As a kid, I hated the holidays. I was a picky eater, and my family members weren’t the best cooks when it came to meat. Most proteins were tortured to the consistency of well-worn shoe leather and were devoid of any flavor. Turkeys prepared around Thanksgiving and Christmas were no exception. These birds were usually so dry even waterboarding them with an entire vat of gravy couldn’t wring out a mediocre eating experience. After enough complaints, the family finally decided to leave the cooking to a local deli. We happily ate that deli’s bird for at least a decade or more. Years later, I found my stride as a pit master, I suddenly found myself in charge of cooking during the holidays. They cleaned the carcass of that very first turkey I prepared like a school of piranha. Through their hazy tryptophan induced food comas pointed questions about my new found culinary skills came to light. “What the hell took you so long?” “We could have been eating this good years ago!” Do you know how much money we could have been saving?!” Sigh. Below is exactly how I returned the home cooked bird to my family’s table.
One of the biggest challenges to cooking a whole turkey is not drying the breast out before the dark meat is finished. The majority of the time breasts will hit the proper internal temp of 165 long before the dark meat. This happens with all poultry, but a whole turkey presents a bigger challenge due to its large size. There isn’t much you can do to prevent this other than cutting up the bird and cooking the pieces individually, or perhaps spatchcocking (cutting the spine out so the bird lays flat). Most people don’t like using these methods because they want a nice picture-perfect presentation in the middle of their formal living room table when they use it two or three times a year. If they are going to take the time to sweep the cobwebs out of that room for company, that damn bird better look like a Martha Stewart post card, not something that’s been flattened by a tractor trailer.
I’ve long since given up worrying about getting everything to hit the proper temperature at the same time. I just let the breast go to whatever they hell they want and concentrate on pulling the poultry out as soon as my thermometer reads 165 on the deepest part of the thighs. My strategy on keeping the meat moist and tender is to brine the whole bird 12 to 24 hours ahead of cooking. Notice I said strategy, not secret. Brining a piece of meat has long been a tool used by chefs and home cooks alike to retain moisture and impart flavor. Just be sure and have the turkey thawing in the fridge a few days prior to brining. Also, don’t forget to remove the neck and giblets that are often stuffed inside the carcass.
To make the brine you’ll need a 5-gallon food safe bucket, preferably one that has a lid. You’ll also need to make sure you have enough refrigerator space to accommodate the bucket. If space is limited, you could get away with using a cooler as long as it is sized correctly in order to keep the bird completely submerged. If you are lucky enough to live in a cold climate, keeping the container outside is fine as long as critters can’t sneak off with its contents. If you live in the great white north the brine should be strong enough that you wont end up with a turkey popsicle. Most brines consist of salt, sugar, and water. Mine is no exception. Kosher salt, sorghum, water, some Cajun seasoning and citrus round out the ingredient list.
½ gallon of water
1-½ cups of kosher salt
2 cups of sorghum (you can substitute molasses)
2 lemons halved
2 oranges halved
½ cup of Cajun seasoning (I prefer Tony Chachere’s)
10 pounds of ice
Ok pay close attention. What follows is a very complex set of instructions to make brine. These are advanced techniques like boiling water and dumping ingredients into a pot.
Step one: Fill a large stockpot with ½ gallon of water and bring to a boil.
Step two: Throw all the remaining ingredients except the ice in the pot.
Step three: Cut the heat and stir until the salt and sorghum have dissolved in the water.
Brine complete. Terribly difficult wasn’t it?
Next, pour about seven pounds of your ice into your five-gallon bucket and then pour in the brine. Next, place your thawed turkey in the brine. Submerge the turkey completely and top off the bucket with the remaining ice. I’ll often stick a large ceramic kitchen plate on top of my bird if it’s trying to float. It is extremely important for food safety that the brine stay below 40 degrees while the bird is submerged. Above 40 and it could make your guest sick. Keep this in mind if you are planning on keeping your bucket/cooler outside instead of a fridge.
Brine your bird for a minimum of 12 hours. A good rule of thumb is one hour per pound. This bird was 15 pounds so I left it in the brine for 15 hours. After you’ve sufficiently brined the turkey, get your smoker lit and bring the temperature up to 325 degrees. This temperature will allow the skin to crisp up and eliminate the slimy texture that comes with smoking at cooler temps. As for smoke flavor, I tend to go pretty light with poultry. If you are using charcoal you may not even feel the need to add smoke woods. If you really like a strong smoke flavor or are cooking with gas or electric, I would suggest fruitwoods such as apple, peach, or cherry. Oak, hickory, and especially mesquite will give a very sharp flavor that will likely overpower the flavor of the turkey.
When you are ready to start cooking, remove the turkey from the brine and rinse it off under cool tap water. Pat the skin dry with clean paper towels and apply light coat of butter or canola oil to the skin. This will help give the skin a nice golden brown color and facilitate the crisping effect. A 14-18 pound bird will need roughly 2.5 to 3 hours for the dark meat to reach 165 degrees.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to get a good kitchen thermometer not only for cooking your turkey but also for any type of smoking or BBQ. No two pieces of meat are the same and they will all cook differently. You cannot go solely on time. Cheap kitchen thermometers are simply not accurate or fast enough to get the job done correctly. You will likely end up over or undercooking your food or letting all the heat out of your smoker by spending too much time with the door open while waiting on a slow-moving thermometer. I highly recommend investing in a quick read thermometer like a Thermapen or Maverick remote thermometer. Knowing what temps you need for amazing meat won’t matter if you’re relying on thermometers that are lying or slowing you down.
You will want to probe the deepest part of the thigh around the hip joint when checking your temps. As soon as it reaches 165, it’s time to pull the turkey and bring it inside to carve. No rest period is needed when cooking turkeys. I recommend eating the bird as soon as possible, but if your guests are not going to be eating for a few hours you can place the turkey in a clean cooler to help keep it warm. Do not place the turkey back in the same cooler you used to brine unless you have thoroughly cleaned and sanitized it. When it is time to eat, pay attention to your guests’ reactions – it’s the payoff for all your hard work. Be warned however, friends and family will likely volunteer you to cook the holiday turkey from here on out.