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Thanksgiving is far and away my favorite holiday, but this year marks a new twist in the family fun: It's the first Thanksgiving that my wife, Adri, and I are hosting, and the first Thanksgiving that my family is celebrating away from the East Coast. That's right: The Alts are coming to California, and we'd better make it extra special for them.
I've been trying to figure out exactly what we're going to do with the turkey this year. With much better access to outdoor space than in my mom's New York apartment and its 40-square-foot kitchen, I figured something that took advantage of the yard would be in order. Rather than make my traditional spatchcocked roast turkey, this year we're going to deep-fry at least one and slow-smoke another. Turkey and smoke are a natural pairing, as anyone who's looked at a deli case can tell you, but there's a difference between cold-cut smoked turkey, with its ham-like cured texture and questionable smoke flavor, and real barbecued turkey. I'm talking the kind of smoked turkey you want served in thick, glistening slabs that are shiny with juice and fork-tender, with deep smoke flavor.
I already had a basic idea in my head of how I was going to smoke the turkey (low and slow, indirect heat, a dry brine and spice rub to start), but I decided to take a look at our own published technique for pointers. Then I had a frightening realization: In all the years we've been writing about Thanksgiving turkey, despite all the recipes for grill-roasted turkeys cooked over relatively high heat, not once have we offered complete instructions for true low-and-slow, barbecue-style smoked turkey.
So I did the only sensible thing: I brought home four turkeys and started testing, modifying our existing grilled spatchcocked turkey technique to work with lower heat, more smoke, and a spice rub to bring out more of those barbecue flavors.
Oftentimes a Food Lab recipe will take dozens of tests and weeks of experiments to really nail, but this one turned out to be pretty straightforward, requiring only two solid days of smoking.* There are actually just five keys to perfect smoked turkey:
- Butterflying or spatchcocking the bird to help it cook more evenly and develop crisper skin.
- Dry-brining the bird by rubbing it with salt (or a spice rub that includes salt) and letting it sit in the fridge for a few nights in order to allow the salt to work its way into the meat and loosen up its muscle structure, thus keeping it juicy as it cooks.
- Adding baking powder to the dry rub, which causes it to form tiny micro-bubbles on the surface of the turkey as it roasts, adding surface area and enhancing the crispness of the skin. It also slightly raises the pH of the surface, enhancing Maillard browning.
- Slow-cooking over indirect heat, with the legs pointed toward the heat source (legs can handle higher heat than delicate breast meat can), in order to very gently and evenly cook the breast meat and give ample time for the turkey to build up smoky flavor.
- Carefully monitoring the turkey's internal temperature to ensure that the breast meat never gets above 150°F. Any higher than that, and it becomes chalky and dry. (Despite government warnings to cook turkey to 165°F, turkey is perfectly safe to eat at 150°F so long as it is properly checked with a thermometer and allowed to rest for at least four minutes before serving.)
* My wife made me take my clothes off outside so that our bedroom wouldn't smell like hickory. We'll see if she gets any food on Thanksgiving.
Smoked Turkey FAQs
Should I brine my bird?
You could brine your bird, and it certainly will make your bird juicier, but it won't do anything in the flavor department. In fact, it'll dilute the flavor of your turkey. Instead of a traditional wet brine, I recommend dry-brining. It's easier, nearly as effective at helping maintain juiciness, and far better for flavor. To do it, just rub your turkey with salt and let it sit in the fridge overnight (or up to three days). That's it. In the case of a smoked turkey, I like to rub it with a spice rub that contains salt, which will work just as effectively while also adding spice flavor. Here's some more information on the mechanics and science of brining.
What about injecting?
Unlike brining or dry-brining, in which only salt and water will really work their way into the meat, injecting can actually introduce other aromatic compounds, which makes it a useful way to get your turkey juicy without risk of diluting its flavor. If you want to inject, I suggest using a combination of chicken or turkey stock and melted butter, injected into various points throughout the breast.
Can I smoke my turkey whole, or do I have to butterfly it?
This is a whole turkey. See how exposed that breast meat is, and how relatively protected the legs are? When you're roasting a turkey in the oven, that's a major problem. But what about on the grill?
Butterflying (or spatchcocking, if you want to use the cheekier term), is the best way I know of to roast a turkey more quickly and evenly to guarantee juicy breast meat, fully cooked legs, and crisp skin. On the grill, its benefits are not quite as obvious.
In a roasting pan in the oven, the legs of the turkey are protected, and you inevitably end up overcooking the breast meat by the time the legs are done. But on a grill, the legs cook quite quickly, as they have more exposure to the heat. The main advantages that butterflying will get you on the grill are faster cooking (it cuts cooking time down by about 30%) and crisper skin (the skin underneath the turkey will end up a little soggy if you don't butterfly). Those factors alone make butterflying worth it in my book.
I tried to spatchcock my turkey last year, but it was so darn difficult to cut through that bone! Any suggestions?
Toughen up, young grasshopper. No, seriously. I know it can be hard to get through those thigh bones sometimes. I have a few suggestions: First, ask your butcher to do it for you. They have better equipment than you do and are used to handling raw meat. Barring that, your next best bet is to call in an airstrike: Grab the cleaver and give it a few swift, firm, and precise hacks to get through those bones. (Make sure to aim away from your thumb.)
Do I need to remove the wishbone?
No, not really. It's all just a question of convenience. Removing it before cooking the turkey will make carving it easier down the line, especially when you're trying to carve a hot, juicy turkey. Then again, some people are squeamish about raw poultry and would probably rather not stick their fingers into the cavity that the turkey used to breathe and eat and gobble out of. The choice is really yours, though I typically remove mine.
I'm tempted to try butterflying my bird, but I'm worried about how untraditional it looks. What should I do?
I get it. A whole spatchcocked turkey looks like it belongs on a pornography set rather than on your Thanksgiving table. But the trade-off in terms of juiciness, even cooking, and crisp skin is worth the odd appearance. Besides, if you want to be civilized about it, you'll be carving that turkey in the kitchen and serving it on a warmed platter anyway, right? Right?
Should I use natural hardwood instead of briquettes?
No! Natural hardwood burns quite unpredictably. More often than not, the coal is less dense than briquettes, and, with easier access to oxygen, it burns much faster and hotter. It won't give you the slow, steady, reliable burn that you need for controlled low-temperature barbecue.
What kind of wood is best?
I recommend using hickory. It has a milder flavor than, say, mesquite or applewood, which I find can overpower the flavor of the turkey. It's best to buy whole chunks of wood, which burn more slowly, adding sweet smoke flavor to your food as it slow-cooks. Wood chips will burn quickly, making a more acrid smoke.
What temperature should I aim for on my grill?
When cooking anything, the higher the temperature you cook at, the larger the temperature gradient inside the meat. That is, turkey cooked at 450°F will have a larger band of overcooked meat around its edges than turkey cooked at 250°F. With a spatchcocked bird, you can safely grill-roast or smoke at up to 375°F without burning the turkey, but at that temperature, the turkey cooks through in just over an hour, which doesn't give it much time to absorb smoke flavor. It also develops a large temperature gradient within. I prefer to use the low and slow approach, aiming for a range of 225 to 275°F on my grill, give or take.
Unlike true barbecue which requires careful monitoring and maintaining of both internal and external temperature to guarantee tender and moist meat, a turkey does not have much connective tissue to break down, thus the only real variable you have to worry about is internal temperature. 50°F up or down on the grill will not negatively affect the quality of the finished bird much one way or the other (though it can affect cooking time. Plan on building a cushion into the afternoon before serving!).
Will my skin get crisp?
Many recipes for low-and-slow smoked turkey end up with dry, leathery skin. Why does this happen? You see, skin is mostly comprised of fat, water, and connective tissue. In order to get crisp, not only does the fat have to render and the water evaporate, but the connective tissue also has to break down; Collagen has to convert into gelatin. This process requires water which means that if your turkey skin dries out too fast, it will never crisp up. The high-convection environment of a smoker is enough to draw out the moisture faster than the skin can crisp. The result is tough, leathery skin.
We do a couple things to combat that effect. First off, the dry brine you apply will actually help the turkey skin retain moisture longer as it smokes. The baking powder also helps trigger browning reactions faster, giving the skin a jumpstart on browning. Finally, a quick rub with oil before applying the spice mixture will help slow down the escape of moisture from the skin. The results is deeply smoky skin that's extra-crisp to boot.
Do I really need a thermometer? What if my turkey has a pop-up thermometer?
The only time you should ever use a pop-up thermometer (or "overcooked-turkey indicator," as I like to call it) is if you are really intent on winning a war against your own taste buds. Get yourself a good instant-read thermometer like the Thermapen, or its less pricey cousin the Thermopop, and you'll never have to experience overcooked or dry turkey again.