Back to Basics: How to Smoke-Roast Your Thanksgiving Turkey
Preparing a Thanksgiving meal can be a daunting task, especially for first-time hosts. But the centerpiece of the meal—a moist, Instagram-worthy, and gloriously burnished smoked turkey with Rockwell-esque aspirations can be one of the easiest dishes on your T-Day menu. Really. Read on.
How to Smoke-Roast Your Thanksgiving Turkey
Why would you listen to me? Because I’m a battle-scarred veteran of many Thanksgivings and have tried just about every harebrained scheme out there to place the perfect bird on the table. My turkey piccadilloes are embarrassing to recall.
Steven and I (I’ve been his assistant for more than 20 years) and our amazing barbecuebible.com team are in complete agreement: It’s time to get back to basics when it comes to turkey. (If you thrive on a little stress, volunteer to make the pies.)
Assess your equipment
When I made my first smoke-roasted turkey, I only had a Weber kettle grill. Fortunately, I had bought a rotisserie unit for it. If you’re unfamiliar, that unit consists of a large metal collar that supports a rotisserie and lifts the lid of the grill by several inches. Without it, my turkey would not have had enough “ceiling” space. Some gas grills and kamado-type cookers do have enough room under their lids to accommodate big birds. Gas grills, too, often have room. If not, you may have to “spatchcock” your turkey.
Buy the bird
Unlike chickens and other fowl, turkeys are harvested in late fall—just once a year. The frozen bargain-priced turkeys you find in stores in late summer/early fall are excess inventory, silently creeping toward the end of their shelf-life. Try to buy turkeys from the current season, either frozen, or preferably, fresh. Fresh turkeys will only last 2 to 3 days in the refrigerator. If you’ve bought a frozen one, give it several days (refrigerated) to thaw, about 1 day per every 3 pounds. If you wake up on Thanksgiving morning and the bird is still icy inside, don’t panic. Just submerse it in cold water (40 degrees) and change the water every 30 minutes. Larger birds are older and tougher. If you’re feeding a crowd, it’s better to buy two 10 to 12 pound turkeys as opposed to a 24 pound one.
This is not a parlor trick. Brining is like a miracle, turning a potentially dry bird into something the people at your table will rave about. Is it fussy? Just a little. All you’ll need is a clean insulated picnic cooler, water, salt, and (if desired), sugar. Oh. Did I mention whiskey? Here’s Steven’s recipe. About 12 to 18 hours is all you need. Put bags of ice in the cooler to keep things food-safe cold. For years, I used a 5 gallon pickle bucket that a local restaurant gave me, but I had a second refrigerator in the garage that was big enough to hold it. Not everyone, I realize, has that space. That’s why a cooler—which almost everyone has—works so well. (Pro tip: Place a bag of ice on top of the turkey to keep it submerged.)
Brining is a damp process, which means you have to remove moisture from the skin if you like it to be crispy for serving. After brining, dry the skin (and the inside of the bird) with paper towels. Then, let it rest, refrigerated and uncovered, for about a day. Put it on a wire cooling rack positioned over a rimmed sheet pan to catch any drips.
Slather it with butter
Liberally slather the outside of the turkey with a stick of room temperature butter. The solids in the butter will aid in the browning. (Pro tip: Season the butter with salt, pepper, and freshly-chopped herbs, like sage, parsley, rosemary, and thyme.)
Carefully separate the skin from the breast using your fingers or a wooden spoon, and tuck some of the butter under the skin. Try not to tear it. Do not stuff the bird, but put halved oranges, onions, and other aromatics inside the cavity.
Make your fire
Set up your grill for indirect grilling and heat it to 325 to 350 degrees. Soak about 4 cups of smoking wood chips in water, then drain. Or use wood chunks. (Mesquite is a little strong. Use hickory, oak, or fruit woods.) The higher temperature will help you achieve crispy skin. Many pit masters smoke turkeys at low temperatures from start to finish, but the skin will be rubbery and unappetizing.
Smoke-roast the bird
Place the turkey directly on the grill grate, the coals on either side of it. Throw a handful of drained wood chips (or if using, wood chunks) on the coals. Replace the lid. Resist checking on the turkey every few minutes as you’ll lose a lot of heat. Add fuel and additional wood chip as required—but there’s no need to smoke the turkey the entire roasting time. It will taste too smoky. This higher temperature will ensure that the skin will turn out crispy.
Let it rest
Happily for the cook, a smoke-roasted turkey will stay hot for at least 30 minutes. Set it aside while you do all those last minute T-day things. Do not cover it with foil as that will soften the skin. (Pro tip: Use a thick wooden dowel to remove the turkey from the grill. Run the dowel through the main cavity and through the neck.)
There are many YouTube videos describing this process. In a nutshell, find the joints and remove the leg and thigh portions. Separate the leg from the thigh, then carve the thigh into slices. Carefully separate the breasts from the breast bones, then slice into pieces against the grain. Remove the wishbone (make a wish!), then remove the wings. Arrange all the meat attractively on a platter, then serve.
Happy Thanksgiving to all! Any questions?