Thanksgivings fast approaching, so let’s talk turkey. What shall we talk about? How about the fact that I love turkey, and one bird is just never enough for the various turkey related holidays we have around here. I always roast a big bird in the oven, and fry a second in a deep fryer outside. Two birds make sure that there are plenty of leftovers. But the last couple of years, I’ve been doing three, because, well, I love leftover turkey, and so do several other members of the family. The third bird has ended up being smoked, and oh, my friends, it is a heavenly way to cook turkey. Simple, too. And you can do it in advance, saving time during the hectic cooking frenzy that always seems to exist on Thanksgiving.
The idea for the smoked bird came about when a couple of friends sent us a Greenberg Smoked Turkey. It was some of the most amazing poultry I’d ever tasted, and this from a bird that’s been shipped through the mail! I had to have more.
But of course, since I fancy myself a smoker of some merit, I had to figure out how to do it myself. After a couple of years, I believe I’ve come close. I’ve managed to settle on a technique that produces a wonderful smoked bird that, while still not quite a Greenberg, is delicious nonetheless.
If you haven’t had one, Greenberg turkeys are intensely smoky. Not oversmoked, by any measure, but the bird is quite blackened when it arrives, and the smoke flavor really penetrates into the meat and delights the palate with its richness. The technique that follows is simple. I’m going for that same deep penetrating smoke flavor without a lot of other adornments. So, in this technique, there are no brines, no rubs, no injections or marinades. We’re letting the turkey’s own flavor shine, delicately seasoned with the smoke.
I start with a 12 to 14 pound frozen grocery store turkey.
You can go fresh if you want, but don’t go much bigger than 14 pounds for smoking, as the longer cooking times necessary for larger birds can cause them to become over-smoked and ashy tasting. Also, since I’m smoking mine in a Weber kettle, there’s not enough room for a much larger bird. If frozen, thaw the turkey for several days in your refrigerator so that it is completely thawed by the day that you are going to smoke it. I always smoke it two days before I serve it, then keep it refrigerated until serving day. I find this is one of the factors that really gets the smoke flavor to penetrate deep into the meat.
Before you smoke it, you need to prep the turkey. Remove the giblets and neck from the cavities,
then cut off the plastic or wire straps that hold the legs together.
You want to open up the main cavity so that heat gets in here and cooks the turkey evenly. Also, if it has one, I remove the ‘pop up when done’ indicator from the turkey.
These are notoriously inaccurate, and can result in an overcooked (and dry) bird, so I rely on a good meat thermometer.
Pat the turkey dry and then go and prepare your smoker. Light about half a chimney of charcoal and set it up for indirect cooking, to the side of your kettle or smoker. Then place wood chunks or chips on top of the coals. Choose mild to medium smoke woods, like Hickory, Pecan or any of the fruit woods.
My smoking wood bins
For this turkey, I’ve selected pecan.
Charcoal bin set up with wood for indirect cooking
Place the bird on the grate breast side up on the opposite side from your fire.
As you can see, I'm smoking the neck here as well, to freeze for later use to add smoke flavor to a pot of beans or similar.
Cover your kettle, and open the top damper wide so you get a good smoke flow.
I love the smell of pecan smoke in the morning!
Adjust the bottom damper so that the chamber comes to a temperature of about 275F. This is lower than most places will tell you (standard is 325F) but I find a higher temp cooks the turkey too quickly to develop the smoke flavor I’m looking for. At 275F, a 12 pound turkey should take about four hours to cook. But don’t rely on time estimates, use a meat thermometer so that you can tell when the breast reaches 165F and the thigh reaches 180. Cooking breast side up and thigh side down helps get this higher temp in the thigh. Pull the bird when both reach these temps.
After about an hour, the bird will look like this. Rotate it 180 degrees after two hours so the other side is close to the fire, allowing the bird to cook evenly. After four hours or so, it should have reached proper temperature (use that thermometer to check!) and it will look like this:
At this point, you could serve right away, but like I said above, if you chill the bird in the fridge for a day or two, the flavor of the smoke will really permeate the meat itself, and not just linger on the skin. I find it’s best served cold, so no need to reheat. The gravy you’ve surely made will do that for you and your guests anyway. (You'll get some drippings in the bottom of the pan as the turkey chills in the fridge. This will make some nice gravy with a hint of smoke flavor!)
Until next time,
Happy Turkey Day!