It wasn’t until recently that I was able to embrace the American Thanksgiving tradition, partly because I grew up in South America and then Canada later on in my teens. But, I’ve now been in the States long enough that my appreciation for the holiday traditions is maturing and to be honest I’m starting to really enjoy it.
Being an immigrant myself, I am fond of stories written about the first pilgrims at Plymouth (or the Spaniards & the Timucua Indians depending on who you ask) and good harvest celebrations that took place. In particular, what I connect with is the notion of strangers in a new land, bringing with them sacred feasting traditions related to the annual harvest and sharing the bounty amongst friends, family and strangers alike.
Zara and I hosted our second Thanksgiving dinner this year, chock full of laughter, football and of course a few mishaps such as spilled wine, forgetting to add the turkey stock to the prized oyster-cornbread stuffing and a guest’s jacket literally going up in flames (long story involving a lit candle), but that all comes with the territory — we’ll just call it part of the tradition. Yet I wouldn’t have had it any differently because it was a damned great group of people.
This year I decided to smoke a turkey quite simply because I’ve never done it before, additionally it would free up the oven for Zara to take care of most of the side dishes and since I’ve got a smoker, why not put it to good use. The result was a really delicious and intensely flavorful, juicy bird and a side of decadent smoked gravy (using the smoke-infused drippings produced in the process).
I’ll be breaking down the entire process below, which was somewhat lengthy, but not cumbersome by any means. With that said, whichever way you decide to prepare your turkey, remember to not overcomplicate it. The key is to choose the right elements that will compliment the intensity of the smoke.
Two nights before
I chose to break up the preparation of the brine over two nights. First, by simmering the liquids and vegetables to release their aromas and to help fully dissolve the salt, honey and sugar. It is very important to let the mixture cool down completely otherwise the brine will cook the bird. Following this step, place the brine in the fridge after cooling for a while. If you are not simmering the ingredients you can also prepare your brine early on the day of or one day before your feast (depending on how long you’ll brine the turkey for), just bear in mind that the salt and sugars might not fully dissolve.
- 2 gallons of water
- 1 cup of kosher salt – as it has less salt content than table or sea salt. I used less salt than the water to salt ratio requires as I also covered the outside with a rub right before going in the smoker
- ½ cup of brown sugar
- ½ cup of wildflower or regular honey
- Mirepoix: 3 celery stacks, 2 large carrots and 2 small onions
- 1 diced leek
- 4 bay leaves
- 2 tbsp of green or black peppercorns
- 4 thyme sprigs
- 1 tbsp allspice (optional) – ground powder or whole berries
The same night after removing the plastic from around the turkey, rinsing and patting it dry, I proceeded by rubbing the inside cavity with a dry mixture of regular and smoked paprika, powdered garlic, ground thyme and sage, onion powder, kosher salt and ground white pepper:
I stuffed it with aromatics (thyme, rosemary and romana from our garden), sealed the bird inside a large ziploc bag and let it rest overnight in the fridge. This is so the turkey could sweat inside the bag while permeating the meat with flavor from the center out.
Of note: The rub is entirely optional, but it certainly did not hurt one bit.
Romana: If you can imagine a hybrid between oregano and mint, this is what romana smells and tastes like.
One night before
The following night I fully rinsed out the inside cavity and placed the turkey with the brine inside a new ziploc bag before sticking it back in the fridge through the next morning. The turkey was brined for about 16 hours, give or take.
I’ve seen recipes with malt beer instead of water and malt syrup or molasses in lieu of the honey. Some people swear that the brine is not necessary, but I personally like the moisture and hints of flavor it adds to the meat. As with most tests, you’ll need to try it with and without brine to gauge for yourself.
Tip: As an alternative to the brine, you could inject the meat with butter or even whiskey for a drunken turkey. This helps in providing moisture while smoking. I’ve also heard of people placing ice bags solely on the breast before cooking it to drop its temperature as it is the fastest area to cook.
After emptying out the brine and patting the inside and outside of the turkey dry with paper towels, I rubbed it with the same dry mixture of spices mentioned above and let it sit inside the fridge for about two hours. Finally, I wrapped up some mirepoix and aromatics in cheesecloth and placed it inside the turkey. This same preparation can be followed if roasting in the oven.
Tip: Using a cheesecloth wrapping allows for easy removal once the turkey is done.
The minion method
Experienced smokers stand by the minion method; the idea is to allow for the unlit lump coals or briquettes to slowly fire up from the inside out. To do this, add about the same quantity of unlit lump coals in the form of a ring, leave space for the rest of the lit coals and once they’ve started to turn gray, carefully drop them inside the ring.
Right before firing up the coals, I soaked some applewood chips in water for about 20 minutes, I drained them thoroughly and tossed about 2 fistfuls on top of the coals right before closing the lid.
Tip: Soaking chips in water allows for a slower burn rate and thus incrementally releasing their fragrance without catching on fire right away.
Preparing the smoker
About 30 minutes prior to adding the turkey in the smoker, once the coals were ready and the water bath was in, I closed the lid, fully opened the valves and let the temperature climb to a steady 250°F degrees for a slow and steady smoke.
To moisten the bird while maintaining a low and even temperature, I included a water bath comprised of 2 parts water to 1 part red wine, but if you are placing some mirepoix, bay leaf and crushed garlic as in my case, make sure to fill up the bowl almost to the top as most of the water will evaporate. Adding the vegetables in the bath is entirely optional as all you really need is some liquid to help retain a leveled temperature.
After placing the turkey on the rack, I dabbed it with some leftover condensed clarified roasted garlic butter which I recently prepared at a friend’s crab dinner.
After closing the lid and sliding a digital thermometer inside the breast, I closed the valves half way and maintained a steady 250°F for the next 4+ hours before the fowl was ready to pull out. At this point you want an even cook so I only dabbed it with butter once again about 2 hours in to avoid the temperature from dropping.
Remember, if you are looking, you are not cooking. Lifting the lid while smoking will cause the temperature to go down.
After the smoke
Once the turkey breast has hit 160°F, pull it out of the smoker, close all the valves entirely (which will slowly extinguish the coals) and let the turkey stand for about 20-30 minutes before carving. Given that the interior temperature will continue to rise slowly by about 5 more degrees once it’s out of the smoker, you can pull it out before it reaches the perfect reading. As with any fowl I roast or smoke, I let it sit with its back facing the ceiling to allow gravity to rush the juices towards the breast.
Manually checking temperature about 3.5 hours in
The end result was phenomenal and intensified with a rich smokey flavor. Aside from the gravy, the side dishes included a bourbon caramel and orange peel infused cranberry sauce, pancetta-flavored green beans, chard and potato blitva (instead of mash potatoes), sweet and savory roasted carrots, oyster and chorizo stuffing, her mom’s famous pop overs, salad and home-made pumpkin pie.
What is thanksgiving without a truckload of leftovers. The following day, after carving out the remaining meat from the turkey carcass, I saved the bones for a future stock. Zara whipped up a fantastic sandwich that was so delicious, I couldn’t help but share it here:
Pumpernickel smoked turkey sandwich
Simply whisk up an aioli with a few dashes of lemon juice and curry powder to taste and drizzle on top of the smoked turkey meat and lettuce. You can use a crunchy butter lettuce or frisée for added texture.
Smoked turkey pot pie
And if I wasn’t fortunate enough, the following evening she made a pot pie with the smokey gravy, chopped up turkey meat, carrots and peas.