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

This Recipe Was a Real Turkey

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Let me start out by saying my 2015 Thanksgiving turkey was the best turkey I have ever made. It was a combination of a great fresh turkey, a great recipe and I managed to not screw anything up. The recipe made the “not screw anything up” part way, way harder than it should have been. There were some inconsistencies and errors in the recipe vs. the version from the TV show. So even though this recipe helped me make the best turkey ever, this blog entry is going to be part rant and part praise.

With the passing of my mother, this was the first Thanksgiving where I was going to be responsible for making the whole meal from start to finish. I was looking for a new recipe for the turkey for several reasons. I wanted to try something that had an easy prep where I would be doing more than ever this year. Also while the last two recipes I have made turned out some of the best turkeys ever, there was something that bothered me a bit about both recipes. That was the finished color of the turkey skin. When I started making these two recipes on my Big Green Egg I was getting great tasting birds, but the skin was very dark - black almost. I knew the birds were not over-cooked because I had temp probes in both the breast and thighs. Plus the finished meat was great. So the idea of trying a new recipe was in the back of my mind to try to solve the skin color issue. I am going to be hard on the folks responsible for posting erroneous and inconsistent versions of this recipe. This is not me bashing Stephen Raichlen. He is the person most responsible for my getting into serious grilling in 2003. His recipes can be relatively simple, while producing excellent results. But the folks who are in charge of coordinating between the TV show and the website for the show screwed up badly. I will also add this is not the first time I found variations and errors between the TV show version and the website version of his recipes. There were some cases of this with recipes from the Planet Barbecue TV show.

Final Candidate - Stephen Raichlen has a new smoking related TV show on PBS called Project Smoke which I have been recording on my TiVo and watching when I had time. One of the shows from September stuck in my head and seemed like a possible candidate for this years turkey. It featured a brined and smoked turkey whose recipe was called Double Whiskey-Smoked Turkey. When I saw the recipe it looked like just what I wanted. Big picture-wise it was simpler to make: with less ingredients, a simpler brine and prep and a simple cook.

The Good - Here are some the good things this recipe had going for it:
  • Simpler Brine: The brine for this recipe was simpler to make with less ingredients.
  • Quick Brine Prep: The brine used a neat trick in it’s prep. Only half of the water was boiled, with the other half added cold. This had two benefits. Using less hot water let the brine come to a boil quicker and the cold water helped the brine cool off much faster than if all of the water had been boiled.
  • Express Brine: The turkey was simply dried after coming out of the brine the morning it was to be cooked. The other brined turkeys I have made had the turkey air dry in the fridge overnight. No overnight air-brine made the brine a shorter 24 hour total process.
  • Simple Prep: The turkey was injected with butter which is relatively simple to do. Some of the other birds I have made, have you make an herb paste that is applied over and under the skin. The prep time for chopping up the fresh herbs can be considerable and must be done just before you cook the turkey. While you are tied up doing this prep work nothing else can be happening. This year where I was making everything myself, it was good to have some of this excess prep time back to do other things.

The Bad - Here are some of the mistakes and/or inconsistencies between the recipe as presented on the TV show vs. the supposedly same recipe as found on the Project Smoke Website. I have listed the choices I made in parentheses:
  • Injecting with butter missing from the website recipe: In the TV episode Stephen Raichlen stresses it is important to inject the breast under the skin with melted butter. This is one of the keys to keep the breast from overcooking. The website recipe goes straight from removing the bird from the fridge to placing it on the smoker. There is no mention made of injecting it at all. This is a serious omission and rather inexcusable when it it supposedly one of the key steps to insuring a moist turkey. What makes it even more serious is it it left out of the written version of the recipe. Many people will be referring to the website version because they don’t have a saved copy of the TV version or never saw it to begin with. My solution was a no brainer. I injected the bird as intended.
  • Cooking Differences: One of the things that first attracted me about the TV version of this recipe is it was relatively simple to do. This was true of the cooking method. You cooked the turkey at 250 degrees (120 C) for 5-6 hours. After 3 hours you basted it with butter once an hour. When I looked at the written version of the recipe I found it was a two step process. First they had you take the bird to an internal temp of 145 degrees (63 C). Then you raised the temp of your smoker to 400 degrees (205 C) and cooked the bird until it reached an internal temp of165 degrees (74 C). While either method would work there are several problems here. To me the biggest problem is there is no explanation of why you would want to finish the turkey at 400 degrees (205C). This would be to crisp up the skin. I know this from having smoked turkeys for the last 10 years. Raichlen never mentions that low and slow cooking of a turkey gets you a moist bird, but rubbery skin. Someone new to smoking might try the TV version of cooking the turkey straight through at 250 degrees. Only then would they discover they had a bird with rubbery, not crispy skin. For my family this isn’t a problem, because no one eats the skin. The second problem is not all smokers can go up to 400 degrees (205 C) and this is actually mentioned in the written version of the recipe. I know my CG Smokin’ Pro was hard pressed to get beyond 300 degrees (150 C). If this was one of your first times using your smoker, you might not even know if 400 (205 C) was possible. The recipe mentioned using a grill set up for 400 degrees (205 C) indirect cooking to accomplish this. This certainly makes for a less simple cook. You need to be out babysitting the smoker or second grill when it is getting close to eating time. My 3 Eggs were all going to be in use so using a second one pre-heated to 400 degrees wasn’t possible. I had too many other things to do. I didn’t even think about my spending time out at the Egg raising the temps. I really didn’t know how long a pit controller would take to accomplish this task on an Egg that had been stabilized and running at 250 for multiple hours. My solution was to keep it simple and cook it at 250 degrees for the entire time. I knew from experience this would give me a moist bird, but with rubbery skin.
  • Brine Differences: One the TV show the ratio of boiling water to cold water is said to be 50/50. Some of the cold water used has ice in it. In the website version of the recipe, the ratio is 2 quarts boiling water to 6 quarts cold with no mention of ice. Brines are very critical when it comes to the ratio of water to salt. I find it a bit disconcerting when they mention using ice water. How do you know how much cold water you actually have when some of it is in the form of ice? The two versions show two different hot to cold ratios. This isn’t the end of the world but the total amount of brine is said to be 2 gallons on the website and it is not mentioned at all on the TV show. I made the brine with cold water but left out the ice because I had no way of convert ice cubes to water. I used a ratio of 50/50 hot to cold water to make sure I had plenty f hot water to dissolve the salt easily. The use of 50/50 hot to cold water with no ice resulted in a longer cooling time, but it was still cool enough to put it in the fridge within an hour or so. This was much faster than the 3-4 hours to cool a brine where the entire 2 gallons of water was boiled.
  • Brine Tub Type: The brine tub that Stephen Raichlen used had a small footprint but was quite tall. It might involve removing all of the shelves on one side of the fridge. For the benefit of people who are new to brining it would have been nice to mention getting a tub that will fit the turkey and fit in your fridge. Not a problem for me because I have a tub that works for a 14 pound (6.33 kg) turkey and fits in my fridge.
  • Brine Amount: I noticed something when watching the TV episode. Stephen Raichlen’s turkey seemed to stick out of the top of the brine when he dropped the turkey into it. From that point on the camera was aimed so as never to show the top portion of the bird. It was either looking below the level of the brine or aimed at Stephen Raichlens head an upper torso with the bird just off the bottom of the frame. Experience has taught me that the liquid level goes down as the bird absorbs some of the brine. If this was a problem, and I believe it was, no need to reshoot the TV episode footage, but why not bump up the brine amount in the written version of the recipe? Experience has shown me that 2 gallons works for me in my particular brining tub. Your mileage and turkey may vary.

This years Thanksgiving turkey was the best I have ever made. First of all I had a great bird to work with. I bought an all-natural turkey which had all of the right buzz words associated with it. I am sure this played a big part in how good this years turkey was. Normally I credit a good recipe and good meat, fish or poultry and then I add something like: “…and I didn’t screw it up”. This year’s results were different in that I did have a great recipe with some big flaws in it. The success was in spite of and despite of the recipe I used. Not only did I not screw things up, I was able to compensate for some of the issues with the two versions of the same recipe. The turkey which was injected with butter and brushed with butter had the nice golden brown color of the textbook turkey. So I am guessing the herbs used for the last two turkey recipes I’ve made were picking up the wood smoke and darkening. This was purely a visual issue where we don’t eat the skin, but it is good to have this problem solved. The butter also helped keep the breast meat moist. The brine also help assured the bird’s moistness and gave a subtle hint of flavor to the meat. The cherry wood smoke also gave the meat a nice hint of smoke flavor. This turkey was amazingly moist and tender. People who normally like dark meat were also digging into the white meat in a big way. Some turkeys I’ve had the white meat was dry and tasteless. They relied on the gravy to supply the moistness and flavor. Not this bird: The white meat was moist, tender and flavorful. When I asked if anyone wanted me to make gravy, nobody did. Bottom line: As long as you know what to do to assure the recipe is sound, you can compensate for some issues with the recipe.

So what are you to do if you are faced with “dueling” recipes, particularly if you are new to some or all of this? That is a bit of a tough one, but I will post some suggestions to try to help put based on my experience.
• Two Sources, 1 Recipe: Using a recipe that has a video version and a written version is actually a good thing, as long as you keep your eyes open. I didn’t mean to completely scare people with the tale above, but you need to be aware mistakes are not uncommon. I like having both versions of the recipe. The video version helps you understand new-to-you techniques and allows you to see and HEAR the cooking process.
• Review Both Versions: I would suggest re-watching the video version with a written copy of the recipe in hand. I re-read the recipe and then watched the video and referred to the written version simultaneously. This way you don’t have to rely on memory to compare the two versions of the recipe.
• Minor Differences: Sometimes there will be minor tweaks made to the herbs and spices or other ingredients to improve the flavors. Probably not too much to worry about here, you are probably safe going with either and when in doubt I would go with the one that has the spices I like best.
• Major Differences: This is cause for concern. First you need to decide what you are dealing with. Is this an omission like the missing butter injection above? For something like this you simply add in the missing ingredient. Or is it even more serious where you are faced with two different approaches?
• Different Approaches: When you are faced with two different approaches there are several things you can try. Choosing another recipe to make is one approach. It is the safest approach if this is an important meal and you are inexperienced cooking this type of recipe. Short of that, you can look at other similar recipes which may give you an idea of which way to proceed regarding the differences. For example in the case of the two cooking methods I ran into, you could look at the other recipes to see what they do and why. Also you could post a question to a food forum for this type of dish. If the site for the written version of the recipe allows comments, read those but with your eyes open. You may find a bunch of people who totally changed the ingredients and then say how much they liked or hated the recipe. Well that is nice, but by making all of the changes these folks have produced a totally different recipe than the one you are looking at. That type of comment is irrelevant. But comments from people who made the recipe as written can be quite valuable. Lastly if you know someone who is knowledgeable in this tone of cooking ask them for help.
• Do a Trial Run: If possible do a test run to see if the version of the recipe you chose gives you good results. The more important the meal, the more important it is to work out the differences in advance. But a major meal like a Thanksgiving turkey may not be possible to do a test run. You need to decide if you can get yourself into a good place about the recipe before trying it out for an important event.

Not every recipe you run across is going to be perfect. You need to do some homework before you just make an important recipe. Stephen Raichlen makes great recipes on his shows and in his cookbooks. But who ever is in charge of the continuity between the TV show and the website needs to work harder. This isn’t just a problem with Raichlen’s site, I have seen this on other TV Chef’s websites too. It isn’t uncommon, but it isn’t a universal either. I have made lots of recipes from the Cook’s Illustrated/America’s Test Kitchen/Cook’s Country family of websites and I have not run into a situation where the video version and the website version have differences that need to be reconciled. If a recipe has both a video version and a written version take advantage of this to learn more about the recipes before making them. You may make an even better version of the recipe or you may find a potential deal breaker in time to make other choices.

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