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How to Cook a Turkey in the Ground: Our Step-by-Step Guide

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Year after year, people sit down to the same old (albeit usually delicious) baked or fried turkey at Thanksgiving. For a more outdoorsy option, here’s how to cook a turkey in an earthen oven.

roast turkey on table
Turkey on Thanksgiving; (photo/jennie-o, Flickr)

How to Cook a Turkey in the Ground

It may sound odd or unsanitary, but humans have done this throughout the arc of history. Built correctly, an “earthen oven” will give you a juicy, tender, and flavorful bird. Here’s my eight-step guide.

roast turkey in the ground cooking stones

Gather the Rocks: Find or buy some rocks. The rocks are put into a fire and serve as the heat source for the oven. Use granite or quartz and avoid limestone and sandstone (they can explode when heated). Note: Don’t get them from a river; your rocks need to be completely dry, as any moisture can cause them to break apart when heated.

Get Your Bird: A grocery store turkey will do. Somewhere in the 12- to 15-pound range is best. You can also cook a wild turkey or goose underground.

how to cook a turkey in the ground
dog a hole to cook turkey

Dig the Oven: The cooking hole needs to be at least 3 feet deep. Width and length largely depend on the size of your bird, but a 3×3-foot square should do the trick. Try to make the walls of your oven as square as possible.

fire to cook turkey
cooking rocks

Cook Your Rocks: A “log cabin” style fire is the most useful for heating your rocks. That kind of campfire gives you a convenient place to drop the rocks directly into the fire. After you’ve got the flames going and you’ve got a good base of hot coals at the bottom, drop the rocks into the middle of the fire.

It may take an hour or more, but the rocks will begin to glow and spark a bit when they’re ready to go. Hint: You never have to admit to relying on lighter fluid to keep the fire hot, but it’s a good thing to have on hand.

Prepare the Bird: Just like with the traditional method of cooking a turkey, it first must be defrosted if it is frozen. Remove any of the innards, gizzard bags, gravy bags, or whatever else might be inside the turkey. Stuffing is yet another personal preference, but a mix of onions, garlic, and celery will do just fine.

Spice the outside of the turkey and then wrap it in several (5-6 is recommended) layers of aluminum foil. The traditional method is to wrap it in edible leaves. For beginners, the foil is the smart way to go.

line bottom of hole with rocks

Cook the Turkey! Once your rocks are hot, your hole is dug, and your turkey is prepared and wrapped, use a shovel to line the bottom of your hole with the hot rocks. Put the foil-wrapped bird on top of the bottom layer of rocks, and then completely cover and surround it with the rest of your piping hot rocks.

Use as many rocks as you can fit on top of and around the bird. Then simply bury everything using the soil that you dug out to create the hole.

wrap turkey
fill hole with hot rocks
cover with dirt

The size of your bird will dictate cooking time, but if you’ve picked a bird that’s within the 12 to 15-pound range as prescribed above, it’ll take around 3.5 hours to cook, in my experience.

When you think it’s close, use a meat thermometer to check that the internal temperature is at least 165 degrees F. Then just dig it up, bring it in, unwrap and enjoy! —Rocky Brown is a park ranger in Indiana.

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