Thanksgiving’s always been my favorite holiday, when the foci are food, football, family, and friends. Because of some good planning, some years I get to celebrate Thanksgiving multiple times, as is the case this year. Sunday would be the first for the season – a Fakesgiving, as it were, joined by some of our best friends (and some of the best cooks we know.) I give you a story rife with challenges, but long on success.
Not one to shy away from cooking challenges, I took it upon myself, as one of the hosts for this year’s Fakesgiving, to my first whole turkey. No practice run. No nets. Do or die. Obviously, I would smoke it. As I am oft to do, I consulted by main smoking resources – Charcuterie and the Virtual Weber Bullet for the best approach. After some runs around town – including a short-term relationship with a cheap-o self-basting bird from the local Giant, I ended up with fresh, free range turkey from the local Whole Foods.
Next up was putting this bird in a salty brine. After struggling to fit this 15 pounder into a 2 ½ gallon Ziploc, there was only one remaining option for vessels large enough to hold the bird. So, it was into the cooler with 2 gallons of brine and 8 pounds (equal to another gallon of water.) The brine was pretty much as Ruhlman prescribed, except I tuned down the salt since most of the other brine recipes I read had about ⅓ less salt than his. And so she sat in the basement, in water and ice for about 30 hours, from Friday night to Saturday night.
One more important lesson to learn. Trying to find charcoal when it’s not summer is a challenge. Sure, you could be 4 pound bag of lighter fluid injected briquettes for 10 bucks, but I was not going to settle. After visiting 4 or 5 different supermarkets, I ended up driving to my nearest Lowe’s where they had a near endless supply of 16 pounds of the old standby, Kingsford, for 8 dollars a bag. I got two, just in case the smoking itch arose during the dead of winter.
Sunday morning, I fired up the bullet and took it to places I never took it before. Usually, “smoking” (or barbecue) happens around 200°-250° Fahrenheit. All recipes I looked out suggested getting your smoker up to the 325°-350° range. Sounds simple enough, but it turned out not to be. The first difference was to not put water in the water pan (water in the pan helps hold the lower temperature.) Instead I lined the empty pan with foil (which would then catch any drippings that would go into the gravy.) The rest of the next 2 or so hours was spent regulating temperature. And it wasn’t easy to keep that thing so hot. I was seemingly constantly feeding it with fresh briquettes, wood (cherry, maple, and pecan), and opening vents to get it hot enough. I actually never it got it to hold at 350°. It spent most of the time closer to 300°. I was nervous this would dry out the bird (lower temp, meaning longer cooking time) but hopefully the brine would save me. After about 2 hours, I decided to check it’s internal temperatures for the first time. And wouldn’t you know it? It was only about 10 degrees from done. In the next 30 minutes, it coasted right up to 160° in the breast, 175° in the thigh.
When I pulled it out, it was a thing of beauty. Just perfect looking. It took maybe an hour for me to give in and say, “F’ it, I’m carving this up,” using the excuse that it would heat up more easily for our guests, if I cut it up beforehand. And, you know what? I nailed it. This turkey was seasoned, cooked, and tasted just perfect. Tasty, smokey, and moist. Despite the uphill battle, in the end, it all seemed so easy and so rewarding.
The rest of the items I prepared for the meal were cider vinegar braised mustard greens with speck and prosciutto (recipe below,) smoked almonds (that had to be enriched with some smoked salt to actually get any smoke flavor in them), and smoke-roasted potatoes (that kind of just tasted like potatoes from a campfire.) Lastly, was the gravy.
The gravy started a couple days earlier when I made a makeshift stock comprised of the neck and butt of the turkey and some vegetable scraps (leeks, carrots, and parsnips) from the bag of scraps in the freezer for just this purpose. Again, with some help from Ruhlman, I started with a roux of some of the turkey fat from the stock, some butter, some onion, and 5 tablespoons of flour. Then whisked in a quart of my stock and added a handful of quartered mushrooms. When the turkey was done, I poured some of the drippings from the smoker, and the gravy was complete.
As expected, our dinner guests rounded out the rest of the meal just as boldly as I had. Our table literally could not accommodate everything we had, which meant the coffee table had to double as a buffet station for the things that wouldn’t fit. A killer Thai-influenced sweet potato soup, a from-scratch green bean casserole, buttery and cheesy mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts with grapes, sausage prune and kale stuffing, pumpkin cheesecake, pecan pie, and pumpkin chocolate chip cookies.
And because I waited too long to find a cheap plane ticket to see my family, I’ll find solace in the leftovers that crowd the fridge and will feed me for at least the next week.
In addition to all of the leftovers, I’ve also now got a large ziploc (yes, the same bags the whole bird wouldn’t fit in) full of bones and assorted scraps – the makings of what I can only imagine will be some amazing smoked turkey stock.
A couple of basic recipes, so you can try to throw some of this together for your Thanksgiving. Enjoy.
Basic Smoked Turkey
(lovingly adapted from Ruhlman’s Charcuterie)
2 gallons water
3 cups kosher salt
3 oz pink salt (curing salt with nitrite)
¾ cup sugar
5-10 garlic cloves
2-3 bay leaves
4 tbsp black peppercorns
large handful of assorted herbs (I used tarragon, thyme, and rosemary)
1 gallon (about 8#) ice
- Combine first 8 ingredients in a large pot and heat until sugar and salt are dissolved. Let chill overnight.
- Put turkey in a cooler and pour over the brine and add the ice. Let the turkey soak in the brine for 24-48 hours. (If you’ve got another large vessel and space in the refrigerator, feel free to replace the 1 gallon of ice with water and you can brine in the fridge.)
- Remove turkey from brine and leave uncovered in the refrigerator for 6-12 hours.
- Remove turkey from refrigerator and bring to room temperature.
- Get your smoker up to 350°
- Smoke / roast for 2-3 hours until internal temperature of the breast hits 160° and the thigh 175°
- Let rest for at least 30 minutes before carving.
Cider vinegar braised mustard greens
2-3 oz of smoked or cured pork product, diced (prosciutto, speck, bacon all work)
3-5 cloves of garlic
½ tsp red pepper flakes
1 large bunch of mustard greens, chopped (substitute kale or collards)
¼ c. cider vinegar
¼ c. water
- In a large pot on medium low, render the pork (about 8-10 minutes)
- Add the garlic and red pepper and saute for about a minute
- Add the greens, vinegar, and water.
- Cover the pot and braised the greens until they tender (about 45-60 minutes)