I know what you're thinking: Why write about cooking a turkey weeks after Thanksgiving-- the only day of the year people eat turkey? Fair question.
The answer is simple: As of Thanksgiving afternoon, I really had no idea how to cook a turkey on a campfire. So I experimented on my own, cooked a tasty, smoky bird and thought I'd share the experience. Plus, some people eat turkey on Christmas, so it's not too late.
Tools of the Trade
Campfire cooking grate
Camp Chef Heat Guard Gloves
Aluminum turkey tray
All my campfire cooking experience prior to Thanksgiving had been on a grate or some type of pot or pan, none of which was ideal for a turkey. I considered a spit or beer-can set-up, but found the Turkey Cannon at my local outdoor sports shop. It looked to be just what the doctor ordered.
For 20 bucks, the Turkey Cannon delivers a turkey-specific cooking solution designed to inject flavor and moisture into the bird. It specifies ovens and grills, but I figured (correctly) I could make it work on the campfire. Here's how:
1. Fill the cannon with your choice of liquid (beer, wine, chicken broth, etc.). I used a beer-butter sauce made from amber ale, butter, cayenne, smoked paprika, sauteed shallots and fresh thyme, prepared ahead of time.
2. Dry rub the turkey. This is optional, but adds nice flavor and crust. I used salt, pepper, smoked paprika and cayenne pepper to complement the sauce.
3. Slide the bird onto the cannon breast side up. Prongs on either side help to hold it in place.
4. Build an off-center fire in your pit. I kept my fire right/right-center (it's left in the picture below, but I was mostly working on the other side) for indirect grilling.
You'll want to use clean, savory firewood (as opposed to the rotten, moss-covered wood you found in the woods) to provide the best flavor. I used a combination of three small, $4 bundles of firewood from a local grocer and applewood smoker chunks soaked in water.
5. Plant your grate over the fire and make sure it's level and stable.
6. Put the Turkey Cannon (w/turkey) on top of the grate opposite the fire.
7. Cover the turkey. This part was a little tricky. I had planned to simply use my grill cover, but the turkey stood higher than I expected. Instead, I built a makeshift cover out of aluminum foil.
8. Grab a beer or six pack and some company and sit tight. You can leave for a short time, but you should keep a close eye on the fire and the turkey. Sitting around the fire drinking a beer--that's cooking.
9. Add wood. I kept my fire relatively low with about two or three pieces of wood at a time. I threw on a steady stream of smoking chunks.
10. Check the turkey after about two hours or so. The USDA says that all poultry should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 F.
11. Remove the turkey. I used the Camp Chef grilling gloves to grab the bird and place it right in the aluminum tray. Those particular gloves seemed to develop hot spots pretty quickly, so move quickly or perhaps use tongs or forks. I think the Turkey Cannon would be a bit unwieldy to try to pull off the fire and carry to a table, which is why I got the aluminum tray for the purpose.
I cooked my 6-lb. turkey for 2.5 hours. It was mostly done at that point, but the very top was still underdone. I finished it off on the grill for another 20 minutes, breast down on high. The direct grilling gave it a nice crust on the breast, but also drained some of the juices--it was still moist, but just a little drier than I'd hoped. If you use a better cover on the campfire than my foil helmet, your turkey should cook more evenly.
Cooking times will vary based on the size of your turkey, the size of your fire, wind and weather conditions, etc.
While the turkey wasn't quite as moist as I had aimed for, the smoked flavor made for one of the best turkies I've ever eaten. The crisp, spice-rubbed skin was as succulent as bacon and the meat itself contained a hint of the beer-butter sauce underneath the bold, smoky taste.
I'd definitely recommend cooking the turkey this way, whether on Thanksgiving in a backyard fire pit or while camping. I've moved on to thinking of things I can fire-roast for Christmas!