How to Pit Cook a Turkey

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Hardwood coals provide slow, even heat for pit cooking.
Hardwood coals provide slow, even heat for pit cooking. (Image: Pavel Konovalov/iStock/Getty Images)

Throughout history, many indigenous cultures, such as the native Hawaiians, have cooked in outdoor pits. Before the invention of modern ovens, pit cooking was a way to roast large portions of meat and even whole animals. Cooking in pits enhanced a sense of community since it requires numerous people to cook a feast for a large group. Whatever its origins, cooking even a smaller protein such as turkey is a big project that requires planning and time.

Things You'll Need

  • Shovel
  • Bricks or stones
  • Paper
  • Firewood
  • Aluminum foil
  • Probe-type meat thermometer
  • Wire coat hangers
  • Sheet of metal

Dig a pit with a shovel in an area far away from buildings, trees or shrubbery. Remove enough dirt to make a round hole 2 feet wider than the turkey and at least 3 feet deep.

Line the pit with bricks or large stones to keep the walls stable and evenly distribute heat. Avoid bricks or stones that have come into contact with water because the heat will cause breakage and possible explosions.

Place a wad of paper, small sticks and kindling into the pit first. Place some large pieces of hardwood firewood on top. Light the paper and kindling to get the fire going steadily. Continue piling firewood on top as soon as the previous layer of wood burns down to coals. Keep adding wood until the total volume of firewood consumed equals at least 2 ½ times the volume of the pit. Let the fire burn for several hours until you have an even bed of smoldering coals in the bottom of the pit. The coals should be at least 1 foot deep. The length of time it takes until the wood burns to coals depends on the type and moisture content of the wood, the size of the hole, and humidity in the air.

Thaw the turkey if it is frozen and remove giblets and parts from the inside cavity. Prepare it as you would for oven roasting, including brining, seasoning with a rub, layering the skin with butter, or just using salt and pepper. You can use a wild turkey or a turkey from the store. Insert the probe end of an oven-proof meat thermometer into the thickest part of one thigh of the turkey. Use a thermometer with an extension between the probe and the thermometer so you can leave the probe in the turkey and watch the temperature from outside the pit.

Wrap the turkey in at least six layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil. The foil covering should seal the turkey inside with no chance for ashes to come into contact with it. Pay special attention to sealing foil around the thermometer probe. The foil also seals in the juices and keeps the turkey moist. To aid in removing the turkey when it is finished cooking, bend some some wire coat hangers or similar-gauge wire around the bird over the foil and let the ends protrude perpendicularly from the top of the breast.

Place the foil-wrapped turkey in the center of the pit on top of the bed of coals, leaving at least 1 foot of space between the turkey and the sides and top of the pit. The wire coat hanger handles should stick straight up from the middle of the pit.

Cover the pit with a metal sheet, such as corrugated tin roofing, a little larger than the opening of the pit. Shovel the dirt removed to make the pit onto the top of the metal sheet for insulation. Avoid lifting the metal sheet until the turkey is completely cooked to maintain even cooking temperature.

Remove the turkey only when the internal temperature of the meat reaches at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit, which requires several hours. The cooking time is hard to predict because it depends on the level of heat in the pit and the outdoor ambient temperature, but a standard formula is 30 minutes per pound of turkey. For example, a 14-pound turkey would take about 7 hours.

Tips & Warnings

  • Cook other large cuts of meat and even whole pigs with the pit cooking method. Dig the pit large enough to accommodate the meat and one foot of space on the top, bottom and each side.
  • Keep children and pets away from the fire and pit.
  • Cook meat to recommended temperatures to avoid danger of food poisoning.

References

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