Barbecue University™

The Secrets to the Best Thanksgiving Turkey Ever

Brined Turkey

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Especially when it comes to turkey. In our collective quest to find an antidote to the dry birds of Thanksgivings past, most of us have tried—at least once—a number of unconventional cooking techniques. Draping butter-soaked cheesecloth over the breast, for example. Or awkwardly flipping the bird from back to front and front to back as if it were a restless sleeper in the oven. Roasting the turkey in a buttered paper grocery bag. Even sizzling it in a deep fat fryer.

Well, take your quest no further. A combination of two techniques—brining and smoke-roasting—will produce the tender, succulent bird of your dreams.

Brining: If you remember your college chemistry, brining involves such phenomena as osmotic pressure and semipermeable membranes. (Sorry, I don’t either.) In layman’s terms, a brine relaxes the tightly coiled proteins in the meat muscles (think of a Slinky or an old-fashioned telephone cord), which then fosters the absorption of liquid, salt, and any other flavors you’ve added to the brine. The bird will be noticeably moister, more tender, and more flavorful than a bird that has not been brined. Even if slightly overcooked. (Not that you’d do that.)

As for smoke-roasting, there are at least five advantages to barbecuing your turkey:

  1. First, smoke adds an amazing depth of flavor;
  2. Second, the method—especially when combined with brining—produces a turkey of incomparable succulence. Even the breast meat will be moist;
  3. Third: the utter simplicity of the method. Once you put the bird on the grill or in the smoker, you pretty much leave it there until it’s done;
  4. Fourth, the most valuable real estate in the kitchen on Thanksgiving Day is the oven. Moving the turkey outside to the grill or smoker frees up the oven for other holiday dishes (unless you’re like me and have multiple grills and cook the whole Thanksgiving feast outdoors);
  5. Finally, it gives you an excuse to spend the afternoon outdoors, beer in hand, enjoying the company of pals and family. (Alternatively, this low-maintenance bird frees you up to watch football.)

The first step is to brine the bird for at least 8 hours, and up to 24.

The next step is to fire up your outdoor cooker. You have numerous options here: kettle grills; offset barrel smokers; upright water smokers; pellet smokers, such as Traeger; even kamado cookers, like the Big Green Egg. If you own a simple charcoal kettle grill, you can smoke a magnificent turkey. Gas grills, unfortunately, do not work well for smoking. Because of the way they’re vented, it’s hard to secure a pronounced smoke flavor—even on a gas grill with a smoker box and dedicated burner. If you want to enjoy a real smoked turkey, invest in charcoal and wood chips.

Finally, there’s the technique—a method I have come to call smoke-roasting. It’s similar to indirect-grilling in that both are done next to (or between) the heat sources at a moderate temperature (325 to 350 degrees). What makes it smoke-roasting is the addition of soaked hickory or other hardwood chips to the coals.

Don’t confuse smoke-roasting with traditional smoking. The latter refers to a process whereby the bird is cooked “low and slow”—at a low temperature (200 to 250 degrees) for a long period (4 to 6 hours or more, depending on the size of the turkey). This is the method practiced by competition barbecuers and it gives you a bird with remarkable flavor and tenderness. The bad news is that it produces rubbery, nearly inedible skin, as the cooking temperature isn’t high enough to render the fat.

The main advantage of smoke-roasting is that it gives you both a smoky flavor and crisp skin. To this add minimal effort: All you need to do is replenish the coals and wood chips every hour. That’s about all there is to it.

Try these additional tips for your best Thanksgiving ever:

  • While big birds are impressive (we cooked 25-pounders in my family), I recommend you cook two 12-pounders instead of one monster if you have the grill space. Smaller birds give you more control and the skin is less likely to burn while you cook the meat through.
  • Cook the stuffing separately in a foil pan, not inside the turkey. For starters, you’re less likely to have any food safety problems, and less likely to overcook the bird in the process of trying to bring the stuffing up to a safe internal temperature (165 degrees). But perhaps the best reason to cook the stuffing separately (yes, you can indirect grill it) is to brown it and give it a crust.
  • If you’re hosting a smaller gathering this year, consider smoke-roasting a whole turkey breast, which usually weighs between 6 and 8 pounds.
  • For extra flavor, tuck carrots, leeks, celery, fresh herbs, and even quartered lemons into the main cavity. Discard before serving.
  • If you’ve purchased a kosher turkey, do not brine the bird. It has already been treated with either a dry or wet brine, and will be unpleasantly salty if brined a second time.
  • Short on refrigerator space? Brine the turkey in an insulated cooler. Use resealable bags of ice to keep the temperature below 40 degrees.

Test your skills with my Bourbon- and Maple-Brined Smoke-Roasted Turkey this Thanksgiving.

Two other great alternatives for cooking a whole bird are Beer Can Turkey or Spit-Roasted Adobo Turkey.