We are a week away from Turkey day, and if you are like me, you are already prepping the bird! Well, you are if you know the secret to a great-tasting, juicy, smoked turkey. I'll tell you my process and show you how I smoke my Tom. It looks like a lot is involved, but it is not that difficult. Follow this process, and hopefully, it will relieve some of the anxiety of cooking for a house full of people. There are two things you must do to have the best damn turkey you have ever eaten and give the illusion you are a culinary genius to your friends and family:
Brine the bird for at least 12 hours but up to 24 hours. The longer, the better, but any longer than 24 and the turkey will disintegrate in the pot. If you are a procrastinator or you have a surprise "Hey, we're coming over for Thanksgiving!", even a one or two-hour brine does wonders.
Keep the bird in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours before cooking and up to 36. This is the hot ticket and the secret for crispy skin. For crispy chicken wings, it's cornstarch, for turkey, it's a cold fridge.
Brined turkeys cook quicker. I do not follow the 1 - 1.5 hours per pound rule of thumb for cooking. As always, I cook to the internal temperature of 165F. However, for planning purposes, one hour per pound works.
You can stuff a brined turkey after you finish the brining process. Just make sure the temperature of the stuffing is 165F before pulling. No biggs.
Without further ado, here is the prep. Once all this is done, watch the video to smoke your bird.
Bonus! You can also use this process for oven-cooked turkey
Thursday: 7 days out - start thawing your bird in the fridge. A good guideline is 1 day for every 5 pounds of bird.
Saturday: 5 days out - Turkey is thawed, time to brine
Monday: 3 days out -Turkey is brined. Prepare and place in the fridge. Yes, leave it in the fridge for this long. This is how we will get that crispy skin everyone fights over.
Note: The turkey will change color at the end of this refrigeration period. It will look gross, but I assure you it will be ok. It's just an after-effect of the brine breaking down the meat.
Thursday: Time to cook. This could be as early as Wednesday night depending on the size of your bird and when you are going to eat, lunch versus late afternoon versus evening.
Get a 5-gallon bucket from Lowes, Home Depot, etc. I use my turkey frying pot.
Place the turkey into the bucket.
Make brine, and pour it into the bucket.
Fill the remaining capacity of the bucket with ice. I recommend having about 20 pounds of ice on standby for this process.
There are tons of premade brines on the market and in your grocery store. If you plan on using your own, then follow their instructions then skip ahead to the cooking process.
Some favorites: Meat Church Brine
This recipe is a blend of various sources I found on the interwebs a few years back, and I love it. I do not pout the giblets in the brine, but I do save them for the gravy.
Note: Do not rinse the turkey before you brine. I never rinse mine regardless of how I cook.
1 32 oz. container of chicken broth
4 big oranges, quartered (hat tip to my wife for this addition)
2 big lemons, quartered
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup kosher salt
1 big onion (white or red), quartered
1/2 cup whole peppercorns
4 bay leaves
1 whole head of garlic, smashed
1 cup bourbon or whiskey - whatever you have. The alcohol will burn off, so the cheap stuff is ok.
4 quarts of water
Mix everything but oranges and lemons in a big pot and bring to a rolling boil. Squeeze citrus into the pot and cook for 2 minutes. Save peels! We will put them in the brine later.
Allow brine to cool to room temperature.
1 turkey 12 - 16 lbs, unsalted, non-kosher.
Do not get a turkey with extra salt!
If you use a bigger turkey make sure it will fit in the brining bucket. No need to adjust the brine mixture.
While the brine is cooling, place the bird in the brining bucket.
Add spent quartered citrus peels.
Once the brine is at room temperature, pour it over the bird.
Dump one bag of ice onto the bird.
Cover and place in a cool, dry closet or equivalent. Keep away from heater vents!
Keep the temperature of the brine below 40F. Add more ice as necessary throughout the process.
Clean your sink. Place a hand towel on the bottom if you prefer.
Remove the turkey from the brining bucket and place it in the sink.
Rinse the turkey. Some people don't rinse but rather pat the turkey afterward. I don't want to risk an oversalted turkey, which has happened, so I rinse.
Pat the turkey dry. This contributes to crispy skin.
The preparation comes before the bird sits in the fridge for a few days. There are a few different ways to do this depending on how much room you have in your fridge. A brining bag works great for this process since it is hard to find a zip-lock bag being enough for a turkey. You could also put the turkey in an aluminum roasting pan and then cover it with foil.
2 sticks of butter
4 big oranges, quartered
Slice small holes in the turkey skin all over the bird.
Insert butter slices into the holes.
Shove the oranges into the turkey cavity unless you are stuffing it.
If you are using a turkey injection, then this is when you would add the injection. I made a honey bourbon injection one year that was incredible, but I can't find that recipe. I'm sure a quick internet search will yield many.
Now place the bird in the fridge until it is time to cook. As I said, it may look a little funky after a few days, but it's fine.
Here is how I smoke a turkey. Don't worry about the rub and injection from the video, but focus on the smoking method.
I hope you have as much fun with this as I do. It has become a yearly tradition (and expectation from our guests), and it is the only time my wife lets me in the kitchen during Thanksgiving. Enjoy!