Short on oven space? Smoke a turkey for Thanksgiving

The secret ingredients for a great turkey? A bed of charcoal, a fragrant wet rub, and a whiff of wood smoke

By Paula Disbrowe

Published November 6, 2021 4:29PM (EDT)

 (James Ransom / Food52)
(James Ransom / Food52)

This story first appeared on Food52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

There are a few common methods for how to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving. The most traditional way is making roasted turkey using a roasting pan in the oven. A lot of butter, a drizzle of olive oil, and a handful of fresh herbs can go a long way to making a turkey that has crispy skin and flavorful, succulent meat. There's also the less-popular but quick-cooking method known as spatchcocking turkey, which is also a version of a roasted turkey. The outdoorsy types may be inclined towards deep-fried or even smoked turkey.

So why would you smoke a turkey for Thanksgiving? Smoking a turkey doesn't necessarily save time, but it does save valuable oven space, making room for larger-than-life casseroles and stuffings. The real reason why you would choose this cooking method is because of those delicious smoky flavors. If you love barbecue, smoked turkey might be just the thing to transport you to the woods of Tennessee, a glass of bourbon in one hand, and a plate piled high with turkey in the other. While there are many methods for cooking a turkey that has golden-brown skin and juicy meat, there is really no way to build an authentic, smoked flavor in the bird without the use of an electric smoker or grill.

The swoon-worthy results and surprising ease of cooking an entire turkey over a wood-infused fire should make you rethink cranking up the oven. Three steps make the method work:

  1. Butterflying the turkey creates a broad, flat surface that cooks more quickly and evenly.
  2. Slathering the bird with a fragrant paste made with brown sugar, vinegar, and red spices, along with a few fresh herb sprigs placed here and there, perfumes the meat (and bastes the skin) with warm, subtly sweet-and-spicy flavor.
  3. To address the perennial quandary of how to cook the dark meat through without drying out the breast, the coals are arranged in a crescent shape positioned under the legs and thighs, which allows both parts of the bird to reach the ideal temperatures at the same time.

Choosing the right wood chips

If you are going to smoke a turkey using an electric smoker rather than on a grill, there's a couple of important things to keep in mind. First: wood chips. The type of wood chips you use will impact the flavor of your bird. The most common "flavors" are hickory, pecan, apple, mesquite, and cherry. Each has their own merits, but I'd recommend a combination of apple and oak wood chips. Apple wood chips have a sweet, mild flavor that naturally pair well with poultry, but work especially well with a Thanksgiving turkey. Oak, on the other hand, is the most neutral wood chip, meaning that if you're using a really high-quality heritage turkey or want to show off a giblet gravy, the wood chips won't compete with those beautiful flavors. Furthermore, apple chips may be too strong on their own, so you can dial down the sweetness with neutral oak.

Smoked turkey tips

I strongly recommend asking your butcher to spatchcock the turkey for you — or you can earn bragging rights and wrangle it yourself with poultry shears and a sharp chef's knife (be sure to reserve the backbone, neck, and giblets for making turkey stock or gravy). It's important to maintain the grill at a medium heat of 325°F (165°C) to 350°F (175°C) so the skin doesn't get too dark while the meat cooks through. If you're using an electric smoker, set the smoker to 225°F to 250°F and cook the turkey for eight to twelve hours, or until a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the bird reaches 165°F.

Another trick that makes the process much easier? After slathering the turkey with the wet rub, place it skin-side up on a wire cooling rack that you can place directly over the hot grates, which helps prevent sticking and tearing the delicious, crispy skin you're creating. To account for carryover cooking, I remove the turkey from the grill at the lower end of the doneness range. This turkey is delicious on its own, with a smoky gravy and alongside corn casserole and roasted sproutsin tacos, and perhaps best of all, sliced for day-after sandwiches (pass the Duke's mayo).

***

How to smoke a turkey on a grill

Adapted from Thank You for Smoking by Paula Disbrowe

Ingredients:

  • One 12- to 15-pound (5.4 to 6.8 kg) turkey
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup (50g) packed light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 2 tablespoons ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano
  • 2 teaspoons sweet paprika
  • 2 teaspoons pure ground chile powder (such as New Mexico or ancho)
  • 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 6 to 8 sprigs fresh oregano, sage, thyme, or rosemary (optional)

Directions:

At least one hour before cooking, spatchcock the turkey (if your butcher hasn't done so already). Rinse the carcass under cold water, pat it dry with paper towels, and place it on a wire cooling rack over a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle both sides of the bird with enough oil to lightly coat, and season generously with salt and pepper.

In a small bowl, stir together the brown sugarspices, and vinegar into a thick, moist paste. Use your hands to slather the wet rub evenly over both sides of the turkey and set it aside to marinate while you prepare the fire. (Note: the turkey can be seasoned and refrigerated up to 12 hours in advance.

Prepare your grill for two-zone cooking and build a medium-high fire.

When the coals are glowing red and covered with a fine gray ash, use your tongs to arrange them into a crescent moon shape (it should be wide enough to stretch between the two drumsticks) and add a few hardwood chunks to the fire. Carefully wipe the preheated grill grates with a lightly oiled paper towel. Using a grill brush, scrape the grill grates clean, then carefully wipe with a lightly oiled towel again.

When the fire begins to produce a steady stream of (clearish or blue-tinted) smoke, place the wire rack supporting the turkey on the grill, skin-side up, with the turkey legs and thighs situated over the direct heat of the coals and the breast toward indirect heat. Tuck the herb sprigs under the legs and wing joints. Close the grill, vent the grill for smoking, and smoke for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads between 160°F (71°C) and 165°F (74°C). Add additional hot coals or wood chunks as needed to maintain a steady temperature between 325°F (165°C) and 350°F (175°C).

Remove the turkey and transfer it to a cutting board to rest for at least 15 minutes (or up to 40 minutes), then slice it into portions and serve immediately.


Paula Disbrowe

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