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graphicSmoked turkey a Pilgrim could love

The technique can be tricky, but cooking your Thanksgiving bird outdoors on your grill lends a taste of traditional Americana that's worth the effort.


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2000

[Times photo — Scott Keeler]
To pay homage to the first Thanksgiving dinner, let the smoke of a fire fueled by apple and oak woods flavor your turkey.

In other words, crank up the barbecue and cook your turkey outdoors.

Smoked meats, turkey among them, were on the menu when the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians celebrated the harvest in 1621 in what is considered the first Thanksgiving. The legend of this American holiday is rooted in that hallmark dinner, though it is more likely that a day of thanks for the Puritans would have revolved around prayer and fasting, rather than stuffing themselves silly.

For Russ Buchan, who owns Buchan Gas, the Barbecue Store, a St. Petersburg gas appliance and barbecue-grill store his parents established in 1954, a smoked turkey is the "way the Thanksgiving turkey should be presented."

"It's an American holiday, and I'm a traditionalist," he said. "A smoked turkey maintains the spirit of the holidays and celebrates the harvest."

Unlike the deep-fried turkey we wrote about last week, you'll need much less equipment to smoke a turkey. If you've got a charcoal grill with a lid, you're pretty much set. The other items such as hot pads, briquettes, flavored wood and a meat thermometer are easily obtained. (Turkey can be smoked by a water method on gas grills, but some barbecue experts contend that technique lessens the smokey flavor.)

The deep, woodsy flavor of a smoked turkey pairs well with side dishes that owe their beginnings to the Pilgrims but have been updated for modern tastes. Buchan shares some of his favorite recipes on this page, including Apricot-Sausage Stuffing, Zucchini Custard and Buttermilk Cornbread. I would add a Triple-Cranberry Sauce and a tasty succotash with a cherry tomato zing.

Try kid-friendly Indian Pudding with Nutmeg Ice Cream instead of the traditional pumpkin pie for dessert.

Smoked turkey a Pilgrim could love
The technique can be tricky, but cooking your Thanksgiving bird outdoors on your grill lends a taste of traditional Americana that's worth the effort.

Thanksgiving, basted in tradition
Smoke-Grilled Cider-Basted Turkey

Brine a turkey for delicious, moist white meat
The age-old problem with cooking a turkey is that the white meat is often dry compared with the moist, tasty dark meat. That's why they invented gravy, folks.

Chat about food
Want to share a fabulous Thanksgiving recipe or find out what others are making this year? How about reviewing a recipe you've tried from the St. Petersburg Times' Taste section?

Turkey 4 Ways

Click here if you missed last week's installment.

Buchan, a co-founder of the Tampa Bay chapter of the International Food and Wine Society, is a meticulous outdoor chef, researching his subjects extensively. When we asked him to share with Times readers his knowledge about smoking turkeys, he smoked one in preparation and kept careful notes about when he did what. I also smoked one, for the first time, keeping no notes and winging it most of the way. You will probably fall somewhere in between. Both Buchan and I claimed success, though there were grumblings at my house that the deep-fried turkey, with its Cajun spices, was more flavorful.

The following are tips from the pro and the amateur about how to smoke a turkey.

How it works

A turkey is smoked on a barbecue with indirect heat, which means the coals below are banked on either side of the bird rather than directly beneath. Direct heat is called grilling and is for fast-cooking food such as steaks.

For direct or indirect cooking, it is imperative, according to Buchan, that the coals be ash white before you begin to cook. When they are ash white, they are at their hottest and are not likely to flare if grease drops on them. Because a turkey has to cook for hours, you don't want the fire to flame and char the skin. A smoked whole turkey should be a dark mahogany.

The equipment

Buchan has smoked many turkeys over the years with success and is partial to the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker, called the "Bullet" by people on the barbecue circuit.

The Bullet, a tall, round smoker, costs about $180. The fuel chamber sits well below the food, letting the smoke from the wood and charcoal waft up to cook whatever you've got on the grill. (There are two grill grates, so it's possible to do a turkey and a ham at the same time.) There is a door for easy access to the charcoal chamber when you need to add more fuel. An access door keeps you from taking the lid on and off, which drops the temperature inside the grill. A thermometer is mounted in the lid of the Bullet.

The smoker also has a water pan used to catch drippings, to keep the air moist and to keep the heat from climbing too high.

I borrowed a relatively new 221/2-inch Weber kettle charcoal barbecue from a colleague. It was well-suited to the task, thanks to the thermometer attached to the lid, the charcoal baskets that hug the sides of the kettle and the hinged side panels in the grill grate that let me add charcoal as the cooking process went on. Without the hinged panels, I would have had to take the turkey and cooking grate off to add charcoal.

I didn't fuss much with regulating the temperature, and the gauge hovered around 250 to 300 degrees. Buchan instructed me that this was okay.

The kettle's owner had warned me not to touch the thermometer or the levers that control the vents without a hot pad or oven mitts. I forgot only once. Ouch. Once the coals burn to ash white there isn't a lot of smoke pouring out of the top of the grill, and it is easy to forget how hot the barbecue is. Trust me and my blistered finger.

The fuel

To smoke a turkey like a pro, add wood chunks and/or wood chips to charcoal that has already turned ash white. Select a charcoal that is not soaked in lighter fluid because that flavor will permeate your meat.

Buchan, a Weber guy all the way, used Weber charcoal, about 16 pounds for his 13-pound bird. I used Kingsford, about eight pounds for a 10-pound turkey.

There is a consensus among barbecue folks that the sweet smoke of fruit woods, such as apple and pear, and white oak and hickory are best for poultry, turkey especially. Mesquite is too harsh for the subtle flavor of the meat.

Buchan used a combination of oak and apple chunks for his turkey, about seven in all, each the size of tennis balls. He likes to let the chunks char on all sides before putting the turkey on the grill.

"This alleviates the bitter, rough smoke," Buchan said.

I soaked some hickory chips in water, drained them and tossed them on the hot coals. Dampening the chips prevents them from burning like kindling.

Buchan did not have to add charcoal or wood to his fire. His smoker held enough fuel for the 2 hours and 45 minutes the turkey was cooking.

I added charcoal twice because the baskets on the Weber kettle don't hold as much as the Bullet. You'll know you need more charcoal when what you have has burned to about half the size. On purpose, I did exactly what Buchan told me not to: I added black charcoal to those already ashen, which dropped the temperature. To avoid this, he said, have charcoal ready in another barbecue or a chimney starter. But not having either, I wondered how drastically my turkey would be affected if the temperature plunged. The turkey tasted okay, but it wasn't great, and I'm sure my renegade technique had something to do with that. (Just between you and me, I ran short of Kingsford charcoal and used a few quick-light briquettes. The lighter fluid taste was obvious.)

Controlling heat

If your barbecue does not have a thermometer gauge in the lid, place an inexpensive oven thermometer on the grill grate next to the turkey. This isn't the best situation, because you'll have to lift the lid to check, which will let heat out. Your goal is to maintain a temperature of about 300 degrees, which will cook your turkey at a rate of 20 minutes per pound.

Use the vents on your barbecue to control the heat. ALWAYS leave the top vents open to allow heat to escape and to let air in. Fire needs air to burn. The bottom vents should be open when you start the charcoal and then shut about halfway during cooking. If the temperature is too low, open the vents a little more.

When done, close top and bottom vents to suffocate the fire.

The turkey

The best size turkey for smoking is about 12 to 14 pounds. Any bigger than that and it will take more fuel and time than it is worth. A bigger turkey will be closer to the banked coals, and its skin will probably char.

Make sure the turkey is thawed completely, and don't forget to remove the organs stored in the cavity. Buchan rubbed his bird with olive oil, followed with a rubbing of salt and white ground pepper inside and out. Some barbecuers like to season with a mixture of spices such as ground sage, onion and garlic powder, thyme and black pepper. I used a recipe from Rick Rodgers' Thanksgiving 101 (Broadway Books, 1998) for cider-basted turkey. It was more complicated, but I think it gave the turkey a nice oomph. This recipe calls for the turkey to be smoked in a disposable aluminum roasting pan filled with 2 cups of water. The water adds moisture to the smoke. (The meat from the part of the bird that was in the water was stupendous.) The turkey can also be placed directly on the grill grate.

Stuffing a turkey has fallen out of favor these days for safety reasons, which is fine for a barbecued bird because the stuffing can get oversmoked and taste bad. An oven-baked dressing is just as good.

The turkey is done when its internal heat, measured by a meat thermometer, reaches 160 to 180 degrees. The bird should rest for 20 minutes before carving.

You'll notice a "smoke ring," a thin, pink layer of meat, under the skin. Don't mistake the smoke ring for undercooked meat. It's the mark of well-smoked meat.

* * *

If I can smoke a turkey, anyone can. Whether you like the results is a matter of preference. The process is not difficult but takes babysitting. Practice, in this case, does make perfect, and that's the difference between my novice, haphazard effort and Buchan's time-tested way. It's worth a try.

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