How to Pit-Cook a Turkey

Updated on November 17, 2019
Coreena Jolene profile image

Coreena loves camping and exploring with family and sharing innovative ways to enjoy the comforts of home in the great outdoors.

Camping and Thanksgiving dinner are not mutually exclusive. Learn how to pit-cook a turkey so you can celebrate the holiday while you rough it!
Camping and Thanksgiving dinner are not mutually exclusive. Learn how to pit-cook a turkey so you can celebrate the holiday while you rough it! | Source

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.

Supplies

  • 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)

Ingredients

  • Turkey
  • Butter
  • Spices/seasonings of your choice

Instructional Overview (Details Below)

  1. Dig the hole.
  2. Prepare the charcoal.
  3. Prep your bird.
  4. Layer the briquettes, bury the turkey, and cook.
  5. 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!

The size of your hole, or "pit," will depend on the size of your bird.
The size of your hole, or "pit," will depend on the size of your bird. | Source

In-Depth Instructions

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.

Digging Tip

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.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Four our 15-pound turkey, two 20-pound bags of charcoal were sufficient. Make your charcoal pile close to your pit so it is easy to shovel the hot briquettes in a few at a time.
Four our 15-pound turkey, two 20-pound bags of charcoal were sufficient.
Four our 15-pound turkey, two 20-pound bags of charcoal were sufficient. | Source
Make your charcoal pile close to your pit so it is easy to shovel the hot briquettes in a few at a time.
Make your charcoal pile close to your pit so it is easy to shovel the hot briquettes in a few at a time. | Source

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.

Prep Tip

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.

It's extremely important to be thorough when covering your turkey in foil to ensure no dirt or charcoal gets in during cooking.
It's extremely important to be thorough when covering your turkey in foil to ensure no dirt or charcoal gets in during cooking. | Source

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.

Turkey Tip

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!

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Before lowering your bird into your pit, shovel a layer of hot charcoal on top of the rocks at the bottom of your pit. Once you've lowered your turkey, carefully surround it with hot briquettes and dirt on all sides. Once your bird is surrounded and has a layer of hot charcoal above it, seal in your cooking pit with a 3-or-so-inch layer of dirt.
Before lowering your bird into your pit, shovel a layer of hot charcoal on top of the rocks at the bottom of your pit.
Before lowering your bird into your pit, shovel a layer of hot charcoal on top of the rocks at the bottom of your pit. | Source
Once you've lowered your turkey, carefully surround it with hot briquettes and dirt on all sides.
Once you've lowered your turkey, carefully surround it with hot briquettes and dirt on all sides. | Source
Once your bird is surrounded and has a layer of hot charcoal above it, seal in your cooking pit with a 3-or-so-inch layer of dirt.
Once your bird is surrounded and has a layer of hot charcoal above it, seal in your cooking pit with a 3-or-so-inch layer of dirt. | Source

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.

Cooking Tip

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.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Work slowly and be careful when digging up your turkey. Use a small shovel to remove dirt and coals without puncturing the foil. Once you've removed enough material, lift your turkey out of the pit using the wire handle you fashioned around it earlier.
Work slowly and be careful when digging up your turkey. Use a small shovel to remove dirt and coals without puncturing the foil.
Work slowly and be careful when digging up your turkey. Use a small shovel to remove dirt and coals without puncturing the foil. | Source
Once you've removed enough material, lift your turkey out of the pit using the wire handle you fashioned around it earlier.
Once you've removed enough material, lift your turkey out of the pit using the wire handle you fashioned around it earlier. | Source

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!

Safety Tip

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!

You don't have to stay at home to have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with family.
You don't have to stay at home to have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with family. | Source

How are you going to cook your turkey?

See results

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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2011 Coreena Jolene

    Let's Talk Turkey!

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment
      • Otto Phillips profile image

        Otto Phillips 

        5 years ago

        This is amazing!!! We need to try pit cooking a turkey during one of our camping trips for sure, the kids would love it!

      • Lady Lorelei profile image

        Lorelei Cohen 

        5 years ago from Canada

        @Christian DuBois: I think quite a few of us have a bit of caveman (woman) trying to get out of us a little more often. I love food cooked outdoors and over an open campfire.

      • Coreena Jolene profile imageAUTHOR

        Coreena Jolene 

        5 years ago

        @SusanDeppner: I guess we got too excited to eat our delicious turkey, sorry for that. The next time I will make sure to take a picture and post it :)

      • SusanDeppner profile image

        Susan Deppner 

        5 years ago from Arkansas USA

        Ooh, I was looking forward to a picture of the finished product. Guess it got eaten before it got photographed! This sounds like a really fun project for a family camping trip.

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        6 years ago

        Chickens & ham is really good done this way also. Going to do my 1\ST turkey this weekend. The chickens were well done after 3hrs. We did put them in a cooking bag, before wrapping with foil.

        Great site, thank you for the info.

      • Coreena Jolene profile imageAUTHOR

        Coreena Jolene 

        6 years ago

        @OUTFOXprevention1: Well it isn't for everyone, but our turkey was cooked thoroughly and no sand or dirt got inside. Everyone loved it.

      • OUTFOXprevention1 profile image

        OUTFOXprevention1 

        6 years ago

        Sounds risky! I would have to be extra careful since I am the food safety general! Thanks for the lens.

      • Christian DuBois profile image

        Christian DuBois 

        6 years ago from New York

        As a Neo-caveman, I'm loving this technique! Thank you

      • WriterJanis2 profile image

        WriterJanis2 

        7 years ago

        Never even thought about cooking a turkey while camping. Blessed!

      • Lady Lorelei profile image

        Lorelei Cohen 

        7 years ago from Canada

        Wow this is such an amazing step by step instructional on how to cook a turkey in the ground. You did a fabulous job on this lens.

      • profile image

        JoshK47 

        7 years ago

        Popping back in to bless this lens! :)

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        7 years ago

        enjoyed eating meat this way, had it a lot and appreciate the way you presented this to your readers today.

      • hntrssthmpsn profile image

        hntrssthmpsn 

        7 years ago

        I had no idea you could pit cook a turkey! What a great way to make preparation a whole-family adventure! Awesome!

      • Coolboots profile image

        Coolboots 

        7 years ago

        Wow, I have never heard of this, but it sounds pretty cool! Who doesn't love yummy turkey.

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        7 years ago

        ....angel dust goes well with turkey perfection!

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        7 years ago

        Amazingly presented to serving the perfect turkey....any turkey would be proud!

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        7 years ago

        Never had a Turkey. However, I am sure it is a much healthier way to cook than frying. Really well presented and beautiful Lens!

      • profile image

        pawpaw911 

        7 years ago

        Looks like a fun thing to try. I might give it a try some time. Thanks.

      • paperfacets profile image

        Sherry Venegas 

        7 years ago from La Verne, CA

        Our one time try at pit cooking did not work too well, but with these directions, who could fail?

      • tvyps profile image

        Teri Villars 

        7 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

        Wow, what a detailed lens. Hopefully, you don't pit cook the Flamin' Cat. I thought about doing a deep fry this year but I would be the one you see on the news running down the street on fire while everyone filmed me for YouTube. Blessed!

      • profile image

        JoshK47 

        7 years ago

        Sounds like a delicious way to prep a turkey for Thanksgiving or Christmas - I'll have to keep it in mind. SquidAngel blessed!

      • profile image

        anonymous 

        7 years ago

        Wonderful information!

      • savenlives profile image

        savenlives 

        7 years ago

        Awesome, I love this!!! Great lens :)

      • Showpup LM profile image

        Showpup LM 

        7 years ago

        How fun! I really enjoy the idea and LOVE the photos that really help explain the process.

      • nigel7725 profile image

        nigel7725 

        7 years ago

        Good information for the great outdoors.

      • BLouw profile image

        Barbara Walton 

        8 years ago from France

        Going to swap oven for spade - cheaper! Many thanks for a lovely and useful lens. Blessed.

      • emmaklarkins profile image

        emmaklarkins 

        8 years ago

        Great step-by-step guide!

      • katemiya profile image

        katemiya 

        8 years ago

        I've seen pigs cooked in a pit, but never thought about the possibility of cooking a turkey that way! You've done a great job introducing us to the process, too.

      • EMangl profile image

        EMangl 

        8 years ago

        wonder what my neighbours would say if i make a turkey in the garden below our apartment house .-)

      • KellydeBorda profile image

        KellydeBorda 

        8 years ago

        What a great lens! Very informative and lots of fantastic pictures. Blessed by the Barbecue Angel!

      • gamecheathub profile image

        gamecheathub 

        8 years ago

        It blows my mind that you actually put the dirt over the top of the aluminum foil turkey. I've never had turkey like this before, but it looks really cool!

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, delishably.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://delishably.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
      ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)