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Brining for Thanksgiving

Welcome to the Thanksgiving issue of Up in Smoke. This time of year, I bet your thoughts are on turkey. To judge from the emails I have received and your postings on the Barbecue Board, Thanksgiving is an anxious time for grill jockeys. After all, it’s the one American holiday that’s all about food. Most of us can forgive a soggy stuffing or lumpy mashed potatoes. But serve a dry, tough, or overdone turkey, and your reputation is, excuse the expression, cooked.

It’s probably not even your fault. Turkey is a difficult bird to roast properly because of the way it’s built. By the time the internal temperature in the thigh reaches the recommended 180 degrees, or the embedded plastic “pop up” deploys, the delicate white meat of the breast is overcooked. To make matters worse, while you let the bird rest and make the gravy, the internal temperature of the meat continues to rise, finally stalling out at the “sawdust” mark on an instant-read thermometer.

There’s a simple solution to the problem—a two-part strategy that involves a little science and a little art. You brine the bird—I promised last month I’d tell you how to do this—then you smoke-roast it on the grill. If you want to bring what could be the best turkey of your life to the table this year, read on.

Scientifically, brining is a complicated process involving diffusion, osmosis, and a restructuring of the turkey proteins.

Practically speaking, it’s a slam-dunk simple way to improve the taste, texture, and juiciness of many foods—especially grill-worthy foods such as turkey and other poultry, leaner cuts of pork, and seafood such as shrimp and salmon.

In its simplest form, brine is nothing more than a saline solution (a mixture of salt and water). Often, other ingredients are added, like sugar, which promotes caramelization, and/or spices and herbs to enhance flavor.

Thanks to a process called osmosis (remember your high school chemistry?), unequal concentrations of liquids and solubles try to achieve equilibrium when a semipermeable membrane separates them. In other words, when you place a turkey in brine, the salt water flows into the meat until equilibrium is established. What this means from a taste perspective is that brined turkey meat will be noticeably more moist and flavorful than unbrined turkey.

My basic formula for brine is 1/4 cup Morton-brand kosher salt and 1/4 cup sugar to 1 quart water. (If using Diamond Crystal-brand kosher salt, increase to 1/2 cup per quart as the two salts measure differently.) Select a container large enough to hold the food for brining. To determine how much brine you’ll need, place the food in it and add enough water to completely cover the food by 3 inches. Pour out and measure the water. Then add salt, sugar, herbs, and spices as desired. Be sure to whisk until all the salt and sugar crystals are dissolved.

Brine small pieces of food, like shrimp, for 1 hour; medium-size pieces of food, like chicken breasts and pork chops for 2 to 4 hours; and larger pieces of foods, like bone-in turkey breasts and whole turkeys, for 12 to 24 hours.

Here are some other useful brining tips:

  • We recommend using kosher salt, but if you do use table salt, make sure it’s non-iodized and use only half as much as kosher. Otherwise, do not cut down on the amount of salt used in the brine. It is critical to the osmosis and diffusion. If you or people at your table are salt-sensitive, skip brining altogether.
  • The turkey and other foods should be fully defrosted before brining. Do so in the refrigerator.
  • Only brine foods that have not been commercially injected or enhanced with flavorings. Otherwise, they may become too salty. This includes Butterball-style turkeys, which are injected with salted chicken stock, and kosher turkeys, which have already been brined to draw out the blood and impurities.
  • Use cold water or a mixture of water and ice when making the brine, and promptly refrigerate the turkey. Bacteria love temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees.
  • Keep foods submerged in the brine by weighting them with a heavy pot lid or a zip-top type plastic bag filled with cold water.
  • Good containers for brining include large bowls and nonreactive stockpots, resealable zip-top type plastic bags, coolers, clean plastic buckets (line with a turkey roasting bag), and food grade containers, such as Tupperware, Rubbermaid, or Cambro from restaurant supply stores. Do not use plastic garbage bags. They are not food-safe, and some have been pretreated with
  • Make sure your container fits in your refrigerator. If using a cooler, replenish the ice or ice packs often.
  • Dry spice rubs often contain a lot of salt. Use them sparingly, if at all, on brined foods. Do not combine brining with injecting, or the meat could become mushy or overseasoned.
  • The extra moisture the turkey skin picks up from the brine can prevent it from crisping when it’s cooked. But there’s a simple remedy: Drain the bird, pat it with paper towels, and set it on a wire rack over a rimmed baking sheet. Refrigerate uncovered, for several hours or overnight to dry the skin. (Nancy, Steven’s assistant, has been known to take a blow-dryer to her turkey to hasten the drying process.)

Those are the basics. If you have other questions about your holiday board, post them on the Barbecue Board, and our knowledgeable moderators (something else to give thanks for this year!) and the rest of the barbecue community there will bend over backwards to help you. We’ve got a thread just for Turkey Day!

There are several advantages to smoke-roasting your bird. The brine keeps the bird moist and flavorful, while the moderate heat of the grill cooks the turkey through without drying it out. The wood smoke adds a haunting flavor reminiscent of what the Thanksgiving-sponsoring Pilgrims and Indians must’ve enjoyed at the first Thanksgiving. Grilling the bird outdoors liberates your oven for the traditional Thanksgiving side dishes. Last, but certainly not least, you get a signed excuse to spend the afternoon outdoors, beer or other drink in hand, bonding with people you like.

For best results, start with a fresh, not frozen turkey. Make sure the bird fits under the cover of your grill. Weber kettle owners can use the collar of their rotisserie units to raise the ceiling, if need be. Line up a container big enough to hold the brine and turkey, and have plenty of ice, charcoal, and wood chips at the ready. Gas grill owners should also have a spare tank of propane on hand. That’s all there is to it.


And now the recipe, adapted from “The Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey” recipe in BBQ USA This one is even easier if you opt to use one of my Best of Barbecue Brining Kits (There are four flavor combinations—American, Asian, Caribbean, and Mediterranean—choose the one that best fits your Thanksgiving.) Of course, you can always make your brine from scratch, following the recipe on page 411 in BBQ USA.

Method: Indirect grilling
Serves: 12 to 14
Advance preparation: 16 hours for brining and air-drying the turkey

1 turkey (10 to 12 pounds), thawed if frozen
2 Best of Barbecue American Brining Kits or brine recipe of your choice
1 cup maple syrup
6 tablespoons butter, melted
Maple Redeye Gravy (recipe follows)

You’ll also need:
3 cups hickory wood chips or chunks (such as Best of Barbecue Poultry Blend) soaked for 1 hour in water to cover, then drained.

Remove the giblets from the neck or body cavity of the turkey and set aside for another use. Remove and discard any excess fat in the cavities. Rinse the turkey, inside and out, under cold running water.

Pour 2 gallons (8 quarts) of ice water into a large nonreactive container and add four packets of brine mix. Stir to dissolve. Add maple syrup and stir. Add the turkey. It should be completely submerged. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Remove from the brine, knock off any whole spices, and dry thoroughly with paper towels. Discard brine. Place the turkey on a cooling grate over a rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate it, uncovered, for several hours to air-dry the skin. (It will crisp better on the grill if you take the time and trouble to do this.) Cover the wings with aluminum foil.

Set up the grill for indirect grilling and preheat to medium (325 to 350 degrees). If using a gas grill, place all of the wood chips or chunks in the smoker box or in a smoker pouch and run the grill on high until you see smoke, then reduce the heat to medium. If using a charcoal grill, place a large drip pan in the center, preheat the grill to medium, then toss 1 cup of the wood chips or chunks on the coals. (Tip for charcoal grillers: When adding fresh coals directly from a chimney starter, protect your bird from flying ash by shielding
it with a rimless baking sheet.)

Place the turkey, breast side up, in the center of the hot grate, over the drip pan and away from the heat. Brush the turkey with some of the butter and cover the grill. Grill the turkey, basting with butter every hour, until cooked through, 2-1/2 to 3 hours. If using a charcoal grill, add fresh coals and wood chips as needed. Insert an instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of a thigh (don’t touch the bone with the tip); the internal temperature should be about 165 degrees. If the wing tips or skin starts to brown too much or too quickly, cover them loosely with aluminum foil. Use heatproof food gloves to lift the bird off the grill (such as the Best of Barbecue Insulated Food Gloves).

Let the turkey rest at least 15 minutes before carving. Serve with Maple Redeye Gravy.

Maple Redeye Gravy

4 tablespoons salted butter
1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup Madeira
1/4 cup brewed coffee
1/4 cup heavy (whipping) cream
2 tablespoons maple syrup
3 to 4 cups turkey or chicken stock (preferably homemade)
Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and freshly ground black pepper

Melt butter in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in the flour and cook until it’s golden brown, about 3 to 5 minutes. Watch it carefully; start over if it begins to burn.

Remove the pan from the heat and gradually whisk in the Madeira, coffee, cream, maple syrup, and the turkey stock. Return the pan to the heat and bring to a boil over high heat, whisking steadily. Reduce heat to medium and let the sauce simmer until richly flavored and reduced to about 3 cups, 6 to 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Note: Use grill mitts or a grate grabber to lift the grate off the grill. Carefully lift out the drip pan; contents will be very hot.


Now that we’ve gone off Daylight Savings Time, night comes on fast. And you can’t achieve grilling greatness if you can’t see what you’re cooking. Enter the Best of Barbecue Grill Headlight complete with two halogen bulbs in a clip-on base. Be forewarned: Any oncoming traffic will want to be fed.

Every year at this time, a great debate erupts: what’s the best wine to serve with turkey, red or white? (Ever the diplomat, I’m serving both this year—a German Riesling and an Australian Shiraz.) If you love wine, you might want to consider a cool new fuel for smoking: our Wine Barrel Stave Bundles Cut from old red wine barrels, they give you smoke scented with oak and wine.


Finally, one of our favorite Thanksgiving side dishes is acorn squash grilled with cornbread stuffing and glazed with maple syrup. Nancy has made a killer variation to my Madeira Grilled Acorn Squash that can be found on page 622 of BBQ USA. For roasting it on the grill, you can’t beat our Best of Barbecue Grill Rings. They come in sets of three and are designed to help you grill whole onions, Jack-Be-Little pumpkins, heads of radicchio, and even apples without tipping.

Method: Indirect grilling
Serves: 6

6 small or 3 large acorn squash
4 tablespoons salted butter, plus 2 tablespoons for dotting the tops of the squash
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup Madeira
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and freshly ground black pepper
4 cups of your favorite cornbread stuffing, prepared

You’ll also need:
6 Best of Barbecue Grill Rings or 2-1/2 inch rings made from crumpled aluminum foil.

If using small squash, cut the top third off each. If using large ones, cut in half through the stem end. Scrape out and discard the seeds and strings with a metal spoon.

Melt butter in a nonreactive saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the maple syrup, Madeira, and season with nutmeg, salt and pepper. Boil until syrupy, 3 to 6 minutes.
Position the squash, cut sides up, on the grill rings. Brush the maple syrup glaze over the yellow-orange flesh. Mound 2/3 cup stuffing in each squash and top with a thin slice of butter.

Set up the grill for indirect grilling and preheat to medium. Set the grill rings in the center of the grate, and and put the squash on them. Cover the grill and cook until the squash is tender and the stuffing is golden brown, 40 to 60 minutes. When done, the sides of the squash will feel soft when squeezed. Remove from the grill rings, transfer to a plate or platter and serve at once.


“What do you really think about brining?” write Tamara Krievins and Bob Peaston from Toronto, Canada. “We have the impression that it enhances the quality of certain food (chicken, pork) . . . but, what to do about the rubs? Should rubs be applied after brining? Should we eliminate the salt and sugar from the rubs? And when are you coming to Toronto??”

This newsletter should make clear my position on brining. I rarely use rubs with brines—it’s overkill. The flavor of the brine is compelling enough. BTW, I love Toronto and will get back as soon as I can. Keep an eye on the “Steven’s Event Schedule” page on the web site.

“Do you think that I can BBQ a turkey using the beer can recipe if I use a really big can of beer?” writes Lori Torres from Orange County, CA.

You sure can, Lori. You’ll need a large (30 ounce) can of Foster’s lager and a 10 to 12 pound turkey. The full recipe can be found on page 169 in the Beer Can Chicken Book.

“Your books are fantastic!” writes Leslie Gordon. “My family loves Beer Can Chicken and we’re hoping to make Beer Can Turkey for Thanksgiving. What kind of can will support a 22-25 pound bird?”

Thanks, Leslie. I’ve never beer canned a 25 pound bird. I’d do two 12 pound birds on Foster’s Ale cans. But maybe someone out there knows of a larger can—why not post a query on the Barbecue Board and find out.

“I am smoking a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner following the Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey recipe in BBQ USA.” Writes Michael Free from Candor, North Carolina. “The only difference is that I want to smoke two bone-in turkey breasts instead of the one whole turkey. Although the total weight may be the same, is there anything different I should do when brining or smoking these two breasts?”

Good choice, Michael. That’s how we’re doing our bird this year. I’d brine the breasts for 12 to 16 hours. Cooking time will be 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 hours.

Happy T-Day to all.

Yours in righteous grilling,
Steven Raichlen, Grill Master and Editor-in-Chief
Nancy Loseke, Features Editor

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