Thanksgiving is one of my favorite times of the year. It's hunting season and eating season and I can do those two things with the best of them. Truth be told, I'm getting to the point where I'd rather make something than eat something and derive more pleasure from the compliments of those who eat the food I make than i do from eating the food I make. So, I was tasked to make the Thanksgiving turkey for the family this year. Oven-basted turkeys are fine and quite frankly, deep fried turkeys are fine as well but most everybody is doing those these days. I like to try and give them something different and smoking fits that bill.
One of the keys, in my opinion, in making a truly succulent, moist turkey is the act of brining the bird. Many do not use this step as most store-bought birds are already injected with a brine solution. I prefer not to use those birds but to buy birds without any brine and do it myself. This year, I wanted to go with maple. My good friends, Deb and Kent, gave me a large container of New Hampshire Grade A Maple Syrup, so I decided this year we'd go with a Maple Brine for the turkey. Here's the recipe I used for the brine:
1 gallon of cold water (or more depending on the size of your bird)
1 1/2 cups of kosher salt
1/4 cup coarse black pepper
8 cloves garlic, minced (the original recipe called for 1 1/2 TBS garlic powder but I always like to used fresh garlic whenever possible; I believe the taste is better)
1/4 small onion, minced (again, the original recipe called for 1/2 TBS onion powder but I like the real thing whenever I can)
2 cups pure Grade A maple syrup (the original recipe called for 1/2 oz maple extract; see above on why I use the real stuff)
2-3 bay leaves
2 cloves (or if ground, use to taste)
I simply put this all together in a container that will hold this and the bird. Prior to putting the bird in the brine, stir it up until the salt is dissolved in the water. Then you simply put the bird in the solution, making sure that the entire bird is submerged in the brine. You may need to use a heavy dish to keep the bird submerged but the key is making sure the entire bird is submerged. You can do one of two things at this point. If you have a container that is large enough to hold the brine and the bird and a refrigerator large enough to hold this, simply place the bird and brine in the refrigerator for 8-12 hours. If you're like me, you have too much stuff in your refrigerator already. I simply use a cooler large enough to hold the bird and brine and then dump a bunch of ice into the brine. This keeps the bird plenty cold enough to hold it for the 12 hour brining period without any fear of having the bird come down with any nasty organisms.
Once the 12 hour brining period is over, you'll want to thoroughly rinse the bird as well as pat it dry both inside and out. If you have the time, I like to air dry the bird as well for a 8-12 hour period inside the refrigerator. I simply place the bird on a rack and place the bird in the refrigerator. I feel like this helps the skin get crispy when being cooked and this helps with that as the smoking process will make the skin rubbery. Another step I like to do is to place pats of butter and some simple spices under the skin of the bird. The key is to add spices that will compliment your brine.
After you have your bird ready for the smoker, I like to get a piece of cheesecloth that is large enough to cover the bird and then soak it in melted butter. If I know that people also like some spice with their smoke, I like to take 1/4-1/2 cup of tabasco sauce and mix it with the melted butter. Simply take the butter-soaked cheesecloth and drape it over the entire bird. This also works well to keep the skin of the bird crisp as well as add an additional flavor to the bird. I'm also a fan of placing bacon strips over the bird prior to draping it with the cheesecloth. In all reality, we're only limited by our imagination on what we can do to spice up a traditional turkey.
After I've put the amount of smoke that I desire on the bird, I simply remove from the smoker and place in a 325F oven to finish getting the bird to temperature (I take mine to 170F as measured in the thigh of the bird). This last step also serves well to finish crisping up the skin as I enjoy the skin as much as the meat. When you're done, you should find your bird will look just like any bird, but it will have a myriad of flavors that just can't be matched by simply placing it in the oven.
Now, I received many praises from the people who'd never had a home-smoked turkey but it was because of the moistness of the bird. They told me that they were hesitant at first because they believed the smoking process would dry out the bird. To be honest, I believe the brining process will lead you to make the most moist bird you've ever made. I've oven-basted, deep-fried and smoked turkeys and I would have to say that a brined, smoked bird will be as moist or more moist than any bird you've ever had. And even if you're not going to smoke your bird, I highly recommend brining your own bird. The taste dimension it adds will make you top turkey in your clan.