Smoke Turkey the “wrong Way” on a Charcoal Grill

Smoked turkey is not uncommon. Mention it in conversation and most people will answer yes. “Oh, I love smoked turkey,” they will say. “My dad / grandfather / son-in-law / uncle smokes one every year.” I have yet to hear anyone praising their mother, grandmother, daughter-in-law, or aunt’s chicken for a smoked turkey, and I suspect that is because the women are busy with everything else it takes for Thanksgiving dinner. Sending the person out to the yard to prepare the ceremonial bird is a win-win for everyone involved: you take the person out of the kitchen where they were likely on their way, so you can focus on whatever else needs to be done without worrying about the bird. (I realize this is a very binary way of thinking about Thanksgiving work, but it’s the norm, for better or for worse.)

Smoking something on the charcoal grill – the only type of smoking I’ve ever used – is quite a fun experience. You don’t have to do much, but there is always a certain amount of fiddling, mainly to keep the temperature at the right level. In the case of smoked turkey, most recipes tell you that it is 325 ℉, the same temperature at which you would like to bake your turkey in the oven.

These recipes are simple: whisk the poultry in dry brine and grate before cooking. Set two heating zones on the grill, toss one large wood shavings over the charcoal and place the turkey in an indirect zone and cook at 325 ℉ until it is “done”. This works fine, but I didn’t. I did everything “wrong.” I left the turkey intact, used the wet brine that had already passed, and positioned the charcoal in a thick serpentine formation so that the temperature gradually rose to 330 ℉ or so over the course of about two hours of cooking. Despite all this, and perhaps because of this, I was rewarded with a fragrant, juicy, beautifully smoked bird with beautifully toasty skin.

Why am I deviating from all these turkey norms?

In my house I am dad and mom, owner and hostess, feminine and masculine. I will smoke on Thanksgiving, but I will also do almost everything else. My stepmother and a few friends will bring in side dishes, but the men in my life are useless when it comes to cooking of any kind and shouldn’t be trusted with something as important as turkey (or mashed potatoes, or dressing, or anything other than rearranging furniture and topping up a drink). I wanted to be successful with a turkey that could be left alone for almost the entire cook without worrying about the grill getting too hot or the meat drying out.

Why wet brine?

Wet brines went out of fashion a few years ago, and I can see why. Wet brines are for the most part much less effective than their dry counterparts . I’m almost always addicted to pickle, unless we’re talking about poultry because buttermilk is wet and also because of what Samin Nosrat said when I asked her about this three years ago:

Honestly, while the wet brine fills the bird with water, I feel like the whole point is that the turkey stays dry most of the time , so if we poured some water in there and seasoned it with salt and delicious flavors, then where problem?

I couldn’t think of any problems then, and I can’t think of any now. I use this buttermilk pickle every year, and every year I cook a juicy, flavorful turkey with a beautifully toasted skin. The acid in the buttermilk softens, the proteins contribute to the browning, and the extra moisture ensures the breast stays moist even after more than two hours of cooking.

Why didn’t I match this bird?

A lot of people shy away from flirtatiousness for aesthetic reasons, but that doesn’t bother me. I chose not to water the smoked turkey for two reasons: lightness and charcoal. A whole turkey is much lighter and grilled than a pliable bird without a backbone, but keeping the bird whole keeps the breast meat up and away from the super hot coals. The two-zone setting effectively turns your grill into an oven, but the part of the bird closest to the coals will receive some direct heat no matter what. Tilting your legs and hips towards the coals will cook the dark meat a little faster and the white meat will stay slightly raised, away from the scorching direct heat of the coal, which is exactly what you need. (Dark meat such as legs and thighs must be cooked to at least 165 ℉ for all connective tissue to break down, but the breast will dry out if it gets much larger than 155.) This configuration also means that dark meat receives most of the smoke, which works because white meat enthusiasts are more likely to complain if the turkey flavor is clouded by the smoke flavor.

Why a snake?

A snake is a charcoal that is most commonly used for slow and slow cooking, such as smoked pork shoulder . This is generally not recommended for turkey because – at least with traditional two-by-two charcoal shaping – it will not make your grill hotter than 290 ℉, which will greatly increase the cooking time. Several recipes state that you need to reach a temperature of at least 325 ℉ for the skin to turn brown, but I tried the traditional snake with the first test turkey just to see what happens and the skin was fine. (A five-hour cooking time was not the best option, however.)

Even though the classic two by two snake couldn’t work for time management reasons, the snake’s orderly nature was still very appealing, as was the slower, milder cooking temperature. I knew that putting a chimney full of hot charcoal on one side of the grill, putting the turkey on the opposite side and fiddling with the vents to keep the temperature at 325 ℉ would not help cook the rest of the food without losing my whole mind, so I applied a kind of hybrid method, creating a thicker and taller snake on one side of the trellis. Instead of a two-by-two configuration, I arranged the briquettes in three layers: the first layer was three briquettes deep, and the middle and third layers were two layers each. I made my snake 18 briquettes long (because I didn’t know how long it would take to cook and was worried about running out) but that was overkill. You can get away with 10 or 12 for a 12 pound bird, no problem.

I filled my coal chimney a third with briquettes and lit a starter cube underneath. When the briquettes were almost completely covered in ash, I dropped them on one end of the snake and placed the pallet on the charcoal grate with one of the shorter edges facing the coals. I half filled the pan with boiling water (about a liter), put the grate on the coals and put the salted turkey on the grate with the top facing the center of the snake. I positioned the cover with the top vents facing the coals and made sure both the top and bottom vents are fully open to allow for maximum airflow. Over the next few hours, the temperature gradually rose to 330 ℉, the turkey was gently heated, and by the end of cooking, the skin was browned.

How much wood did I use?

Most smoking turkey recipes caution you against using “too much” wood shavings because the smoke flavor can overpower the turkey flavor. Honestly, who cares? I don’t really appreciate the preservation of the natural flavor of the turkey. I want my smoked meats to be noticeably smoky, otherwise I could use my oven. The often recommended “one big piece of wood” is too timid for my taste. I put a few small handfuls of chips – a mixture of mesquite and apple – for every three briquettes, but only two of them burned out. It turned out to be a decent amount of smoke, although I could drink even more and be happy. If you want the turkey flavor to shine, you can start with one large piece of wood, but two large pieces or two small handfuls of smaller chips will give you a nice smoke ring around dark meat when smoked lightly. breast. (In terms of wood, mesquite and hickory will add the strongest flavor; maple, oak, and wood with fruit are softer in their names.)

Use a thermometer (or three)

I would never recommend cooking any meat without a digital thermometer, but this is a must when cooking turkey. I use a two-sensor grill thermometer so I can keep track of the temperature of the turkey and grill (this little dial on the grill lid cannot be trusted), but you can probably get by with one thermometer on the thickest part of one of the breasts.

However, you should heat several places before removing the turkey from the grill. Unlike pork shoulder, turkeys are not large chunks of hard meat – they are irregular in shape and parts stick out all over the place, so poke the bird in several places with a thermometer to make sure it is at least 155 ℉. breast. My probe thermometer tried to tell me that I reached this temperature in just an hour, but it turned out that I pushed it too hard against the bone, and the actual temperature was 115 ℉. I am talking about the fact that there is always a temporary temperature in more than one place.

How to smoke a turkey properly

Enough theory, let’s cook the bird. To smoke a turkey the “wrong” way, you will need:

  • 1 turkey, no more than 13 pounds (I had 12 and took 2 hours 15 minutes to cook).
  • 2 liters of water
  • 1 glass of salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 10 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 liters buttermilk
  • Charcoal and lighter
  • 2-3 handfuls of wood chips or two large pieces of wood
  • 1 liter of water (for the pallet)

Salt the turkey the day before Thanksgiving. Place water, salt, sugar, garlic, and bay leaf in a large saucepan, bring it to a boil, and stir to dissolve the solutes. Let cool completely, then add the buttermilk to the brine. Place the turkey breast side down in a pickle bag or food grade plastic container and add the pickle. (Don’t worry if your back sticks out a little if your chest and legs are submerged.) Leave the brine in the refrigerator for 24 hours, or as close to 24 hours as possible.

If you are cooking a 12 pound turkey, start grilling three hours before you sit down to lunch. Remove the turkey from the brine and pat dry with paper towels, then note the charcoal. Start by placing charcoal around the edge of the grate on top of the charcoal grate. You want the first layer to be 10 briquettes long and three deep, with two additional layers of two briquettes on top of the first. Place a small handful of wood chips every two or three rows of briquettes, starting at about two inches, for a total of three small handfuls. (Use two handfuls if you don’t want a heavily smoked flavor.)

Fill the charcoal pipe with briquettes about a third full. (These should go up to the second airflow hole in a standard Weber chimney.) Place a lighter cube or rolled newspaper in the center of the grill on top of the charcoal grate, light it, and place the chimney over it. Bring a quart of water to a boil when the ends of the briquettes are ashy. Once the briquettes are almost completely covered in ash, sprinkle them from one end of the snake and place the pan on the grill grate with one of the short edges of the pan facing the center of the snake. Pour boiling water into the pan, place the wire rack on the wire rack and go for the turkey.

If you have a grill thermometer, stick it in the thickest part of your chest, making sure it doesn’t touch the bone. If you have a dual probe thermometer, place one probe next to the turkey, but do not touch it so you can monitor the temperature towards the end. Place the turkey on a pallet with the top facing towards the center of the snake. Place the lid on the grill and make sure the top and bottom vents are fully open. The temperature will gradually rise over several hours by gently cooking the bird and filling it with a little smoke until it reaches a crisp temperature of 330 ℉ or so. (Check this after about an hour and a half and close the top vent slightly if it looks like it gets much hotter than 330 ℉.)

Let the turkey cook until the thickest part of the breast is 155 ℉ (dark meat should be a little hot – about 165 ℉ or maybe a little higher). Before removing poultry from the grill, make sure that the temperature is reached in several places so that the temperature throughout the breast reaches 155 ℉. Remove the turkey from the grill by sticking a large, sturdy wooden spoon or spatula into the indentation, and then use the second large spatula to lift it off the wire rack. There is some controversy as to whether turkey resting actually helps redistribute juice (both Amazingribs.com and thepeople at SnS recommend serving turkey hot from the grill for as little rest as possible), but I usually let mine hang out in the room temperature for at least 20 minutes to be cool enough to cut without discomfort. Serve to your many hungry guests along with all the wonderful side dishes you’ve prepared. With turkey, it takes so little effort and all food is bound to be gourmet.

Updated at 17:00 ET on November 12, 2021 to add a note on wood chips and their taste.

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