Let’s Talk Turkey

Hen and Tom Broad Breasted Bronze As with anything in cooking there are many ways to cook a turkey. It is only limited by your imagination. Beer can, the Louisiana Turducken, deep fried, you name it and someone has attempted it, some with better results then others. Simply put, I am from the midwest. When it comes to the holidays I want to know what I am getting into. On the holidays I don’t like change, I am good with tradition and see no need to break with it. I wasn’t always this conservative though. In my youth, I was all about change. I wanted to experiment. Even today I often search out new foods and recipes to cook, just not on the holidays. After years of trying different ways to cook my Thanksgiving birds I have distilled it down to two methods, yes I cook two birds (growing up we used to cook seven and that was only for dinner with my mom’s side of the family). Both involve salt, science and planning ahead. If you choose to use either of these two methods to cook your turkey make sure when purchasing your bird it is a 4 to 5% natural juices variety.  Anything over 5% has salt already added.  Natural is the key and Butterball has a good one as does Bell and Evans. Cook’s notes: I use to deep fry turkeys. One thing I always noticed, the leftover turkey wasn’t very good. I don’t know why or how to explain it but the leftovers sucked. I like leftover turkey so I quite deep frying. The other thing, the amount of oil needed and the equipment used is a real added expense. Oil alone is around $30-50 and unless you have the equipment you are gonna have to shell out possibly another $100. I can’t ask readers to make the investment. Smoking a bird elevates it to whole different levels, think smoked pheasant or soul food. All of the sudden you have a whole different set of sides to consider, a whole different taste palate to play with. I learned both methods of cooking my turkeys by reading, researching, and trial and error. I cook more then one turkey a year. I am one of those freaks that actually likes turkey. I enjoy roasting or smoking a bird in mid-July. I always have one in the freezer. I would feel naked without it. Broad Breasted Bronze Mesquite Smoked Turkey The first time I had smoked bird was also the first time I was away from home for the holidays. I was living in Austin, Texas and a fellow staff photographer asked me to join him and his family for dinner. Long story short, Texas tradition is a bit different then Indiana tradition, we had an exquisitely mesquite smoked turkey and of course we toted along a quart of Stubbs BBQ sauce, made by Stubbs himself at his restaurant. One of the key things about about smoking a bird is forming the pellicle. The pellicle drys the skin and allows the smoke to stick to the skin giving the turkey its tell tale mahogany color. No pellicle and the bird is likely to come from the smoker looking like someone puked on it. Beyond smoking a bird I have also taken to forming a pellicle on any poultry I am roasting. Drying the skin makes for an evenly crispy browned skin over the entire bird. Remember GBD, golden brown and delicious. a 10 to 12 pound turkey, thawed 8 oz. Morton kosher salt (1 cup but remember different salts weigh and taste differently, never brine with table salt) 4 oz. sugar 2 tablespoons rubbed sage 2 gallons of water special equipment: a non-reactive container large enough to snuggly, but not tight, hold the turkey or a leak proof plastic brine bag large enough to hold the bird and the brine. 1. Place a 3 1/2 quart pot filled with 2 quarts of water, the salt, and sugar and bring it to a boil over high heat. 2. Once the salt and sugar have dissolved turn off the heat and set the pot aside. 3. In a saute pan toast the sage until fragrant. 4. Combine the 2 quarts of water, the sage, and the remaining six quarts of water.  Place the turkey into a container large enough to hold it comfortably but snug. This step is important. To big a space and you won’t have enough brine, to small and it will be overflowing. Also don’t pour in the liquid and then add the bird. Have you ever looked at how much the bathtub water rises when you get in. Same thing happens with the turkey. 5. Keep the turkey submerged by putting and old plate on top of it to weigh it down. Place the whole thing into the refrigerator. Brine the bird for at least 8 hours, preferably 24. 6. Remove the turkey from the brine. Set in on a rack, then onto a sheet tray. Form the pellicle by letting the turkey sit overnight, uncovered in the fridge. 7. Set up your smoker. Bring it to 325 degrees. Hot smoke the turkey using mesquite wood for 2 1/2 to 3 hours or until a thermometer stuck into the thigh but not against the bone reads 155. Remove the turkey from the smoker, bring it inside to a counter, and let it rest lightly covered with foil for 20 minutes. The rest will allow the temperature to rise to 165 degrees. 8. Carve and serve. Dry Brined Roast Turkey For years I have salted my steaks the day before I want to cook them. I learned this technique from the Zuni Cafe cookbook. It does wonders. I never put two and two together though and I never did this with any other animal protein. Russ Parsons, a much smarter man then I, apparently did. He applied Judy Rodgers method to turkey and it works wonderfully. This is my adaptation of Russ’s recipe. a 15 pound turkey kosher salt poultry seasoning 1. For every 5 pounds of bird measure out 1 tablespoon of salt. (I almost always cook an 18 pound bird so I use 3 1/2 tablespoons.) 2. I like poultry seasoning, the nutmeg just does it for me but feel free to use rosemary or sage or whatever you fancy. I add a tablespoon of poultry seasoning to the salt. Stir to combine. 3. Place the turkey into a large food grade plastic bag. Sprinkle 1/2 tablespoon of the herb salt mixture into the cavity. Rub the rest of the mix over the entire bird. 4. Place the bird onto a sheet tray and place it into the fridge breast side down. The next day turn the bird over. Do the same the next. You will, possibly but not always, see a lot of blood in the bag.  Don’t fret it is okay. 5. On the third day, remove the bird from the bag, place the bird breast side up and put it back into the fridge to air dry. The air dry will give you a nice evenly browned crispy skin so don’t skip this step. 6. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Roast the turkey for 3 to 3 1/2 hours or until a thermometer stuck into the thigh reads 155 degrees. Remove the bird from the oven, cover it lightly with foil and let the carry over heat finish cooking it to 165 degrees. Carve and serve.

7 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Turkey

  1. I wish I read this prior to now! We always fry a turkey. Our families love it and my husband is the only one with the know how to do it correctly. We prefer peanut oil and it’s become such an expense to do this each year, I’ve thought about doing something different. I don’t know why it never dawned on me to smoke the bird! We have a huge smoker. I can’t wait to try this next year.

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  2. I dry brined my bird and it was amazing! I will most likely have a smoked turkey on Thanksgiving with my in-laws, and I’m sure it will be delicious. I’m a true traditionalist at holiday time but like to change a few things up sometimes just to keep things interesting.

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  3. Smoking is our favorite in my household! I cut off a leg before smoking and use it to make turkey stock and eventually gravy. We also love to smoke salmon and cheese 🙂 Great post! Happy Turkey Day!!

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  4. I’ve been brining my turkey every year now for the last 5 years and I absolutely love it. And lol at making Turkey mid-July! That’s something I do too. I guess we can be turkey freaks together. Thanks for such a great post. I might try the smoking method in the summer next year 😉

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  5. I went to the Butterball site to look for their ‘natural’ turkeys. In one place they say ALL their turkeys (and turkey products) are ‘natural’. In another place it says that the frozen Butterball turkeys are pre-brined. I’m afraid to add the dry brine to a pre-brined bird. What do you say?

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    1. No need to brine a pre-brined bird. Thaw it, rub it with sage or another herb mixture of your liking, and then let it air dry in the fridge per the recipe directions. You may ask why brine it then. Well, I think brining it at home makes for a less salty bird plus you get to choose the herbs and spices you prefer.

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