Without going into a lot of science about why you should ALWAYS brine poultry and especially the Thanksgiving turkey, let me just say that if you ever try it one time, you will probably never skip this step again.
Meat tends to dry out some as it is being cooked. Brining adds extra water into the meat causing the end result to be less dry/more juicy than it would be if you decided to skip this step.
What is brining?
Brining is simply soaking the meat (turkey, chicken, etc.) in a salty solution for a certain amount of time. Some sort of chemical reaction happens and the water is drawn into the meat where it gets trapped within the protein strands. This process results in a product that is a lot more juicy and if you happen to add other things into the water such as maple syrup, juices, wines, flavorings, herbs, etc, the essence of each ingredient gets pulled into the meat with the water affecting the flavor in a very good way.
How to Brine the Turkey
First, let's make the brine:
Maple Turkey Brine Recipe
Note: you may need to double or triple this recipe depending on the size of your brining container. As long as your turkey fits, the smaller the better in my opinion.
Place a quart of the water in a pot over medium heat and add the maple syrup and rub to the water to help it melt and mix together better. Stir for about 3-4 minutes then remove from the heat and let it cool to room temperature.
Tip: do this step ahead of time so you're not stuck waiting on it.
Put the 3 quarts of cool, unheated water into a gallon sized pitcher and mix in the salt. Stir until the salt has completely dissolved.
Add the heated mixture to the salted water
You need a food safe plastic/glass or other non-reactive container large enough to hold the turkey and enough brine to cover.
Remove the turkey from it's packaging and remove any “gifts” that are stuffed down inside of the cavity.
Place the turkey in the brining container
I used an insulated cooler
Pour enough brine over the turkey to cover it. If the turkey tries to float, put a heavy plate on top of it to hold it under the water.
I recommend using a smaller container if possible and placing the container in the fridge for optimum cooling. For a cooler such as I used, add a bag or two of ice to help keep the water at less than 40°F.
Some of the ice will melt over time but I usually do not add extra salt to make up for this. For one thing, the ice melts over time and causes the dilution to constantly change. I simply choose to leave it alone and it always turns out great that way.
Leave the turkey in the brine for 10-12 hours or overnight.
When the turkey is finished brining, rinse it well under cold water to remove any residual salt on the surface of the meat.
Since we are going with a maple theme this year, it only seems fitting to use maple syrup as our base to help the rub to stick.
I placed the turkey in a baking pan to catch the mess.. yep, I don't like cleanup!
Pour the maple syrup all over the turkey.
Use a silicon brush or your hands to get it all over.
Sprinkle Jeff's original rub (Purchase formula here | Purchase bottled rub) all over the turkey
For a little extra flavor, work your hands down under the skin of the turkey and try to get some maple syrup and rub in there.
My rub is not salty at all and it goes amazingly well with the maple syrup.
At this point the turkey is ready to go in the smoker.
You can use practically any smoker (even the grill) to cook the Thanksgiving turkey this year as long as you can maintain a range between about 220 and 250°F using indirect heat. If your smoker uses a water pan, fill it up.
Preheat the smoker/grill and once it is maintaining about 240°F , you are ready to smoke!
Place the turkey directly on the grate breast side up, or if you want to keep the smoker a little cleaner, you can leave the turkey on the baking sheet.
If you are using a smoker that has multiple levels, you can place the turkey on a Bradley rack or Weber grill pan to make it easy to transport it to the smoker and then back into the house once it's finished. Multiple levels allow you to place a pan on a lower rack to catch the syrup and turkey juices.
I used pecan wood for this turkey but almost any fruit wood or a mix of pecan and fruit wood such as apple, plum, or cherry, would be great.
Let the turkey smoke for about 2 hours without touching it.
At the 3 hour mark begin mopping the bird with the maple barbecue mop sauce every hour
Maple Barbecue Mop Sauce
Heat the maple syrup in the microwave then add the rub. Mix well then continuously mix while using.
Simple yet so amazing!
Use a silicon brush or basting mop to apply the mop sauce to the top, sides, legs and wings of the turkey.
I highly recommend using a good digital probe meat thermometer to monitor the temperature of the turkey while it cooks.
One of my favorite quick-read thermometers is the thermapen which is a digital pocket thermometer that reads in about 2 seconds.
I have a thermapen in my pocket any time I am cooking and it is one of the many tools, I don’t cook without. Solid construction, comes in a variety of colors, works fast, the most accurate thermometer you will ever own and I highly recommend it!
Another great tool is the ThermoPop digital pocket thermometer which reads in 3-4 seconds (that's fast), is splash-proof and is being offered for only $34. One of my favorite toys.. er, tools;-)
I monitor the thickest part of the turkey breast but I usually check the turkey legs with my Thermapen or ThermoPop before bringing the turkey in the house.
Turkey breast which is white meat cooks a little differently than the darker meat found in the legs and wings and it is important to find the happy medium between getting the two meats perfectly done.
I usually go with the breast temperature and as long as both the white breast meat and the legs are at least 165°F , I call the turkey done.
I have been known to let the breast go to 167°F in years past to give the legs more time to tenderize but since I usually let the turkey rest for 20-30 minutes, I know that the temperature is going to increase some anyway regardless of whether it's 162 or 167°F.
I recommend 165°F simply because I believe that's the optimum temperature based on my experience.
I recommend allowing the turkey to rest after it is done cooking. During this time, the juices settle back down in the meat and are less prone to spurt out when you cut into it.
When I go out to get the finished turkey, I usually take a large roasting pan lined with foil and a lid. The turkey goes from the smoker into the roasting pan and the lid is quickly placed on top to preserve the heat.
When I get it into the house, I allow it to sit on the cabinet for about 20-30 minutes before removing/carving the meat.
Every family does this differently.. we usually carve the turkey ahead of time so everyone can dig in quickly once dinner is called but others like to place the whole turkey on the table for presentation purposes and that is a wonderful tradition as well and makes for great memories.
I cannot teach you how to carve the turkey since that's not my forte but I do a halfway decent job of it in my opinion.
I start by removing the legs and wings.
This gives me good access to cut slices of the breast meat.
I recommend placing the dark meat and white meat in separate piles so folks can get what they want without having to dig around for it.
Why breast side up?
I sometimes cook the turkey breast side down for a short time then flip it over for the rest of the time, breast side up. This is not as important in smokers where the heat is really even and the heat is not moving from the bottom of the smoker to the top. In my experience, breast side up keeps the delicate breast meat the furthest from the heat and helps it to get done without any unintended blasts of heat.
This also gives me the best access to mop and baste the meat with the maple barbecue mop sauce.
All in all, I don't think either way is a deal breaker. If you've had success with breast side down the entire time, then go for it.
Can I stuff the turkey before smoking it?
No. Smoking turkey at low temperatures makes it unsafe to block heat flow into the cavity of the turkey. Wait until the turkey is done then stuff it with the already cooked stuffing for table presentation.
It is ok to place a few pieces of onion, apple, carrot, etc into the cavity as long as heat can travel freely into the cavity.
How do I reheat the turkey if I cook it ahead of time?
It just so happened that I had to reheat the turkey used in this newsletter. It was finished about 4 hours before we were ready to eat so I placed it in a roasting pan with a good fitting lid and put the entire pan in the fridge.
About one hour before dinner time, I put the lidded roasting pan with the turkey into the oven preheated to 350°F.
Just before closing the oven door, I basted it once again with some leftover maple barbecue mop sauce.
After about 45 minutes the turkey was up to 120°F internal temperature so I turned it down to 250°F where it stayed for another 30 minutes until we were ready to carve it.
It was a good eating temperature and was just as juicy as it ever was.
Can I make the turkey ahead of time?
Obviously, the best smoked turkey is going to be right out of the smoker the same day but if you have scheduling issues and must cook it ahead of time, you can certainly do that and it will still be the best turkey most folks have ever had.
Ideally, you can make it less than 2-3 days before you need it and you can leave it in the fridge and simply reheat it the way that I did in the previous question. If it will be more than 3 days, it must be placed in the freezer.
Thawing in the fridge is the best option and will take about 1 day for every 5 pounds of turkey.
Once the turkey is thawed, place it in a pan with a lid. Add about 1 cup of water to the bottom of the pan.
Make extra maple barbecue mop sauce and baste the turkey liberally just before heating it.
Preheat the oven to 350°F and place the pan of turkey, lid intact, into the oven for about 45 minutes to 1 hour or until it reaches a good eating temperature.
How much turkey do I need to smoke?
For the bone to meat ratio in smoking size turkeys around 12 lb, you should figure about 2 uncooked lbs per person which will give you a good size helping per person with a few leftovers.
For a 12 person thanksgiving dinner, I would make (2) 12 lb turkeys.