While sitting around the Forsyth County News newsroom conference table early last week, co-workers and I started throwing out ideas for what to cover and report on for the upcoming Thanksgiving week.
Charities, community dinners, celebrations, Black Friday — we were hitting all the regular high points until I said the words, “Let’s cook a turkey under a bucket.” Queue confused looks, conversation brought to a screeching halt, and a slightly-chagrined me stumbling to explain the crazy sounding bombshell I dropped on the conversation.
If you, like my co-workers, have no idea how one cooks a turkey under a bucket, or whether such a thing would be safe, edible or worth the effort, I’ll tell you from experience, it’s all that and more.
It’s exactly what it sounds like, using a stainless steel or aluminum bucket to cook a turkey over hot charcoals. And over the last decade, turkey cooked under a bucket has been a Popp family classic, adapted from an old scouting recipe by my ever-resourceful mother who wanted to try something new and clear some oven space on Thanksgiving Day.
In total, this recipe will take about 30 minutes of preparation and an hour-and-a-half of inactive cooking time, leaving plenty of time to cook all the sides and extras. The result is a perfectly roasted, juicy, fool-proof turkey that cooks in less than two hours and can be duplicated anywhere with a flat stretch of ground where you can drive in a metal stake.
If this sounds like something you would want to try out this Thanksgiving, the guide below will lead you step by step through how my family has done it for years and how yours can too.
● Turkey (one 15- to 20-pound bird, defrosted, cleaned and dried)
● Salt and pepper
● Other desired seasonings
● Large stainless steel or aluminum bucket (about 30 quarts)
● 15 pounds of non-self-starter charcoal
● Lighter fluid
● Grill lighter
● About 15-20 inches of iron rebar
● Grill tongs
● One roll of heavy-duty aluminum foil
● Hot pads
- Start by completely defrosting, cleaning and drying your turkey. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, in the refrigerator you need approximately 24 hours of defrosting time for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey, so make sure you give yourself a few days for this. You can always buy a defrosted bird, but generally, that will run you more, price-wise.
- Find a flat grassless stretch of ground outside your house that you won’t mind having exposed to coals for several hours. Clear the ground of leaves and debris with a shovel or heavy rake.
- Drive about one-third of the piece of rebar through the center of the aluminum foil into the ground. Cover the rebar with aluminum foil so that it will fill the cavity of the turkey and hold it in place. Also, place a square of aluminum foil on the top of the bucket.
- On the smoothed ground, spread yourself a two-by-two area of several layers of aluminum foil. Dump the charcoal out in two piles on either side of the aluminum foil square. Spray liberally with lighter fluid and carefully set the piles alight.
- This step is the trickiest to explain, but basically, you need to work the turkey on to the rebar and get it into a position so that the turkey is not touching the top of the bucket and the bucket is completely flat with the ground. Simply put, you want the turkey suspended on the rebar, inside the bucket, with its legs hanging down.
- When the coals are thoroughly white hot, use your tongs and shovel to place coals all around the bucket, piled up its sides as high as they will go and onto the bucket’s top.
- According to Momma Popp, it’s important to replace hot coals to the top of the bucket every 30 minutes to ensure the turkey cooks evenly. Start with 12 pieces of charcoal on the top and replace them as they are needed.
- Cook for about one hour, 30 minutes. If your turkey is closer to 20 pounds, cook for a full two hours. You can even do this with a large chicken or other bird, just cook for less time.
- Remove the foil and coals from the top of the bucket, scrape the coals away from the sides of the bucket, and carefully remove the bucket. It’s imperative that all of this is done carefully; you really don’t want to get ashes on the cooked bird.
- Take the internal temperature of the turkey using a meat thermometer and make sure that it has reached a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees. If it hasn’t, you can always replace the bucket and coals for about 30 minutes longer, or finish it off in the oven.
- If it is done – and I’ve never had an instance where it hasn’t been when following this recipe – remove the turkey carefully with hot pads and transfer to a carving plate to rest for about 10 minutes.
- Cut your turkey, share with friends and family, and give thanks to the marvels of backcountry cookin'.