All right, it’s silly. But I was up before 7:00 am to do this, so I thought “Why the heck not?” With stage 1 complete, and coffee at my elbow …
6:40am: The interwebs can be a blessing and a curse.
I smoked my first turkey when I was a teenager. And no, it didn’t take an entire case of EZ-Widers. My dad had a smoker (much like the one pictured below) and we’d had them before. So, one year for my birthday, I decided I wanted smoked turkey. Now, my birthday falls in August, so it’s going to be a big summer party pretty much guaranteed, it’s going to be out at the lake, and it required a big bird which takes a long time using this cooking method. So they said “fine, but you’re going to smoke it yourself” … probably thinking I wouldn’t do it.
Well, Charlie Kaderabek and I spent the night at the cabin to be able to get up at oh-dark-thirty to get this thing going. The smoker was charcoal, of course. Noting so easy as turning a dial and having the electricity go to the correct temperature. We were using a chimney – style starter, which I use to this day, but it was giving us fits. I distinctly remember at one point one of us threatening to turn the smoker into a beehive, but we finally got the fire going, got the bird on, tended it all day under the watchful eye of dad and his friends after they all got to the cabin, and it was honest-to-god the best turkey ever. Smoking remains, IMHO, the best way to cook turkey, and for thanksgiving, it’s probably the most traditional.
Anyway, in the immortal words of Arlo Guthrie, I told you that story to tell you this one.
As I said, I’ve been smoking turkeys for a long time, thought never regularly. So now, with the advent of the interwebs, I thought “I’ll just hit a couple of sites and see how long this should take. After all, I’m not the only one cooking, so I’ll need to have this ready SOMEWHERE close to the time we’re planning dinner … which was never really clearly established.
Our turkey is about 15 pounds. Not the monsters that mom used to get for Thanksgiving. She told me the other day “I used to just buy the biggest one I could find”, but for smoking, all the recommendations are for not above 15 pounds because of the slow cooking time. This is problem 1 with the Internet. Innocence is gone, and you learn that the things you’ve been doing all your life CAN KILL YOU … or at least make your family very sick at Thanksgiving … years of empirical evidence to the contrary not withstanding.
Problem 2 with the Internet is that for every person posting a web page or blog, there’s a different opinion about how long a turkey should be on the smoker. I remember it being an all-day process, so I got up early. But some said “20-30 minutes per pound”, which would be about 2-3 pounds per hour which translates to 5-7 hours cooking … and some said “I never take my thermometer out of it’s holster until after about 12 hours”. A pretty broad range. Still, you can see I’ve pre-inserted a probe into the turkey, which I’m sure is incorrectly inserted. The temps coming up way too fast, so I’m guessing it’s near the cavity.
7:20 am. Smoker’s Ready
Prep began yesterday, when I put the bird in a brining solution of a cup of salt, two cups of apple cider vinegar, a few cloves and some poultry seasoning. Lots of people put brown sugar in their brine, but I didn’t. That goes in a really clean cooler, along enough water and ice to completely submerge the bird. Into the fridge overnight. Outside, I put big hickory chunks into water to soak.
This morning, I built a charcoal fire in the smoker and let it pre-heat up to about 300 degrees. On the turkey is a paste of olive oil, garlic powder, and poultry seasoning (mostly rubbed sage) and some kosher salt. Inside, I cut up an apple and stuffed that and a big wad of fresh rosemary into the cavity of the turkey. In the water pan in the smoker is some red wine and water. The juices will drip down from the turkey into the pan and self-baste through the entire cooking process.
Well-soaked hickory chunks go in right on top of the charcoal, but since they’ve been in water all night, they just smolder rather than burn.
8:45 Making Progress
So, here it is. All buttoned up and smoking away. As I said above, I know I’ve incorrectly inserted the probe, simply because the temperature is coming up way too fast, which means it’s probably too near the cavity. All that’s in there is air, apples, and rosemary, and so I think I’m taking the temperature of the cavity rather than the meat. I’ll re-position it in a couple of hours when I add charcoal and water.
This is probably as traditional a way to cook turkey as it gets. It’s very likely that early harvest festival celebrants had a variety of smoked meats on the menu … since that was the only way to preserve anything back in those days before refrigeration. I’m not a dewy-eyed traditionalist when it comes to these kinds of things, but I do think this is about the best way to prepare a turkey … bar none. It’s honestly pretty easy, it’s more flavorful than any other cooking method (IMHO), and the end result is just gorgeous when it comes out of the smoker. Because of the very moist environment, the meat doesn’t dry out, the long, slow cooking method allows all the connective tissue to loosen up and soften … and the neighbors all know you’re doing something different for Thanksgiving. There’s a distinct aroma of hickory, wine, rosemary, and turkey wafting through the neighborhood.
um … is it time to eat yet?
Update – 11:35 am
I let things get a little warm in the smoker … almost up to 300 degrees, so now comes the temperature adjusting. Little damper openings in the top and bottom of the smoker are surprisingly efficient, and I damped it down too much, down to about 225, and was in danger of putting the fire out.
More charcoal, more hickory, open up the dampers … and it’s a little too warm again. I’ve made another adjustment, added water to the pan, and we’ll see how it goes. The temperature is up to 145, which is still more than I expected, but I did re-position the probe, so it may be a bit more accurate. We’ll get way down in there later, but I’m sure it’s got at least 3 hours to go to 170 … and some places recommend as high as 180.
Oh, and bread is rising as well. More on that later.
Update – 2:00 pm
161 degrees internal temperature. It’s really slowed down the past two hours, which is a good thing. Smoker temperature is a perfect 250. Right on track.