BBQ FAQ Section 10.5.3

 

10.5.3 Whole turkey

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[The few turkeys I have done (skin on) I have removed at 170F. Is 160F a "safe" temperature for a whole bird?]

Danny Gaulden--

Sorry for not making myself clear. I NEVER take a skin-on, bone-in turkey out of the smoker at 160F internal temperature, just the skinless, boneless breasts. The breasts are done to perfection (in my opinion) at a temperature of 160F. They are still juicy, but not raw or soft. Remember, the white meat will cook a lot quicker and requires a lower temperature for doneness than the thigh and other dark meat pieces next to thick bone. When I first started smoking whole turkeys (skin on, bone in), I would stick a meat thermometer in the thigh (don't hit a bone, or the thermometer will not read correctly) and take the bird off at between 175-180F, depending on the turkey. (See below).

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[Can you tell me how best to smoke a whole turkey?]

Danny Gaulden--

Smoking turkeys can be one of the most challenging things to do for home barbecuers, for they are normally only cooked during the holiday season. Most folks on the List probably smoke a whole turkey only two or three times a year.

First, what do you look for in a good turkey? There are mainly two kinds for retail sale:

1)   Free-range turkey, which can be a little harder to find, is a turkey that was raised on the ground, in a pen, and actually had the freedom of walking, exercising, etc. like you would think of turkeys raised on an old-fashioned farm. They can tend to be a little tougher because they get to exercise and use their muscles more, but many consider them more flavorful. If slow-smoked properly, their meats can be turned into a tender, delicious morsel.

2)   The most common brand of turkeys found in stores today are your name-brand, mass-produced birds. They are not free-range birds. Butterball and Honeysuckle are a couple of the most popular brands. This is the kind most people smoke for the holidays and can be quite delicious also.

To defrost a turkey properly, it should be done in the refrigerator. Depending on the size of the bird and temperature of your refrigerator, it could take anywhere between three to five days to thaw. After it is thawed, the bird will keep several days in the refrigerator before spoiling.

OK, we are going to discuss the foundations of good, basic, slow-smoking here. Some people brine their turkeys, inject their turkeys, and rub seasonings under the skin. I'm not going to deal with that. After you learn the basics of good slow-smoking, you can experiment with variations.

Early in the morning of the big "turkey" day, take the thawed turkey out of wrapper, remove neck, gizzard, and liver from cavity of turkey and set aside. You would be surprised how many barbecuers have forgotten and left this inside the bird! Wash the bird thoroughly with cold water and pat dry. Remove plastic pop-up thermometer if installed as they don't work. Never trust a pop-up thermometer when smoking a turkey. It will "pop-up" before the bird is done, and get you into trouble.

I like to rub turkey all over with a good olive oil, or liquid vegetable oil. Then, I like to use a good rub which I hand-rub all over the turkey. I prefer to use white pepper vs. black in my turkey rub for black pepper on fowl can appear to look dirty when bird is smoked. Next, fire up the smoker, and when internal temperature in the smoker is around 240F place bird on the smoker, breast-side up.

I aim for a cooking temperature range of 240-250F during the entire smoking process. Every hour or two, take a basting brush and reapply some oil. This helps to keep the skin from becoming dry and tough, plus promotes a nice golden color.

The most difficult part for people who don't smoke a lot of turkeys, is knowing when they are done. For me, this is easy for I have done thousands. On the average, a 12-15 pound bird takes about 6 hours, a 16-20 pound bird can take up to 8 hours. There are no set number of hours per pound for turkeys, for they are not like all other whole meats. Some are just more tender than others even before they are cooked. Here's how I know when my birds are done. I never use a thermometer. I simply "shake-hands" with the drum stick. When it shakes easily and is loose all the way into the thigh-joint, I know it's done. I can also feel the thigh with my hands and can tell when the bird is ready to take off. It will be very soft and tender. I realize this is very challenging for most of you, but once you learn this technique, it is a sure-fire way of knowing when your bird is done. Knowing that this will take practice, I recommend you use a thermometer until you have mastered this technique.

During last year's turkey smoking season, I purposely used a thermometer a few times to give the guys on the List an idea of what temperature I was taking my birds off using my "shake-hands" method. With the thermometer applied deep into the thigh, it was generally reading about 180F. Caution must be taken when using a thermometer. You cannot hit a bone or gristle with the tip of thermometer for it will not give you a true reading. Don't use a thick-stemmed meat thermometer that you find in most grocery stores. I used a long, skinny-stemmed thermometer that reads from 0-220F (Editor--like the probe on a Polder or Sunbeam digital thermometer). This type of thermometer is much easier to use when trying to probe a turkey, plus some can be calibrated. After the bird is done, remove it from smoker, let cool a bit, slice and enjoy.

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[I've heard about injecting turkeys before smoking them. Any tips about how to do this?]

Vince Vielhaber--

First things first, don't stuff it! It'll take too long to get to temperature and the possibility of food poisoning increases. You can do stuffing in the oven.

Get an injector of some form (the stainless steel baster from Chef's Catalog is one, some folks get a horse syringe from a vet). Heat up about 1/4 cup each, sweet white wine, butter and honey until all is mixed and flows easy. Take the bird and inject it straight into the meat in many locations--try not to inject any air. As you inject it you'll see it bulging as it fills. Make sure you get the breast real well and the drumsticks. Use about 1/3-1/2 of the mixture for it. Here's where you can do it two ways. I usually spray it with a garlic/buttery flavored oil.

1   Put the bird in the smoker and keep it in heavy smoke until the skin turns a nice golden brown. Line a pan large enough to hold the turkey with foil and leave enough foil hanging over to wrap the turkey real well. Put the turkey in the pan and pour the remaining injection mixture over the turkey. Wrap it up real tight and put it in a 250-275F oven until it's done (determine either by temperature [don't let the breast go any higher than 165F or you'll dry it out], shaking it's leg or when the juices run clear). I can pretty much tell now by looking at it that it's done.

2   Put the bird in the smoker and smoke normally keeping the temperature at about 225-250F. Baste initially with some oil and re-baste as necessary throughout the smoking process. Determine doneness as in method #1.

Both methods of cooking the bird are easy, the first one being a good solution for when you're going to get some sleep before the football games start, guests start arriving, etc. At Thanksgiving I usually start the bird late in the evening (10 p.m. or so) and use method number one and it'll stay in the oven as long as necessary. Timing's a bit of a pain. I've done smaller turkeys during the day, probably takes about 15-30 minutes per pound (which is why the oven method is preferable--you can also play with the oven temperature to control finish time. Also if it's cold outside you don't really want to be screwing around tending a fire!

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[How do I safely move a turkey on the grill of my smoker?]

Frank Boyer--

Edmont Oven Gloves work well for all large chunks of hot meat like brisket, whole hog, butts and shoulders, turkeys, etc. They are USDA approved.

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[Where can I find a turkey injector?]

Editor--

Check out Cajun Injector at (800) 221-8060 or see their Web page at:

http://www.cajuninjector.com

Their 'Custom Cajun Injector' is about $13 plus shipping.

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[Can someone tell me how to make smoked turkey?]

Dan Sawyer--

I use large bone-in breasts (raw). Remove the bone and slice it with the grain into strips about as big around as your thumb. It brines and smokes up the same as beef (see Dan's article on Smokehouse Jerky in Section 10.2.2). You'll be surprised at how similar it is to beef jerky--a lot of people can't tell the difference. I like to use lemon pepper and smoke with citrus, orange or grapefruit wood if I can get it.

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Thursday, November 25, 1999
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