Turkey is an American favorite. Unlike a lot of other meats, turkey is usually only eaten once or twice a year. Like other fowl, turkey has a dark and a white meat. The science behind this is in the activity level. The coveted white meat in the turkey breast for example is considered a fast-twitch muscle. Since turkeys don't fly for long periods of time their chest muscles get large, used for hard and fast contractions. On the other hand, their legs are small and support a lot of weight constantly. These muscles turn dark with the need for constant, extended use. These are called slow-twitch muscles. Why go into the science you ask? Dark meat, because of its extra fibers and proteins needs a higher temperature to cook through than white meat. This is the ultimate cause of the ever dry turkey breast. We will show you how to beat this problem while making the best smoked turkey around.
One of the most popular methods in the last few years has been the "deep fried turkey". This isn't like KFC turkey, it's just a whole turkey dumped into a huge vat of ultra-hot oil. The advantage to this method is that the turkey cooks so fast and the oil is so hot that not a lot of water is able to escape making the meat extremely juicy. Now, everyone has had that dry turkey you have to literally drown in gravy to make it edible so and that's what makes this deep fry method so intriguing. Here's the problem, every year, lots of people are seriously injured and/or burn their houses down trying to make their family great turkey. Ladies and gentleman, there IS another way: Smoked Turkey!
We'll show you a step-by-step method that we use to smoke our turkeys. Smoked turkey tastes great, it's a unique offering at the dinner table, extremely juicy and most importantly won't burn your house down (most likely). We aren't going to give you an exact recipe here but, we'll give you a really good guide to let you go out and make your own smoked turkey.
To start, we need a turkey, obviously. You can go one of a few ways on this, you can buy a store bought turkey from your local grocer or pay an extra premium for a fresh turkey. The differences, basically, are as follows: mass market turkeys are all very similar and will probably be more uniform in taste than not, most of them will also be "self-basted". Self-basted are turkey's that were injected with a salty solution in the factory called a brine. The injection makes the turkey moist when cooking and allows for more uniformity in taste and texture. A fresh turkey is just that, a fresh turkey, if you are feeling adventurous this is the way to go, you can brine the turkey yourself and you will definitely be able to tell the difference. Moving on, most likely, when you buy your turkey, it will be frozen.You'll need to make sure it thaws sufficiently before you try and throw in on the smoker. A good rule of thumb is thawing the turkey for about 24 hours for every 4 pounds of bird you are trying to smoke.
After your turkey thaws pull out all the giblets and set those aside, we'll talk about those later. I usually will trim the bird a little bit at this point, I'll take off any excess skin, the tail and the tips of the wing. Now, you have a few options of what to do with the trimmings and giblets. You can set them aside for gravy, you can throw away the trimmings and just cook up the giblets (they happen to be quite tasty), or my favorite, save everything for smoked gravy!
Now that the bird is trimmed it's time to throw some rub on, I prefer a wet rub. I won't give away my recipe here because I do it a little different depending on what I want the turkey to taste like. A good rule of thumb is to use a little bit of sugar and some good herbs. Rosemary, thyme and especially sage are pretty basic herbs to start with a basic rub. I usually use a little spice as well, pepper or cayenne are what I usually use. Anyway, mix your rub in the olive oil, preferably you would have done this the night before as the herbs are oil soluble and when rubbed on to the bird will soak into the bird. A little tip here, lift up the skin on the breast side of the bird here, the rub will penetrate the meat better, you won't regret it.
Ok, so, your bird is trimmed, rubbed and ready to go let's talk about gravy for a second. Gravy is a fundamental part of any turkey dinner, seriously though, who serves turkey without gravy? Anyway, this recipe for smoked gravy is adapted from amazingribs.com. Now, there's a lot of freedom here in what you put in the gravy and usually what I do is start with a base of chicken stock and water... you can go half and half on this or a little more water than stock, up to you. From here, add your turkey trimmings, giblets and you are off to a great gravy base. Now comes the flavor, I add a lot of the same herbs that I use in my rub, rosemary, sage and thyme, also, cut a couple onions in half and throw those in too, skin on (this adds that nice dark color to the gravy). Lastly, a splash of apple cider vinegar some carrots, celery and some fresh apple and orange slices should do the trick. Again, play with this recipe, its seriously one of the most amazing things you'll ever taste and it will definitely set your turkey dinner apart from anyone else's. Remember this gravy is thin, it's not that gloppy thick gravy your used to, this gravy soaks in to the meat and makes an already moist turkey even more moist and flavorful. If you want to throw in a little flour, thicken it up a little for potatoes, that's fine, it's still amazing and you won't regret it. Last thing, DO NOT I repeat DO NOT add salt until AFTER the gravy is ready to be served, the gravy will be underneath the turkey, catching drippings, those drippings are very salty and most likely you will not need to add any extra salt to the gravy.
Time to throw the bird on the smoker, I generally smoke turkey at much higher temps than traditional smoking theory calls for. Why? Because turkey is a very lean meat, it doesn't need hours and hours to break down fat and connective tissue. I smoke turkey at 275 - 300 (with about 4 to 4.5 ounces of wood) for a few hours, until the safe temperature is reached of 165 degrees. Don't forget your pan underneath the turkey with your gravy base, this will cook as you smoke the turkey adding moisture to the air and helping regulate temperature as well!
One quick not on wood, don't use anything too strong, turkey will quickly take on a bitter taste with a wood with too strong of a flavor. I generally use apple, it's light and very hard to use too much.
After the bird is done and ready to be pulled out of the smoker, tip the bird up so the juices inside the cavity fall into your gravy pan, take the bird out and let it rest for a little while so that the juices re-distribute. Take this time to strain your gravy and get that ready to serve. Carve your turkey and enjoy the best turkey meal you have ever tasted!