Monday, December 2, 2013

Trash Can Turkey

With the Alaska contingent arriving after Thanksgiving, we slid our celebration to Sunday afternoon. As usual, Thanksgiving for us included a Trash Can Turkey. An Internet group of which I am a member deals with a subject far afield from food or barbecue techniques, but when another member mentioned they were doing a Trash Can Turkey for Thanksgiving all of the experts without experience weighed in with why it couldn't or shouldn't be done. While I don't want to become an apologist for the technique, I thought it was time to document the process I use. There are lots of other tools and techniques that follow the same general process.

For the past 15 turkeys, I've used a Behrens brand 10 gallon galvanized can - we'll discuss material and technique choices at the end of this post. Amazon still shows them in the $25 ballpark. The can is about 16" tall, 16" diameter at the open end, and about 13 inches diameter at the closed end. It's the smallest container that will work with the 20-22 pound birds I prefer.

While you can use any charcoal, I much prefer a larger briquet for its longer burning time. Last year I found some Sam's Club brand with large briquets. This year I found this at the same store - worked well. One 18 pound bag is plenty.

When doing this at home, I use a large drip pan under a piece of aluminum foil that I piece together that is approximately 5' square. When I do a turkey on river trips, I use a second piece of aluminum foil under the center of the large piece. In either case, it makes cleanup easier by not spilling ash on the ground.

I got my rack from a vendor who no longer stocks them, but the exact same stand is available at a much more competitive price from Amazon. It's designed to hold a can the diameter of a common soda or beer can

but I've discovered that taller cans (about 16 oz) work better because it doesn't let the turkey sag as much. I've tried a variety of different liquids but prefer a dark beer for the best turkey flavor. You'll need around 4 or 5 oz in the can. The rest can be disposed of in your preferred manner.

I also use a couple small pieces of 3/4" thick wood as spacers under the stand to keep the turkey off the ground. Different height cans may use thicker spacers or taller stands - you'll want the top of the turkey reasonably close to the top of the can.

The other important piece of equipment is a bent piece of welding rod or clothes hanger to hold the bail of the trash can up so that it doesn't knock over the turkey when removing the can. Don't know how I learned that ...

I use the trash can lid as a place to start the briquets since I don't have multiple chimneys or a place to store them. One heaping lid full seems to be the right amount to get the process started - about 60% or so of the bag. The lid can also be lined with aluminum foil to serve as a turkey platter later if there is a river in sight.

I usually tie the wings flat to the body of the bird and tie the legs together with kitchen string. This time I tried folding them and leaving the legs loose. I don't use any seasonings or brine on the bird whatsoever.

Because my can is minimal height, I add a piece of aluminum foil on top of the bird to reduce the potential for burning,

and then center the upside down can over the bird.

The lid full of briquets go around the can on the outside of the can. A shovel, long tongs, or some other tool of your choice works for moving the coals. I normally use a military style folding shovel on river trips.

The edges of the large aluminum foil sheet are carefully folded up and bunched around the can leaving an inch or two clearance. Ideally, the foil will reach to the top surface of the can. Use care to not tear the foil. Bringing the foil up around the can is different from most Internet procedures but reduces the charcoal requirement and the cook time.
About 45 minutes into the cooking, I add a ring of briquets around the outer edge of the top surface of the can.  Many techniques call for loading the top of the can with coals at the beginning, but the height of this can will result in upper end of the bird to be burnt to a crisp if I do that.

An hour 45 minutes into the process, there is still a significant core to these large briquets. I added some briquets around the base of the can and on top anyway because 4 lbs of left over large briquets doesn't do me much good.
At 2 hours 40 minutes the foil is pulled back and spread out. The dark area at the front of the can is where the juices have run out under the edge of the can. When the juice hits the coals, it creates smoke, much of which remains in the can to give more flavor to the bird.

After carefully scraping the coals off the top of the can and away from the base of the can (try not to tear the foil) in a U shaped manner, the hot can is carefully lifted off the bird using welding gloves and set aside. A rimmed pan can be positioned in the open part of the U where the coals have been cleared away,

and the foil removed from the upper end of the bird. This example held together. Often times the bird will be literally falling apart. I think not tying the legs together reduced the tension enough to help the bird stay together.

With a helper, tip the bird on the base into the pan. There will still be liquid in the can so use care.

Because the legs weren't tied, it was easier to remove the base and the can from the body of the bird, but it also allowed the legs to get closer to the can, burning the ends.

I didn't get any pictures of the carving, but youngest participant clearly enjoyed it.

Two hours 40 minutes but it could have been 15 minutes less.

For the diehards that want more detail:

There is a lot of controversy, especially among people who have never observed the process, about the health hazards presented by the use of a galvanized can. It seems that they've heard about welding fume fever caused by breathing the fumes of welding galvanized materials. This process doesn't get nearly hot enough to cause gassing like that created in the welding process. While some sources suggest 700 degree temps in the can, I'll note that the string holding the wings survives and liquid remains in the can even though it starts out less than half full. Some individuals seem to think that any contact between galvanizing and potable products is a significant risk, simply forgetting or ignorant of the number of people whose homes were and in some cases still are plumbed with galvanized pipe. In this application, there shouldn't be any contact between the can and the turkey.

A very experienced dutch oven cooking individual who learned the technique from a gal that I taught has adapted the process to use a 60 quart aluminum stock pot which seems an elegant approach. I especially like the stand he fabricated although it would be too tall for my can. You can read his report online.

HowToLou posted a video of their technique on YouTube. They use a larger can, much more charcoal, a piece of steel rod for the stand, and no aluminum foil reflecting the heat outside the can. Others use a pan inside the can under the stand to avoid having the dripping run out under the can. While I've observed that technique, I think the smoke created by the juices hitting the charcoal is an important component.

I'm not suggesting you should use this technique or any other, but I can say that I've fed large groups using this method without any complaints other than "is there any more?"


  1. John super presentation. If you care to send that over to me...or allow me to copy your text and images I would like to have your info appear on my blog also. Otherwise I will edit what I currently have and work a link back to your article. I feel I learned from you in a round about way. I especially like the info you provided on the galvanized material. Thanks Rick!

    1. Thanks, Rick. I'd prefer you link back to this post if possible.

  2. O K. We've baked them in the oven, smoked them on a smoker, and fried them in both oil and oil-less fryers. Going to give your method a try. I have an aluminum turkey frying pot which I don't use anymore. It should do for the can, though it won't look as good. Think I saw the rack at our local Walmart. We have a smaller crew than yours coming in for Christmas, so a smaller frying size bird should fit the can nicely. I'll let you know how it comes out. Love that last picture......jc

    1. I've never heard of an oil-less fryer. I'm going to have to check that out! Don't know what to tell you about cook times for a smaller bird - I'm betting 60-70 minutes for 12 pounds but that's a wag on my part. Let me know how it works for you!

    2. "I've never heard of an oil-less fryer." Think propane or electric trash can. :-) I think they might reach a higher temperature, as a turkey will come out with a crisp skin, almost like one fried in oil.

    3. I checked them out. Like the concept of the LP powered ones but the ones I found were limited to a 12 pound bird. Easy cleanup!

  3. I'll probably stick to my oven, but I found your method fascinating! :)

    1. It's fun on a river trip or other places away from a full sized oven. Even at home, it leaves the oven available for more important stuff like pie. :-)

  4. out the door yours is cheaper,, but what u have in short is an Orion cooker there stainless steel 135$ at ace
    u can do 6 rack of ribs 1 1/2 hr the bird about 2 hrs( mine fell off the bone picking it up into the platter )(forgot the string ) and add apple orange or any of your best wood chips for smoking
    i do 6 or 7 rack of ribs for noon then add about 15 brickets more and apple wood chips then add a 8 or 9 lb ham for 1 3/4 hr for a late supper as long as i cook my son lets me come to the firehouse any time i like
    joy your day

    1. Thanks for the lead. I went out and took a look at the Orion. Looks like a real sweet setup! Now you have me dreaming...

  5. Oh, my! This is a new one on me! Whoever woke up one day and said, "I think I'll use my trashcan to cook my turkey!" LOL! I volunteer to help dispose of the extra 12 oz of beer. ;-)

    1. It's fast, tasty, and slightly offensive to some snobs. All good reasons to use this technique.