Thanksgiving has come and gone, and I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the turkey. In recent years we haven’t done turkey, so having one this year was a bit of a novelty for us. I’m not a big fan of turkey generally (too much white meat; I prefer the more flavorful dark meat on poultry), but this one turned out pretty amazing. And I even consumed a fair bit of white meat myself.
What made this turkey different for us? I have one word for you friends – brining. Allow me to reinvent the wheel here. Authorities greater than I have been extolling the wonders of brining for a good long time in the culinary world, but leave it to me to ignore sound advice. I’m pretty sore about the fact that I haven’t tried it before recently. But now that I’ve brined, I’ll never go back. No more dry birds at our house!
In addition to brining our bird, we also apple smoked it. Last year’s apple smoked pheasant was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever eaten, and I wanted to capture the incredible mahogany color and intense apple flavor again this year. Why not throw a turkey on the Weber? It’s really easier than it seems, so I’ll give you the run down. Maybe you’ll brave the weather and smoke yourself a turkey on Christmas Day. Wouldn’t that be a show stopper?
This year we did a fourteen pound bird. You’ll need to have a thawed bird forty-eight hours before you want to serve it – an overnight for the brine (the longer the better – we only did twelve hours, but twice that would’ve been better) and a second overnight uncovered in the fridge so the skin gets super dry (which will make it nice and crispy when you cook it). So for a Thanksgiving bird, start on Tuesday. For a Christmas Day bird, start on the 23rd, the day before Christmas Eve (this year it’s a Friday).
First up, let’s talk about gear. Like me, you probably do not have a non-reactive food-safe plastic or glass container in the 21 quart ballpark in order to brine your turkey. For less than five bucks though, you can put together something that will actually fit in your fridge. All you need is a disposable turkey roasting pan and a turkey cooking bag. While I think those bags are fully useless for actual cooking (and I just don’t trust heating any kind of plastic with food in it) they’re great for brining and curing. I actually use them when I make my own bacon because I can’t find two quart zip top bags in my area and I never get around to ordering them online. But I digress. If you have a proper roasting pan that will fit a turkey, by all means use it with the bag. It’s just one of those big ticket items we haven’t acquired yet. A word on brining in chest coolers – I see it recommended a fair bit of the time, but I just can’t get behind it. I don’t trust the temperature being stable at all. Better, and safer, to do your brining in the fridge. Aside from the brining ingredients, the only other thing you’re going to need is some apple chips. I still consider myself a beginner food smoker, so I cheat like hell and use the Camerons Flavorwood cans. I love these things. They’re absolutely foolproof and everything I’ve ever smoked with them tastes great. You’ll need three to four cans to do a whole turkey for three to four hour smoke time. Basically, one can per hour.
Now let’s discuss the brine. As it’s most basic, a brine is a water/salt/sugar solution. Where it gets fun and exciting are the flavor components. There are a billion different combinations you could come up with. Since we apple smoked, we thought an apple brine would really make for intense flavor. My point of reference was a recipe I found on Serious Eats. Naturally, I made some modifications –
half gallon of apple cider
1/2 cup of lemon juice (next time I’ll use 2-3 large fresh lemons, but I only had juice on hand this year)
3 quarts water
2 1/2 cups light brown sugar
1 cup kosher salt
2 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and cut into chunks
15 whole cloves
3 fresh bay leaves (if you don’t have a tree like I do, you’ll need 6 dried)
6 whole peppercorns (I forgot to add them for Thanksgiving, but I plan to put them in next time for a little extra kick)
First up, you want to dissolve the sugar and salt in the apple cider. The quickest way to do that is to heat it up in a saucepan on the stove. Bring it to a boil for just a minute, stirring well until both the sugar and salt have completely dissolved. Let it come to room temp – I came back to it after an hour while I was doing other prep.
As a matter of fact, you can take down your bird while you’re waiting for the cider to cool down. We’re not big on presenting the whole bird and carving it at the table at our house, and we wanted to put it on the grill in pieces to make sure everything got evenly smoked, and we could take off meat when it was done. Turkeys are notoriously hard to cook right whole – half the meat is often overdone, half underdone. Not too appealing. Now I’ll be honest. I was pretty mentally fried after a long day of Thanksgiving prep and baby care, so I didn’t take apart my turkey before putting it in the brine, which was supremely stupid for a couple of reasons. First of all, try holding a plastic bag full of liquid open with one hand while lifting a fourteen pound turkey with the other hand into it. Want to guess how long it took me to clean up that sticky mess? Longer than I cared to spend on it as the clock was nearing midnight. The other reason has to do with flavor. Forget flipping the bird in the brine in the middle of the night so that it brines evenly – which is another disaster waiting to happen. If it’s it in pieces, you drop them in one by one no problem, everything gets brined equally and you’re all set to go. Learn from my mistake. Never took down a turkey before? Me either. But it’s just a chicken, only much, much bigger. Leave everything bone in for the best flavor. You can do it.
Then put your turkey bag into your roasting pan. You probably want a sheet pan underneath the flimsy disposable so it’s easier to lift – the disposables will bend and warp at the drop of a hat. Pour your now room temp cider mix into the bag. Add the rest of the brine ingredients, and plunk in your turkey pieces. Tie up the bag and make sure it’s sitting pretty in the pan, and stick the whole affair in the fridge for twenty four hours. You can get away with eight-twelve, but longer is better in my opinion. You really want the cider and spices to penetrate all the way to the center of the meat.
When you feel like you’ve brined enough, take your turkey pieces from the brine and rinse them really well under cold running water. You want to remove any excess salt that may still be on the skin of the bird. Pour the brine down the drain (it’s done it’s good work) and put the bag in the recycling. Hang onto the roasting pan for drying out the bird. Once the turkey is well rinsed, dry it thoroughly with paper towels and stick it back in the disposable roasting pan and return it to the fridge for another twenty four hours. Make sure there’s nothing weird in your fridge – like an uncovered bowl of chopped onions or anything. It will reek up your turkey. I don’t know why anyone would have a bowl of uncovered chopped onions in their fridge, but you get the idea. The only naked thing in there should be the turkey.
You’ve now made it through forty eight hours of turkey preparation. It’s now time for the big show. Pull the turkey out of the fridge about a half hour before you want to put it on the grill so it comes up to room temp. You want a simple two zone fire in your grill. Throw one of the smoke cans onto the coals, give it a couple of minutes to start smoking, then place your turkey pieces on the cool side. Put the lid on and position the upper vent over the turkey so it draws the smoke up over the meat. You’ll need anywhere from three to four hours for a fourteen pound bird – temp it periodically when you get towards the end. And since your bird is in pieces, you’re halfway there with the carving. You’ll still want to let it rest for 20 minutes or so before carving so all the juices don’t run out.
And that’s it. With a little advance planning and some simple tools, you can have an amazingly flavorful, beautifully browned bird. And it won’t be like every other turkey on the block! Be sure to set a couple extra places at the table – when your neighbors smell your bird smoking away out back, you can bet they’ll abandon their boring oven roasted birds in favor of pulling up a chair at your house.