The trick is to smoke the meat and not make the meat smoke

Don’t Be a Turkey, Play it Safe, Play it Smart

I’ve been doing a lot of cooking lately and when I do that I tend not have time to write here. It is time to make up for lost time. This blog entry covers a somewhat last minute decision I have been wrestling with regarding how to cook my Thanksgiving turkey. But first a little background.

The first turkey I ever cooked myself was back in 2003 on my then new gas grill. I was most anxious to try a turkey with the addition of some smoke from the grill’s smoker drawer. I also remember being scared to death about it and the thought of creating a new family holiday horror story with me as the main character. This turkey on the grill started off cooking real fast too and looked like it was going to finish up way early. It got to the point where I was calling my guests to see if they could come earlier if the trend continued. Ultimately it plateaued and finished up around the time I’d planned. This turkey which was lightly smoked and injected with a buttery injector sauce was the best turkey I’d had to date. This went on for the next couple of years until I got my smoker. I wanted to smoke a turkey low and slow on my smoker, but I was also concerned about the rubbery skin I would get. The solution was a test run and taste test with a low and slow smoked bird vs. my grilled bird. So in October, on consecutive weekends, I grilled a bird at 350 degrees (175 C) with smoke from wood chips on the gas grill and smoked one with wood chunks on the CG at 225 (110 C). Both birds were great, but the smoked bird won out unanimously. It was a little juicier and had a better smoke flavor. I also found I was now going through more white meat because it was moist enough, and with the smoke, flavorful enough for the dark meat lovers. The skin was rubbery as expected, but the folks I was feeding weren’t skin eaters. In the back of my mind I thought it would be interesting to try smoke roasting a bird at 325-350 (160-175 C) on the CG. That however would be the subject of a non-holiday test run. This pre-turkey day cook-off was handy for another reason too, because I now knew what to expect for time and other issues involved with smoking a turkey on the CG. This is the cooking method I have been using unchanged for the last 5 years.

With my cooking method down I made a big change in the preparation in 2007, when I started brining. I’d kept hearing about how great brining was for the last 5 years or so. I was afraid to try it myself though. My biggest fear was having a brining bag burst in the fridge and have no turkey to cook for Thanksgiving. What cured this fear is when I decided I had to try brining my own pastrami. I went down to a restaurant supply house and bought a big plastic container to brine my the beef brisket in. I also made sure it was tall enough to hold a turkey just in case. Bringing the pastrami successfully for 2 weeks took away my fear of brining a turkey for just 24 hours. My first brined turkey was amazing and I was a convert. That was the only way I’d prepare my whole turkeys from then on. Two years went by and I really couldn’t think of anything to do to improve on the turkey. Then last year I happened to catch an episode of America’s Test Kitchens where they put an herb rub over and under the skin. I’d already made a rotisserie chicken that way and it was (and still is) my go to chicken recipe if I want to wow people with chicken - see
3 GINGER ROTISSERIE CHICKEN. This ATK recipe also solved a problem I was having with indents from the roasting rack on the turkey, plus it also had a new carving method. I’ll point you to the blog entry IN SEARCH OF TURKEY PERFECTION if you are interested in learning more about those aspects. So at this point what could I do to improve on my best turkey yet?

A possible answer to that question presented itself when the high end butcher shop called The Meat House opened in town this summer. After trying their prime grade meats, I decided I would get my turkey from The Meat House this year. I’d already been using a fresh, not frozen, bird since day 1. Plus it is particularly important when brining not to use a bird that has been injected with water and salt. This bird from The Meat House had all of the appropriate buzz words that a best in class bird should have. It also has a price tag that is 3X what I’ve been paying for my bird. So this year the test would be whether anyone noticed the difference between this bird and the turkey I’d been buying up until now. Then about 2 weeks ago I was reading discussions on the
BARBECUE BIBLE MESSAGE BOARD relating to how everyone cooked their turkeys. Many folks smoke roasted theirs at 325-350 (160-175 C) which got my wheels spinning again with thoughts of finally trying this method. The problem was I’d already committed to making some kebabs at a party one weekend and a bunch of grilled pizzas for my dad’s birthday the weekend before Thanksgiving. So there was really no possibility of doing a trial run. Even so I came so close to deciding I would go for it, but ultimately I decided that wasn’t the smart thing to do.

Several things made me come to my senses. The first was: I’ve never really cooked anything at that high of a temperature using the side firebox of my CG. Sure I’ve hit 300 or 325 (160 or 175 C) for short cooks, but this would be 3 or 4 hours. The Kingsford Competition Blend All Natural Hardwood Briquettes do seem capable of reaching very high temperatures, so I could probably do it... But there was also an “if” attached to that statement, and it was a BIG IF. ....IF the weather was good. I’ve smoked a turkey through snowstorms and windy and cold Thanksgivings and I honestly wasn’t sure if I could hold 350 under some of those conditions. I’d never actually tried to before. The second big negative was: I had no idea how long it would take. I know how long my birds take at 225 (110 C): Between 6-7 hours. I have cooking logs I can refer to with all of the various weather conditions I’ve cooked under, so it is easy to find a similar cook to help me ballpark things. I will be baking rolls and making several sides as well. Not knowing when the main course is finishing up certainly complicates things. The third point was: Last year’s bird was the best I or my guests said they’d ever tasted. Nobody would complain about having that again this year, and none of use were skin eaters. So the only reason to do this was to satisfy my curiosity. Lastly I decided it is silly to introduce not one, but two variables into the same experiment. I’d been hoping to see if we noticed the difference between this super mega ultra deluxe bird and the above average bird I’d been using in prior years. If I also change the cooking method, that could account for some or all of the differences. Honestly that last item was what got me thinking clearly again.

So the decision is I will go with the same recipe and cooking method that was a big hit last year. We’ll see if this new bird raises the bar or simply tastes the same. At some time in the future on a non-holiday weekend I will try this same recipe and smoke roast the bird at 350 (175 C). If it comes out better, I’ll switch to using it next year. If it comes out the same or no one eats the skin, I’ll go back to smoking it low and slow. I will also be able to tell if it is worth the extra money for this turkey with all the right buzzwords.
Here are some related links for items mentioned in the blog above.

  HERB ROASTED TURKEY Poultry Picture Entry
  PRIME TIME Blog Entry about The Meat House

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