Thanksgiving Tip #1 – The Turkey
Thanksgiving is a time for reconnecting with friends and family, slowing down to consider the important non-material things in life, and of course, to chow down on some awesome food together! And no food is more central to the celebration than that indigenous North American bird, the turkey. Although it was originally spit-roasted outdoors, giving the meat a smoky flavor, gradually people began to oven roast the bird indoors. Today interest in roasting turkey outdoors is gaining ground. People find that cooking the turkey outdoors on a barbecue brings back that old-fashioned flavor (not to mention that it doesn’t overheat the house!) But there are a few tricks to make the meat succulent, not dried out, if you choose to roast it outdoors.
Here is a great recipe for tender, juicy, succulent turkey, whether you barbecue-smoke it or cook it in the oven. It uses the age-old technique of brining the turkey before cooking. The brine tenderizes the meat and keeps it moist. Your guests will be sure to love this! Though great-grandma used large ceramic pots or wooden barrels, today we use plastic bags to brine poultry. Just be sure to use food-grade plastic bags—not trash bags—to brine the turkey. Freezer- and microwave-safe brining bags are available at: Sur La Table or at Bed Bath and Beyond stores and at Williams-Sonoma. Bon appetit and Happy Thanksgiving!
For the brine:
8 cups apple cider, or apple juice
1 bunch fresh sage
1 bunch fresh savory or marjoram
1 bunch fresh thyme
6 whole bay leaves
1/2 cup coarse sea salt, or kosher salt
1 whole turkey, approximately 13 lbs, defrosted
2 tbsp. canola oil
3 or 4 handfuls of wood chips for smoking (optional)
1 -1/2 Tbsp. black pepper (optional)
In a large pot on the stove, combine the apple cider, salt, and half of the herbs. Stir and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer and stir more if needed, until all the salt is dissolved. Remove from the heat and add 6 or 8 ice cubes to help it cool to room temperature.
Remove the neck and giblets from the turkey (you can discard them or reserve them for gravy). Rinse the bird and place it in a brining bag. Pour the cooled brine over the bird and then add water to the bag until the bird is completely covered by liquid. Seal the bag and refrigerate the bird overnight, at least 8 hours, but 12 to 18 hours is even better. To save refrigerator space, we use a giant ice chest filled with ice to keep the bird while it’s brining.
After brining, take the turkey out of the bag and pat it dry with paper towels. (At this point, if you are going to grill the bird on a charcoal-fired barbecue and use wood chips, soak the wood chips in some water for about half an hour while you are preparing the bird to cook). Sprinkle half the pepper inside the turkey. Place the remaining herbs inside the cavity also and truss the turkey as usual. Brush the turkey all over with oil. Sprinkle the remaining pepper over the outside of the turkey. You can either roast it in the oven or on a barbecue outdoors. We like to barbecue ours and use wood chips to create a bit of smoky flavor. Pecan or hickory chips will lend a stronger nutty flavor; apple or cherry chips will give the meat a kind of fruity-smoky flavor. You can also try oak or maple chips. Mesquite will lend a subtle western-style smoke flavor. (Be sure you don’t use juniper, pine or fir wood– it will give the meat an awful taste!)
Place a shallow aluminum pan (the drip pan) in the center of the coals (for a charcoal grill) or place it at the edge of the grill rack for a gas grill. Fill the pan halfway up with water. For a charcoal grill, distribute a couple of handfuls of the soaked wood chips over the hot coals, then place the turkey (breast side up) on the grill. Cover the grill and cook (add more coals as needed to maintain temperature). It will take about 2-1/2 to 3 hours to fully cook. Add more wood chips to the coals and more water to the pan as needed.
If using a gas grill, add a couple handfuls of unsoaked wood chips to the smoker tray or to a perforated aluminum foil packet set over the heat elements. Place the turkey, breast side up, on the grill away from the heat elements. Cover the grill and cook until the turkey is a rich golden brown and cooked through, about 2-1/2 to 3 hours. Add more wood chips to the coals and more water to the pan as needed. Our barbecue has a rotisserie, so we’ve used that for the last several years with good results.
To check for doneness: Insert an instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh, away from the bone. It should register 170 degrees F. when it’s ready to remove from the grill. If the wings burn, cover with aluminum foil. Let the bird rest for about 20 minutes after removing from the grill and before carving.