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Smoked Thanksgiving Turkey

Home::Recipes > Poultry  |  November 2011

I’ve always loved smoked turkey. Even before I really knew how to barbecue I attempted to smoke a turkey in the bullet smoker I had back then. It was the very first thing that I had ever tried smoking and it was DELICIOUS!

Smoked Thanksgiving Turkey Ever since that bird I’ve always awaited Thanksgiving like a kid waiting for Christmas. And for the last several years I’ve been stuck on a favorite of mine – it’s adapted from the Ultimate Smoked Turkey recipe from one of my friend’s sites - I just can’t seem to shake this recipe. It’s just too good!

I’ll be revisiting this recipe and just give you my notes and changes I’ve made along the way. And yes, I’ll share my favorite Cranberry BBQ Sauce that’ll make your feast stand head and shoulders above any fried turkey the neighbors may be raving about. Now here’s my two cents on fried turkeys: anything is good fried – however "good" isn’t what we’re making here. Those KFC'd turkeys are lacking the sultry, smoky, delicious flavors that truly make this turkey recipe the ULTIMATE traditional Thanksgiving Day turkey.

The BBQ tricks that make Meathead's recipe great are the following:

What to Buy >
Thawing a Turkey >
Brining the Turkey >
Great Prep and Turkey Rub >
Smoke Roasting the Turkey >
All the Fixin's >
Thanksgiving Turkey Play-by-play
Monday - Thaw bird (2 days)
Wed night - Brine bird (12 hrs)
Thurs Morn - Fridge drying (3 hrs)
Thurs Morn - Gravy/Rub Prep (30 mins)
Thurs Morn - Prep (30 mins)
Thurs Noon - Start Cooking (3 - 4.5 hrs)
Done - 20 mins to rest

What to buy

Now, I’ve done turkeys brined and without brine. I will say hands down the brined turkey is better (smoked OR even oven roasted). What you’ll need to know is that you need to start out with the right kind of bird. Skip the birds that say “enhanced”, “self-basting” or “kosher” these have already been fiddled with to help the less fortunate families that won’t be getting your tasty brined, smoked turkey! What we’re looking for is one that is “natural” or says something about “no additives” or “minimally processed”. The enhanced birds inflate the weight and you aren’t in complete control of the flavor.

Look for something around a 15-20 lb turkey. Plan for 1 lb per person or double it if you want to be sure to have leftovers. And if you’re cooking for a large group you’d be better off to do 2 smaller birds instead of one jumbo turkey. I say this for 2 reasons: younger birds are considered to have a better taste and they also will cook more evenly (i.e., a moister turkey to carve).

Now you ask ‘what if I’ve already got the enhanced turkey?’ Well, skip the brining process this time and you’ll know what to get for the next time. If you try to brine an enhanced bird you should definitely shorten your brining time (try 4-6 hours). Just be warned that even Morton Salt recommends against it. Why? Chances are your flavors may clash or even more likely it will just be overly salty. So for enhanced birds just skip the brine and go straight to the prep.

Shopping List:
15 lb Turkey (NOT "enhanced"), Turkey Brine, Turkey Gravy, Turkey Rub, Stuffing/Aromatics.

Thaw the turkey (start on Monday or get a fresh bird)

To thaw your turkey you should let it gradually thaw in your fridge. Leave it in the packaging and place it on a pan in the fridge. The turkey needs to be fully thawed before you brine. There’s a lot of hype around “fresh, never frozen” birds – I say only buy these from a good source you trust. Frozen birds are easier to package/transport/stock/you name it, so I’d consider them a safer choice over the unknown.

Brining the turkey (10-12 hrs)

  • 1 gallon warm water
  • 4 cups of table salt or 6 cups Morton kosher salt
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 6 tbsps of garlic powder (not garlic salt)
  • 4 tbsps crushed black pepper
  • 1 tsp allspice berries
  • 1 gallon cold water
  • 3 gallons of crushed ice
  • 2 – 5lb bags of ice or 4 milk jugs filled with water and frozen ahead of time
  • Large cooler or 5 gallon food-grade bucket/large stock pot (fridge only)

When fully thawed, we need to prepare the turkey for the brine. Take a large Ziploc bag and pour off any juices and remove all the “innards” from the turkey. Trim the excess skin and fat from around the neck area – leave just more a little more there than necessary to cover the meat. Save these trimmings/giblets in your fridge for later – we will be doing an amazing gravy later in our drip pan. You can toss the bagged liver – you won’t need it for the gravy. Clean and wash the turkey.

Next, take the little popup thermometer and put it where it belongs – the trash. Those popup timers are only smart enough to know that the turkey is done and that is the second it pops up. What about the extra 5-10 degrees your turkey will cook AFTER you pull it off the grill? Just think, by the time it pops up you should probably be saying ‘pass the potatoes’ instead of waiting on your now overdone bird. No thank you! Toss it away and make sure you have a decent digital thermometer (they even have a wireless version so you can be “watching” your bird from the comfort of your favorite chair).

Cooler Method:
Mix all the dry ingredients in 1 gallon of warm water and stir salt/sugar until dissolved. You can boil this, but you’ll need to let it cool completely once it’s dissolved. Pour this into a clean cooler and add 1 gallon of cold water. Add the rest of the spices. Then put the bird in breast-side down. Tilt and move it around to get the remaining air out of the cavity. Add 3 gallons of crushed ice (no bags here) to the solution. The ice will melt and dilute the brine to it a 5 to 1 ratio. From here on out only add ice in bags.

Now the key here is to keep it under 40°F for the duration of the brining process. To do this put one of the 5lb bags of ice in with the bird now and plan on putting in the next one in about 6 hours. Now don’t just use the bag that the ice came in – if you’ve ever seen them unload them from the truck you’ll understand. Not only are they not clean, but they aren’t very leak-proof and will dilute your brine. So just fill up large zip-loc freezer bags with the ice or one clever trick I just saw Meathead added this year was to freeze water in clean plastic milk jugs in lieu of the bags. Clever.

Rotate the turkey after 6 hours. Replace the ice if you haven’t already. Be sure to keep temp under 40°F. Keep the bird in the brine for 10-12 hours.

Fridge Method:
You can also use a 5 gallon food-grade bucket, stock pot or even a large bowl with roasting bags to brine the turkey. Just mix the solution using 1 gallon warm/4 gallons cold (no ice), fill the container partially, add the turkey/spices, and then fill to top with the rest of the solution. No bagged ice will be necessary.

Brining in a Cooler
Fridge Method
Mixing a Brine
Fridge Method w/out Stockpot

Prep (15 min rinse/dry, 3 hours drying in fridge)

Remove from the brine after the 12 hours and rinse off the turkey inside and out. The salt in the brine isn’t to season the bird so rinse thoroughly inside and out. We’re going to season it in a minute.

Now the skin doesn’t let too much flavor into the meat of the bird so here’s the secret to making this recipe sing! After the brining the skin is quite elastic so you can easily separate it from the meat. Slowly work your hands up and under and loosen it everywhere you can. We’ll put the seasoning right on the meat so the flavor isn’t just on the skin. Then place it uncovered in the fridge for the next 3 hours. The reason we’re doing this is because wet skin won’t crisp and brown properly.

Gravy & Drip Pan

  • 1 turkey neck, trimmings and juice we saved earlier
  • 1 cup apple juice
  • 1.5 quarts of water (initially)
  • 1 medium onion, skin on, ends removed, quartered
  • 1 stalk celery
  • 1 carrot chunked
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 6 whole black peppercorns
  • 2 tbsp margarine

All this goes in the pan under the bird while it cooks. Use a 3 qt dish or whatever fits best on your grill/smoker. The pan is an important step to a moist, flavorful bird. In the case of doing two birds I will just switch the birds about half-way through and put the other one over the gravy/drip pan. Whatever you can do to get the gravy dish in there will work just fine – you just really want the extra moisture in there. If you can get it under the bird then all the better (for the turkey and the gravy). Following the original recipe you can just strain these after cooking to make Meathead’s gravy au juis. However, I’ve taken some liberties and instead make old fashioned Turkey Neck Gravy.

Rub & Prep (20 mins)

After the turkey has dried in the fridge for 3 hours we’re ready to finish the prep and get started cooking. If you’re using a gas grill you will want to use a smoker pouch or box. Otherwise add about 4-6 ounces of wood to your charcoal/water pan for smoke. Fruit woods are typically the favorite for turkey (apple, cherry, etc) or even oak. Set up your grill/smoker for indirect or 2-zone cooking and prep it for cooking at 325°F. This can also be cooked indoors in your oven following the same directions below.

While the grill is warming up we’ll finish preparing the turkey. Earlier we loosened the skin from the breast meat, now we’ll apply the wet rub. Now meathead has two ways of doing it. Wet rub under the skin, or sage leaves under the skin and wet rub on top. Personally I think the second way is the best, but play around with it and see what you think. If you’re doing two birds do one of each! Oh and don’t get confused if you go to the site – the wet rub on there is different. You’re not losing it. I believe the S&G rub was just a side note from a few years ago and I love it that way.

Note: if you have the time let either of the rub soak in the oil for an hour or more – this really helps draw out the flavors from the dried herbs.

Rub Option A   The original recipe has you apply a mixture of 1 tbsp chopped sage, 1 tbsp thyme and 1/4 cup of olive oil and apply that under the skin using what’s left over (if any on the outside). Then, if needed, apply some olive oil to any parts left uncovered on the outside of the bird.

Rub Option B   I prefer to do olive oil or butter under the skin and then about 6 sage leaves. Then apply 2 tbsps of Simon & Garfunkel rub mixed with 1/4 cup of olive oil around the outside of the entire bird.

Aromatics (In Lieu of Stuffing)

  • 1 medium onion, quartered
  • 1 apple, cored, quartered
  • 2-3 large sprigs of fresh sage/thyme

Most people have moved away from stuffing the bird with stuffing. This is for a few reasons – to avoid overcooking the meat in deference to the stuffing and to leverage the roasting effect with aromatics. I’ll explain each of these. By stuffing the empty cavity with food, that food now has to be cooked to a safe temperature to eat. To do so you normally end up with overcooked meat and fantastic stuffing. That’s not what we’re after. So we loosely fill the cavity with aromatics such as fruits, vegetables and herbs to lend some of their flavor to the meat.

Quarter the onion and apple. Put these in the cavity along with some sage and thyme. Other popular turkey aromatics are rosemary, cinnamon, lemons and oranges. You can experiment after you've tried the recipe once, but don't use anything too strong and leave some air space. Brush the wings and drumstick tips with oil and then take 4 sections of tin foil and wrap all the nubbins. There’s little-to-no meat here, but we don’t want it to just burn. WRAP YOUR NUBBINS! If you apply olive oil to the foil then it can easily be removed later.

Ready to Smoke Roast! (15lb 3-3.5 hours / 20lb 4-4.5 hours)

Turkeys aren’t as fatty as some of the other meats that benefit from the low and slow for an entire day. In fact a lot of the fat is just underneath the skin. To render this out and create a crisp golden-brown layer we’ll employ a slow smoke roasting over our gravy bowl. Now you don’t want the turkey sub-merged at all, so a rack should be placed on the gravy pan or if possible the pan should be under the grate like on a grill. Be sure to clean your grates before putting on the gravy pan.

1) Place the turkey breast-side up on a grate over gravy pan. The turkey should be on the indirect side of your grill or smoker.

2) Cook for 1 hour and then take the foil off the nubbins so they will crisp up. Add water to the gravy pan and check the temperature in the thickest part of the breast. At this point you shouldn’t need to add any more wood for smoke.

3) Then cook for another hour and check the temperature and the water level, filling with hot water as necessary. You should be in the home stretch now and finished in the next hour give or take. Keep a closer eye on the temperature.

4) Cook for approximately 1 more hour or more depending on size. Check the temperature more frequently. When the internal temp of the turkey breast is 160°F it’s ready to come out. The internal temperature will actually continue to rise another 5-10 degrees after it’s removed.

5) When it’s done tilt the turkey to drain out the cavity into the gravy pan. Pull it from the grill. Either use bear paws or you can use 2 grilling forks/wooden spoons (one through the neck and one in the cavity) to carefully lift the turkey to a platter. Grab a helper so you don’t give your dogs the best Thanksgiving you’ve ever head – we’ve gone too far for you to drop it now! If you’re going the gravy juice then you can strain it before use and follow Meathead’s steps to make it or better yet see my Turkey Neck Gravy recipe.

6) Let the turkey rest uncovered for 20-30 minutes before you cut into it. This will give the juices a chance to redistribute and not just get lost when you carve. Also, you can “hold” this for 2-3 hours using the foil, towel and cooler method. Enjoy and happy turkey day!

Carving a Turkey
Using an Electric Carver

Thanksgiving Sides

Turkey Neck Gravy
Cranberry BBQ Sauce
Grilled Apple Pie
Rusty's Pumpkin Cheesecake
Meathead's Sage Stuffing

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