The trick is to smoke the meat and not make the meat smoke
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In Search of Turkey Perfection

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This blog entry is about my recent realization that despite being lucky enough to turn out the best turkey I’ve ever had right in my own back yard, I wanted more. I wasn’t sure where I was going with this desire for more. I’d gotten the basics of the recipe I was using down to where it is second nature. Any new recipe I might try I’d certainly want to test drive on some non-holiday weekend. I didn’t want to make a step backwards and have a holiday meal be infamous in family circles for a cooking disaster. So what could I do to improve this recipe? It turned out several things as this blog will detail. But let’s begin at the beginning.

Six years ago I started grill roasting my Thanksgiving turkey with smoke. It was better than any oven roasted turkey I’d had. I remember being quite scared the first time I made a turkey on the grill. Unlike my normal practice I wasn’t making a practice run. I’d just gotten my new gas grill and decided it was up to the task of indirect grilling in the cold, plus I wanted to try out the smoker drawer on a turkey. I’d never cooked a turkey in the oven before, so it wasn’t just the grilling, but everything I was doing that was new to me. This first turkey used an injector sauce to help keep the bird moist and combined with the addition of a light amount of smoke this was the best bird all of us had ever eaten. I made this recipe about 5 or 6 times more before I got my smoker. I wanted to try a turkey on the smoker and started researching recipes. I was interested in getting more smoke flavor than the gas grill was capable of, but my research made me aware that the lower temperature of the turkey on a smoker would result in a rubbery skin. My potential guests all said they weren’t skin eaters so I figured it was still worth a shot.

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Though it took me a while to get up the nerve to try it, brining a turkey results in a moist juicy bird. I will not cook a turkey without doing this step.


One of my admitted phobias is I don’t want to blow the preparation of a big holiday dinner with friends and family. There are two or three such stories in my family, such as the year one of my cousins tried to grill a turkey in the cold weather and it took something like 12 hours. These holiday cooking mishaps have achieved legend status and are trotted out every year. So there was no way I was going to try a smoked turkey for the first time on Thanksgiving Day. My solution was to have a cook off in October. Besides seeing which bird was preferred I would have a test run on the smoker to give me an idea of the time involved. I made a turkey on the gas grill with smoke one weekend and another turkey on the smoker two weeks later. The same folks who were going to have my Thanksgiving turkey were the “judges”. Both turkeys were moist and tender and superior to anything we’d had before this. The conclusion was the smoked turkey was equal or better in every category but for the skin. The turkey that was grilled at 350 degrees (175 C) had a crispy skin just like every oven baked turkey you’ve ever tried. The turkey that was smoked at 225 degrees (110 C) had a wonderful looking dark brown skin that had the consistency of rubber. The smoked turkey was still chosen because none of my guests like the skin anyway. So smoked turkey it was. My test turkey in October and my previous Winter’s smokes in the snow eased my mind when we ended up with about 8” (20 cm) of snow on Thanksgiving morning. I’d been there, and done that.

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The turkey is refrigerated in the brine mixture for 24 hours.


The next thing I wanted to try was brining. For quite some time brining had become the “IN” thing to do with your turkey. Several of my relatives had made brined turkeys and said they were far and away the best turkeys they had ever made. I was scared of trying brining mostly because I didn’t have a proper container. I really didn’t want to use a plastic brining bag because it would be my luck to have it spring a leak. A trip to a restaurant supply store yielded a container suitable for bringing a brisket and large enough to handle a turkey too. After twice successfully brining a brisket for two weeks to make pastrami, I decided it was time to try a turkey which brines for only one day. Everyone raved about that first brined turkey, it was even more moist than anything I had made before it. The white meat was moist and had a touch of citrus flavor from the 6 quartered oranges in the brine. I found I was actually going through the white meat faster because people who normally liked the flavor of the dark meat were happy with the brined bird’s white meat too. So for the last three years I have made a brined turkey. It is not that hard and in fact the biggest problem I have had is having the initial brine mix boil over and make a mess on the stove. This has twice been the case since I bought my new Calphalon aluminum pans which conduct heat very well. The initial mix of apple juice, brown sugar and salt goes from getting ready to boil to a full rolling boil in less than 10 seconds. I need to be standing right there and pull the mix off the heat or it will be all over my stove top. One thing about brining that gives you a little peace of mind is the fact that a brined bird can be over cooked a bit and will still be moist. With my remote read thermometers this is not a problem, but it is good to know.

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The first new wrinkle this year was the addition of an herb paste.


I’ve been thinking of perhaps trying a different brine/turkey recipe the last couple years: one with a maple syrup based brine and gravy. There was no way I was going to roll it out for the first time for Thanksgiving Day. I would need to do a dry run ahead of time. The last couple years I have gotten busy with work in the Fall and never got around to testing out the maple syrup version. Now this summer I went to a charity event featuring all varieties of BBQ. There I tried ribs that were cooked and sauced with maple syrup. I’d also seen some tempting looking rib recipes based on maple syrup and I was excited because now I’d get a chance to try them. Without mincing words: while the idea sounded good on paper these ribs were worst ribs I’d ever had. I sought out some other ribs to get the taste of these ribs out of my mouth. The maple syrup just didn’t work on the ribs and any idea of a turkey with a maple syrup based brine and maple syrup based turkey gravy died at that moment. So it looked like it was to be the same turkey as the last couple years. That is until 3 weeks ago when my TiVo recorded an episode of the PBS show America’s Test Kitchen from this season where they covered Thanksgiving topics. I didn’t program it to do this, but TiVo’s learn the type of programming you like and make recordings of similar programs you might like. Based on this happy accident I had a potential new recipe, plus a couple other tips.

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The finished herb paste.


The turkey they made started with a simple brine of salt and water. Once the turkey was out of the brine they seasoned it with an herb rub before cooking it. What was intriguing about this rub was how they applied it. As they mentioned: If you put it on the skin most of it burns away or remains on the skin and doesn’t flavor the meat. Since none of my guests eats the skin on a smoked turkey, anything applied to the skin was a waste of time. But the folks at America’s Test Kitchen added some new wrinkles. They tested all sorts of ways to deliver the herb flavor and ended up lifting the skin over the breast and thigh areas and applying the herb paste under the skin as well as on top. The best grilled chicken I have made used an herb paste applied under the skin, so this looked encouraging. The paste was also inserted into two pockets created by inserting a pairing knife into the thickest part of each breast and pivoting the knife tip back and forth while holding the middle of the knife stationary. This made an inverted “V” shaped pocket in each breast to hold some of the paste. The pocket was 1 1/2” wide (3.75 cm) on the surface at the top and 6” (15 cm) or so wide deep in the breast. Lastly they applied the remaining paste to the inside of the body cavities.

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The herb paste is applied under the skin, on top of the skin, cut into pockets in the breast and applied to the two body cavities. Apples and onion chunks were placed in the cavities for added flavor and moistness.


The second new wrinkle was simply a piece of aluminum foil. When I smoke my turkeys I start them breast side down for the first half of the cook and flip it midway through so it is breast side up to finish. Tests conducted by the folks at America’s Test Kitchen showed them that flipping the turkey resulted in a better bird even for oven cooking. They didn’t like the indentations you get from the roast rack which also sometimes burns the breast a bit and leave unsightly marks. This is purely cosmetic in nature, but I will admit it has always bothered me a bit. Their solution to both problems was simple. They placed a piece of aluminum foil on the rack and cut about 20 slits in it with a knife. I remember grinning to myself as I cut the slits thinking the ATK folks must be slipping, they didn’t test to find the number of slits. I could just hear them saying: “After nearly 100 tests we determined that 23 was the ideal number of holes when done in a diamond pattern”. The last new wrinkle which I originally didn’t plan to use was their method of cutting the bird. I will cover that later.

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From Seafood to Kobe Beef Sliders, there was something for everyone.


I decided that the herb paste was a go and that it would go well with the various ingredients in the brine recipe. It took about an extra hour to cut up the fresh herbs and make the spice paste. At this point I was running a bit behind, but it turned out getting the turkey skin lifted away from the meat was far easier than I expected. The turkey skin was thicker than the skin on a chicken and thus was easier to work with. I got the turkey seasoned inside and out with the herb paste, plus I added chunks of onion and apple to both cavities. The only problem I had with any of this was the turkey skin was trying to pull back leaving some of the breast skin near the neck uncovered. This was easily solved with several metal turkey pins. I placed the turkey breast side down on the piece of aluminum foil covering my roast rack and it was off to the smoker. I decided not to put the temperature probes in the thighs at this point. I had 8 cooking logs that told me that 6-7 hours was the total cooking time and flipping at the 3 hour mark was appropriate. There was zero need to take the temperatures before the flip and in the past one or both of the probes would become dislodged during the flip. Then I ‘d lose more time and heat trying to reset them on the grill. This year I had the foil which would also interfere with the probes as the came out of the bird. So this time I decided I’d put the probes in after I’d brought the bird into the kitchen and flipped it. Another refinement I made was when I added more charcoal. From past experience I knew that during the last hour I usually needed to add more charcoal. Plus if you waited a little too long it took a decent amount of time for the temps to recover. This year I decided to add the charcoal during the flip process. Before I opened the lid to remove the bird I added fresh coals. Since the temps weren’t falling yet I could do this in a more leisurely fashion than during the last hour when the coals were nearly spent. Plus during the 10 minutes or so I was working with the bird in the kitchen the coals could be recovering from any temperature loss due to the refueling. I could take my time positioning the probes in the two thighs after the bird was flipped, as opposed to getting the bird out to the smoker, plugging the probes back into the base station and finding out a probe had been partially dislodged.

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Signs of the Times: Some amusing signs at one of the booths.


The weather was about as good as you could hope for on Thanksgiving. The temps were in the 40’s (4 C) when I started and rose into the 50’s (10 C). While it was a bit misty when I lit the coals at 7:00AM, it eventually dried out. While the sun never came out, it didn’t rain or snow. Most importantly there was no wind. It turns out the temperatures on the smoker were very stable. Other than flipping the turkey at the midway point and taking it off at the end, I didn’t have to go out to the smoker to make any adjustments. It was this last factor that contributed to my third change which was carving the bird a new way for me. I’d mentioned earlier that the America’s Test Kitchen folks carved their birds in a new way. Originally I wanted no part of this, but I did want to review the video on the Butterball site showing how to carve a turkey. Well for whatever reason I couldn’t find this video or an other turkey related videos on the site this year. These were my crutch every year. I’d get the bird going and then watch the Butterball videos on how to carve the bird. Since the bird was on cruise control this year, I started a search for other videos on carving a turkey. To my great surprise 4 out of the 5 videos showed this new to me method of carving the turkey. Even the 5th video showed it as an alternate to the traditional method. The real clincher for me was when I found a YouTube video of Alton Brown using this same method. This was a very good step by step video and became my new turkey carving guide.

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From Seafood to Kobe Beef Sliders, there was something for everyone.


This new carving technique involved cutting the breast meat completely off on both sides and moving it to a separate platter where it could be cut across the grain into slices. What had put me off initially about the America’s Test Kitchen version was they cut the breast meat into real thick slices, more like you’d carve a meatloaf. It looked like you would get about 10 slices per side this way. In my mind I was afraid that the thick slices might be necessary due to the direction you cut the breast meat in with this method. Turned out this was not the case and Alton Brown said it was good because with this method you were actually cutting across the grain to get the most tender slices. It turned out that all of the other videos I found using this method carved thin slices too. What I now liked about this method was the slices were actually more uniform in size because you were cutting the breast meat cross-wise. The traditional method yields huge slices and small slices. The new method yields a few smaller slices and lots of nice medium sized slices. This is a gut feeling, but I also think people a more likely to have seconds if the pieces are smaller. Somebody may want seconds, but if all that is left is huge slices they may pass rather than cut a big slice in half. Moving on: After the breast is separated the two legs are cut off at the joint. The turkey is flipped and the wings are cut off next. After the wings are removed the knife is run along the body at the thigh until you find the joint and the thigh is removed and placed on another cutting board. At this point the thigh bone is removed and the thigh meat is cross cut into small slices. One final thing I liked about this method was if necessary you could tag team it: One person could work on the carcass to remove the various parts and another could slice the breast and thigh meat to speed things up.

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From Seafood to Kobe Beef Sliders, there was something for everyone.


At the three hour mark I went out and added more charcoal and brought the bird into the house to flip it. When I flipped it I was happy to note that the foil applied over the roasting rack had worked nicely. The rack had NOT left large indentations or burn marks on the breast meat. I took the time to wrap the wings with foil as they were farther along than the rest of the turkey. Lastly I inserted the two temperature probes into the two thighs. Once I got the remote read thermometer’s base station synched I could see things were right on schedule. One of the nice things about keeping cooking logs is I could see I was right on schedule for a 2:00PM finish, which is what I was hoping for. It turned out this bird finished up at 1:45, which I attribute to the very steady temps I was able to hold on the smoker. Once again I think the lack of winds was the big contributor to the steady temperatures. I was also making a double batch of “Alton Brown’s Perfect Mashed Potatoes” ( and they are the best I have ever eaten). Having the logs for the turkey helped me start the potatoes at just the right time, so they finished up when it was time to carve the turkey. It also helped insure the other side dishes would be ready at the right time too. Once the turkey was off the smoker it rested uncovered for 30 minutes before carving. After the turkey had rested it was time to try out the now carving method. I used a carving knife to remove all of the major pieces from the carcass. The legs and wings were moved straight to the serving platter. To cut the slices from the breast and thighs, I moved them to a separate cutting board and used an electric knife to make quick work of the task. This is where I mentioned before you could have two people do this task. When it was time to cut the slices of breast and thigh meat I used an electric knife. For me at least, I have better control with an electric knife and can get nice thin slices, plus save time in the process. I wanted the skin on for “presentation purposes” at least, and I’ve found the electric knife does a better job keeping the skin intact on the slices.

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Signs of the Times: Some amusing signs at one of the booths.


Lets now cut to the chase: How did it turn out? Everyone said this was the best turkey yet. As usual the brining process helped turn out a moist tender bird. The smoke added its nice additional flavor to the meat. To this was added the wonderful flavor of the herb paste. It was immediately noticeable without being overpowering and now I can’t imagine doing the turkey without this step. Short of finding a different brine or herb rub whose flavors I like better, I can’t imagine what else could improve on this recipe. Any new recipe for brine or herb paste will also have to be auditioned on a non-holiday weekend and prove its worthiness before it will be used on a holiday. I’ve lucked out and found a recipe that my guests feel is the best turkey they’ve ever tried. I don’t want to go from that to being the topic of a holiday meal horror story: “Jimmy always made a great turkey and then this one year he tried this new recipe and ......” Or put another way: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” - At least not at a family gathering.

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From Seafood to Kobe Beef Sliders, there was something for everyone.


For anyone that is interested, here are some previous blog entries which will show my progression from grilled turkey, to smoked turkey, to brining.
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SOME RELATED LINKS

  SMOKED TURKEY 2006 Blog Entry
  IT DOES GET EASIER 2006 Blog Entry
  A BRINE TIME WAS HAD BY ALL 2007 Blog Entry
  IT DOESNT GET BETTER THAN THIS 2008 Blog Entry


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