I have to tell you guys, I am cooking for 30 people this year. Funny enough, this is our usual Thanksgiving at El Rancho Destructo–my in-laws invite all of their family and friends, and it’s a huge party. I get the tasks of most of the traditional American dishes like stuffing, cranberries and mashed potatoes while they handle the South American dishes like rice with lentils, tamales and salsa.
One of the things that I’m also responsible for is the turkey. Now, last year I went with the idea of roasting a 29 pound turkey. FOLLY, my friends, it was pure folly. Have you ever tried to wrestle a 29 pound bird? This year, I decided to break down and cook three turkeys, and one of them would be smoked, which I could do several days in advance. Although I have experience in smoking meats, this was my first time smoking a whole turkey, so after a little research, I worked out a game plan.
I know that there are people out there who hail from the Church of Brined Turkey; me, I’m really not totally sold on it. The breast meat can be kind of slippery, and I think the bird doesn’t release enough of those wonderful, delicious drippings that are so important for gravy and drizzling on the pans of stuffing before popping them into the oven while the turkey rests. However, there is one time I absolutely kneel at the Altar of Seasoned Salt Solution, and that’s when it’s time to smoke poultry. My worry was the long cooking time and what it would do to the breast meat; I’ve smoked turkey legs plenty of times, both brined and just dry-rubbed, and the brined legs are far more tender.
As for my brine, I was suckered into buying a brining mix when I went to go purchase my wood at the local BBQ supply shop, BUT, if you want to do everything on your own, I have tried Alton Brown’s brine recipe with great success. What’s the deal behind brine? you might ask. The long scientific version is here, but the short version is that in soaking a turkey in a salt solution will cause some of the proteins in the meat to break down to not only create a tender piece of meat, but as the turkey cooks, proteins shrink and release water. Fewer proteins in the meat means less water gets squeezed out, hence a juicy turkey. This is necessary during the long, slow cooking process of smoking, which will dry out an unbrined turkey.
The night before, I prepared my brine (and even though I bought a mix, I still doctored it) and lined my small cooler with a plastic bag, filled it with cooled brine and several quarts of heavily iced water. The turkey went in breast-down, I sealed the bag, shut the cooler, and left it on my porch overnight, where the brine stayed below 40°. My Sunday morning consisted of pulling myself from my warm, cozy bed to face a damp and chilly sunrise.
You know it’s a good idea to truss your turkey, right? Of course you do, because you know it helps the bird to cook evenly and keeps those legs looking neat and tidy. After the long soak in the brine, use a few paper towels to dry off the surface of the bird and give it a little massage with some vegetable oil. No need for seasoning the skin–the meat is now plenty seasoned enough. I let the bird hang out on the counter for a bit while I got started on firing up the smoker.
I have a Weber smoker that uses charcoal as its main source of fuel. I tucked in a few pieces of apple wood with the charcoal for the smoke.
The basin gets set in just above the coals and filled with liquid. The basin serves a double purpose: by adding liquid, it protects the meat from being cooked by direct heat, and the steam helps keep the meat moist. This is also another excellent way to add more flavors by adding aromatics–here there is an orange, an onion, cinnamon sticks, peppercorns, cloves and allspice berries. It also catches all the drippings from the meat, to keep the flare-ups from falling fat at bay.
Approximately at 8:15 AM, our 12-pound bird is placed in the smoker. The smoker is kept at a pretty even 250° which is done by controlling the airflow to keep a slow burn.
Seven hours later, the thigh is registering 165° and it’s done! At this point, the turkey has been wrapped very tightly and stored in the refrigerator–I haven’t cut into it for fear of drying out the meat between now and Thursday. I’ll reheat the turkey before setting it out on the buffet, so I can’t tell you how it tastes right now–but all signs (and previous times I’ve smoked turkey legs) point to having created a smoked masterpiece.