Even if you’re in charge, a substantial part of cooking a big festive season meal is waiting for the turkey to happen. Sitting in the dining room, peering through that little oven window at it like it’s some kind of zoo animal.
There is a better way. Cook your feast on the grill and you control the elements. You add the smoke and the flavours. You change the temperature. You’re actually cooking your food the same way you’re actually driving a car with a manual transmission. Top Los Angeles chef Ben Ford is a guy who believes in this kind of elemental sorcery.
He’ll roast anything. His backyard looks like it was cast in a mediaeval iron forge. So he created a menu for us: a turkey smoked over sweet applewood and corncobs; ember-cooked potato packets he came up with for a camping trip; a grilled fig and dried fruit chutney; and grilled green beans with shallots and hazelnuts. If you’re going to cook Christmas lunch with your bare hands, you want to end up with an impressive meal.
1. Start with a 5-kilogram turkey. You’ll need a 28-litre cooler to brine the bird in before you smoke it, two 7-kg bags of natural lump charcoal, one 1,5-kg bag of applewood chips, an aluminium roasting pan, a basting brush, and your corncobs.
2. Remove the neck, giblets and heart from the cavity. Discard the liver. Put everything else in an airtight container and refrigerate until you’re ready to make the gravy (you can find the recipe at popularmechanics.com/grill).
3. Bring 5 litres of water to a boil. Add salt and sugar. Stir in the apple juice, peppercorns, star anise, bay leaves, chillies, allspice, and juniper berries. Pour everything into the cooler. Add enough ice to make 10 litres.
4. Rinse the turkey and clean it out well. Put the turkey in the cooler neck first and place a heavy plate on top of it to keep it submerged. Put the cooler in a cool, dark place overnight.
5. The next day, remove the turkey, rinse it, and pat it dry with paper towels. Combine all the dry rub ingredients. Dust the body cavity with 1 tablespoon of that, and then add the rest to the softened butter, mixing well with a spoon, along with the thyme and lemon zest. Smear half of this butter rub under the skin of the breast and all over the outer surface of the skin as well. Put the remaining butter in a saucepan and place it near the grill. You’ll use it to baste the bird while you cook. Finally, stuff the cavity with the onion quarters and thyme sprigs.
The physics of grilling: barbeque stall
You know how it goes: you put your meat on the grill and the meat gets hotter, like it’s supposed to. And then it gets to 65 degrees and the temperature stops rising. For hours. This is barbecue stall, the dreaded dead period when water evaporation is cooling the meat as quickly as fire is heating it. A good way to avoid it is to place your meat about 7 cm above a pan of water. “The water will generate a lot of humidity and the stall temperature will rise,” says Greg Blonder, our physics expert. “In the case of a turkey, you can often get the stall temperature to rise above the cooking temperature.” Which means it will be done before you have a reason to panic.