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.
What size of turkey you purchase is up to you and based on how many folks you will need to feed. Turkeys will usually feed 1 person per raw pound. i.e. a 12 pound bird will feed 12 people so purchase accordingly. I do recommend buying 2 smaller birds rather than 1 large bird if you are feeding more than 12 people.
Once you have the turkey in hand..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 5-1/2 hours
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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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.