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How to cook a Thanksgiving turkey without an oven: Smokers, deep fryers, Instant Pot and more

How to cook a Thanksgiving turkey without an oven
Oven-roasted turkeys will be on most Thanksgiving tables this year, but not all. Some of our birds will be smoked, slow-cooked -- and even deep-fried.   Chayantorn Tongmorn/Getty Images

According to a recent Butterball-commissioned survey, 85 percent of U.S. adults who are planning on celebrating Thanksgiving with a meal are planning on serving turkey. But just because our menus will look the same doesn't mean our turkeys will look the same. In 2019, a Whole Foods-released survey found more than 40 percent of us did not plan to traditionally roast our birds. Maybe we don't want to crank up our gas or electric ovens for hours on end. Maybe we don't have ovens. Or maybe we just want something different. 

If you belong to one of the above groups, then here's a look at some of the alternative appliances you can use to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving -- and where to buy them. We're talking recommendations on smokers, deep fryers, air fryers, Instant Pots and slow cookers. 

And if you're trying to beat potential supply-chain issues, or supermarket lines, then be sure to add our online turkey buying guide to your pre-Thanksgiving reading list. 


Smokers

In the Whole Foods survey, smoked turkey was the most popular alternative to a traditional oven roast. The Intermountain Farmers Association calls a smoked turkey "likely to be the best-tasting, easiest-to-cook turkey you've ever eaten." You can get the IFA's tips for smoking a turkey here, and you can get a Martha Stewart recipe here. See our notes on equipment below. 

Masterbuilt MES 130B digital electric smoker

Masterbuilt MES 130B digital electric smoker
Masterbilt via Lowe's

In our CBS Essentials look at grills and smokers for every kind of chef and budget, we called out the Masterbuilt MES 130B digital electric smoker as being a good fit for the beginner. It's billed a no-fuss machine that needs only to be plugged in to start working its magic. It's got enough rack space to smoke up to two turkeys. (Turkey size is not specified by the manufacturer.)

Note: Our buy button below is for Lowe's; on the Lowe's site, you'll need to enter your zip code to get a price. (So you know, we entered a variety of zip codes, and we got the same price every time: $189.) 

Masterbuilt MES 130B digital electric smoker, $189

Nordic Ware Stovetop Kettle Smoker

Nordic Ware Stovetop Kettle Smoker
Nordic Ware via Amazon

Designated as an "Amazon's Choice" product for its strong customer ratings, availability and affordability, the Nordic Ware Stovetop Kettle Smoker is a smaller, more versatile, and, yup, less-expensive smoker option. It allows you to work right in your kitchen on your stovetop burner. You can also use it outside on your grill. And while it's not built to smoke a whole turkey, you can use it to have smoked turkey breast on the table in 45-50 minutes. At last look, Amazon had the Nordic Ware Stovetop Kettle Smoker for more than 20% of its $80 list price. 

Nordic Ware Stovetop Kettle Smoker, $80


Deep fryers

Per the 2019 Whole Foods survey, deep-fried turkey is Americans' second-best-loved alterative to the conventionally oven-roasted bird. Adherents rave about the crispy skin and tender, moist meat. 

No matter what route you go in the kitchen for Thanksgiving, exercise caution. (Nearly all home-cooking endeavors pose safety risks -- deep fryers, included. The National Fire Protection Association, in fact, "strongly discourages the use of turkey fryers." The group's data shows that deep fryers are responsible for more deaths per 1,000 incidents than the other leading cooking methods in the United States.) For safety tips specific to turkey deep fryers -- and links to recipes -- the National Turkey Federation is a good resource. 

Read on for a scouting report on a couple of leading turkey deep fryers. 

Bayou Classic Grand Gobbler 44-quart stainless steel turkey fryer

Bayou Classic Grand Gobbler
Bayou Classic via Home Depot

The National Turkey Federation recommends using at least a 40-quart pot for deep-frying a turkey, so with a capacity of 44 quarts, the stainless steel Grand Gobbler from Bayou Classic fits the bill, and then some. The kit is a "top rated" product at Home Depot, and was named the best overall turkey fryer by Good Housekeeping. The Grand Gobbler can handle up to a 25-pound whole turkey. Designed for outdoor use, it comes complete with an outdoor propane burner, poultry rack, thermometer and seasoning injector.

Bayou Classic Grand Gobbler 44-quart stainless steel turkey fryer, $212

Masterbuilt MB20012420 electric fryer (10-liter)

Masterbuilt MB20012420
Masterbuilt via Amazon

If you don't have the outdoor space, or just prefer to work away from the elements, then this one may be a pick for you and your bird. Selected as the best indoor turkey fryer by Good Housekeeping, the Masterbuilt MB20012420 runs on electricity, not propane. It also works as a steamer and boiler. Masterbuilt says the extra-large, 10-liter model can fry a turkey up to 20 pounds. (10 liters is the equivalent of 10.5 quarts.) At last look, an 8-liter model was also available from Amazon for $90.

Masterbuilt MB20012420 electric fryer (10-liter), $93 (regularly $160)


Instant Pot

Instant Pot is the brand name of a popular line of multi-use pressure cookers. As we outlined in the CBS Essentials guide to the Instant Pot, the cookers work as slow cookers, rice cookers, steamers, air fryers and even yogurt makers. 

If your Thanksgiving menu features turkey breast, then you should be able to use one to make your holiday meal, too.

Instant Pot Duo (8-quart)

Instant Pot Duo
Instant Pot via Amazon

As noted in our Instant Pot guide, the Instant Pot Duo offers the classic Instant Pot experience. Like a Swiss Army knife for the kitchen, it serves seven different functions. For Thanksgiving purposes, the two most key ones are sauté and pressure cooker -- or, at least, those are the functions deployed in an Instant Pot turkey breast recipe by Katie Workman for the Washington Post. 

The Instant Pot Duo is available in a range of sizes, including 3-quart and 6-quart. The 8-quart is recommended here because, as we previously advised, it's best suited for families -- or, perhaps, eight, hungry Thanksgiving guests. (The Katie Workman recipe, so you know, is fine tuned for a 6-to-7-pound turkey breast.) 

Instant Pot Duo (8-quart), $100

Instant Pot Pro (8-quart)

Instant Pot Pro
Instant Pot via Amazon

The Instant Pot Pro offers all the sautéing and pressure-cooking powers of machines like the Instant Pot Duo, while adding a few new functions: namely, sous vide, which'll keep water at a constant temperature as you cook a piece of air-tight, bagged, say, turkey breast, à la this Thanksgiving recipe from Serious Eats. The 8-quart Instant Pot Pro model is featured here; 3-quart and 6-quart editions were also in stock on Amazon. 

Instant Pot Pro (8-quart), $150


Air fryers

As we detailed in the CBS Essentials guide to air fryers, air fryers are countertop appliances that work like convection ovens, but with the added bonus that they fry like deep fryers -- minus the added fat.  

In a piece on air fryers posted by the National Turkey Federation, My Everyday Table's Emily Dingmann writes that the appliances are "the way to go" for a turkey breast. "Not only does it cook faster than roasting it in the oven," Dingmann raves, "but it's easy to get browned skin and juicy meat." 

Here are a couple of top-rated air fryers available on Amazon. 

PowerXL Air Fryer Maxx (7-quart) 

PowerXL air fryer
PowerXL via Amazon

Also available in a 4-quart size, the 7-quart PowerXL Air Fryer Maxx, as we noted previously, can "fry, bake, broil, roast or reheat food with up to 400 degrees of heated air." Boasting a 4.7-star rating on Amazon, it should be sufficient to handle Emily Dingmann's air-fryer turkey-breast recipe for a 3-to-4 pound, bone-in turkey breast.  

PowerXL Air Fryer Maxx (7-quart), $120

Ninja DZ201 Foodi 6-in-1 (8-quart)

Ninja DZ201 Foodi 6-in-1 (8-quart)
Ninja via Amazon

An "Amazon's Choice" product, the Ninja DZ201 Foodi 6-in-1 can be programmed to air broil, roast, bake, reheat, dehydrate -- and, yes, air fry. Its dual basket design allows you to break up its 8-quart capacity into 4 quarts of something on one side, and 4 quarts of something else on the other side.

Ninja DZ201 Foodi 6-in-1 (8-quart), $160 (regularly $180)


Slow cookers

Slow cookers, as their name suggests, take their time. Over the course of hours, the long-popular countertop appliances use steady low temperatures to extract flavor and juicy goodness from your meat or food of choice. According to the National Turkey Federation, they're a good fit for a number of different turkey cuts, including bone-in and boneless breasts and thighs, legs, cutlets and wings.

Here are two top-rated slow cookers available from Amazon that could make your Thanksgiving dinner one worth waiting for. 

Crockpot 7-quart oval manual slow cooker 

Crockpot 7-quart oval manual slow cooker
Crockpot via Amazon

The Crockpot brand is literally synonymous with slow cookers. The featured Crockpot model here is stainless steel, and manually operated. It's rated 4.7 stars by Amazon reviewers. Its 7-quart size is spacious enough to handle this slow-cooker turkey-breast recipe from Taste of Home

Crockpot 7-quart oval manual slow cooker, $40 (regularly $50)

Crockpot slow cooker 8-quart programmable

Crockpot slow cooker 8-quart programmable
Crockpot via Amazon

This programmable Crockpot features a digital timer that can be set for up to 20 hours. It automatically goes into warming mode once the cooking is done. This 4.7-star-rated stainless-steel model has an 8-quart capacity -- spacious enough for food capable of serving up to 10 people. 

Crockpot slow cooker 8-quart programmable, $70


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