Bulks Food

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Taste This Delicious and People Favorite to Smoke a Turkey

Thanksgiving is far and away my favorite holiday, but this year marks a new twist in the family fun: It’s the first Thanksgiving that my wife, Adri, and I are hosting, and the first Thanksgiving that my family is celebrating away from the East Coast. That’s right: The Alts are coming to California, and we’d better make it extra special for them.

I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what we’re going to do with the turkey this year. With much better access to outdoor space than in my mom’s New York apartment and its 40-square-foot kitchen, I figured something that took advantage of the yard would be in order. Rather than make my traditional spatchcocked roast turkey, this year we’re going to deep-fry at least one and slow-smoke another. Turkey and smoke are a natural pairing, as anyone who’s looked at a deli matter can tell you, but there’s a difference between cold-cut smoked turkey, with its ham-like cured texture and questionable smoke flavor, and real barbecued turkey. I’m talking the kind of smoked turkey you want served in thick, glistening slabs that are shiny with juice and fork-tender, with deep smoke flavor.

I already had a basic idea in my head of how I was going to smoke the turkey (low and slow, indirect heat, a dry brine and spice rub to start), but I decided to take a look at our own published technique for pointers. Then I had a frightening realization: In all the years we’ve been writing about Thanksgiving turkey, despite all the recipes for grill-roasted turkeys cooked over relatively high heat, not once have we offered complete instructions for true low-and-slow, barbecue-style smoked turkey.

So I did the only sensible thing: I brought home four turkeys and started testing, modifying our existing grilled spatchcocked turkey technique to work with lower heat, more smoke, and a spice rub to bring out more of those barbecue flavors.

Oftentimes a Food Lab recipe will take dozens of tests and weeks of experiments to really nail, but this one turned out to be pretty straightforward, requiring only two solid days of smoking.* There are actually just five keys to perfect smoked turkey:

Butterflying or spatchcocking the bird to help it cook more evenly and develop crisper skin.

Dry-brining the bird by rubbing it with salt (or a spice rub that includes salt) and letting it sit in the fridge for a few nights in order to allow the salt to work its way into the meat and loosen up its muscle structure, thus keeping it juicy as it cooks.
Adding baking powder to the dry rub, which causes it to form tiny micro-bubbles on the surface of the turkey as it roasts, adding surface area and enhancing the crispness of the skin. It also slightly raises the pH of the surface, enhancing Maillard browning.

Slow-cooking over indirect heat, with the legs pointed toward the heat source (legs can handle higher heat than delicate breast meat can), in order to very gently and evenly cook the breast meat and give ample time for the turkey to build up smoky flavor.
Carefully monitoring the turkey’s internal temperature to ensure that the breast meat never gets above 150°F (66°C). Any higher than that, and it becomes chalky and dry. (Despite government warnings to cook turkey to 165°F (74°C), turkey is perfectly safe to eat at 150°F so long as it is properly checked with a thermometer and allowed to rest for at least four minutes before serving.)

Easy, right?

*My wife made me take my clothes off outside so that our bedroom wouldn’t smell like hickory. We’ll see if she gets any food on Thanksgiving.

Should I Brine My Bird?

A slice has been carved from the smoked turkey’s breast to reveal a moist-looking interior.
You could brine your bird, and it certainly will make your bird juicier, but it won’t do anything in the flavor department. In fact, it’ll dilute the flavor of your turkey. Instead of a traditional wet brine, I recommend dry-brining. It’s easier, nearly as effective at helping maintain juiciness, and far better for flavor. To do it, just rub your turkey with salt and let it sit in the fridge overnight (or up to three days). That’s it. In the matter of a smoked turkey, I like to rub it with a spice rub that contains salt, which will work just as effectively while also adding spice flavor. Here’s some more information on the mechanics and science of brining.

What About Injecting?

Unlike brining or dry-brining, in which only salt and water will really work their way into the meat, injecting can actually introduce other aromatic compounds, which makes it a useful way to get your turkey juicy without risk of diluting its flavor. If you want to inject, I suggest using a combination of chicken or turkey stock and melted butter, injected into various points throughout the breast.

Can I Smoke My Turkey Whole, or Do I Have to Butterfly It?

Raw, whole turkey placed on a rimmed baking sheet.

This is a whole turkey. See how exposed that breast meat is, and how relatively protected the legs are? When you’re roasting a turkey in the oven, that’s a major problem. But what about on the grill?

Butterflying (or spatchcocking, if you want to use the cheekier term), is the best way I know of to roast a turkey more quickly and evenly to guarantee juicy breast meat, fully cooked legs, and crisp skin. On the grill, its benefits are not quite as obvious.

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