Introduction: Smoked Turkey: Just in Time for Thanksgiving!
So it's Thanksgiving... you're looking to spice up your holiday bird but you're just not sure how. Sure there is the deep frying option, but you don't really feel like setting your house (or yourself), on fire. So what do you do? The answer is quite simple my friends... Smoke it! In the following instructable I'll guide you through a step by step process that will be sure to impress the taste buds of all your family members and friends.
I would like to take this opportunity to make sure I thank mnlang for his instructable, "Pulled pork on a Weber Kettle Grill" , which introduced me to the process of smoking and got me hooked to this cooking process.
So without further ado... Let's smoke a bird shall we?
Step 1: The Tools of the Trade
Alright so if we're going to smoke a turkey we're going to need a few things, so let's have that list...
First thing is first... you're going to need a turkey. Now I know what you're saying, "But Bryan... what kind of turkey should I get?" I am not going to tell you exactly what kind of turkey you are going to buy, instead I am going to give you some guidelines. Whether you want to visit your local butcher, pick up a frozen turkey from the super market, or buy one of those really expensive all natural turkeys, these guidelines will help you get the perfect bird for smoking.
• The turkey should be anywhere from 10-14 LBS. The turkey in this instructable was 13.2 LBS. Anything larger than that and you are going to have very long cook times. If you need to provide for a larger number of people consider making more than one turkey.
• The Turkey must be thawed! You are going to need to prep this turkey a day in advance. So make sure you leave yourself enough time to get everything done.
• Make sure your turkey is not flavor injected or pre-brined! This is super important! you are going to be doing enough seasoning and you don't want some factory's prefabricated turkey filler effecting your hard work.
Now onto the Brine... Now if you're new to the whole brining process, don't worry we'll get into more detail later. All you need to know is that you are going to need...
1. A 5 gallon bucket. If you are concerned about poly vinyl chloride, you might want to get a bucket that uses food grade plastic.
2. 1 Half gallon of vegetable broth
3. 1 Half gallon of apple juice. Not from concentrate, don't skimp out on me!
4. 1 Gallon ice cold water
5. 1 TBS Thyme
6. 1 TBS Paprika
7. 1 TBS Rosemary
8. 1 Cup Salt
Now for the smoke ... Here are the items you are going to need to cook the Turkey. I mean, you're going to want to eat it right?
1. A smoker - I use an old fashioned $25 charcoal grill, but if you've got something fancier by all means use it!
3. Charcoal Chimney - This isn't necessary, but I prefer to use it. You can light the charcoal without using any nasty lighter fluid. In the words of the great Hank Hill, "Taste the meat, not the heat."
4. Aluminum lasagna tray - the 99¢ store has these for way cheaper than your grocery store.
5. Wood Chips - I use a half and half mixture of apple wood and hickory
6. Meat thermometer - This is an absolute must. You are going to need to use this to make sure your turkey is done. You definitely don't want salmonella. You can use a regular meat thermometer or a fancy digital one. I have this one that I got at Lowes. It doesn't have the best reviews but I've never had a problem with it.
Alright, so there is the list... I know it seems like a lot but trust me, it's totally worth it. So let's get cooking!
Step 2: T'was the Night Before Smoking And...
"T'was the night before smoking and all through the house, not a creature was stirring except the guy making the delicious brine for the turkey dinner everyone is going to be feasting on tomorrow!"
That's right tomorrow! The brining process needs to be done the day before in order to properly ensure that the flavor saturates the turkey. Remember, smoking is a labor of love. So the more time you spend on the prep work, the better the turkey will turn out.
**REMEMBER! If your turkey is frozen make sure your bird is completely thawed out before you brine! You will most likely need to take your bird out a day before you brine it!**
Now some of you may be asking... "What is brining?" Basically, brining is a process that helps us both flavor the meat and also make sure the meat does not dry-out during cooking. For more information on brining you can check out this wikipedia page . The most important thing to remember is that brining is going to keep your meat juicy, which is exactly what we want when smoking a turkey. The low and slow process of smoking can easily dry-out your bird. Brining also reduces our cook time which is important in achieving a moist end product. Alright, so you know what brining is, now how do you do it?
1. In a large pot combine your half gallon of vegetable broth, half gallon of apple juice, 1 cup of salt, 1 TBS Paprika, 1 TBS Rosemary and 1 TBS Thyme.
2. Bring the pot to a boil stirring frequently. You want to make sure that the salt has dissolved into the mixture. Your dried seasoning will stay floating at the top, that's okay! The flavoring will permeate throughout the mixture.
3. Once the pot has reached the boil, remove it from the heat and let it cool to room temperature.
4. Once your mixture has cooled combine it with 1 gallon of ice cold water into your 5 gallon bucket.
5. Wash and prepare your turkey! This step is very important. Thoroughly wash your turkey and remove any of the organs and neck that are packed in the central cavity. My turkey was filled with a neck and a bag of giblets. This all must be removed before you brine your turkey. If your turkey has a thermometer in it remove that as well.
6. Submerge your turkey breast side down in the brine mixture making sure the entire bird is covered. You can see in the picture provided that I needed to rig a set up to make sure the bird stayed submerged. You could also tilt your bucket in the refrigerator or add more water to cover the bird completely. If you need to cover more than an inch of the bird you might need to add more brine rather than water alone (flavor is key!).
7. Once your turkey is in the brine, refrigerate your bird and let it marinate in the mixture for 12-14 hours.
And there you go... You've brined your turkey. I have used the recipe numerous times and achieved wonderful results. If you prefer a less salty taste, try substituting the vegetable broth with a low sodium vegetable broth instead. The best thing about brines though is that you can tweak it and add flavors to your own personal preference. So feel free to experiment! Now Let's smoke this thing!
Step 3: Smoking - an Overview
Again I need to thank mnlang for his instructable, "Pulled pork on a Weber kettle grill" , for giving me my introductory knowledge on smoking. If you haven't read this instructable please do yourself a favor and check it out. I will be going over steps on how to smoke on a charcoal grill but everything I have learned has come from his instructable. As we all know, a primary source is usually better than a secondary source, but I will do my best to go over the process as well as he has. I take no credit for this information as follows and again, I cannot thank mnlang enough for his instructable.
• This process uses an indirect heating method. This means that the item to be cooked is not placed directly over the coals.
• On one side of the grill I place 90 unlit coals. Directly opposite the coals i place the lasagna tin. When cooking other fatty pieces of meat I would usually put a half inch of water to catch and cool the drippings, however with the turkey I have left the tin empty to catch the drippings and use them for basting and for gravy.
• Although this is technically not "grill setup", while prepping the grill I also take the time to soak my wood chips. The wood chips need to be soaked for at least a half an hour in order to maximize their smoke output. Dry wood will not smoke, it will burn, and we definitely don't want that.
• Quick Chip Tip - I usually like to use a mixture of half hickory half apple wood. Hickory has a very pungent taste and can easily overpower the flavor. By utilizing a fruit wood it helps mellow out the harshness of the hickory.
For those of you who have not used a charcoal chimney you don't know what you are missing out on. By utilizing this tool you eliminate the need for nasty tasting lighter fluid.
• Place 3 to 4 sheets of crumpled newspaper in the bottom of the chimney.
• Place 20-25 pieces of charcoal inside the chimney
• Light the newspaper underneath.
• Once the charcoal inside the chimney has ashed over and the major flames have subsided the charcoal is ready.
Final Smoker Preparation
Okay you're almost done I promise. The last thing we need to do is of course heat up our smoker and get it smoking.
• Place your lit charcoal on top of the unlit charcoal by pouring it out of the chimney. Pour the chimney away from you! You do not want any flames or soot coming back up into your face. Make sure that the lit charcoal is evenly distributed over the unlit charcoal.
• Place your rack into the grill. At this point I put an oven thermometer on the unlit side of the grill. I have a installed an oven thermometer on top of the smoker but I like to use the interior thermometer to be more accurate.
• Close the lid and preheat the smoker. You are shooting for 240°F to 250°F.
Quick Temperature Tips - Controlling the temperature is the most difficult part of smoking. It's not like cooking with a gas grill where you can "set it and forget it", it takes a bit of work. In order to control the temperature you have to control the vents. The more open the vents are the hotter the temperature will get and the more closed the lower the temperature. You're essentially starving or fueling the flame. A good method is to start with the vents half open and work from there. I generally check the temperature every 15 minutes to make sure i'm on track. A fluctuation between 225°F and 275°F is okay. If the temperature starts to really spike open the smoker and let out some heat. If the temperature starts to dip below 225°F you may need to add more lit coals.
Back to the Smoking...
• Okay so you've hit your temperature, you can now put your meat on the grill and add a handful of wet wood chips to the lit coals.Now it's time to close the grill and get ready for the long haul.
• I add new wet wood chips to the grill every thirty minutes. Make sure to constantly replenish your wood chips. You don't want to be caught needing chips and not having wet ones on hand.
• You can continue to smoke your meat throughout your cooking process, however, I generally stop adding chips after 4 or 5 hours. After a good bark has developed on your meat, the smoke will not permeate it anymore.
• Just as a reminder I generally check the temperature every 15 minutes throughout the duration of the cook to make sure I'm on track with my temperature. A consistent heat is key to a great finished product.
Okay there is some general information about smoking... I will get into some finer details that pertain to this particular cook in the next step. If you have any questions about the process or would like to learn more please check out the link to mnlang's instructable, otherwise feel free to ask me directly. Now let's continue shall we?
Step 4: Let's Do It!
Okay so using the setup and information in the previous step... I have begun to smoke the turkey. Now if you haven't smoked anything before you are probably getting good and nervous. Relax! Everything is going to turn out great. Now I'm sure you have plenty of questions so let's give you some answers eh?
• Now you're about to put your turkey in the smoker when you realize... "Wait a second... my turkey is in a huge bucket of flavored liquid still isn't it?"
- Yes... it is. Before it hits the smoker you are going to have to remove the bird from the brine and pat it dry. If any seasoning is on the bird that's okay, we just don't want the bird dripping wet when it goes into the smoker.
• "Okay, I'm checking the temperature every fifteen minutes, I'm right at 250°F... How do I know when the bird is done?"
- Good question. The general rule of thumb when smoking a brined turkey is approximately one half hour per pound. This 13.2 LB bird cooked in about six and a half hours. Although this is a good approximation of doneness... This is not how you tell if your turkey is done! The only way to tell if your bird is cooked for sure is to make sure the internal temperature is at least 165° F! This is not a suggestion, you do not want to eat this bird if it is not cooked. We all know the perils of eating raw poultry so just don't do it!
Quick Temperature Taking Tips (Try saying that one three times fast huh?) - When checking the birds temperature, the best place to check it is in the middle part of the breast. Try to keep the tip of your thermometer away from the bone as the bones get hotter much more quickly than the meat which can skew our temperature readings. Also check both breasts for temperature, if you notice one side is cooler than the other you can rotate the bird so the cooler side is closer to the coals. I begin to check the birds temperature after about 4 hours.
• "So I'm looking at the pictures of your bird and I noticed that after the first hour it looks like only half of your bird is browning... What's the deal with that?"
- I figured that little detail would not escape your keen eye. So here's what happened. When I put the bird in initially, I was slightly worried that the bird was not going to fit, however to my relief, I set it on the rack and closed the lid with no problems... or so I thought. The problem was that there was too little clearance for the smoke to envelop the bird. Although the bird fit in the smoker there was not sufficient spacing to smoke both sides. In order to remedy this problem I simply lowered the rack (my grill has two different grill height options), and rotated the bird 180°. By hour two the bird was completely browned as you can see. Don't make the same mistake I did and make sure you have plenty of clearance all around your bird in the smoker.
• "So I've made my fair share of turkey's in my day... Don't I have to baste it or something?"
- Good question! The answer is... sure? Basting is designed to keep the turkey nice and moist during cooking, however, our brining process has already done that for us! That being said, I usually start basting the turkey after 4 hours every time I ad wood chips to the smoker. Now I know in the smoking overview I told you it's not necessary to add wood chips after the first 4 to 5 hours. While cooking turkey, I like to add smoke during the entire process. So in this case I basted the turkey once every half hour during the last two and a half hours of the cook. I also like to baste the turkey because it gives the skin a wonderful glossy sheen.
So there you go. You smoked your first turkey. You've stuck it out for 6 or 7 hours, and now you're ready to eat right? Wrong! Let's move on shall we? You're almost done I promise!
Step 5: Take a Chill Pill!
Okay, I know you're hungry, but this step is so very important. You have to let the turkey rest. Why is this important you ask? Allowing the turkey time to rest keeps all those juices we've worked so hard to preserve locked inside the meat. The fastest way to ruin a long cook is to cut right into your meat when it comes off the smoker and let all those delicious juices run out.
Here's what you're going to do...
1. Place the turkey on a baking sheet
2. Cover the Turkey in aluminum foil
3. Wait 20 minutes to a half hour! I know, I know... I'm asking a lot. You've spent all that time cooking and you just want to eat the thing. Don't ruin it now! Plus I mean... the anticipation has to heighten the flavor no?
After the resting period is over you're in the home stretch! The end is in sight! only one thing left to do...
Step 6: Carve It and Eat It!
That's right! It's finally time to cut this bad boy up and enjoy the fruits of your labor!
I've included a video from Cooking.com which shows an excellent demonstration on how to carve a turkey for those of you who haven't before. I am so glad you took the time to review my first instructable! I hope you enjoy your smoked turkeys as much as my family and friends did and if you have any questions please do not hesitate to ask, I would be glad to help in any way I can. Enjoy and happy cooking! I look forward to seeing what you all come up with!