smoking a turkey
Thanksgiving is coming up, and we are all starting to think about what to fix for dinner. Of course, for most of us, that would be TURKEY! When we have thanksgiving dinner at our house, it’s usually for 20 or more people, so I always fix two. Both start out the same way, but get fixed entirely differently. one is smoked, and the other fried.
The basics: BRINING
Why brine? Helps keep the meat moist, and it adds a great flavor
How? The absolute very most basic brine is 1 cup kosher salt (no iodine to add weird flavors to the food) to a gallon of water. If using regular table salt, drop the amount to 1/2 cup to a gallon.
I then add a couple of things: a couple of oranges, cut in half, squeezed into the liquid, and then tossed in for effect.
As many cloves of garlic as you like, crushed
A sweet white onion, peeled, and chopped coarsely
For the smoker, I throw in a cup of brown sugar. NO SUGARY STUFF FOR THE FRIER!!! It turns the damned thing black…not appetizing at all.
Toss it all into a plastic garbage bag big enough to hold everything. Wash the bird, pull out the giblets, and then toss into the bag, making sure the bird is completely submerged. Keep cool (some places just leaving it in the garage is good enough. Here in Napa, I have to throw it into the fridge). Let soak for at least 4 hours, but overnight is better.
When ready, pull out the bird, and pat it dry, paying particular attention to the areas under the wings. You want the bird to taste good, not taste like a salt lick. Rub the bird down with a little cooking oil, and sprinkle on your favorite season salt. Or make your own! Don’t get too carried away with the salt… remember the salt lick comment. Make sure you put some on the inside of the bird as well. let the bird sit at room temperature while messing with getting the smoker fired up. a cold bird takes longer to cook. now i know that's obvious, but if you don't think it's important, i'll let you know that on exactly the same kind of day, same size bird, a fresh from the fridge bird will take at least an hour longer to cook.
see my next post for frying a turkey
Cooking instructions for the smoker:
I have an electric smoker. Found that it takes much less time to cook, and the results are generally more consistent. But I used a charcoal smoker for years, and it did a great job, it just took 6 or 7 hours to cook, that’s all. Anyway, I take apple tree branches from pruning, and run them through the chipper. You can accomplish the same thing by buying apple wood chips from the hardware store. We have a lot of almond trees around here, and almond wood chips are great for turkey as well. Take a nice big handful, stick them into a Ziploc bag, and fill the bag with water. Let the chips soak for at least 30 minutes. Fire up the smoker. With an electric smoker, I found a 6 inch cast iron skillet (cute little thing) placed on the burner was a great way to contain, and burn the wood chips needed for smoking. I use what’s known as a “wet smoker”, in there is a pan of liquid above the heat source, but below the bird. I use a quart of boiling water (really speeds up the cooking process), a bottle of white wine, usually a chard or sauvignon blanc, and a cup or two of orange juice. It’s a good idea to line the pan with foil before putting the liquid in. It really helps on the cleanup. Get the burner up to speed, place the liquid pan on the rack, fill it as noted above, and then put the bird on the rack above the liquid pan. I don’t do anything to the bird other than the brine and rub. NEVER EVER STUFF A TURKEY THAT IS GOING INTO A SMOKER. I use a turkey rack that mounts the bird vertically, and I always use that because it gives me a better smoked bird. Mounting it vertically allows the steam and smoke to come up into the bird and helps cook it from the inside as well as the outside.
Toss the chips into the pan, and walk away.
For a while, like 2 or 3 hours. Really.
Check the liquid level in the pan, and add boiling water if you need to, making sure the pan doesn’t empty, which will cause your bird to come out a tad dry. Don’t look, don’t mess with it, don’t do anything. Just walk away. When curiosity finally finally kills you, and you can’t avoid messing with it any more, stick a meat thermometer into the bird behind the thigh, in the thick part. You are looking for 170-180 degrees F, the temp you are supposed to cook poultry.
When it’s done, let the bird sit on the counter for about 10 minutes before carving. It’s damned good. I’ve found if it’s not windy out, and the outside temperature isn’t too cold, a 12 to 15 pound bird will smoke nicely in around 4 to 5 hours. Smoking time is always dependant on how many times to open it up to look, the outside temperature, and the wind. So give yourself a lot more time than you think you will need. When I did one in the coal fired smoker, I started it at 0400, and we ate at 1500. that’s why I bought an electric smoker!
NOTE: you can do this in a kettle BBQ like a weber as well. but before you even think about putting coals or anything else in the kettle, check to make sure your bird will fit. otherwise, you'll be doing like i had to once. i had to take 4 bricks, placed them on the grill around the outside, and then seal the lid with a lot of foil. bummer.
Use the indirect method, by splitting the coals in half, and put them along either side of the coal grate. Use an aluminum roasting tray to separate the coals. Into the tray, add the wine, and some water. Make sure you can get to the water tray with a baster. Don’t let the tray go completely dry. Put the top grill on, and place the bird over the tray. Add coals as needed, usually about every hour. This technique takes less time than the smoker, since you are a lot closer to the heat. Once the coals are good and hot, toss on the chips, drop the bird on the rack, and close the lid for at least an hour. Check every hour after that to make sure you have enough coals to finish the job, and that the pan has liquid in it. If you want to speed things up a bit, after the first quart or so of liquid, quit filling the pan. You will get a killer bird, but it will be more roasted than smoked. You’ll still have that great smoke flavor though.