We’ve introduced South Carolina barbecue sauce and now here is a great recipe you can make with it, barbecued turkey legs and thighs. I grew up with plenty of meals made with turkey legs because they feed a lot, and they’re an inexpensive source of protein. But no matter what time of year we’re having turkey legs, as much as I love turkey, the taste always reminds me of Thanksgiving, which is not necessarily what you want in say, June. In this preparation however, slowly cooked on a grill, and basted with a tangy, strong, sweet, sour yellow mustard-based barbecue sauce, the turkey doesn’t taste anything like Thanksgiving turkey, in a good way. It just absorbs the smokiness from the grill and the tang from the sauce. Outside of the holiday bird, this is hands down the best turkey I’ve ever had.
Turkey breasts, like chicken breasts, tend to dry out with the long cooking times required for this barbecue recipe. We strongly recommend thighs and legs here. Not only will they be less likely to dry out, the strong flavors will work well with the strong flavors of the barbecue sauce.
- 4 to 6 turkey legs and/or thighs, trimmed of excess fat
- Vegetable oil
- 4 Tbsp butter
- 1/2 onion, grated (use a box grater or cheese grater)
- 1/2 cup cider vinegar
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 cup yellow mustard
- 1 Tbsp dry mustard
- 1 teaspoon cayenne
- 1 bay leaf
- Salt to taste
1 Pat the turkey pieces dry with paper towels. Salt the turkey pieces well all over. Let sit at room temperature for 20-30 minutes.
2 Make the sauce. Sauté the onions in butter until soft (but not browned), about 3-4 minutes on medium heat. Add the other sauce ingredients and simmer slowly, stirring occasionally, for at least 30 minutes.
3 Prepare your grill for high direct heat on one side, and quite low indirect heat on the other side. To do this using a gas grill turn on only half of the burners. If using a charcoal grill, leave one side of your grill free of coals. If using a gas grill, preheat covered for at least 15 minutes.
3 Rub oil all over the turkey pieces. Clean the grill grates with a grill grate scraper. Wipe down the grates with a paper towel soaked in oil.
4 Lay the turkey pieces down on the hot grill, skin side down, to get an initial sear on the turkey. Pay attention because the fat in the turkey may cause flare ups. If this happens be prepared to move the piece to a cooler side of the grill temporarily, or have a spay bottle of water on hand to douse the flames a bit if they get too high. Sear the turkey on the skin side for 3-4 minutes. Once the skin of a piece starts to get browned, move the piece to the cool side of the grill, turning it over so that the skin side is now up. This way the fat under the skin will melt into the meat, basting it, during the next slow-cooking phase.
5 Once you've moved all the turkey to the cool side of the grill, cover the grill and let the turkey slow-cook for 20 minutes without looking. Check every 15-20 minutes after that, because everyone’s grill is different. The turkey should cook for at least 1 1/2 hours after the initial sear, probably longer. (I think we cooked these pictured for 2 1/2 hours.) Barbecue by definition must be slow cooking over low heat.
6 After about an hour, start to paint the turkey with the barbecue sauce. Paint only the top part (skin side) to start. Cover and wait another 20 minutes or so. Then flip the turkey over and paint the undersides. Why wait? You want the sauce to sink in, adhere to the turkey and solidify a little; this way it will not drip down into the grill as much. Cover and wait another 15 to 20 minutes.
Depending on how big your turkey pieces are, and your specific grill set up, the time it takes for your turkey pieces to be done will vary. To test for doneness you can insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh, not touching the bone. Take the turkey off the grill at 170°F to 175°F for thighs and legs, 165°F for breasts. Or if you don't have a meat thermometer, cut into one of the pieces with a knife. The juices should run clear. If they run pink, the meat needs to be cooked longer.
You can continue to baste with the sauce every 15 minutes or so until the meat is done.
7 When the meat is just about ready to take off the grill, you can do a final sear on the skin side. Just place the pieces skin side down on the hot part of the grill. Watch it so that it just browns, not burns. It should take 1-2 minutes.
Serve with extra sauce, and plenty of napkins!