In the mid 1990s, I embarked on the first of what would become several world tours of Planet Barbecue to research my first book on live-fire cooking, The Barbecue! Bible. After almost two decades of researching and writing about barbecue, I have come to the conclusion that the best way to cook America's Thanksgiving bird is to use a technique that, like the turkey itself, is also native to the Americas: You guessed it -- barbecue.
There are at least five advantages to barbecuing your turkey:
- First, the smoke adds an amazing depth of flavor;
The first step in the process is brining, which means nothing more than marinating the bird overnight in a mixture of salt, sugar and water. Turkey has inherently dry meat and smoking tends to dry it out further. Thanks to a scientific concept called osmosis, the brine (at least some of it) is absorbed by the meat proteins, adding moistness as well as flavor. And the sugars in the brine encourage browning.
The next step is to fire up your outdoor cooker. The options are numerous: offset barrel smokers; upright water smokers; pellet smokers, such as Traeger; kettle and wood-burning grills; even kamado cookers, like the Big Green Egg. If you own a simple charcoal kettle grill, you can smoke a magnificent turkey. Gas grills, unfortunately, do not work well for smoking. Because of the way they're vented, it's hard to get a pronounced smoke flavor—even on a gas grill with a smoker box and dedicated burner. If you want to enjoy a real smoked turkey, you need to cook it with charcoal and wood.
Finally, there's the grilling technique -- a method I have come to call smoke-roasting. It's similar to indirect grilling in that both are done next to (or between) the heat sources at a moderate temperature (325 to 350 degrees). What makes it smoke-roasting is the addition of soaked hickory or other hardwood chips to the coals.
Don't confuse smoke-roasting with true smoking. The latter refers to a process whereby the bird is cooked at a low temperature (200 to 250 degrees) for a long period (4 to 6 hours or more, depending on the size of the turkey). This is the method practiced by competition barbecuers and it produces a bird of astonishing flavor and tenderness. The bad news is that it produces rubbery, nearly inedible skin, as the cooking temperature isn't high enough to render the fat.
The main advantage of smoke-roasting is that it gives you both a smoky flavor and crisp skin. To this add minimal effort: All you need to do is replenish the coals and wood chips every hour. That's about all there is to it.
Here are some additional tips for having the best Thanksgiving ever:
- For a beautifully browned turkey, baste the skin with melted butter instead of vegetable oil or olive oil. The milk solids in the butter enhance browning.
Get six more tips for giving your bird the most flavor possible.
Try out the new technique while you make this Bourbon- and Maple-Brined Smoke-Roasted Turkey for Thanksgiving.