses flame, propane gas, and a source of fat. If you happen to drink the beer from the can you used then you will need adult supervision. You can still burn the house down so do this a safe distance. Look toward the grill every 10-15 minutes to make sure smoke isn’t pouring out. Some smoke and steam is normal. Lots of it is not.
We recommend a Foster’s “Oil Can” style can with straight sides. A Heiniken can will work but because of its keg shape the hump in the middle makes it a challenge to get out.
Make sure your grill has enough height to take a turkey standing up. The bigger the bird, more likely it won’t fit. Also, it works better if you have 3 burners, with one in the center, so you can control the heat under the beer can. If the burner goes across the grill rather than from front to back, you are on your own. Most grills have a sloped front. The bird will have to fit under the flat part which means the bird will have to be pushed back. Any of those little warming racks will have to be removed to make room. Do that before you fire it up. Nothing like juggling a huge turkey will trying to remove a red hot rack.
Make sure you have a spot in the fridge that can take a large bucket or pot with a turkey in it (for the brining process). Make sure the shelves can handle the weight and actually fits. Also you need an area big enough to hold the bird while it dries after the brining. Remember, you are taking up a lot of valuable space that might be needed for preparing other dishes. Plus you don’t want to expose your non-cooked dishes to the danger of salmonella from a raw bird.
Hardware stories sell heavy duty rubber gloves popular with deep fried turkey fans. They are real heavy duty and can withstand heat long enough to get the pans off the grill and the bird off the beer can. But they are not designed to be used with open flame. They can be slippery once you get some turkey grease on them so don’t handle the bird near the edge of the sink or table or your masterpiece might wind up on the floor. Make sure if it slips and drops it lands on something clean.
Remember, cooking turkeys at Thanksgiving and Christmas is like planning a wedding. Everyone wants it to be perfect, cries when it isn’t, but laughs about it later (much later).
It wouldn’t hurt to do this once before you actually do it for the family on the holiday. Getting the time/temperature right can be a tricky thing considering no two grills are alike and no two thermometers read the same. You learn a lot the first time you do it. You’ll probably do a good turkey for Thanksgiving, a really good bird for Christmas and be an old pro in time for the Super Bowl.
May I also recommend a wine to go with the turkey. Brandborg Gewurztraminer (Oregon)(A sweeter wine), Willm Gewurztraminer Reserve (Germany) (a dryer wine) or Il Papavero Dry White (Italian) (drier but less expensive).