As tradition would mandate, we are talking about smoking turkey this time of year and I plan to show you how to make the best smoked turkey you, your friends and your family have ever eaten.
This year's turkey smoking experiment had me using a buttermilk brine and lots of flavored butter under the skin of the bird. Worked out like a champ and I'm gonna tell you all about it in this recipe!
Start thawing the turkey about 3 days before you are ready to use it. Remember that turkeys thaw at a rate of about 5 lbs per day. If you have to hurry with it, you can put the turkey in a sink of cold water but you have to replace the water every 30 minutes and I don't recommend doing this from the git-go.
Try to defrost as much as possible in the fridge then if it's still a little frozen when you are almost ready to use it, use the water method to finish it off.
It needs to be completely thawed in order for the brine to work correctly.
Brining the bird
The first step in getting the bird ready is brining it. Putting meat down in a particular ratio of salt and water (or other liquid) causes a reaction and somehow through osmosis and other scientific terms that I really don't know a lot about, the salty water is pulled into the bird. The water molecules attach themselves to the protein strands and this just leads to a juicier bird in the end.
When you cook a bird, moisture is going to be lost. So by adding more moisture to the bird, even though we did not prevent the moisture loss, we are left with a lot more juice inside that we would not have had in an unbrined bird.
Needless to say, you and I don't have to understand exactly how it works but suffice it to say that it does work very well and if you try it, I fully believe that you will see and taste the difference.
The cool thing about the brine being pulled into the meat is no matter what you put in the brine, it will end up inside the bird.. it just works that way. For this reason, we add spices, juices, beer, wine, and anything imaginable to the brine as a better way to get it into the bird.
Injecting the bird also accomplishes this task and is faster but I feel that the brining process is far superior when time and space allows it.
So let's get to brining!
The first thing you'll need to know is how much brine you're going to need to make.. this is easy.
Place your turkey in the brining container such as an empty ice chest, large bowl, Jumbo 2-1/2 gallon ziploc, etc. and pour plain water over it to see how much brine it will take to cover it. Discard water when finished making a note of how much water was required to cover the bird.
My 12 pound bird required just under 2 gallons to cover it in a small ice chest.
Now that we know how much we'll need, go ahead and mix up the brine adjusting the recipe if you need to make less or more than 2 gallons.
Pour buttermilk into 1 gallon pitcher. Add 1 of the cups of salt and stir until the salt is dissolved. Add the 6 tablespoons of rub and stir again until well mixed.
Pour brine into brining container.
Pour water into the 1 gallon pitcher and add the last cup of salt stirring until it is completely dissolved. Pour into brine container with buttermilk brine and stir both together to mix.
Q: Why not add both cups of salt to the buttermilk or the water all at one time?
A: Only so much salt will dissolve in a gallon of liquid and I did not want to push those parameters. Feel free to try it if you wish.
Once the 2 gallons of brine are in the brining container, it's time to submerge the turkey in it.
Remove the packaging from the turkey and be sure to remove the neck, giblets and anything else that might be in the birds cavity.
Place turkey down in the brine and use a heavy plate, bowl or even a bag of ice to weigh down the turkey if it tries to float. It is important that it be completely submerged.
The turkey must stay between 33 and 39 degrees for it to be safe so the fridge is the best place to keep a brining turkey if possible and you have the room.
If you cannot use the fridge then you will have to use one of the following methods:
1. Add some ice to the brine (see photo above) to get the temperature down to where it needs to be. Use a thermometer to make sure the temperature is in the “safe” zone.
2. Place the turkey with the brine in a very large ziploc or plastic bag. Set the closed bag down in an empty ice chest and pour ice all around the bag to keep it cold. This will keep the brine from being diluted.
I usually just use the first method since most of the ice does not melt throughout the night and I have had really good results using that method.
Let the turkey brine for 10-12 hours then rinse well under cold water and set aside.
Seasoning the Turkey
I usually place the seasoning on the outside of the turkey and try to get a little under the skin wherever possible but this time I had this bright idea to flavor some butter with my original rub (purchase recipes here), some garlic and a few chives and to stuff that under the skin.. all the way under.
Great idea so let's make up that butter.. it's easy!
Garlic, Rub and Chive Flavored Butter
1 lb “real” butter
2 Roasted Garlic heads (see directions below) or 2 TBS minced garlic (easier)
Let butter sit on counter for several hours to soften slowly. Place butter into medium sized bowl and beat on low speed for about 1 minutes or until it is nice and creamy. Add rub, garlic and chives and use a fork to fold it all in and make sure it is well mixed.
I wanted the butter to be cold when I put it under the turkey skin so I formed it into a rectangular block, wrapped it in wax paper and placed it into the fridge a few hours before I needed it.
You can use the minced garlic in this recipe and it is very good but I am partial to the smoke roasted garlic and if you want to take the time to do it, it's not difficult and I think you'll really like it.
How to Smoke Roast Garlic
Make sure the garlic head is clean. Cut off the top about 1/2 inch down or so just so you can see the top of some of the cloves. Leave the skin on.. it won't hurt a thing.
Place the heads of garlic in individual foil boats.. just press some foil around the bottom of the head but leave the top spread open.
Drizzle extra virgin olive oil on top and place them in the smoker at normal smoking temps of 225-250 for about 2 hours or until they are soft and mooshy.
Cheat: roast in the oven at 275-300 for about an hour. No smoke but it'll still be good.
When done, let them cool for a bit then use a butter knife to pop the cloves out of their little cocoons. Mash them up a bit and you have garlic puree that can be spread on toast or added to butter for some flavor.
Stuffing the Turkey with Butter
The turkey has been brined, rinsed and is ready for some flavor. Take the flavored butter out of the fridge, and slice about 1/3 of it into pieces that are about 1/8 inch thick.
Now, in order to properly stuff the butter under the skin we have to very carefully loosen the skin from the meat so we can really get up under there. Lay the turkey breast side up and work your hand under the skin little by little all over until it is loose from the top and from the sides.
Starting with the sides and working toward the top, stuff the pieces of butter between the meat and the skin so that it completely covered with the butter. No need to massage it or press it smooth. If you have some extra pieces, throw them into the cavity of the turkey and it's ready to smoke.
I like to save the metal piece that holds the legs together and reuse it at this point to hold things together a little better while it smokes. Regular butcher twine will also work to tie things up a bit if you are so inclined.
Smoking the Turkey
Whether you are using a gas, electric charcoal or wood smoker, do what you have to do to get it going and set it to maintain about 240°F. Once the smoker is holding steady and producing light smoke, place the turkey directly on the grate breast side up. (normally we go breast side down for a bit then flip but I want the butter to do it's job here and that requires putting it in breast side up and leaving it be.
If you are cooking a 12 lb bird which is the recommended size for smoking, it will take around 6 hours at 225-240°F +-30 minutes.
Don't use the little red popup to tell you when it ‘s done.. it is normally set to 180°F and that's overcooking the bird. I usually remove and discard.
Important: When smoking meat, use time to estimate and plan, use a thermometer to cook.
Once the turkey has reached it's goal temperature, remove it from the smoker and set it aside with foil tented over the top for about 20-30 minutes before carving, poking or messing with it. This allows the juices to redistribute through out the meat. If you cut it early, the juices will all run out onto the cutting board. It's worth the wait.. trust me.
Serve the Smoked Turkey
Carve that bird up, hack it up, whatever.. depending on your skills. Mine are not the best when it comes to turkey so I won't bore you with my recommendations on carving a turkey, just get it cut up and into plates before the natives get any more restless and you end up with a mutiny on your hands.
A Few Words About the Smoke
Unless you are using a wood smoker, you will want to keep adding chips/chunks for about 3-4 hours for that nice smoky flavor. My usual recommendation is to keep the smoke going for about half of the total estimated cook time. If you expect the turkey to take 6 to 7 hours then just do some quick figuring to come up with 3-4 hours of smoking action.
I recommend using cherry, pecan or perhaps apple. Any fruitwood is great and I especially like plum and cherry on the turkeys. Any good smoking wood will work if you are limited on options. I have used nothing but oak before and it was very tasty.
My recommendation is to be as choosy as you're able to be.. if all you have is pecan, oak or perhaps hickory then that will work just fine.
Thaw turkey for 3 days in fridge or 5 lbs/day.
Unwrap and remove “stuff” inside turkey.
Brine turkey 12 hours using buttermilk brine (recipe above).
Let turkey rest (tented)for 30 minutes before carving.
Never stuff a turkey that is to be smoked. The low and slow method of smoking meat allows the meat to stay in the danger zone of 40-140°F (the temperature at which bacteria grows best) for too long.To remedy this, make the dressing in the house and stuff it in the turkey just before serving.
I do not recommend soaking wood chips/chunks in water. I have not found it to be beneficial.
If your smoker has a water pan, use it. You can also add juice, beer, broth and even spices, onions, garlic, etc. to the water pan to help flavor the meat. I cannot prove that this works but many folks claim that it does.
Order Jeff’s Rubs and Barbecue Sauce TODAY!
✅ My rubs and sauce will be the best thing you’ve ever tasted and it’s a great way to support what we do!
Smoke, Wood, Fire: The Advanced Guide to Smoking Meat – Unlike the first book, this book does not focus on recipes but rather uses every square inch of every page teaching you how to smoke meat. What my first book touched on, this second book takes it into much greater detail with lots of pictures.
It also includes a complete, step-by-step tutorial for making your own smoked “streaky” bacon using a 100 year old brine recipe.