How to Pit-Cook a Turkey
Camping for Thanksgiving? Cook Your Turkey Underground!
You don't have to give up on having a Thanksgiving (or Christmas) turkey just because you are camping with your family for the holiday. You can cook a fantastic turkey in a pit in the ground. It is a unique experience and really fun to try.
We are a California family that is active in the off-road community and we camp frequently in the California desert. We love roughing it, but it can be a bit of a challenge at times to find new ways to fix delicious food on camping trips. After coming across a few web pages about pit-cooking, we decided to give it a try.
We documented our pit-cooking procedure and have provided step-by-step instructions and process photos below so that other outdoor-oriented folk who don't want to skip Thanksgiving dinner just because they're off the grid can do the same! If you love turkey and the great outdoors, you will be cooking in a pit in no time.
- Enough aluminum foil to cover your turkey four times
- Heavy-duty wire
- Long-handled shovel
- Short, handheld shovel
- Enough charcoal briquettes to surround your turkey in a pit
- Thick, heat-safe gloves or oven mitts
- A metal pan or basin large enough to hold your turkey
- Serving tray or platter (optional)
- Spices/seasonings of your choice
Instructional Overview (Details Below)
- Dig the hole.
- Prepare the charcoal.
- Prep your bird.
- Layer the briquettes, bury the turkey, and cook.
- Dig out the turkey.
Detailed instructions for each of the above steps are laid out below. Photos are also included with each step to help you follow along.
Pit-Cooking Safety Notes
1. Place barriers around the pit-cooking area for safety.
2. Children should not be allowed in the area unsupervised.
3. If you allow your children to help, supervise them closely.
4. After the turkey is done, the pit area remains hot for several hours. Keep kids away, and don't forget to fill the pit back in!
Step 1: Dig the Hole
To begin, select an appropriate location for your pit. Be sure to choose a spot that is at least 15 feet away from any tents, trees, or other materials that could be fire hazards.
As you dig, make sure your pit is deep and wide enough to comfortably fit your turkey, your briquettes, a few rocks, and a 3-inch top layer of earth to cover your cooking bird. Our pit was approximately 3 feet deep and a little less than 3 feet wide. The turkey we cooked was about 15 pounds. You may need to make adjustments based on the size of your turkey.
We were camping in the desert where the soil is soft and sandy, so we placed some large rocks at the base of our pit to give it some stability and conduct heat from the briquettes.
Use a long-handled shovel. Even out in the sandy desert, after the soft top layer of soil is pushed away, most camping areas are a mix of hard-packed earth. You will get the leverage you need with a long-handled shovel.
Step 2: Prepare the Charcoal
Pick your favorite brand of charcoal briquettes and buy enough to surround your turkey in the pit. For our pit, two 20-pound bags were sufficient. The amount of charcoal you need will vary depending on the size of your turkey and the size of your pit.
Place your briquettes on the ground near your pit in a neat pile. Light them and wait until they are hot and gray. Lighting your charcoal outside of the pit will make it easy to shovel in small amounts at a time. Some of the charcoal will go beneath the bird, some will go around it, and some will go on top of it. This ensures that your turkey is completely surrounded by hot charcoal and will cook evenly. If you were to just lay the turkey in the pit on top of a single layer of charcoal, the bottom would cook, but the top would remain raw.
To save time, it is best to have someone prepping the turkey (see step 3) while someone else is working on the pit and the charcoal.
Step 3: Prep Your Bird
Wash your thawed turkey with cold water then pat it dry. Next, rub the entire outside of the turkey with butter and season it with your favorite spices just like you would an oven-roasted roasted turkey (we used poultry seasoning, sage, thyme, garlic, and onion).
Once you've seasoned your bird to your liking, take some heavy-duty aluminum foil and started wrapping it. Be sure to completely cover the turkey multiple times. This will ensure that no dirt or charcoal will get onto it during cooking. We ended up covering ours in tin foil about four layers deep. Make sure the foil is sealed tightly.
Finally, grab your heavy-duty wire and wrap it around your foil-covered turkey to fashion a handle that you will use to lift it out of the ground once it's cooked.
A reader shared with us that they placed their turkey in an oven bag after it was seasoned and wrapped in foil. They said it worked out perfect!
Step 4: Layer the Briquettes, Bury the Turkey, and Cook
Lower your wrapped turkey into your pit by the handle to ensure it will fit. If you need to, make adjustments to the pit so that it can accommodate your bird. Once you are sure your turkey will fit in the pit with plenty of extra room for charcoal and dirt, lift it back out and place it on a table or have someone hold it.
Next, shovel a layer of the hot briquettes onto the rocks and bottom of the pit. Be sure to cover it entirely. Lower your turkey into the pit on top of the briquette layer.
Alternate shoveling briquettes and dirt around and onto the turkey. Work slowly and make sure there are briquettes surrounding the turkey on all sides. Once the sides of the turkey are surrounded, shovel more briquettes and dirt on top of it. This will allow your bird to cook from all sides and prevent any area of the turkey from remaining raw.
Once the turkey is sufficiently covered with briquettes, shovel a layer of dirt on top of it. There should be several inches of dirt sealing up your pit. Make sure you can still see your wire handle sticking out so that you can remove your meal once it's finished. Pack the top layer of dirt down tightly—you don’t want a breeze to clear dirt off of your pit and cool your briquettes.
Cook your turkey for at least 4–5 hours. Ours cooked all day and it was falling off the bone by the time we ate it.
Oven-Roasting Tips That Also Apply to Pit-Cooking
- An 18–24-pound turkey should be cooked for 4 to 5 hours.
- Minimum turkey cooking temperature is 325 degrees F.
- A meat thermometer can be placed between the inner thigh, the wing, and the breast.
- Do not touch the bone with the thermometer.
- The minimum turkey-meat temperature is 165 degrees F for a fully cooked turkey.
Unstuffed turkeys cook faster than stuffed ones. If you're concerned about time, consider preparing and heating your stuffing separately so that your pit-turkey can cook more efficiently.
Step 5: Dig Out the Turkey
Once your turkey has cooked for 4–5 hours (or longer), you may carefully remove it from the ground. Before doing any digging, put on your gloves or oven mitts to protect your hands from the heat.
Grab your shorter shovel. A short shovel is much better for digging gently around the briquettes and turkey because it gives you more control and allows you to use smaller digging strokes so you can avoid tearing the foil around the turkey. Be very careful not to stab your turkey with the shovel while trying to dig it out—you do not want dirt to get inside it, and it would be a shame if any of its juices escaped and were lost to the earth.
Once enough dirt and briquettes have been shoveled out, you can carefully remove your bird from the pit using its wire handle. Wear gloves or mitts for this part as well—the wire handle may be quite hot.
Once lifted from its pit, place your turkey safely in your large metal pan or basin. We used a large aluminum pan. Allow it to cool for some time before beginning to unwrap it. Unwrapping the turkey is a bit messy, so have a place prepared for it. We unwrapped ours in the aluminum pan atop a picnic table. Once all the foil is removed, you can carefully place your turkey onto a platter or serving tray if you have one available. Otherwise, you can leave it in the pan or basin.
Our turkey was so well-done it was falling off the bone. You may want to have a carving knife handy if you don't cook yours for as long as we did. Bon appetit—enjoy your turkey and make some great memories. Happy holidays!
Take a few minutes to fill the hole back in as soon as possible. Pack the dirt down tightly to prevent anyone from falling in and getting hurt or burned. Keep the barriers up around the pit area until the next morning. Charcoal can stay hot for quite some time.
Time to Eat!
How are you going to cook your turkey?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2011 Coreena Jolene