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Smoked Cranberry Brined Turkey

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I have added a wonderfully tasty twist to the smoked turkey this year and, as always, it is best when done exactly the way the recipe is written and you need not worry as I have put in a number of hours to test this to make sure that it works.

Now with Thanksgiving looming upon us and many of you dying to do a test run before the big day, let's get started with the main attraction!

First things first

The first thing that you must do in preparing for this recipe is to find a good turkey. I cannot recommend enough the use of a fresh, minimally processed bird with no solution added. Sometimes these are hard to find but so worth the trouble to search one down. Perhaps the yellow pages could be your friend in this endeavor.

For one of my test turkeys, I used a pre-frozen turkey with 8% solution as a worse case scenario. I have to make sure that this recipe is great even in a less than perfect turkey.

The size of turkey you purchase is up to you and based on how many folks you will need to feed. Just keep in mind that turkeys will generally feed ~1 person for every 2 lbs of raw weight. This math will leave a few leftovers at my house and that's exactly what we want.

In essence, a 12 pound bird will feed ~6 people so purchase accordingly.

If you need more than 12 lbs of turkey, it is best to cook two turkeys instead of just getting a larger bird.

Brining the Turkey

AS the name implies, we are going to brine the turkey this year with cranberry juice. Not water with a little cranberry juice in it but with straight cranberry juice. Well I say cranberry juice, the pure stuff is hard to find and most bottles marked as cranberry juice 100% juice is usually part cranberry, part apple, part grape, etc..

I opted to use the cranberry-pomegranate mixture by Ocean Spray with no sugar added. The cranberry-pomegranate juice was very cranberryish with a lot of tang which is what you would expect and I was hoping above hope that the flavor would show up in the end result.

Why cranberry juice? it just came to me in a moment of great illumination really;-) Cranberry and turkey just go together so why not?

Place the turkey in a food safe container large enough to hold the size of turkey that you purchased and make the brine below:

  • 4 64-oz bottles of Cranberry-Pomegranate juice (Ocean Spray brand)
  • 2 cups of kosher salt

Mix the brine a gallon at a time (2 bottles + 1 cup of kosher salt) if necessary and pour it over the turkey until the bird is completely submerged.

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I was fortunate to find a small 9 lb bird and it fit into a 2-1/2 gallon zip-loc bag for brining.

Once the brine is covering the bird, place the bird in the fridge for 8-10 hours or overnight.

What if you don't have room in the fridge?

Great question! You can, in a pinch, place the turkey in an ice chest with a tight fitting lid, make enough brine to cover the bird, throw in about 8-10 lbs of ice and close the lid. If you keep the lid closed securely, it should stay cold enough all night. I do recommend that you drop a digital probe meat thermometer in the water to monitor the temperature and make sure that it stays below 39 degrees for safety purposes.

Won't the ice dillute the brine?

Yes, just a little but while I could get scientific about it and add more salt to compensate, I never do and it always comes out great. “If it's not broke then don't fix it” is the motto I use with that.

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Adding some Flavor

When the brining process is complete, rinse the bird really well under cold water to remove any excess salt on the surface of the meat. Try not to laugh when you realize that the cranberry juice has turned the bird completely pink.

If the bird is 10 lbs or less, Place it in a 2-1/2 gallon zip-loc bag and pour about 1/4 cup of vegetable or canola oil over the turkey then about 1/2 cup of my original rub

Close the bag and shake or roll it around to complete coat the turkey with the oil and rub mixture. This allows the rub to get all over the outside of the meat as well as up under the skin and creates some really tasty eating for later.

If your bird is larger than 10 lbs then it may not fit into the zip-loc bag. NO problem, just brush the oil onto the bird then apply the rub by hand making sure to get the spices up under the skin wherever possible.

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Preparing the Smoker

You will want to maintain your smoker at around 225-240 degrees for the entire time. If you are using a gas, electric or charcoal smoker, make sure to have enough smoking wood to last about half of your estimated cook time. I recommend using a mix of pecan and cherry but you will do well with almost any of your favorite smoking woods.

Smoking the Turkey

Once the smoker is maintaining your goal temperature, place the bird breast side up directly on the grate of the smoker and quickly close the lid or shut the door.

Keep adding smoking wood as required to keep the thin blue smoke coming out of the smoker for at least half of your estimated cook time. Note: it is perfectly fine to smoke for the entire time it is cooking as long as you have ample airflow into and out of the smoker.

For good smoking action, I recommend about 4-6 fist sized chunks at a time. Once the smoke slows to a stop, add another batch of 4-6 fist sized chunks to keep the smoke going. This is true for most mild to medium flavored smoking woods. If you want to use mesquite, use a little less than you would other woods as you it will produce an equally delicious but stronger flavor than other woods.

When is the Turkey Done Cooking?

We like to estimate the time that is required however, it is not time that tells us when the turkey is done, but rather temperature. Use a digital probe meat thermometer to monitor the temperature of the turkey while it is in the smoker. Once the turkey reaches 161 degrees in the thickest part of the breast, remove the bird from the smoker.

The temperature will continue to rise for several degrees even after it is removed from the smoker to get you up to the recommended 165 degrees F for poultry.

Estimating Your Cook Time

You can usually get real close by figuring on about 30-40 minutes per pound depending on how you hold your heat. A 12 pound bird can be expected to take around 7 hours while my 8 lb bird took just shy of 5-½ hours.

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Super Tenderizing the Turkey

Once the bird is out of the smoker and you have time, consider wrapping it in foil and allowing it to sit untouched for about 30-60 minutes. During this time the turkey will maintain temperature and will tenderize for melt in your mouth goodness. This step is not a necessity but well worth the time required.

Resting the Turkey

Once the turkey has sat wrapped in foil for the allotted time, remove the foil and let it rest for about 15 minutes before carving.

If you must skip the wrapping in foil step due to time constraints then go straight into the 15 minute resting period once it is removed from the smoke and before you carve it up.

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  1. I smoked a 6.5 lb turkey breast, brined, overnight in cranberry, rubbed on some olive oil and applied the Original Rub. After brining, I injected some apple juice. It took 5 1/2 hours at 230F, and I used Lumber Jack Charred hickory pellets. The result was a very tasty and moist breast. The only thing that was surprising was the skin. It was leathery and not palatable. Any idea how this happened?

  2. Followed your recipe with Mesquite wood. Everyone loved the moist and tender meat. It was so tender you could cut the meat with a fork. Only thing that happen, is after pulling turkey out of smoker, the meat temperature do not increase but dropped. Covered turkey with aluminum foil for 1 hour. Inner meat temperature went from 161 to 157.

  3. Did everything you said. But we cooked the turkey (20 pounds!!!) over night at 135F for about 12 hours and the then another 2 hours at 350 until internally it was 160F.

    Took it and it really tasted awful and ‘rotten’. I wonder is it because we soaked it overnight outside the fridge?

    I did add some ice to the brine but obviously by the morning it was melted.

  4. We cooked our turkey this year using this recipe. the only thing we did different was cooking it at a higher temperature, 300º+ instead of the recommended 225º to 250º. This was the best turkey I ever eaten! Juicy, tender and very flavorful.
    Thanks Jeff for the great recipe.

  5. any thoughts on this idea, I am doing a cranberry brine on my turkey for the smoker….However I intend to use your rum and maple inject together prior to going onto the smoker and will be using a combo of cherry and pecan woods. Any input is appreiciated I've scoured the net for info of anyone who may have combined the rum and maple for a turkey but no luck…