smoked Thanksgiving turkey

Thanksgiving may arguably just be the most important holiday of the year. Done right, it’s a happy, heartwarming and totally gourmand celebration of life’s luxuries. And what could be a better symbol of simple luxury than a beautifully cooked turkey? A world where so many families can feast like this is a beautiful world indeed.

So you’ve gone out and bought the perfect free-range, organic turkey to celebrate the joys of life. Why spoil it by drying it out in the oven, or waste a bunch of oil to fry it? If you’ve got a barbecue, you can smoke that turkey to a succulent, moist, deeply flavorful, absolute masterpiece. Here’s the method my mother’s used for over ten years, making a perfect bird every time.

Begin with The Brine

If your turkey is frozen, thaw it 24 to 36 hours before Thanksgiving Day. Remove the innards, rinse it inside and out, and place it in a plastic bag. In a separate pot, boil up a brine. You can choose your own brine recipe; Mom changes hers yearly. Try these recipes from Alton Brown and Pioneer Woman. Let the brine cool, then pour it over the turkey. Seal the bag and place it in a 5-gallon bucket with some ice to keep it cool (if you live in a cold part of the world, just put it outdoors). Let it sit for 24 to 36 hours, turning it occasionally.

On Thanksgiving morning, rinse the turkey, tie back the legs and put a few sprigs of rosemary in the cavity. No stuffing; you want to smoke the turkey inside and out.

Smoke to Perfection

You can buy wood chips for smoking; since we live in a manzanita forest, Mom usually cuts some branches to add to the mix. Applewood and other mild hardwoods are best; mesquite may be too strong. Soak the chips in water before you start smoking.

Light a normal amount of natural charcoal, just like you would for any other barbecued meal. When the charcoal is glowing, push it to the sides of your barbecue and add some stones or bricks to keep it from moving back to the center. This helps keep the turkey from cooking too quickly.

Add some of the wet wood, place a drip pan in the center of the barbecue and set your turkey on the grill. Put the lid on, with the vents closed, and open the vents at the bottom.

It will take about 4 hours, more if you have a bigger bird. As a general rule, you’ll need about one pound of turkey for each guest; as your table settings increase, so does your cooking time. Very large turkeys can take over six hours. Make sure you have plenty of extra time if you haven’t done this before.

Add charcoal and wood continually, and rotate the grill every hour or so for even smoking. Check the internal temperature with a meat thermometer, not a pop-up; when it reaches 170, the turkey is ready.

The skin will be dark, almost black, and a little crackly; the flesh will be pink and moist. Enjoy. And don’t forget to make turkey stock!

image: Judi McKeehan (aka Jessica’s mom)

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