Excerpted from Steven Raichlen’s Project Smoke.
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 more. 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 well-documented tendency to dry out. The whiskey barrel chips deliver a sweet musky smoke flavor. To keep the breast meat extra moist, I also inject it with melted butter and chicken stock. Once you put the bird in the smoker, you pretty much leave it there until it’s done.
YIELD: Serves 8 to 10
PREP TIME: 20 minutes
BRINING TIME: 24 hours
SMOKING TIME: 5 to 6 hours
FUEL: Whiskey barrel chips, such as Jack Daniel’s or Jim Beam—enough for 5 hours of smoking (see chart)
GEAR: A large stockpot for brining; wire rack; an injector; instant-read thermometer
SHOP: Ideally, an organic or heritage bird. Order it from Heritage Foods, D’Artagnan, or via Local Harvest. The meat has more chew and the flavor is infinitely better. A lot of industrially raised birds come injected with stock, water, and/or butter or vegetable oil—up to 15 percent of their weight. (Water is cheaper than meat, which is one reason processors do it.) This, coupled with your brine, would make the bird unbearably salty. If you can’t find an organic bird, buy a non-organic bird that hasn’t been previously injected.
WHAT ELSE: How big a turkey should you buy? I like 12- to 14-pounders—even if you’re serving a lot of people. You can always cook two birds if you’re feeding a crowd. Smaller birds are moister and more tender, and it’s easier to control the cooking. Figure on 1½ pounds per person. This will make you feel properly overfed—as you should at Thanksgiving—and leave you with welcome leftovers.
Double Whiskey-Smoked Turkey
For the Turkey
- 1 turkey (12 to 14 pounds)
- 4 bay leaves
- 1 medium-size onion, peeled and quartered
- 4 whole cloves
- 1½ cups coarse salt (sea or kosher)
- ½ cup pure maple syrup
- 2 quarts boiling water
- 6 quarts cold water (2 gallons in all)
- 1 cup bourbon or rye whiskey
- 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
For the Injector Sauce
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 3 tablespoons low-sodium turkey or chicken stock (preferably homemade)
- 1 tablespoon whiskey or brandy
For Smoking and Serving
- 4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter, melted
- Turkey Jus (see recipe here), for serving
- Thaw the turkey, if frozen. Remove the neck and giblets (liver, gizzard, and heart) and set aside. Be sure to empty both the front (neck) and main cavities of the bird. (Smoke the neck, gizzard, and heart to make a smoked turkey stock, and use the liver to make the Smoked Liver Pâté here). Rinse the turkey inside and out with cold running water. Fold the wing tips behind the back.
- Make the brine: Pin the bay leaves to the onion quarters with the cloves. Place the salt and maple syrup in a stockpot large enough to hold the turkey. Add the boiling water and whisk until the salt is dissolved. Whisk in the cold water, the whiskey, and the peppercorns. Add the turkey, legs up, and the onion quarters. Jiggle the turkey as needed so the brine flows into the main cavity and the whole bird is submerged. Put the lid on the stockpot and brine the turkey in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Turn the turkey over halfway through so it brines evenly.
- The next day, remove the turkey from the brine. Discard the brine. Place the turkey on a wire rack over a rimmed baking sheet to drain and dry, 30 minutes. Truss the bird, if desired.
- Meanwhile, make the injector sauce: Melt the butter in a saucepan. Stir in the stock and whiskey. Let cool to room temperature. Fill the injector with the sauce, then inject it in several places in the breast, thighs, and drumsticks.
- Set up your smoker following the manufacturer’s instructions and preheat to 275°F. Add the wood as specified by the manufacturer.
- Full-smoke method: Place the turkey on the rack in the smoker. After 2 hours, start basting the turkey all over with melted butter and baste again every hour. Smoke the turkey until the skin is browned and the meat in the thigh reaches 165° to 170°F on an instant-read thermometer. (Insert it into the deepest part of the thigh but not touching the bone.). This will take 5 to 6 hours.
Smoke with the grill-finish method: This gives you the rich flavor of smoke with the crisp skin of a roasted turkey. Smoke the turkey as described above (without basting) until the skin is golden brown and the meat in the thigh reaches 145°F on an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thigh but not touching the bone, 3 to 4 hours. If your smoker operates at higher temperatures, increase the heat to 400°F. Otherwise, set up a grill for indirect grilling and preheat to medium-high (400°F). Transfer the turkey to the grill, over the drip pan. Baste the bird with melted butter. Roast the turkey until the skin is browned and crisp and the meat of the thigh reaches 165°F, 1 hour more or as needed, basting once or twice more.
- Transfer the turkey to a platter and loosely drape a sheet of aluminum foil over it. (Don’t bunch the foil around the bird.) Let rest for 20 minutes, then carve and serve with a gravy boat of Turkey Jus.
Due to the brining, the drippings in the pan under the turkey may prove too salty for gravy. And there probably won’t be enough. Unsalted chicken or turkey stock alleviates that problem and you smoke it alongside the turkey. Madeira adds a touch of sweetness to the jus. Omit it if you prefer the pure taste of turkey and wood smoke.
YIELD: Makes 2½ to 3 cups
- 3 cups turkey or chicken stock (preferably homemade)
- ½ cup smoked turkey drippings (optional)
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch (optional)
- 3 tablespoons Madeira (optional)
- Coarse salt (sea or kosher) and freshly ground black pepper
- Place the stock in a disposable aluminum foil pan in the smoker next to the turkey. Smoke for 2 hours.
- When the turkey is cooked and resting, strain the turkey drippings into a large measuring cup. Depending on how much drippings you have and how salty they are, you’ll use up to ½ cup skimmed of fat. Add enough of the smoked stock or more turkey or chicken stock to make 3 cups.
- Bring the drippings and stock to a boil in a saucepan. For a slightly thickened jus, dissolve the cornstarch in 1 tablespoon of the Madeira and whisk into the boiling stock. It will thicken slightly. For an unthickened jus, add the Madeira and boil for 2 minutes. Whisk in salt and pepper to taste.