Simplistic in preparation. Elementary in execution. Perfection on the plate and among my very favorite of main courses to serve for a crowd, particularly during the holidays. This smoked & blackened heritage turkey is paired with a rustic sourdough-apple and roasted pistachio stuffing, winter kale & fresh fig salad, charred root vegetables & a gorgeous bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon.
I ordered the bird 2 weeks in advance of the big day, from our local butcher, then thawed for 3 days before brining overnight in a solution of salt, sugar, fresh bay leaves, rosemary and thyme sprigs. Drained, patted dry & refrigerated uncovered for 2 hours to tighten the skin. Then wrapped air tight in plastic and rested at room temperature for 4hrs before preparing to smoke. Unwrapped and seasoned simply, but liberally with salt, ground peppercorn, garlic, and a garden of fresh herbs, both inside and out. Then stuffed and massaged knobs of herb butter between the skin & breast meat. Smoked over a water pan and a combination of cherry and pecan wood at 275F, basting intermittently with olive oil, until 164F in the thickest portion of the leg. Finally & maybe most importantly, rested and constantly basted the bird in it’s own juices over a cutting board for 20min, then carved, served and devoured.
For a quick, down and dirty recipe review, skip the bottom of this post – For those interested in a deeper dive, Pit Master secrets and fool-proof step-by-step instructional recipe for preparing the single most phenomenal turkey you’ve ever consumed, uncork a bottle of Cabernet and read onward!
1. Plan ahead. I know, I know – the least sexy words anyone could dare utter in a recipe blog post – So, here’s your chance to back out now – This recipe will require time, energy, a degree of practice and patience.
Consider the time table from soup to nuts. Not only should you reserve your turkey at least 2 weeks in advance (order a bird weighing 1.5lbs in total weight per dinner guest, but plan to pick up that fine featherless beast no later than 5 days before the big cook out. Total timetable: 1-5 days defrost + 1 day brine + 6 hours pre-rest + 1 hour preparation + 6-7 hours roast + 30 minutes rest = Up to 2 weeks, 6 days, 14 hours and 30 minutes!
2. Tools of the trade – The Turkey Smoking Checklist:
- Large stock pot big enough for a whole turkey, but small enough to fit in refrigerator
- Cutting boards and mixing bowls
- Basting pot and brush
- Wine, lots and lots of wine – For drinking, of course
- Sharpened chef’s cutlery, carving fork and knife
- Digital-read internal thermometer
- Paper towel, plastic wrap and aluminum foil
- Sauté pan, for preparing gravy, optional
- Latex gloves, handling raw turkey
3. Give that bird a bath. Overnight. The day before your big meal submerge the turkey in a stock pot filled with a solution of salt, sugar, fresh herbs, garlic and red onion. The solution should be boiled, then removed from the heat to cool to room temperature. Never place the turkey in the brine while the brine is still hot or steaming – This could prematurely begin the cooking process – The intent here is infusing fluid and flavor, not to cook!
4. Stuff or not to Stuff? My daughter says, never. And, frankly that’s good enough for me. You have a problem with it, talk to her. I dare you.
That said, her argument against is rather convincing: 1. The most common food-borne illnesses annually during the holidays arise from poorly-prepared, under-cooked stuffing. Fact. 2. If that’s not convincing enough, the bird takes significantly longer to achieve it’s internal temperature (5-7 minutes longer per pound of bird weight – that could be upto 2 hours longer in cooking!). Inherently, it becomes virtually impossible to maintain tender, succulent and juicy meat, while the internal stuffing arises to a cook temperature of 164F. 3. Beyond the aforementioned, the bird stuffing is just never executed as well as it could be by cooking it independent of the turkey – a point no seasoned professional would attempt to convince you of otherwise.
5. Never smoke a cold bird. Prior to placing the turkey in the smoker, wrap it tightly in plastic, then rest it safely over a cutting board until the internal temperature has neared room temperature. Plan approximately 3 -4 hours. By allowing the bird to rest in advance of smoking, the internal and external layers of the bird are better prepared to smoke evenly, and cook times are reduced by up to 2-3 hours, as compared to smoking a bird directly removed from the refrigerator!
Also, by wrapping in plastic, you’ll mitigate potential for food borne illness risks.
6. Season simply, but liberally. Up to 35% of dry rub seasonings will be lost in roasting & basting process – season with salt, ground peppercorn, garlic, & a garden of fresh herbs, both inside & out. Then stuff & massage knobs of butter between the skin & breast meat, covering the raw breast meat entirely, adding both flavor and ensuring an additional protective layer to absorb the infusion of smoke and mitigate the risks of the meat drying out.
7. Set it, forget, sit back and relax. Let your smoker do it’s job! Every time the smoker chamber is opened cook times are increased by 15-20 minutes, or longer. If basting, do so quickly then close the smoking chamber. Longer cook times will result with dried-out, flavorless turkey. From beginning to end, depending on external ambient temperature, weather, precipitation, wind, etc., a 20lb bird should take 6-7 hours to rise to 160F in the thickest portion of the thigh’s dark meat.
The only exception here is the necessary evil of basting. but note, the whenever the smoker is opened, the longer the cooking process is extended, the greater risk of dried out turkey bird. If basting, do so quickly, close and reseal the smoking chamber.
8. Know your wood. The ideal selection for turkey is cherry wood, but tremendous color and flavor can be imparted upon the bird with combinations of cherry-apple, cherry-maple, cherry-oak and cherry-pecan wood. The cherry wood, in combination with more mild woods produce a remarkable finished product, as opposed to woods such as hickory or mesquite, which may be overpowering.
Note: In combination with your wood chips or chunks, always prepare larger cuts of protein and whole animals over a water pan. This critical addition to the cooking process will greatly assist with maintaining moisture in the cooking chamber, as well as aide the infusion of smoke essence into the meat.
9. Wait. Just a minute longer. Before carving. Allow the bird to rest for a full 20-30 minutes before carving, basting it consistently in it’s own juices. I know you’re emaciated and starving – But, you’ve spent nearly 2 days meticulously preparing for this feast – the last half hour before carving may be among the most critical. During this time period, the turkey’s denatured proteins are relaxing and re-absorbing the juices which have been pushed to the exterior layers of muscle through the cooking process. If you carve too soon, all those juices and flavor will be lost on the cutting board!
10. Low & Slow, Golden & Glorious Poultry Perfection – Roasting Times:
- Not Stuffed: 10-15lbs: 2-3.5 hours| 15-20lbs: 3.5-4 hours | 20-25lbs: 4-5 hours | 25-30lbss: 6-7 hours
- Stuffed: Add 5-7 minutes per pound of turkey.
- 2 gallons water
- 1 gallon chicken stock, low or no-sodium
- 1½ cup kosher salt
- 1 cup brown sugar
- ½ head of garlic cloves smashed
- 1 handful of fresh basil, rosemary and thyme sprigs
- 1 handful of whole peppercorns
- Up to two days in advance of turkey smoking, in a large stock pot, bring all ingredients to a raging boil. Stir intermittently until salt and sugars dissolved. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely, until room temperature. Submerge whole, uncooked turkey. Cover with lid and place pot in refrigerator for 24-48 hours. 3 hours prior to smoking the bird, thoroughly rinse exterior and cavity of the bird, washing away excess salt. Pat the turkey entirely dry with paper towel. Discard brine. Prepare to season, stuff
- Black Peppercorn Herb Rub:
- -1/2 cup olive oil
- -1 cup black peppercorn
- -1/4 cup kosher salt
- -2 tablespoons garlic powder
- -1 tablespoon chili powder
- -1 tablespoon paprika
- -1 tablespoon onion powder
- -1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- Combine all ingredients into food processor and pulse until combined. Set aside.
- Turkey Beer Basting Spray:
- -2 cups turkey stock, or chicken stock
- -1 12 ounce lager beer
- -1/2 cup olive oil
- Combine all ingredients in a spray bottle and swirl around to mix. Also, giving a good swirl prior to each basting spray throughout the cooking process.
Click video for a well-produced 3-minute turkey-carving instructional from the New York Times and infamous Master Butcher, Ray Venezia.
- 1 15-20 pound fresh turkey, rinsed & patted dry with paper towel, giblets removed
- Simple Sweet & Savory Brine, see recipe below
- Blackened Peppercorn Rub, see recipe below
- Turkey Stock Beer Basting Spray, see recipe below
- 4 cups hardwood, half apple wood, half cherry wood
- Kosher salt and fresh ground peppercorn, to taste
- Fresh herbs, to garnish
- Thaw, brine, and remove turkey from refrigeration, per recommendations above.
- Four hours prior to smoking wrap bird tightly in plastic wrap & rest at room temperature. 20 minutes before smoking, remove wrap, pat bird entirely dry with paper towel, then apply a liberal degree of Thanksgiving Fresh Herb Rub to exterior skin & interior cavity of the turkey. Tie together rear legs of the turkey with kitchen string & tuck wings under the bird’s thighs.
- Meanwhile, fill the woodchip chamber with ½ applewood and ½ cherry wood, then preheat the smoker to 275F, allowing 15-20 minutes for the smoker to warm before cooking. Set turkey in the smoker, basting intermittently with the beer basting spray. Remove turkey from smoker when internal temperature of thickest, inner most portion of the thigh reads 160F. Then immediately remove from the smoker, place the turkey over a cutting board and loosely tent with tin foil, allowing the bird’s denatured proteins to relax and reabsorb their juices.
- The turkey should rest for 20-30 minutes before carving - Baste the turkey in it's own juices consistently throughout the final resting period. Carve the bird. Season additionally, to taste. Serve. Eat. Drink. Be merry.