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Grilling Techniques

Smoke-Roasted Turkey for Beginners

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During a recent editorial meeting, our Vermont-based Business Development Manager, the invaluable Molly Kay confided that this will be the first Thanksgiving she’ll be cooking a turkey. Because so many people will not physically be able to share the holiday with friends and loved ones, we suspect many people will, like Molly Kay, be confronting their first Thanksgiving turkey.

Instead of mourning the traditions of Thanksgivings past—things will be different this year for nearly all of us—create some new ones. If you’ve never attempted it before, do the turkey on the grill or smoker. Not only will you free up valuable kitchen real estate, but you’ll transform an ordinary roast turkey into something extraordinary! It’s much easier than it looks, and produces a bird with crisp golden-brown skin and moist, succulent meat perfumed with wood smoke. Don’t be afraid: You’ve got this.

Because food shortages seem to pop up indiscriminately, reserve your fresh turkey now, or pick up a frozen one while they’re still plentiful. (They were when we checked this week.) You’d also be wise to procure fresh cranberries (they freeze well), chicken or turkey broth, butter, canned or fresh pumpkin, puff pastry, prepared pie crusts, or anything else you consider essential to the Thanksgiving feast. Fresh herbs could be in short supply as we get close to Thanksgiving, but commercial poultry seasoning is still on shelves. And if you can’t find something, be flexible.

Don’t forget charcoal, gas, wood, or wood chips or chunks! Hickory, pecan, or fruitwoods like apple or cherry all go well with turkey and side dishes.

And now, about that turkey.

Thawing Frozen Turkey

If you acquire a frozen bird, you’ll need to allow at least 1 day of thaw time for every 3 pounds of turkey, meaning a 12-pound turkey will take 4 days. (Some websites, such as that run by turkey behemoth Butterball, suggests 1 day for every 4 pounds. That is not sufficient time in my experience. Maybe my refrigerator runs cold.) Leave the bird in its original wrapping and rest it in a large pan to contain any leaks. Never thaw your turkey (or any other meat) on the countertop at room temperature.

Fresh or thawed turkeys will need an additional 2 days if you opt to brine them—and Steven and I recommend that you do for the most flavorful and succulent meat.

How to Dry-Brine Turkey for Smoke-Roasting

To dry-brine, evenly apply kosher salt—approximately 1 tablespoon of salt for every 4 pounds of turkey. Don’t forget the main and neck cavities. (Remove any giblets that might be hidden there and save for stock or another use.) Refrigerate the turkey for 2 days, turning it once. There is no need to rinse it before cooking. If desired, you can add dried herbs or spices to the salt to make a quick rub.

How to Wet-Brine Turkey for Smoke-Roasting

To make a simple wet brine (an alternative to dry-brining), bring 2 quarts of water to a boil in a pot large enough to hold the turkey and the brine. Add 1 1/2 cups of kosher salt and stir until dissolved. Stir in 6 quarts of ice water. Refrigerate until cold. Submerge the bird in the brine. Cover and refrigerate for at least 24 hours. Remove the turkey from the brine and drain. Pat the turkey dry with paper towels. Discard the brine. (For a really memorable turkey, try Steven’s double-whiskey variation on a traditional brine. Click here for the recipe.

How to Smoke-Roast Turkey on the Grill

On T-Day, set up your charcoal grill for indirect grilling. Place a drip pan underneath the grill grate between the two piles of coals. Heat the grill to 350 degrees. If desired, place a wood chunk on each pile of coals, or substitute handfuls (about 3/4 cup each) of wood chips, soaked and drained. If using a gas grill, set it up for indirect grilling and preheat to 350 degrees. When ready to cook, place 1 or 2 wood chunks over the burners directly under the grill grate, or place soaked wood chips in your grill’s smoker box. If using a smoker, follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Easy Smoke-Roasted Turkey on the Grill

Tuck the wings behind the back of the bird. Rub the outside of the turkey with softened butter. Season with chopped fresh herbs, poultry seasoning, or paprika. If desired, tuck a couple of peeled onions or a few sprigs of fresh herbs into the main cavity of the bird. (We do not recommend stuffing the bird. Instead, serve the stuffing from a casserole. Here’s one of our favorite recipes. Tie the legs together with butcher’s string (optional).

Place the turkey directly on the grill grate over the drip pan. You’ll want to catch those flavorful drippings for gravy. Close the lid. Smoke-roast the turkey, replenishing the fuel as needed; there is no need to add wood chunks or chips after the first hour. You do not want your first turkey to taste like it survived a smoky house fire.

Continue to roast the turkey until the skin is beautifully browned and the temperature of the thickest part of the thigh reads 170 degrees on an instant-read digital thermometer. This will take about 2 1/2 hours for a 10- to 12-pound turkey.

Carefully transfer the turkey to a platter (if you want a Rockwell-esque presentation) or a large cutting board. Let it rest for 20 minutes—ample time for you to make the gravy. Carve, serve, and enjoy the compliments!

 

More Thanksgiving Grilling Tips and Recipes:

 

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