A few years ago, bored with the same (admittedly delicious) roast turkey for Thanksgiving, and tired after having spent three decades tending to the annual bird, my mother tasked my brother-in-law and I with the job of doing something different with the winged beast.
After a handful of conversations about poultry cookery that I’m pretty sure rivaled inter-departmental chit-chats in some far-flung university theoretical physics departments, we settled on first smoking the turkey, then deep-frying it. After the bird was removed from the seething oil, we’d then re-use it to fry off the Brussels sprouts.
The results were fantastic — no surprise given my partner in crime: My brother-in-law Mike is a kind of “MacGuyver” of the meat world, capable of smoking and frying and dry-rubbing and sauce-slathering with the best of them. If he weren’t a consultant in the Philly ‘burbs, I’m pretty sure he’d be a pitmaster somewhere.
But for the sake of this article, I wanted to reach out to one of the top pros for advice about how to make the most of the smoker this Thanksgiving, and to learn about the tips and techniques that he’d recommend to turn an otherwise ordinary bird into something that will, despite the very different nature of Thanksgiving this year, make it one to remember.
“My family has been smoking turkeys at home and sharing this gift with friends and family for several generations,” explains Chef Keith Taylor of Zachary’s BBQ & Soul in Philadelphia, PA. “I began offering whole smoked turkeys for holiday menus, and my boneless smoked turkey breast is a favorite that we do all year round. Going low and slow with any roast is going to yield great results. When you add smoke to the recipe is when you really level up. A smoked turkey may require a couple extra steps, but in my opinion, it is worth every extra minute.”
He advised that a properly brined and smoked turkey will be moister and more evenly cooked than any oven roasted turkey. It will also have greater yield (less shrink), unmistakable flavor, and have a deep brown hue that is noteworthy. He points out that, “As a chef, I have an appreciation for both cooking methods. What is more forgiving about smoking is that the low temperature helps retain juices and provides a more tender finished bird. High heat is never a good companion for big roasts and long cook times.”
That, of course, holds true for most large cuts of meat. A quickly roasted brisket, done at a high temperature, will reach the proper internal temperature, but because it didn’t benefit from an extended period of time on lower heat, the muscle fibers and connective tissues won’t have had a chance to break down. A tough, chewy piece of meat will be the result.
Once you’ve committed to setting aside the time required to smoke your Thanksgiving turkey, you’ll have to decide on what kind of wood to use. Taylor is partial to “fruit woods, and cherry is a go-to for me. Oak, ash, or poplar are pretty neutral woods that will impart flavor without making your turkey taste like a campfire. Also, this is where I tell people to stay away from mesquite unless you have mastered smoke exposure and control. Mesquite can be overpowering and can impart a bitter flavor profile if you are unfamiliar with its strong qualities.”
Fortunately, a quick trip to most hardware stores will — unless they’re low on stock — reveal a relatively large selection of fruit woods for this exact purpose.
Once you’ve decided on the right wood for your bird, it’s time to season the turkey. Taylor, a purist, recommends “keeping it simple with [a] 50/50 kosher salt/medium grind black pepper rub to start.”
From there, work with the equipment you have. I, personally, own a Weber Smokey Mountain, often called “The Bullet” due to its shape, that I got a few years ago for around $300. It uses charcoal as a heat source, and the wood chunks are scooped right on top of them at regular intervals to maintain a constant stream of smoke. If you don’t have a smoker, however, you can still smoke your turkey.
“As far as gas grills go, they are not my first choice but you can get some pretty tasty results, and experimenting with a few rubs will help with that,” Taylor says. He continues, “You can make this smoked turkey on a gas grill, or type of charcoal grill that you have. As drippings hit your coals or lava rocks (gas grill), it will sputter and smoke, creating some flavors that will be favorable. It is important to note that you do not want to have the turkey directly above the heat. It should be offset from direct heat and enclosed with a lid that will help maintain a consistent temperature.”
In the end, he says, “Controlling time and temperature is the key to great results in smoking. The most important thing is to use a home grill where you can create indirect heat, maintain consistent temperatures, and add in the element of wood to create that smoke profile you’re looking for.”
Taylor also stresses the importance of trussing the turkey. “I always truss whole poultry when smoking,” he explains. “This helps them to cook even and most importantly keep the breast meat juicy. This technique is helpful for oven roasting and it can make the difference between a moist bird and a dry holiday turkey.”
He breaks down the process into four easy steps: Brine the bird, stuff it lightly with root vegetables and aromatics, rub it with your seasoning, and smoke it at 225 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes per pound. It’ll be ready when the internal temperature registers 165 degrees F.
As for accompaniments, Chef Taylor believes that, “side selections are as limitless as the cook’s inspirations. Tradition always comes to mind when any turkey is at the center of the plate during holiday season, and that means something different for every family.”
His preferences, however, sound utterly magnificent. “I am a traditionalist to the core with a little Southern bias. I am all about buttermilk biscuits, baked cornbread stuffing, collard greens, mashed russet potatoes, stewed okra corn and tomatoes, hoppin’ john, herb roasted red potato, gram’s green beans, baked macaroni and cheese, candied sweet potatoes or maple mashed sweet potatoes, cranberry orange relish, honey glazed carrots, natural pan gravy, and baby lima beans with smoked ham hocks,” he says.
It’s a high bar that Chef Taylor is setting, and a delicious one, too. Even this year, small as the crowd will be for most of us, putting in the extra effort to smoke the turkey will make for an added glimmer of light in an otherwise challenging year.