Smoking a Turkey for Thanksgiving

My second smoked turkey, which was deliciously smoky flavored..

This is the first year I’ve tried smoking a turkey for Thanksgiving.

Because I was a food editor for nearly 20 years, I’ve tried a lot of different turkey cooking methods:

  • Deep-frying (hot and messy, but delicious results).
  • Herbs rubbed under the skin (kind of creepy and cold).
  • High heat (by the time the inside finally got cooked, the outer meat dried out.)
  • Brining and marinades.
  • Cooking an unthawed turkey (this one turned out surprisingly good, but it took a long time in the oven.)
  • Cooking it breast-side down so the juices run into the breast, and then flipping it over during the last hour (again, this one is pretty messy and hot, and requires some muscle and good hot pads).
  • Turkey in a Dutch oven (you need a specialized Dutch oven, but it turned out pretty good.)
  • And probably more than I’ve forgotten!

This fall, I bought myself an electric smoker. I know that die-hard barbecue experts thumb their nose at this, but, I’m not in a BBQ competition, nor am I trying to be “authentic.” I’m just trying to get a nice smoked flavor into my foods, without spending hours feeding in wood chips to make sure the temperature is constant. I can set the temperature and let the  electric heat element keep steady heat.  Wood chips are fed on the side, and a few batches of chips impart enough smokiness for my purposes. You can call me a slacker, and that’s OK.

One of the perks of smoking a turkey is that my oven will be free for baking rolls and pies this year, instead of commandeered for several hours on Thanksgiving morning.

Since this was my first time smoking a turkey, I did a dry run last Saturday so I could see if it would work out.  When turkey is 79 cents per pound, it’s a good time to experiment a little and learn from your mistakes, right?  I thought the meat from the smoked turkey was much more flavorful than regular roasting. We’ve been enjoying turkey soup, salads and sandwiches the last few days with the leftovers. So by the time I smoke a second turkey on Thanksgiving, we will be turkeyed-out.

I used a frozen turkey, one that is “self-basted” with a salt solution. Yes, I know that free-range and fresh turkeys are supposed to be better, but you usually need to order them in advance and they cost a lot more.

Before smoking, I covered the turkey in a spice rub and let it sit overnight. I loosely stuffed the inside cavity with chunks of onion and apple, and fresh herbs. overnight.

So, I thawed the turkey for a few days in the fridge. Then I liberally sprinkled on a BBQ rub and some poultry seasoning, both inside and out. (After pulling out the neck and giblets.) I have my own BBQ rub recipe that I’ve perfected, but I like adding a little poultry seasoning because it has sage, thyme and rosemary, which complement poultry. I especially like to make sure it’s liberally sprinkled inside, so the flavors will permeate the meat from the inside out.

No, I didn’t wash my turkey and I didn’t brine it either. I happen to think that trying to rinse a big bird probably splashes more salmonella bacteria around your kitchen than any good it does. Cook it thoroughly and you’ll kill the bacteria. Since my turkey already had a saline solution in it, I skipped the wet-brining step of letting it soak in salty, seasoned water for awhile. I guess the seasoned rub could count as dry-brining, because it contains some salt.

Instead of dressing, I loosely stuffed the inside cavity with half of a cut-up onion, a cut-up apple for a little moisture and sweetness, and some sage and parsley. I put my turkey in a small roasting pan, to catch the drippings and moisture run-off during the cooking process.

The turkey went inside my electric smoker for 8-10 hours.

After letting the spice-rubbed turkey sit overnight in the refrigerator, I started the electric smoker the next morning. I filled the steam pan with water to add some moisture during cooking and set the temp at 250 degrees for 8 hours, which for a 13.5-pound turkey was about 30 minutes per half-hour. I fed in some wood chips a few times, but left it pretty much alone for about 6 hours.

Then I started getting impatient and checking the temperature, and every time I opened the door, some of the heat escaped. So it probably took an hour longer than necessary to reach 170-175 degrees in the thigh and 165 in the breast, which is what America’s Test Kitchen recommends. Then I loosely  wrapped it with foil and let it sit for a half hour to “rest” and let the juices get back into the meat.

It wasn’t pretty on the outside but this smoked turkey was tender and juicy on the inside.

My resulting turkey was dark on the outside, probably due to the smoke and the herbs. But, beneath the lacquered surface was smoky, tender, juicy meat. And the drippings made flavorful gravy with a hint of hickory. The next day, after getting most of the meat from the bones, I simmered the carcass overnight in a slow-cooker, and the resulting full-bodied broth made a great Turkey & Wild Rice Soup.

SO that was my first “dry run” turkey. For my second turkey, cooked on Thanksgiving, I wanted it to golden brown; not black. I didn’t want to scare all my family with its looks.

So…  I did the same spice rub, and let the turkey sit overnight in the fridge. But before I put it in the smoker, I wiped off quite a bit of the rub, and  lightly brushed the turkey’s skin with oil. (My theory was that the sugar in the spice rub might be causing the turkey to brown excessively). There was still lots of seasoning on the inside of the turkey, to provide flavor.  Also, I limited the amount of  wood chips (mainly because I put the turkey on at 3 a.m. with one batch of wood chips, and went back to sleep until 9 a.m.)  So I didn’t get as much smoke swirling around the turkey.

This time, the turkey was more of a golden brown and less burned-looking. But the meat was tender and juicy, and the flavorful leftovers made phenomenal sandwiches, soup and turkey-topped salads. Where there’s smoke, there’s great turkey.


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