Smoked Turkey is actually the only way I like my turkey and for the past three years it has been my go-to method when it comes to celebrating Thanksgiving. I love the smokey flavours, it’s extremely easy to do on my Traeger Grill, and the turkey always comes out so incredibly juicy. To maximize the flavour of my turkey, I always do two things: I brine the bird and I smother it with a compound “butter” (I normally use ghee), made with lots of fresh herbs.
No matter how you decide to cook your Thanksgiving turkey, you should absolutely brine it. This shouldn’t even be a point of discussion. Brine your turkeys, end of story. It results in a far less dry finished product and makes the turkey much more flavourful.
You can do this two ways: go with a regular brine, which is essentially a salt water solution, or use a dry brine, which basically means you salt the turkey for an extended period of time and leave it uncovered in the fridge. Wet brines and dry brines each have their pros and cons. I tend to prefer dry brines for a few reasons, which I’ll briefly explain below.
Why You Should Brine: Smoked Turkey or Otherwise
Because I am very much a simpleton when it comes to science, I really like Alton Brown’s explanation for why you should brine your turkey. In an nutshell, you can think of brining like taking out an insurance policy that will prevent your turkey from drying out. Through a process of osmosis (which I won’t pretend to actually know anything about), moisture in the bird is pulled out into the brine and then pushed back in.
The end result is a much more moist finished product because (if I understand this correctly, which I probably don’t) you are essentially hydrating the muscular tissue of the turkey. So, as the turkey cooks and inevitably releases moisture, it doesn’t dry out. At the same time, you’re also seasoning the deeper parts of the flesh with the salt in the brine. Moreover, if you are adding herbs, spices and aromatics to your brine, those flavours are also going to marinade the turkey.
Wet Brines vs. Dry Brines
Wet brines are great for the above reasons, but for an 18 to 20-pound turkey you’re going to need two things: a big enough food-safe bucket to fully submerge the turkey in its brine, and somewhere to keep it cold until it’s ready to cook (usually 24 hours later.) Most refrigerators, especially ones that are full with other foods necessary for Thanksgiving, won’t accommodate the space needed for such a big bucket. Let alone tiny apartment fridges like the one I had for a year while living in a condo.
It is possible to brine a turkey in a large cooler, but to do this you’ll need to keep a watchful eye on the temperature of the brine, adjusting it with ice every so often to ensure it does not drop below a food-safe temperature. This tends to be quite a bit of work and can get messy when trying to discard the water after brining.
Dry brines, as the name suggests, do not involve any liquid. Instead, it simply means that the turkey (or any other protein your using) is salted for an extended period of time. Like a wet brine, you can incorporate different herbs, spices and flavourings into your dry brine to a similar effect. The salt on the surface of the turkey will pull moisture out from the bird and then push it back in through a process osmosis. Like a wet brine, a dry brine keeps the turkey moist and prevents it from drying out, and it also seasons the meat more deeply and evenly.
The downside is it doesn’t necessarily do as good of a job as a wet brine because you are relying solely on the available moisture already present in the turkey. Nevertheless, I can tell you from personal experience that a dry brined turkey is really, really delicious. Especially when you’re going for smoked turkey. So, even if you can’t accommodate a wet brine, you should absolutely dry brine your turkey.
Smoked vs Roasted Turkey?
The answer here is a simple one for me: smoked. All the way. Smoking doesn’t just impart flavour, I find it to deliver a much juicier finished product.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there is no better product on the market than a Traeger Grill when it comes to smoking. Not only does it deliver incredible wood-fired flavour, it is the easiest grill I’ve ever operated. Let me put it to you this way, if you know how to use an oven, you can master a Traeger.
I’ll have to do a more in-depth article on it, but in a nutshell a Traeger works just like a convection oven in that it uses indirect heat and circulated air to cook food. The difference is that Traeger operate on a combination of electric power and 100% all-natural, food grade pellets that deliver an incredible wood-fired flavour.
Smoked Turkey and Compound Butter Go Together Like Peanut Butter and Jelly
I think I picked up this trick from a Tyler Florence recipe years ago. To be honest, I can’t remember. But it involves using your hand to create a pocket between the skin of the turkey and the breast meat. This then allows you to stuff the pocket with a compound butter made with plenty of fresh herbs, like rosemary, sage, thyme and parsley.
As the turkey cooks, the compound butter melts down and flavours the breast meat, which is the most likely part of the meat to dry out. Just like the brine, this compound butter acts as a kind of insurance policy to prevent the turkey from becoming dry.
To Spatchcock or Not to Spatchcock?
Here again, my answer is simple: spatchcock, without a doubt. Spatchcocking, meaning to butterfly the bird and remove the backbone, does three things: it allows the bird to cook more evenly, it decreases the amount of time it takes to cook the bird, and it exposes more of the skin, which can then get more crispy as it cooks. Not to mention the fact that it’s actually much easier to carve a spatchcocked turkey than one that is cooke whole.
I also like to spatchcock my turkey because, as mentioned, I usually dry brine my bird so I need to be able to refrigerate it. Butterflying the turkey and laying it flat makes it much easier to do so.
For all of these reasons, you should spatchcock your turkey, smoked or otherwise.
Smoked Turkey Recipe - Paleo, Whole30
- 1 18 to 20- pound turkey preferably free-range, organic and humanely raised
- 2.5 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1.5 teaspoon freshly-cracked black pepper
- ¾ cup room temperature ghee or grass-fed butter
- ¼ cup finely chopped fresh parsley
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary plus extra for garnish
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme plus extra for garnish
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage, plus extra for garnish
- Using a sharp knife or pair of kitchen shears, remove the backbone of the turkey and refrigerate it to make homemade turkey stock later. With the turkey breast side-down, make an incision in the back of the breast bone. Flip the turkey so that it is breast side-up and press down on the breasts to flatten it. Being careful not to pierce the skin, use your hands to separate the skin from the breast, creating a pocket of air. Pat the turkey very dry with paper towel.
- Combine the salt and pepper in a small bowl. Season the bird generously all over with the salt and pepper.
- Line a rimmed baking sheet with a wire rack. Lay the turkey flat on the wire rack, breast side-up, and refrigerate, uncovered, for 24 hours.
- Remove the turkey from the fridge 1 hour before cooking to let it come to room temperature. Meanwhile, in a bowl, combine the ghee, parsley, rosemary, thyme, and sage. Mix until incorporated.
- The turkey should be dry at this point but if there is any surface moisture, pat it dry with a paper towel. Using your hands, stuff the pocket between the breast meat and skin with the compound butter.
- Set the Traeger to 225F and preheat with the lid closed for 15 minutes.
- Set the wire rack over a 4-inch-deep roasting dish and set the turkey on top, breast side-up. Close the lid and smoke the turkey until the thickest part of the breast reaches an internal temperature of 100 to 110F, 2 to 2.5 hours. Take into account temperature fluctuations due to ambient weather.
- Raise the temperature to 375F and cook the turkey, basting it with any rendered juices twice or three times, until the thickest part of the breast reaches 160F, 1 to 1.5 hours. Transfer the cooked turkey to a carving board and loosely tent with foil. Let the turkey rest for at least 20 minutes before carving.