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Barbecuing Turkey – Cooking Times and Techniques

The fine art of barbecuing turkey is one of those life skills that everyone needs to have. In fact, officials at the North Carolina Turkey Federation believed this so much that they teamed up with the 4-H Clubs and created a way for 4-H club members aged 9 through 18 to test their barbecuing turkey skills at a contest.

The barbecuing turkey competition allowed each participant only 2-1/2 hours to prepare two 1/4 to 1 pound turkey breast filets or tenderloins. Contestants gave at least a 5-minute speech, provided posters on turkey cooking methods, economics and nutrition information as well as their barbecue sauce recipe. They all worked alone. Gas grills were not allowed, only other non-gas grills, charcoal, lighter fluid, tongs, and sauce. Contest winners received a $75 scholarship to the North Carolina 4-H Congress.

You don’t need a contest to get started barbecuing turkey for your next special occasion; only the desire and knowledge of how to do it. Use these tips to get you started.

  1. Know the difference between barbecuing and grilling. Often these terms are used interchangeably but there is a big difference. Grilling is cooking food over high heat and can include cooking it directly over the heat or in another location close to, but away from the heat source. Barbecuing is cooking food at low temperatures for a long time and usually involves an indirect heat source, such as smoldering wood chips or logs.
  2. The best temperature for barbecuing turkey is between 200 and 300 degrees F., with a propensity towards the upper end of the scale to kill harmful bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses.
  3. Turkeys can be too large to barbecue. Because you will be barbecuing the turkey, not grilling it, the larger the turkey, the more difficult it is for the bird to be thoroughly cooked. Large turkeys open up the possibility for food-borne illness, and burnt, tough meat on the outside with raw meat on the inside. When barbecuing turkey, select a bird no larger than 12 pounds.
  4. Allow a cooking time of 20 to 30 minutes per pound. If you cut the turkey into pieces and then barbecue them, you’ll be able to cut that cooking time a lot more.
  5. In the strictest sense of the word, barbecuing turkey uses wood in the process. To smoke a turkey, use gas, electricity, or charcoal.
  6. A turkey that will be smoked or barbecued should never be stuffed. The stuffing picks up unattractive odors from the cooking process and may not cook to the appropriate temperature of 165 degrees F.
  7. Always, always, always use a meat thermometer on poultry. Poultry is not like beef or lamb that can be cooked rare; poultry is either cooked or it’s not. The temperature of the cooked thigh should be 180 degrees F and the breast should be 170 degrees F.

Knowing these turkey facts, it’s time to get started. Apply the barbecue sauce to the turkey before cooking and at least once during the cooking.

Prepare your bird and the grill, check the grill temperature, place the turkey on the rack, and let the barbecuing begin!

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