Backcountry Thanksgiving | Roast your turkey under a steel bucket

By Alexander Popp 

info@worldsbestadventures.com

 

We all love Thanksgiving foods, we all love camping in the great outdoors. So what could be better than sitting around a campfire after a roast turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes, with nothing to do but shoot the breeze and listen to the birds? And why isn’t everyone doing it?

Man sprinkles seasonings on a raw turkey outside in the trees.
Head Guide Alexander Popp sprinkles seasonings on a raw turkey, preparing it to cook under a bucket.

Answer: It seems almost impossible to fully cook a Thanksgiving dinner in the woods with little to no electricity. But we’re here to tell you that that assumption is wrong.
The sides are pretty easy to figure out on your own, but with this recipe, you’ll be able to cook a delicious roasted Thanksgiving turkey from the comfort of wherever your family might be celebrating from this year. 

But don’t think that this is just a camping recipe, this method is also great for freeing up some oven space at home too. 

Ingredients

  • Turkey (One 15- to 20-pound bird, defrosted, cleaned, and dried)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Other desired seasonings 

Equipment

  • 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
  • Hammer
  • Grill tongs
  • One roll of heavy-duty aluminum foil
  • Shovel
  • Oven mitts or hot pads 

Charcoal, aluminum foil and other equipment prepared to cook a turkey.

Preparing Your Thanksgiving Bird

Like we said above, in the woods you’re not going to have a whole lot of electricity unless you’re at a campground with hookups or something. so preparation and planning are going to be the name of the game with this.

Also, cooking at a campsite isn’t exactly like it goes in the comfort of your own kitchen, so you’re going to want to do as much beforehand at home as you can. Defrosting, cleaning and cooking preparations for the turkey can all be done beforehand to save yourself some time and hassle. 

Once defrosted, cleaned, and seasoned to your liking, simply wrap your bird securely in plastic wrap and pack into an ice-filled cooler until it’s time to cook. 

Get Started Cooking

  1. First, find a flat grassless stretch of ground that can be exposed to coals for several hours, a fire pit would work for this, but if you don’t have a fire pit or want to cook on or use the fire pit for something else, find an out of the way space and clear it of leaves and debris. 
  2. In the cleared area, lay a 2-foot by 2-foot square of Heavy Aluminum Foil several layers thick and drive the rebar stake about 1/3rd of its length in the ground at the center of the square. Cover the rebar with aluminum foil so that it will fill the cavity of the turkey and hold it in place. 
  3. On opposite edges of the square, divide your charcoal in two, leaving plenty of space in the center for the Turkey and bucket. Douse the charcoal liberally with lighter fluid and carefully light the piles. 
  4. Work the turkey onto 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.

    Man sits watching charcoal and cooking.
    Head Guide Alex Popp watches and waits as charcoal cooks a turkey under a steel bucket.
  5. When the coals are 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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
  10. 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.
  11. Cut your turkey, share with friends and family, and give thanks to the marvels of backcountry cookin’.

A Few Big Things to Consider

Leftovers – Normally you’d be able to stuff yourself to bursting and then carve up any leftovers into containers for sandwiches and snacking later. But out in the woods, you’ll be limited on fridge space and storage containers, so our advice is to bring the smallest bird you can, the most people you can, and eat as much a possible so nothing goes to waste. 

Animals – We learned about this the hard way. If you are cooking a turkey or anything else using this method, there’s going to be a lot of grease, drippings, and other byproducts that will make their way into the coals and dirt as you cook. So if you don’t want a visit from local wildlife during the night after the cooking is all done, you’ve got to have a plan to get rid of your ashes beforehand. Bring along a small shovel that can be used to turn the soil before bed and plenty of firewood to burn up as much as you can.

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