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Buttermilk Brined Smoked Turkey

smoked buttermilk brined turkey

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!

Helpful Information

  • Prep Time: 25 minutes
  • Brine Time: 10-12 hours
  • Cook Time: 6 hours
  • Smoker Temp: 240°F
  • Meat Finish Temp: 165°F
  • Recommended Wood: Cherry
What You’ll Need
Getting Started

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.

Jeff’s Buttermilk Brine for Poultry

Ingredients:

Direction:

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.

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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.

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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, 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

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb “real” butter
  • 2 Roasted Garlic heads (see directions below) or 2 TBS minced garlic (easier)
  • 1/2 cup of Jeff’s original rub
  • 3 TBS of fresh chopped chives

Directions:

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

A little of Jeff’s original rub  on the outside for good measure!

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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.

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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.

Use a digital probe meat thermometer to tell you when the turkey reaches 165°F in the thickest part of the breast or thigh.

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.

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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.

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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.

Enjoy!

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.

Summary
  • 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).
  • Rinse well.
  • Use hands to dislodge skin from meat.
  • Stuff flavored butter (recipe above) under skin.
  • Sprinkle Jeff’s original rub on the outside.
  • Prepare smoker for cooking at 225-240°F.
  • Place turkey on grate breast side up.
  • Cook for about 6 hours or until 165°F.
  • Let turkey rest (tented)for 30 minutes before carving.
Notes:
  • 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!

Note: You can also order the formulas for my rubs and sauce and make these yourself at home. Grab those HERE and download immediately.

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22 Comments

  1. I made this Turkey on my pit boss pellet grill.It was finished in 5 hours with the temp set at 250.This was the best Turkey I have ever made and it was a huge hit.The buttermilk brine definitely made a difference and the garlic chive butter was excellent!
    Thanks for the awesome recipes!

  2. Jeff,
    Just a quick question about your garlic, rub, chives butter recipe shown above, do you use salted or unsalted butter for this recipe?
    Thanks,
    Jake

  3. Jeff – I always follow your recipes to exactitude because you have never failed me for producing incredible meals. I have a pantry full of rubs, but find myself making yours over and over because it’s just that good! Regarding this turkey. I made it today and served to my 94 year old mother. She told me that I must write to you and tell you that this was the best turkey she has ever eaten in her 94 years. She prefers dark meat over white because white is boring and dry. Not with this recipe, it was as moist (and almost as flavorful) as the dark. She loved it. I knew it would be good because it came from you. Thanks for sharing this incredible recipe.

  4. Jeff – what are your thoughts on spatchcocking a turkey. This is to me the safest and easiest method of cooking a bird and it also makes fitting a big bird into a smoker much easier.

  5. Do you use the entire smoked 2 garlic heads in the Garlic, Rub and Chive Flavored Butter or do you use 2 tablespoons of the smoked garlic?

  6. Hi Jeff, Im going to season my 22″ WSM THIS week-end. Someone said I should use Pam. What say you thank you.

  7. Hi Jeff,
    I am a new convert to smoking as the better half got me a smoke vault for an early Christmas present and I have already tried the Rum injected double smoked ham, the Cherry Glazed Tenderloin and the Buttermilk Brined turkey is cooking as I type this.

    But my question revolves around your rub. I am seriously considering buying the recipie but one thing stops me. It has been described as nice mix of spicy vs savory. Sounds good except for the fact that neither my wife nor I can participate in the “cult of capsaicin” as Alton Brown calls it. We are not allergic per say but anything beyond the mildest of the mild of anything with that in it, causes severe gastric issues. We usually double up on things like garlic, onion or even horseradish to get the tang. Would your rub and sauce recipe require similar substitutions?

    1. Paul,

      It does contain a little cayenne and some black pepper. You could leave out the cayenne without affecting things too much. The rub also gets some flavor and heat from black pepper which used piperine instead of capsaicin so I think it would be ok in that regard. I do have a good guarantee on the recipes so if you purchase them and you find that they will not work for you, let me know and I’ll make it right.

  8. Last time I made this turkey the meat was delicious. However the skin got really tough. Is there something I can do to prevent this?

  9. Jeff I was thinking about making the garlic rub several days before Thanksgiving and keeping it in the refrigerator. Do you see any issues with this.?

  10. Trying this for the first time. I’ll be cooking a 20lb. Would that make my cooking time to be around 10hrs?

  11. Jeff
    Happy Thanksgiving g to you and yours
    I have tried this before on a wood smoker using cherry wood and it came out awesome. All my family has been buggjng me for weeks to see whi h one im making this year. The answer is yes but I wouldn’t Want to ruin the surprise for them now.

  12. Hi Jeff,

    I will be giving your turkey a try this TG. Can you clarify if the wood chips should go on at the beginning or the end of the smoking process? Does it matter?

    Thank you!

  13. I want to try the buttermilk brined turkey for TG but want to do it with a deconsstructed bird, (i.e. cut up).  I think it will speed up the cooking time and eliminate that last minute messy rush to carve the bird while everything else is getting to the table hot.

     

    Can anyone give me some tips on adjusting Jeff’s recipe for a deconstructed bird?

     

    Thanks,

     

    Jan

  14. Jeff:

     

    I truly enjoy your rub and sauce and have tried a few of your smoker recipes with good results.  I’m very interested in doing the buttermilk brined smoked turkey for TG, but I had planned on doing a deconstructed bird to save time and the messy carving after cooking.

    Can you recommend any variations on your technique for this recipe for a deconstructed bird?

     

    Thanks,

     

    Jan

  15. Trying this recipe for the 1st time on Saturday, and I'm super pumped about it.  One thing that isn't clear to me is whether or not I use all the garlic, rub, and chive flavored butter, or just the 1/3 of it that I cut into 1/8 slices?

    Any direction would be greatly appreciated!  Thanks!