I should start by saying that turkey isn’t really my thing.
Year after year, I’ve failed miserably at making that perfect, picturesque Thanksgiving turkey. The first Thanksgiving I hosted in 2009 (pre-Kitchen Konfidence) was the worst. The night before Thanksgiving, I was fumbling around trying to wet brine a 22 pound turkey, salt water and turkey contamination splashing all about my kitchen. The next day, I got the turkey out of the brine (hands burning from the salt), dried, and on to the roasting pan. A roasting pan that I later realized was too big to fit in the oven. At the time, I didn’t own a meat thermometer, so I kept the turkey (which was sitting cramped in a 9 x 13 baking dish) in the oven until it “looked good.” I remember the smile on my face as I brought the glorious golden turkey to the table, and the disappointment that quickly followed as I started to carve. The turkey was bone dry with the texture of powdery saw dust.
In 2010, I surveyed all my friends and family for the perfect Thanksgiving turkey recipe. Results and processes were widely varied. Bake the turkey in a bag. Roast the turkey covered in cheese cloth and baste in butter every 15 minutes. Deep fry the turkey. Start in a high oven. Start in a low oven. Cook the turkey in parts. Somehow, everyone was cooking their turkey perfectly except for me! Overwhelmed by the options, I chose what I thought was the easiest suggestion, “cook the turkey in parts.” After a significant struggle to actually get the turkey in parts, the finished bird was blasé at best.
The next year, I cooked 2 smaller turkeys side-by-side, slathered in truffle butter and fresh herbs. Results were juicy, but underwhelming. I was expecting a WOW moment given the white truffle butter. And in 2012, I reverted back to turkey in parts. Uninspired, and a bit dry.
In 2013, everything changed. Last year, I put Jorge in charge of making the turkey. He prepared this Smoked Turkey, and the finished bird was incredible. Juicy insides with a mouthwatering, smoky flavor. Our Thanksgiving guests couldn’t stop raving about it. Preparing the turkey on the grill also freed up some much-needed oven space. We had such an awesome turkey experience last year, that I just had to share it with you all this year! Continue reading for the recipe.
This recipe starts with a flavor-packed dry brine recipe. Last year, we used a Williams-Sonoma Dry Brine; however, this year, we made one from scratch. To be honest, I looked at the ingredient list on the Williams-Sonoma Dry Brine canister, and created my own blend based on those ingredients. Rosemary, thyme, sage, garlic, fennel, red pepper, black pepper, and lemon zest are blended with salt, forming an incredibly aromatic brining mix. The dry brine is then rubbed all over (and inside) the turkey before a lengthy rest period (6 – 24 hours in the fridge uncovered). The brine helps the turkey stay moist during the smoking process while infusing it with some big, bold flavors.
There’s much debate on dry brine vs. wet brine, but I don’t really pay much attention to that. I like to use a wet brine for smaller cuts of meat (chicken pieces, pork chops), and a dry brine for whole birds (chicken or turkey).
Pictured below is the grill setup. A large foil roasting pan is placed in the middle of the lower rack to catch drippings. This protects against flare-ups. Hot coals are placed around the roasting pan, then topped with soaked hickory chips. This setup cooks the turkey using indirect heat while engulfing it in a thick cloud of hickory smoke. After just 2 1/4 hours (for a 14 pound bird), the turkey is done to perfection. The picture at the top may look a bit blackened, but the color is just the result of the smoking process. Both the meat and the skin have a wonderfully rich, smoky flavor.
The bird above is after 1 hour of smoking, and the bird below is after 1 hour and 45 minutes.
Jorge's Smoked Turkey
- 1 batch Garlic-Herb Dry Brine (recipe below)
- 1 12-14 pound turkey, neck and giblets removed
- 1 medium onion, quartered
- 1 head of garlic, halved widthwise
- A few sprigs of thyme, rosemary and sage
Special equipment: charcoal grill, charcoal, charcoal chimney, hickory wood chips (soaked in water), foil roasting pan, meat thermometer
Rub the Garlic-Herb Dry Brine all over the turkey (top, bottom and inside cavity), and chill uncovered in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours (or up to 24 hours).
30 minutes before smoking, take the turkey from the fridge, and rinse all the dry brine off under cold, running water. Pat the turkey dry; stuff the cavity with onion, garlic, and herb sprigs, and set aside.
Prepare a charcoal grill to smoke. Set a foil roasting pan in the middle of the lower rack. Surround the pan with hot charcoal, set the top rack, cover the grill, and preheat to at least 325°F*. Once the grill is preheated, place a thin layer of soaked wood chips over the hot coals (both sides)**, then set the turkey on the top grill rack so it's completely over the foil pan (this will catch any drippings and avoid flare-ups). Cover the grill, and smoke the turkey until the internal temperature of breast meat is 160°F, rotating the turkey on the grill grate 180° every hour. (this took us about 2 1/4 hours, but timing can vary). Transfer turkey to a platter and let rest for 15 minutes before carving.
As the turkey cooks, monitor the grill temperature, charcoal level and the smoke level. Keep the grill temperature around 325°F. If the grill has vents, open them to increase the temperature, and close them to lower the temperature. Also, add more lit charcoal as needed to keep the temperature stable (we did this once during the 2 1/4 hours). When the smoke dies down, throw more soaked chips on to the hot coals (we did this 4 times).***
* During this entire process, you'll want to keep the grill temperature around 325°F, but don't worry if it fluctuates between 300°F and 350°F.
** Our grill grate has sides that swing up, allowing us to easily access to the coals/wood chip without moving the bird or the grate. If your grill grate doesn't have this feature, you'll need to (carefully) lift the grate and bird off the grill to add more charcoal and wood chips.
*** The size of the bird and the temperature/weather outside can affect cooking time and grill temperature.
Garlic-Herb Dry Brine
- 4 sprigs rosemary, needles removed from stems
- 4 sprigs sage, leaves removed from stems
- 12 sprigs thyme, leaves removed from stems
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
- 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flake
- 1/2 cup kosher salt
- 2 tablespoon sugar
Place rosemary, sage, thyme, garlic, fennel seeds, lemon zest and red pepper flakes in a food processor (I used my small one), and pulse until a coarse paste forms. Add kosher salt and sugar, and pulse until well-combined (about 30 seconds to 1 minute).
Dry brine can be prepared up to 2 days in advance, and stored covered in the refrigerator.