Whenever I’m home for Thanksgiving, I’ve made it a tradition to smoke the Thanksgiving turkey.  And every year, the smoked Gobbler has wowed.

I started doing this about 10 years ago when I bought a cheap offset smoker (though at the time, I thought it was the bee’s knees compared to the Weber I was sporting).  I would start the whole process around midnight and set an alarm for on-the-hour (every hour) to check the smoker temperatures.  Early morning smoking a turkeyYeah, it’s a pain in the ass to wake up hourly to bathe yourself in a dense fog of hickory… but there’s just something there that triggers a primal pleasure overriding any annoyance: the fire, the smoke, the roasting meat… all that’s missing is a cave wall with my kids’ drawings etched into it.

I look back to my early days of smoking and I can’t believe what a crappy smoker I had.  A screen door retains more heat than that thing did.  Some hours I would wake up and the thing was at 350°F, while other hours I would wake up with the cooking heat at 50ºF.  It’s a wonder the turkey made it through the “40º-140º in 4 hours” danger-zone for bacterial infection. Since then, I’ve upgraded to a ceramic combo smoker/grill that actually holds its temperature for hours with no meddling.

I took off work from Wednesday-on to smoke not one, but two turkeys.  In Britain, anything smoked is about as rare as shit from a rocking horse, so I figured the more smoked turkey the better.  Though, the Brits were still eyeballing me weird looks when I told them I was taking leave to smoke a turkey.

I think this is the first time where Snakeye’s Law of Proportions (if some is good, more is better) has broken down on me.  Applying this law, I bought two of the largest turkeys I could find to smoke up.  Only, after refreshing myself with the time/temperature charts, it appears that 22 lbs of Tom is about 7 lbs too much to smoke without risk of contamination.  Time to amend the gameplan…

Smoking vs BBQing

Apparently, the purists will say that smoking is officially keeping the temperatures at 250°F and below.  Anything above is consider BBQ (albeit on a wood-burning oven/grill).  In order to get my monsters out of the bacteria danger-zone within 4 hours, I’ll have to up the temperature to the 300s.  Whatever you call it, my Texas-sized turkeys will come out with a wood-smoked flavor regardless.  What smoking at the low temperatures buys you is tender, juicy meat if done properly.  The problem with raising the temperature is you tend to dry out the meat.  My solution?  Shove a can full of cheap red wine up its arse.  I doubt the wine will impart any noticeable flavor, but it will evaporate and turn the chest cavity into an over-temp’d swamp o’ tenderness.

The Process

Smoking is a very forgiving process.  It falls into one of those categories of “it’s easy to do, but hard to do well.”  Even if you screw it up, most foods will still keep a good flavor to them.  When it comes to smoking, my personal taste is for the strong woods, making mesquite and hickory my two go-to combustibles.  They say fruit woods are great for poultry, but I have yet to try them out for Thanksgiving.  The first few hours on the smoker are what imparts the majority of the smoke flavor.  For me, a successful smoke-session usually means holding a constant temperature and resisting the urge of opening the smoker to admire your meat (so to speak, I guess), but it’s truly the reactions during the feast that determine if it was a success or not.

To compensate for the size of the turkey, we brined it for 24 hours prior which, when combined with the red-wine suppository, will hopefully keep the meat tender.

For the 24-hr brine, we used:

  • 2 gallons of water
  • 3 cups salt
  • 2 bottles of honey (microwaved to a liquid consistency prior to adding)
  • a fist-full of rosemary, sage and thyme
  • 2-3 bulbs of garlic, top sliced off
  • a liberal handful of peppercorns
  • halved apples and oranges
  • 1 gallon of hard cider (call it a 6-pack)

Once pulled from the brine, I bash together a dry rub.  I typically don’t measure it out… I just know what spicing I typically like and start adding it all to a bowl.  My typical ingredients are a lot of salt (about 50% of the entire concoction), some ground pepper, a generous pinch of spicy paprika (I suppose cayenne pepper will also work), half a spice jar of thyme and oregano, and a considerable amount of garlic powder (did I mention I love garlic?).  The point is this: the dry rub is just the shot of flavor that you get when you consume the turkey.  It doesn’t coat every exposed surface after the turkey’s been sliced up, so make it as strong as you want (with salt, etc).  The meat of the turkey nicely balances out anything that you put on the outside.  Using my hand, I just separate the skin from the meat underneath, creating pockets, and start loading those pockets up with the dry rub concentrating on the breasts and legs (again… so to speak).

I get the smoker up to temperature using a small bed of charcoal.  Once it’s up to temperature, I add the hickory branches and chunks, which the charcoal will eventually handoff to as the soul means of combustion.  From here on out, I only feed the smoker wood.  Once the wood catches, I sit ol’ Tom down atop his aluminum throne o’ red wine, set the air grates to hold the temperature, and don’t open it again for at least 4 hours… then it’s a progress check to add wood:

smoked turkey, 4 hours in

When I first started smoking turkeys, I was worried that the skin was getting too dark and burnt.  Don’t fret; this usually seals the outside to hold the liquids in on the inside… and we usually don’t eat the skin.  Like I said, it’s tough to screw up smoking.

Overall, they say to allow 20-25 minutes per pound at 300°F.  This leaves about 5 more hours on the smoker, or potentially 2 more progress-checks for this big guy.  I surrendered my second turkey to Pam so she can oven-roast it to offer some variety; it also gives me an excuse to buy a third turkey of less poundage to properly smoke at 225°F, allowing about 35-40 minutes per pound.  For this smaller turkey, I plan to add a honey-bourbon baste (50/50 mix) with an hour to go and apply it every 15 minutes.

For today though, the large turkey is done after 8 hours in the 300°F smoker (the meat registered around 200°F internally), cooked a day early for a premature dinner sampling and endless sandwich meat.  As far as the tenderness goes, the meat literally fell off the bones (it almost reminded me of properly smoked ribs).  I have one last hurdle on Friday: a “properly” smoked 14-pounder.  Then I can kick back and watch my choice college football games: Ohio State v Michigan, Air Force v Colorado State, and Auburn v ‘Bama… I almost feel like I’m back in the States! (except the games start at 5pm here…).  That being said, I’m thankful for a family that constantly puts up with me and my crazy aspirations of adventure (like spending the next three Thanksgivings in England), as well as all the company and support we’ve had while living all over God’s creation.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

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