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How to Brine and Smoke Your Thanksgiving Turkey (With Whiskey!)

Thanksgiving is on the horizon and that means... another Raichlen turkey experiment. I've cooked our family turkeys most of my adult life, and I don't believe I've ever done it the same way twice.
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Thanksgiving is on the horizon and that means...another Raichlen turkey experiment. I've cooked our family turkeys most of my adult life, and I don't believe I've ever done it the same way twice.

Over the years, I've tried indirect grilling, spit roasting, spatchcocking, beer-canning, and even trash-canning, where a turkey is staked under a new trash can with embers shoveled around the base and on top of the can. I've played a lot with the flavors, too. (Turkey Adobo? You bet.)

But if I had to pick just one method, it would be this: whiskey-brined and whiskey barrel chip-smoked. The brine adds flavor and succulence, especially to the breast meat, which has a widely recognized tendency to dry out. The whiskey barrel chips deliver a sweet, mellow smoke flavor. To keep the breast meat extra moist, I sometimes inject it with melted butter and chicken stock.

Not only does cooking the turkey outside in your grill or smoker free up valuable real estate in the indoor oven, but once you put the bird in the smoker, you basically leave it there until it's done. (Translation: more time for televised football.)

Double Whiskey-Smoked Turkey
(Recipe from my forthcoming cookbook Project Smoke)

Ingredients:
A 12- to 14-pound turkey

For the brine:
4 bay leaves
1 medium onion, quartered
4 cloves
1 1/2 cups kosher salt or sea salt
1/2 cup maple syrup
2 quarts hot water plus 6 quarts cold water (2 gallons in all)
1 cup of your favorite whiskey
1 tablespoon black peppercorns

4 tablespoons salted butter, melted
Turkey Jus (optional)
Jalapeño-Cranberry Salsa

Step 1: Thaw the turkey if frozen. Remove the neck and giblets (liver, gizzard, heart) and set aside for another use. (Be sure to empty both the front and main cavities.) Rinse the turkey with cold running water inside and out. Fold the wing tips under the body.

Step 2: Make the brine: Pin the bay leaves to the onion quarters with cloves. Place the salt and maple syrup in a very large stockpot or other large food-safe container, like a Cambro. Add the hot water and whisk until the salt is dissolved. Whisk in the cold water, whiskey, and peppercorns. Let the brine cool completely. Add the turkey, leg end up, and the onion quarters. Jiggle the turkey as needed so the brine flows into the cavity and the whole bird is submerged. Cover with plastic wrap and brine the turkey in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Invert the turkey half way through so it brines evenly.

Step 3: The next day, light your smoker according to the manufacturer's instructions and preheat to 250 degrees. Add the wood as specified by the manufacturer.

Step 4: Smoke the turkey until the skin is browned and the internal temperature in the thigh reaches 145 degrees. This will take 4 to 5 hours. After 3 hours, start basting the turkey all over with melted butter and baste again every hour.

Step 5: Increase the heat in your smoker to 400 degrees, if possible. (Some smokers don't go that high.)

Step 6: Otherwise, set up a grill for indirect grilling and preheat to medium-high (400 degrees). Transfer the turkey to the grill (over the drip pan).

Step 7: Baste the bird with melted butter and continue roasting until the skin is browned and crisp and the internal temperature in the thigh reaches 165 degrees, 45 minutes to an hour. Baste once or twice with the butter.

Step 8: Transfer the turkey to a platter and drape a sheet of foil over it. (Don't bunch the foil around the bird or the steam will make the skin soggy.) Let rest for 20 minutes, then carve.

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Steven Raichlen is the author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and the host of Project Smoke on public television. His web site is BarbecueBible.com.