As I’ve mentioned here many times before, my mom does Thanksgiving, and she doesn’t really like much help except when it comes to the dishes. This is great with me (and the rest of the family) because everything tastes so delicious and exactly as we remember it from years past. At our first married Thanksgiving (nine years ago now), my parents and sister had been in a head-on collision just days before Thanksgiving, so I insisted on hosting Thanksgiving at our house. We invited Grant’s parents and sister over too, and Grant and I worked all morning getting everything just right. I wasn’t too worried about the turkey because I knew my mom, even with a broken leg, hand, and some broken ribs, would be on hand to tell me what to do. I did not factor in the intensity of her pain killers, however, because she, along with my dad and sister who were in equally bad shape, were pretty much stuck on the couch all afternoon. So you know where this going, right?
I took the turkey out of the oven when the temperature in the thigh meat read 180° F, just as mom instructed. I let the turkey rest for a half hour or so while I wrapped up the last minute sides, then Grant started carving the turkey. And it was bright pink inside. Grant said it looked like turkey sashimi, which I did not find funny at all. I was just beginning to get into cooking and food back then, so I didn’t have much experience with the meat thermometer in general. I must have kept the thermometer too close to the bone, so that it was reading the higher temperature of the bone versus the thigh meat. Mom immediately knew what I had done, so we popped the turkey back in the oven. We went ahead and ate all of the sides and dessert before the turkey was done, by which time everyone was too full to actually eat any.
And that was the last time I did turkey.
I sometimes host Grant’s family, and we have had small group Thanksgiving here for at least five years, but I would always do a few chickens instead of a turkey, which is quite sad – and embarrassing actually – because my mom and her sisters grew up on a turkey farm. Some of my best memories of Thanksgivings as a child were helping out my grandparents at the farm those busy few days before Thanksgiving when everyone in town would come pick up their turkeys at my grandparent’s farm. So I decided that this year, it was time to try turkey again on our own.
Our friends were selling happy turkeys to raise funds for their adoption, so we bought a few turkeys from them. I bought one for my mom to use too, and they were both around fourteen pounds. Grant really wanted to smoke the turkey on our Vision Grill (a Big Green Egg knock-off). I really liked that idea because we only have one oven, so space gets a little tight for big dinners like this. We did some research, got a few pep talks from my mom, and actually pulled it off. It was delicious and a big hit with everybody (even the vegetarian said it was the prettiest turkey she had ever seen, which I feel like is a badge of honor!).
My mom is a turkey expert. She and her sisters have probably eaten more turkey in their childhoods than most of us eat in an entire lifetime. She has always been in the anti-brining camp. She thinks brining takes away so much of the turkey flavor. She is also a minimalist when it comes to turkey – the less fussy the method, the better. I did some digging around because my experience with brining hasn’t been as amazing as many make it out to be, but I keep reading about and hearing from friends about how wonderful it is that I thought maybe I was missing something. In my research, I came across this fairly exhaustive study on brining. The author tests just about every method out there when it comes to brining and concludes that,
brining robs your bird of flavor. Think about it: your turkey is absorbing water and holding on to it. That means that that extra 30 to 40% savings in moisture loss is not really turkey juices—it’s plain old tap water. Many folks who eat brined birds have that very complaint: It’s juicy, but the juice is watery…I don’t brine my birds because I like my birds to taste like birds, not like watered-down birds. Salting your meat is nearly as effective at preventing moisture loss, and the flavor gains are noticeable.
I sent it to my mom, and she said, “exactly!” (with maybe a hint of “I told you so!” in there as well). After reading many more posts and forums, we decided we were ready to try smoking the bird with a dry brine versus a wet one.
The turkey already!
1-1.5 tbsp of kosher salt per five pounds of turkey (I rounded up and used 3 tbsp for our nearly 14 pound bird, and I think I would even use a bit more next time)
Herbs of your choice (I used rosemary and lemon zest this time around*)
Fresh ground pepper (1-2 tbsp)
Unsalted butter (one stick or more, depending on size of your bird)
- At least 24-hours before you’re ready to smoke the turkey, put the salt, herbs, and pepper in a small bowl and combine thoroughly. Sprinkle the salt mixture liberally on the turkey – making sure that the turkey is completely covered, even the insides too. I read somewhere that you want your bird to look like it was out after a frost – dusted all over with white. Put the turkey in a pan in the fridge until about an hour or two before it’s time to put it on the grill. You can brine it up to three days in advance. Ours was too frozen at three days out, so I only had time to give it 24-hours dry brined in the fridge.
- When you’re about an hour or two from starting the grill, set out the turkey. You want to try to get it back to room temperature.
- Get your grill up to about 350° F. Once it reaches your desired temperature, put some water, wine, beer, or cider in your drip pan (I just made my own out of a disposable aluminum pan – we used it all summer). We used apple cider in the drip pan, but even plain water will do – it keeps the turkey drippings from burning (and allows you to save them for your gravy), and it imparts a bit more moisture to the grill. If you’re using any flavored smoke chips, add them now. We used pecan this time around.
- Set the bird breast-side up over the drip pan. Add about two tablespoons of butter into the cavity of the turkey. Insert a thermometer (we have one like this that we couldn’t grill without) into the thickest part of the thigh. Insert it until you hit the bone, and then pull it back towards you about an inch or more. If you only remember one thing from this post, remember that part!
- Check the turkey every 30 minutes or so. Baste the turkey every 30 minutes with the remaining butter – I just keep the butter in its wrapper and rub the butter all over the parts of the turkey that I can reach. After about an hour, the wing and leg tips might be getting a little crispy – just wrap some aluminum foil on them so the meat continues to cook evenly but the skin. Make sure the grill is maintaining about 350° F, adding more charcoal when necessary.
- Pull out the turkey when the meat thermometer reads 165° F. Ours took about three hours, maybe a bit less. Remove it from the grill and let it rest on a large serving platter (so you’re sure to catch all of those tasty juices) for at least 30 minutes, up to an hour depending on your schedule.
- Carve the turkey and enjoy! Use the juices to caste the carved turkey or dump it into your gravy.
*Other herb combination ideas: bay leaf and thyme, sage and orange zest, parsley and lemon zest.