Cane-Smoked Turkey

This image courtesy of Joseph DeLeo

I cook my turkey in a big barbecue pit. It gets hotter than a smoker, but because I keep the turkey away from direct heat, it cooks slowly and absorbs a lot of smoky flavor. The skin comes out crisp, with a beautiful orange-bronze color, and the meat retains more moisture than it would if cooked any other way. The sugarcane that I use with the charcoal comes from a friend’s plantation. It’s worth the trip upriver to St. James Parish to get it. If you can’t get sugarcane, standard smoking woods like pecan, oak, hickory, or mesquite will do the job.

Serves8 to 12

Cooking Methodsmoking


Total Timea day or more

OccasionBuffet, Casual Dinner Party, Family Get-together

Recipe Coursemain course

Dietary Considerationdiabetic, egg-free, gluten-free, lactose-free, low carb, low-fat, peanut free, soy free, tree nut free



Taste and Texturecrisp, herby, meaty, savory, smoky


  • One 12-15-lb. turkey
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 ribs celery, chopped
  • 1 yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 orange, cut into eighths
  • 1 lemon, cut into quarters
  • 1 shake of dried tarragon
  • 1 stem of fresh rosemary


  1. Thaw the turkey if frozen. This takes at least 4 days and should be done in the refrigerator. Put the turkey into the pan you’ll roast it in to catch any leaks. After it thaws, remove the metal or plastic tie holding the legs together. (A pair of pliers is essential, I find.) Remove the giblets and neck from the cavity and clip off the wing tips. (You can use these parts for making stock for the gravy.)

  2. The day before, marinate the turkey in a brine. The standard proportion is 1 cup of salt to 1 gallon (16 cups) of water. Make enough of this to completely cover the turkey in an ice chest with an unopened (so as not to dilute the brine) bag of ice to keep everything cold. The brining process takes 12-18 hours for a 15-pound turkey. Another method is to put the turkey and the brine solution inside a leak-proof plastic bag and put it into the refrigerator.

  3. The morning of the day you want to serve the turkey, dump the brine and rinse the bird very well inside and out with cold water. Season it with salt (yes!) and pepper. Stuff the cavity with all the other ingredients and tie the legs just tightly enough to keep everything inside.

  4. Fire up the grill with charcoal. Add pieces of smoking wood, soaked in water and then shaken dry. Stack 6 or so foot-long pieces of sugarcane on the grill directly over the fire. Put the turkey into an aluminum pan with a loose tent of foil over the top. Place the turkey as far from the fire as possible and hang a curtain of foil down to ward off direct heat. Any heat that gets to the turkey should arrive in smoke.

  5. Close the cover. Add coals and cane at intervals to maintain a temperature of 200-250 degrees inside the pit. It takes 6-7 hours for the internal temperature of the turkey to reach about 180 degrees. Use a meat thermometer to check; the useless pop-up plastic indicator will pop only when the turkey is overcooked.

  6. Take the turkey out and put it on the table to rest and cool before carving. Although it may be tempting, don’t use the drippings for the gravy. They reduce so much during the long cooking time that they become impossibly salty.



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