Last-minute Thanksgiving Turkey

    Smoked turkey is life!

As you’ve been browsing on social media, you’ve been seeing articles and posts from other people showing off their turkeys: talking about how excited they are for Thanksgiving, how they already bought their turkey, recipes they are trying, the intricate processes they plan on doing, etc. And then you find yourself thinking, “It’s the week of Thanksgiving and I still need to buy my turkey! It needs to be thawed out for days in advance! I’m not gonna make it in time! And I’ve got Christmas presents to buy! I need to find someone to spend Valentine’s Day with!” Well, stop sweating it because you’ve come to the right place. I’m going to guide you through this in a manner of minutes.

Thaw that turkey!

First things first: buy that turkey! Now! Turkeys come frozen at most grocery stores and they can take up to FIVE DAYS to thaw out in your fridge (depending on size of the bird).

Don’t have that kind of time? That’s right, you procrastinated. You’re not alone. Do what I do when in that situation and submerge the bird in cold water for 30 minutes per pound of turkey. For example, I recently thawed my 14 pound bird for seven hours and it was ready. Doesn’t that sound much better than two-to-three days for a bird of the same weight in the fridge?

For quicker thawing, make sure the turkey is submerged in cold water. Rotate as needed if bird isn’t completely submerged.

Just make sure the water is pretty cold and the turkey, still in its packaging, is completely submerged. The turkey has some buoyancy in the water, so if you can’t completely submerge it then it is okay to rotate it ever so often to ensure the whole bird gets thawed.

 

Turkey Tip: for faster thawing, submerge your packaged turkey in cold water for 30 minutes per pound.

 

Brine time

Once thawed, it is time to brine. Brining is the process in which you help meat become more juicy and flavorful by submerging it in a solution of water, kosher salt, and sugar. Some folks throw in more items to help add flavor to the meat, such as oranges, onions, bay leaves, etc. and there are plenty of brine recipes to be found here on the World Wide Web (that was originally lowercase, but autocorrect corrected me. Guess it must be capitalized).

I’ve heard folks say they brine between 24-48 hours in cold water. I do 12 hours (minimum) and have had no problems. The 12 hours go by much faster when you start the brine the afternoon/night before. That way, you can wake up, rinse off the turkey, and get to prepping.

Brine time!

 

Rubbin’ that bird

This next part is the least time consuming and will help with that flavor. I go simple and put butter and rub on the bird. My not so “secret” is to apply the butter and rub underneath the skin, that way the flavor is seeping into the meat itself, not just the layer of skin that may not get eaten in the first place.

I only apply to the turkey breast portion underneath the skin. The dark meat will keep juicy enough and will be more of a pain to get to. When done underneath the skin, put some butter and rub on top. While you are doing this, get your smoker up to temp and put your preferred flavor of wood in.

With the grill I smoke on, I prefer to smoke mine between 225-250F. I’ve seen others put in at 325F and that will be fine if you are in more of a rush. I like it a little lower and slower to help the meat absorb more of that pecan wood smoke flavor (NOTE: you don’t have to use pecan. It just happens to be my favorite wood right now. Go with whichever wood flavor you prefer).

Smoke times depend on the size of bird you will have on the grill. Rule of thumb is 20-30 minutes per pound of turkey (when smoked between 225-250F). So if you smoke a 14 lb bird, you’re looking at around seven hours. For example, I did a 14 lb bird recently and it took just over six. When smoking at 325F (more like roasting at that temp), it will take that same size bird just over two hours. Since this is a last-minute recipe, do what you gotta do.

Monitoring both meat and smoker temps from inside using my Thermoworks Smoke.

 

Checking temps

The best way to gauge the turkey temp is by placing your meat thermometer into the middle of the thickest part of the turkey breast, which is best to get to by sticking the probe into the top of the bird, about two inches away from the hole where the neck used to be. Look and feel for the thickest part and make sure you don’t hit the bone.

I love using the Smoke from Thermoworks to track temps in both the grill and the turkey. Using the wireless Bluetooth remote, I can watch the temps from inside and set alarms when temps get too high or too low. The USDA recommended finishing temp for a whole bird is 165F internal. The dark meat will cook about 10 degrees higher and that will be just fine. The dark meat doesn’t risk drying out as soon as the white.

This bird is about to be done! Right before I put butter on it and wrapped.

 

Make it extra tasty

Now that the bird is done cooking, I put the turkey in a giant foil pan and like to smear some butter on the skin then wrap with foil over the top. This way, the butter can melt all over the bird and give you both awesome color and flavor. Unwrap after about 15 minutes.

Turkey Tip: let the turkey rest for 30 minutes before carving.

 

Rest, then slice

Here comes the part that you should NOT skip (not that you should skip any of these steps, but this one is simple and can seem unworthy of your time): LET THE TURKEY REST! Let the turkey rest for 30 minutes before slicing. The most important reason is to let the juices build inside the meat to provide that tender, juicy flavor you so desire come to fruition. The meat is muscle and after being exposed to higher heat for so long, the muscles need to relax. This is where the juices start coming. You slice too soon and you have a good tasting turkey when you could’ve had a great one.

From thawing to finish, this bird turned out pretty good!

I hope your turkey is out of this world good for Thanksgiving! And make sure you find time to get a date for Valentine’s.


last-minute smoked turkey

Quick thaw: submerge frozen turkey in cold water, 30 minutes per pound of bird. Swap out water and/or add ice cubes as needed. Also rotate bird if you cannot completely submerge to ensure even thaw.

Brine: at least 12 hours (NOTE: you may need double or triple this brine recipe to completely submerge turkey, depending on how large of a container you brine in)

  • 1 gallon water
  • 1 cup kosher salt
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 Tablespoons rub
  • 1 Cup apple juice
  • 4 apples, sliced
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 clove garlic

Turkey prep: right before you put bird in the smoker (NOTE: if you haven’t already, now is a great time to get your smoker going)

  • 6 Tablespoons butter
  • 2 Tablespoons rub
  • Apply underneath skin on turkey breast, apply rest of mixture on top

Smoke:

  • 225-250F
  • pecan wood (or wood of your choice)
  • spritz with apple juice and/or apple cider vinegar as needed
  • 20-30 minutes per pound
  • finished when white meat hits 165F

Rest:

  • smear some more butter and rub on turkey, wrap in foil for 15 minutes
  • unwrap, let rest for 30 minutes before serving

 

What, Why, How: Spatchcock a bird

Spatchcocked birds cook faster!

When it comes to smoking a bird, you may of heard some people mention spatchcock. It’s a funny word for sure, but what is it exactly mean? Well, you’ve come to the right place. I’m going to explain the what, why, and how of spatchcocking.

What? Simply put, spatchcock is the method of flattening the bird by removing the backbone (some also remove the sternum).

Why? Flattening the bird helps it cook faster and for smoking reasons can help get that smoke flavor to the inside meat better.

How? To effectively remove the backbone of the bird, you’ll want to lay the bird chest side down (NOTE: make sure you have at least brined the bird before putting on the grill).

The bird is face down on the board (can it still be face down if it no longer has a face?).

Next, you’ll want to grab a chef’s knife or whichever knife you feel is sturdy enough to cut through bone (while I do own a Japanese-style Santoku knife, I refrain from using it to cut bone because the blade is so thin and this style has been known to chip when cutting harder objects). You will want to feel for the backbone by rubbing your fingers down the middle of the back and cut close to the left and right of the spine, respectively.

Using a sharp, sturdy knife (like this chef’s knife) sure is helpful.

If you’re having a hard time finding the spine, you can always look in the cavity of the bird to help guide you. Not only do you want a decent sharpness to the blade, but you’ll need to apply some pressure on the blunt part of the blade to help crack those bones so you can cut through completely (NOTE: if you’re like me and have a spouse who cringes at the sound of breaking bones of a dead bird, then you may want to give a warning. Not that I speak from experience or anything).

Spatchcocked and ready to flip over for smoking! Notice the backbone is removed.

Dispose of the backbone and you are now ready to prep your bird however you like and put on the smoker!

Spatchcocked bird getting some pecan smoke!

Smoked Turkey

Note: this smoke originally took place on 11/26/2015 

Smoked Turkeys.
Smoked Turkeys.

I’ve only been smoking for a few months, but foolishly decided to tell my mother-in-law that I will take on making the turkey for Thanksgiving this year. No pressure, just smoke something you’ve never tried for the main dish of the biggest meal of the year. A lot of people have turkey for Christmas as well, so this recipe isn’t just for one day a year. Here’s the recipe I used:

Meat: Two Turkeys  (8.5 lbs. and 14 lbs., respectively)

Brine: 3.5 gallons of water, 2 C kosher salt, 2 C sugar, 2 C apple juice, 1 Jonagold apple (sliced), 2 T rub, 1 T lemon juice; brined in cooler for 24 hours

Wood: Pecan, with a little apple mixed in

Smoke: 260° F for five hours, then had to put in oven at 325° F for 60-90 minutes to reach right internal temp of 165° F.

Since I had never made a turkey before, I learned some things in the prep that you all who are also new to this should know:

1: When shopping for a turkey, look for one with a label that says, “minimally processed” and/or “low solution added”. When talking about low solution, the rule of thumb that experts look for is 8% or less. You get a better quality turkey this way, which means better meat to flavor. If you can’t obtain one of these types of turkeys, it’s not the end of the world. I used one without these labels and it still tasted pretty dang good.

2: The turkey will come frozen from the store, unless you found a fresh one somehow. These things can take a couple of days to thaw out in the fridge (24 hours for each 4-5 lbs.) so be prepared. If you are impatient pressed for time like me, put it in a bucket or sink full of cold water breast side down. Average thawing time is 30 min. per lb. Note: make sure turkey is still in the package while doing this.

3: When opening the package, you may want to do so over a kitchen sink. That way, all the juices/solution/blood don’t end up all over your counter/floor/self.

4: There’s more to the turkey than meets the eye. It’s what’s on the inside. They shoved the turkey neck and a gravy packet up its butt, so you’ll need to get up in there and pull it out. Also, you will want to get into the north end and find the skin flap that opens to a cavity. Dig your hand in there and you’ll find a hidden packet full of giblets, which is a fancy way of saying liver, heart, and other “edible” innards. Don’t worry, you don’t need these and can throw the packet away. That is, unless, you desire these things. We don’t judge here on this website, so do your thing.

5: Brine the turkey, for goodness sake. I’m not fully sure why, but everywhere I’ve read online and folks I’ve talked to with experience say to do it.

A simple, effective brine is made up of 1 gallon of water, 1 cup of kosher salt, and 1 cup of sugar. In hopes to give it more of an apple flavor, I decided to improvise a little and added apple juice, a sliced Jonagold apple, some lemon juice, and some rub I planned on putting on the turkey afterward.

Brine ingredients (sans lemon juice)
Brine ingredients (sans lemon juice)

 Since I didn’t have room in my fridge, nor do I own a second one with extra space, I went the cooler route for the brining. This meant that I needed to add more water to make sure the birds were fully submerged, which also meant that I needed to add more of the ingredients. To keep the water temp cool, I threw in a bunch of ice cubes and put it outside in the cooler weather (which varied from low 40s to upper 20s over the course of 24 hours). The ice cubes stayed frozen and the water didn’t freeze, which I was happy about.

Time to brine.
Time to brine.

After taking the birds out of the brine, I patted them dry with a paper towel. I poured some olive oil on the turkeys and then generously applied Loot N’ Booty BBQ brand Gold Star Chicken Rub. I let them rest for around 30-45 minutes before putting them in the smoker.

Resting birds about 30-45 minutes before smoking.
Resting birds for 30-45 minutes before smoking.

You can tell it’s cold outside when the temperature gauge on the smoker has a little ice on it, even though it was under a tarp the night before.

Frosty smoker.
Frosty smoker.

After adding a bunch of coals, pecan wood, and apple wood, the smoker reached my desired temperature of 260° F and I placed the turkeys inside, breast side up, and left them untouched for the first two hours. Turkey, like most meats, can dry out during the smoking process. You will want to put a bowl of water inside the smoker to help retain the moisture inside the chamber (you will want to find a small, metal bowl that can withstand the higher temperatures). Since white meat can especially get dry, I put a mixture of apple juice and apple cider vinegar in a spray bottle and spray the birds about once an hour for the next three hours. Otherwise, you will want to keep the lid closed as much as possible.

After five hours, my turkeys hadn’t reached the desired internal temp of  165° F. In fact, they were down around 120° F. Most recipes I’ve seen show it to be almost done by this time. Maybe my temperature gauge on the smoker is lying to me, maybe it’s the 5,000 ft. elevation I’m at, or maybe a little of both. To get the turkeys to their necessary temperature quicker, I took them off the smoker, placed them in a foil pan, double wrapped with heavy duty aluminum foil, and put them in my oven at 325° F. This isn’t what I had originally planned, but desperate times call for desperate temperatures measures.

In the process of wrapping the poultry, I cut up a couple of pounds of butter and distributed one pound over each of the turkeys. I witnessed Aaron Franklin do this in a YouTube video and he explained that since turkey can be bland, adding butter helps keep it juicy and flavorful.

Butter, baby!
Butter, baby!
Now THAT is what I call a butter ball turkey!
Now THAT is what I call a butter ball turkey!
In baseball terms, my oven is "the closer" when it comes to finishing smoking some of the bigger meats. A Mariano Rivera, if you will.
In baseball terms, my oven is “the closer” when it comes to finishing smoking some of the bigger meats. A Mariano Rivera, if you will.

After spending just over an hour in the oven at 325° F, the birds finally reach the internal temperature of 165° F. I unwrapped it, let it rest for about 30 minutes, and then start carving away! I have come to learn that I love cutting the white meat way more than the dark meat. Dark meat has is very sinuous and full of bones and can be difficult to cut and pull the meat off of. Whereas the white meat cuts very well and you don’t have to worry about those extra surprises inside. I think I’d much rather eat the turkey legs and wings off the bone itself instead of having to carve them.

The turkeys were a huge hit and I received tons of compliments from the family members who showed up to devour it! Keep the leftovers (if any remain), because it also makes for a very good chicken noodle soup, substituting smoked turkey for the chicken, of course.

I am welcome to any questions or feedback you may have on this, so feel free to post something in the comments!