BBQ Turkey with Mustard Sauce

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.

BBQ Turkey with Mustard Sauce Recipe

  • Yield: Serves 4-8.

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.

Ingredients

  • 4 to 6 turkey legs and/or thighs, trimmed of excess fat
  • Salt
  • Vegetable oil


South Carolina Mustard BBQ Sauce:

  • 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

Method

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.

basting-turkey-mustard-sauce.jpg

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!

14 Comments

  1. Mike M

    @Linda: Heh, we have that rule here too. But for some reason everyone has real grills anyway. I swear its like I am the only one that follows the freggin rules.

    Anyway, they make electric grills that normally the fire marshall would let you get away with. Have you thought about trying that?

  2. Elaine

    How would you recommend making this if you do not have a grill? Someone above mentioned using a broiler – dumb Q, but that’s an oven feature, right? And if I were to use the broiler, would the temperature and time be the same? I’m not a chef, obviously… :) Thanks for any help anyone has!

    If I were to make this without a grill, I would sear the turkey pieces on a hot cast iron pan on the stove top first to get good browning. Then I would arrange the pieces in a foil lined roasting pan and slow cook them in the oven at 200°F to 225°F for as long as it took. You could use the oven broiler to sear the pieces first, but you’ll have more control on the stovetop. ~Elise

  3. Liza (Jersey Cook)

    @Linda – you could also try a cast iron grill/griddle to put over the burners on your stove. It’s super heavy, but it gives you those beautiful grill marks with a nice char and even cooking.

  4. sensiblecooking

    My great fear with turkey is it always is under cooked or over cooked. Do you have any time suggestions for making this Turkey in oven instead of grill.

    It’s really hard to gauge, it completely depends on how big the pieces are and the oven set up you have. We ended up cooking these pieces on the grill for about 2 1/2 hours, at a temp of I would guess about 200°F after the initial sear. Err on the side of undercooking, because you can always put it back in the oven (at a higher heat if necessary in a hurry) or even the microwave if it’s not cooked enough. ~Elise

  5. From Farm to Home

    This looks wonderful. Turning on the grill is better than heating up the house with the oven, and no pan to clean. I like mustard but I’m not a lover of it. Is the mustard the main flavor that stands out on the turkey?

    No, oddly it isn’t the main flavor, at least to my taste. The sauce is tangy though. But when you slow cook over a smokey grill, you get a lot more smokey flavor getting into the turkey, and the sauce is just part of that overall flavor. If you were to use this sauce just as a sauce, over non-barbecued turkey, then yes, it might be a bit mustardy. ~Elise

  6. Trying to Cook Abroad

    This looks delicious! I can’t wait to try it! :)

    Unfortunately, we only rarely get decent turkey pieces where I live (in the Middle East), and I’d rather not have to buy a whole turkey (kind of expensive) to cut up. I’ve ever cut up a turkey before although I imagine it’s rather like cutting up an overgrown chicken.

    To my question, would this recipe work with chicken legs/thighs/wings? Obviously cooking time would have to be reduced, but is there anything else I should keep an eye on?

    Thank you =)

    Yes, it would be great with chicken thighs, legs, and wings. ~Elise

  7. Mike C

    I tried this Saturday & it was great! Thanks so much for the recipe! I have been learning grilling for about a year since I got my gas grill. Your instructions for how to use indirect heat & the preparation hints solved several issues i’ve been having. I have never used a mustard based sauce, but this one got rave reviews from my family. Thanks again for the high quality recipes and presentation.

  8. KariVery

    I had a friend over for dinner last nite who is from SC, so I was really excited to make this for him. Turns out at the last minute, after I had told my son he could take my car to work and I was stranded at my house, I did not have any cider vinegar. I used a balsamic vinegar instead, and wow… it turned out phenomenal! The color was, um, not pretty – a very brown sludgy kind of color – but it tasted really good on our lovely country pork ribs, which we slow cooked on the backyard BBQ (our neighbors were commenting on the delicious smell, so we shared a rib or two ;-)). I do want to try the “real” recipe too, but I thought I would share that the balsamic is a good alternative to the cider. Also, I added a bit more cayenne pepper.

  9. Paul

    Tried this on Sunday on the grill and it was outstanding–thanks! We cooked it for almost 2-1/2 hours, and the turkey was perfect–falling off the bone tender and juicey, and the sauce was fantastic. It’s going to be a regular on my barbeque. One thing to be careful about, though: because there’s sugar in the sauce, if you’re going to baste the turkey with the sauce for any length of time, be very careful to avoid flames and check the heat from time to time. Otherwise, after an hour or more even off the flame, the sauce may start to burn. A final searing with the sauce is a little risky. Also, consider whether you really want to leave the skin on; with the sauce, the skin becomes very soft, and not crisp.

  10. Candice

    Elise & Hank,
    OH MY GOSH! I just came home from a wonderful Father’s Day celebration with Dad. The day started with me driving Dad around a beautiful resort golf course in town while he swung a club and tried to look like he knew what he was doing. We followed that by heading back to the house where I made turkey legs for dinner. I followed the recipe almost to the T, except for using crushed red pepper instead of cayenne pepper in the sauce (couldn’t find cayenne when shopping), and it was DELICIOUS. Everybody raved about how wonderful it was! Dad was thrilled!

    I did make one major mistake that I think your other readers should be aware of should they embark on a recipe such as this: Now Dad knows I know how to use his grill. :)

    Thanks again. I’m sure I’ll be making this again soon.

    Candice

  11. RD

    I made this a few weeks ago. Used three large thighs and drumsticks respectively. I applied a poultry dry rub (recipe from Smoke & Spice) the night before and put them in the fridge. I cooked them the next day on our Big Green Egg, indirectly at about 225F for 3 1/2 hours. They were cooked over lump charcoal with a couple of chunks of Pecan and Cherry wood. I made the mustard sauce while the turkey was cooking. Delicious! A much better way of preparing turkey then the usually overcooked and dry turkey served at Thanksgiving.

  12. Shalome

    I have made this several times for small dinner parties and the response is always the same; LOVE! We’re a family that loves turkey and this is a superb recipe. My father despises mustard barbeque sauce but he devours this turkey like it’s his last meal.

  13. Heather

    Do you think this recipe/flavor combo could also be used in the slow cooker instead of the grill?

    Yes, and this idea is the basis of our slow-cooked turkey with mustard. ~Elise

  14. Erika

    Could you do this in a smoker instead of a grill and with chicken thighs rather than turkey?

    I would say yes on both counts. ~Elise

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