I spent much of my life wondering what the big deal with Thanksgiving turkey was. A day spent slow roasting a bird in the oven, only to sit down at dinner and be greeted with a meat that was so dry and flavorless, it made me wonder if this celebration of communal harvest was actually some sort of perpetual punishment.
I held this notion for a long time, with the joy of Thanksgiving experienced more through the absence of school or work than through food. That all changed when I grilled my first turkey—learning how to rectify each quibble I retained with past birds, culminating in pure poultry enlightenment.
The Trials and Tribulations of Supermarket Turkey
A bird, is a bird, is a bird, right? When it comes to selecting a turkey for your Thanksgiving meal, that statement couldn't be further from the truth. [Read more on Natural vs. Kosher vs. Injected Turkeys here.] While the refrigerator or freezer cases may be lined with oblong packages with differing logos and sizes, you must read the fine print to really decipher one turkey from the next.
In my opinion, what you need is a "natural" bird. This simply means that the turkey has not been pretreated with any chemical preservatives or artificial flavorings or colorings, making it a "blank canvas," so to speak, for the addition of flavor.
Natural does not mean organic though, if you want an organic, free range, or heritage bird, make sure to look for those labels as well, or ask your butcher.
Once finding your bird of choice, the next step is to locate the small type at the bottom of the bag. Most turkeys have a little message mentioning a percentage of a solution added to enhance juiciness and tenderness (sometimes labeled as "basted" or "self-basting"). Essentially, this means the turkeys have been pre-brined, which is done so the average consumer can get a halfway decent bird right out the package with no extra work.
Since we're Serious Eaters, decent doesn't satisfy, and extra work in the name of the best Thanksgiving turkey is our duty, so look for a lower percentage of solution. The brand I buy most commonly has only 3% solution added. This will allow our own brines, injections, and/or marinades to impart their unique flavors.
It's a Fine Time for a Brine
I'm a huge advocate of brining—soaking a turkey in a salty solution that reshapes the proteins in the meat in such a way that they retain moisture better when cooking—and ever since brining my first turkey, I've never gone without.
Besides adding moisture, brines can also impart flavor and since turkey is pretty bland, I've been using the flavor-brining method consistently. This can be almost anything your heart desires. My favorite is an apple juice-brine that includes some seasonal spices along with the salt that gives the meat a lightly sweet and spiced flavor. I've also done brines with honey, vegetable stock, and turkey stock, all to great results. I've even seen things like jalapeño brines to add a little fruity heat into the party.
The hardest part of brining a turkey is containment. At my mother's apartment, we're forced by circumstance to use the large turkey brining bags which can be found at most groceries around Thanksgiving. There are many problems with these bags—they're prone to breaking and often so big they require extra brine to fully submerge the bird. We've found that by stuffing the turkey inside the brining bag, and then putting the whole thing into a crisper drawer, we alleviate the oversize bag issue, but still had to deal with a sprung leak.
I recommend skipping the bag and purchasing a food-grade container large enough to fit a turkey. Not only is this reusable and multi-purpose, it'll avoid the feeling of devastation when you realize you're brining bag burst, your turkey is not brined, and to add insult to injury, you're left cleaning up a one gallon spill.
Following the brine, try to let your birds rest in the refrigerator overnight on a wire rack set into a sheet pan to air dry. This isn't wholly necessary, but it'll improve the crispness and texture of the skin.
A Grill Fit for a Beast
Brined and dried, now it's on the main attraction—grilling!
When grilling a turkey, you want to ensure there's sufficient space around all sides of the bird to allow heat to move evenly and freely across the entire turkey. Most gas grills, with their generous capacity, will have you covered in this respect, but my tried and true 22 1/2" Weber kettle is another story.
While you may be able to get a bird on the smaller side to fit in a kettle grill with enough clearance from the lid, chances are you'll need some vertical lift to be able to comfortably grill a turkey. Unfortunately, I think the stand alone rings that add height to kettle grills are no longer mass produced. If I need extra height to fit a bird into the grill, I use the 7" high ring that came with my Weber rotisserie attachment (if you buy this, I promise you won't regret the extra expense once you have the rotisserie as part of your grilling arsenal). You can also fashion a homemade ring out sheet metal and some nuts and bolts. It just takes a little ingenuity and creative thinking, and this problem can be solved on the cheap.
Alternatively, you can choose to do the bird in a smoker, which is my prefered cooking vessel. The advantages of a smoker are numerous—they're designed to burn coal for longer, at a consistent temperature, with an even heat, and often enough room for not just one turkey, but two or more. Besides, you've already read my plea for you to own a smoker and ran out and bought one, right?
With space for even heat around the bird, it's time to create that perfect fire. On a kettle grill, this means employing the three-zone split fire where coals are banked in two even piles on either side of the charcoal grate. A disposable aluminum pan should be placed between the two piles of charcoal—this will collect turkey drippings for gravy later, fill the pan with half an inch of chicken or turkey stock to make sure the drippings don't burn—and then place the turkey directly over the pan on the grilling rack. This set-up allows an even heat to circulate around the turkey.
Whether using a grill or a smoker, I've found an optimal temperature for cooking a turkey to be around 350°F, plus or minus 25°F. I've done the low and slow turkey before and have found no real benefit, only soggy skin. I've also gone hotter, but ran into uneven cooking, with burnt skin and overdone portions of meat. By adjusting the air dampers on your grill or smoker open or close, it's not too hard to get to this ideal temperature and then maintain it.
On a smoker like the Weber Smokey Mountain, one fire should last the entire cook, but on a grill, it's likely you'll need to replenish the coals when the fire starts to die and doesn't respond to adjustments of the air vents, usually around the one and half hour point of a two and half to three hour cook for a 12-14lb bird to reach 160°F in the breast.
A Note on Smoke
The biggest advantage of moving the turkey out of the kitchen and into the backyard is the ability to add smoke. It's nice having the oven free for other pursuits, but it's the sweet kiss of light smoke that is hugely transformative.
As mentioned, turkey is a lightly flavored meat, meaning even subtle additions of flavor are usually discernible. The problem with smoke is it's not so subtle, and can quickly become overpowering and acrid on the meat of a turkey.
There are two ways to combat this problem.
First, use a light flavored smoking wood. These are usually the fruit woods, and apple or cherry make an excellent choice. Second, show restraint. On a pork butt or brisket I might throw a few large chunks of wood onto a pile of coals, but with turkey I opt for a relatively small piece of wood—about half a fist size.
To get things smoking, place your wood chunk directly on the lit coals—I prefer chunks to chips, which burn off too quickly—and once the wood is ignited and smoking, it's time to start cooking the bird. When using smoking wood on a three-zone split fire like this, it's best to position the lid vent on the opposite side from the chunk of woods, which will force the smoke to move across the turkey before exiting the grill.
There is one downside to smoked though—it often leaves the skin tough and leathery. Cooking at a hotter temperature helps alleviate that a little, but basically, if you're smoking, be prepare to sacrifice the skin for incredibly rich and flavorful meat, a good trade off in my opinion.
Whether smoked or just grilled, cooking a turkey outdoors is sure to bring extra life into your Thanksgiving bird. It's been my cure for past sufferings of bland and dry turkeys, having transformed this staple from holiday horror to most desired food in a field of fierce, and delicious, competitors (shh...don't tell the cornbread sausage stuffing).