Smoked turkey is a fabulous addition to any table, and well worth the slight effort of making it happen at home. It combines all the best of a special meal, being lusciously flavorful, juicy and tender. It normally can be had only a few times a year through specialty retailers or high end grocery stores. But it’s easy to do at home, and the results are just as spectacular as the store bought version, yet at a fraction of the cost. Best of all it’s an easy thing to make, and here is how to do it.
Choose the bird you wish to smoke. High quality frozen birds are available at most grocery stores year round, and they seem to proliferate in October through January, with the prices sometimes dropping to well under $1 a pound. If you see them on sale for this amount, pick up more than one – stash the extra in your freezer for a few weeks. If you’re lucky enough to have access to a fresh bird, one that is free range or even organic, then you’ll pay more, but the taste is usually worth a little extra outlay.
Make sure your bird is safely defrosted, and take the extra day to brine the bird. A salt water solution with additional flavoring agents is all that’s required for a good brine in this case, and there are hundreds of good recipes out there for brines. Because a smoked turkey will get its dominant flavor from the smoke agents don’t worry about any complicated brine. Salt, sugar, peppercorns, garlic and bay leaves are plenty.
Once the bird is brined, prep your grill or smoker. You can use any number of woods to generate delicious smoke, but make sure you pick the milder smoke flavors. Something like mesquite, if not used judiciously and sparingly, can quickly turn bitter. My top picks are oak, hickory and apple, and most of the time I use the hickory and apple combination. The end product will be a wonderfully smoky flavor throughout the bird, that doesn’t overwhelm or overtake the naturally beautiful flavor of the turkey itself. Enhancement is what you want with the smoke, so make sure you choose the lighter, gentler smokes for this particular meat.
Before smoking, soak your wood chips in a bucket of water for at least half an hour. This will allow the chips to smolder and release a lot of smoke, without allowing them to burn or actually flame. Whether you use a smoker or a grill, you want the internal temperature of the device to be between 225F and 275F. A thermometer for your device is your best friend here – it’s well worth the small investment for the payoff it will give you in control. So whichever device you use, a smoker, a charcoal or a gas grill, see if you can manage a thermometer if your device doesn’t have one built in.
While your chips are smoking, and your grill or smoker is preheating, remove the bird from the brine and discard the brine – never try to re-use any type of brining liquid. Rinse the bird well, and pat it very dry with paper towels. Getting rid of as much excess water as possible will help ensure the skin browns well, and the bird smokes instead of steams. The final texture will be much better if the bird is as dry as possible.
At this point, insert the probe of an instant read thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh – the ‘oyster’ that is immediately behind the thigh joint. Set the alarm (if you have one) to 165F. Place a handful of the drained wood chips in the smoker’s tray or in an aluminum foil tray or packet if you’re using a grill. Pop the bird onto the rack as far away from the heat source as possible, and close the lid.
Believe it or not – you’re just about done. At this point you need to simply let time and the smoke work their magic. The reason why the thermometers are so important is because timing charts for doneness are almost impossible to rely on. There are too many variables, including the temperature of the bird when you start, the exact temperature inside the device, how far away from the heat source the bird is, the ambient temperature outside and more. You can use the rough calculation of a minimum of six hours for a 10 lb. bird at 225F, adding half an hour for each additional pound. But don’t use this as any more than a rough guide. I’ve had birds in the exact layout take almost twice as long, especially when the weather is colder. Make sure you rely instead on the readout of your meat thermometer. Check your device thermometer too – low and slow is the key here. Make sure the temperature doesn’t increase beyond 275F.
Other than checking every couple of hours to see if you need to add wood chips for additional smoke, the work is really done. When the internal reading of the turkey reaches 165F, then it’s perfectly cooked, and you can simply set it on a platter and let it rest. Resting is critical – don’t skip this step. Give it half an hour and the payoff is well worth the extra wait. The resting period will allow the juices to redistribute throughout the meat. But after that your gorgeous smoked bird is ready to carve.
Smoking a turkey is a really easy method of cooking this wonderful food, and it is also a relatively hands-off method, making it perfect for busy holidays. But it works as gorgeously any day of the year. Try it once, and you’ll be hooked on how simple it is to create a lovely end result – and your guests will thank you for it!