Let me start by saying that there is no other cooking method that produces a finished turkey anywhere near as wonderful as smoking. There is just no comparison. The meat stays moist, sweet, with all of it’s natural flavor intact, blending with the subtle character of your smoke woods…It is deeply satisfying on a very primitive level, and rightly so. Smoking is one of the oldest cooking methods we know of. If you really want to get the best from your bird, smoking/BBQing is the way to go.
The History of Smoking
It’s always helpful to understand a little about the cooking processes you are using. Smoking is a very, very old cooking method, and we’re pretty sure it started out as a way to preserve meat, making it also one of the oldest food preservation methods still in use.
The process of smoking meat is so old it predates written history, so we can’t be sure exactly when and where it began, but it started before any type of civilization as we know it, all the way back to the Hunter-Gatherer stage of our development. Soon after the last Ice Age, around 14,000 years ago, Homo sapiens were able to travel more extensively due to the melting of the huge sheets of glaciers, and were no longer confined to living in caves in the more southern latitudes. We learned to build shelters and create semi-permanent dwellings consisting of several families and groups. However, it was a while before we learned how to make chimneys, and the early huts were easily filled with smoke, which permeated strips of meat that were hung up to dry slightly, making them easier to carry and store. Someone noticed that meat hung up in smokey huts lasted longer than when hanging it outside, tasted better, and the smoke kept insects and other vermin away from their food stores. It wasn’t long before it became a widespread process, as did dehydrating, which probably came about when someone forgot about the meat and left it smoking too long.
Barbecuing is more of a recipe, than a cooking process. Before you can barbecue (or BBQ, which is how I will refer to it hence…), you have to have smoked meat. BBQ actually refers to a particular type of sauce added to the smoked meat during the last stages of smoking. We can thank Native Americans for this delectable process. When Spanish explorers arrived in the Caribbean Islands during the 16th century, they learned that local tribes (known collectively as the Caribs) often basted smoking meat with wonderful spicy sauces, which the locals called barbecoa. Knowledge of ‘barbecue” spread around the world, and before long, just about every culture on the planet developed its own version of BBQ.
What is Smoking/BBQ?
Smoking is a process that uses the phenols that are released when wood is burned to preserve and flavor meats, vegetables, fruits, cheeses, etc… Phenols are antimicrobial and anti-fungal. But it takes a little time for the phenols to be absorbed into the food, and does not occur at normal cooking temperatures, so the food has to be kept at low enough temperatures for smoking to occur, but high enough to retard any biological contamination during the process. This is why smoking is done at temperatures less than 300ºF. Roasting and baking occur at temperatures above 325ºF. In fact, in Cold Smoking, no heat is used at all on the food. It is placed on an ice bed and smoke is allowed to circulate around it. This is especially great for thin fish fillets, shrimp, very thin-sliced meats, cheeses, and other foods that are very sensitive to heating.
Turning smoked meat into BBQ simply requires the addition of a spicy sauce during the last hour or so of smoking. There are hundreds of different types of BBQ Sauces ranging from a simple catsup and Liquid Smoke mixture, to concoctions that rival Quantum Physics in complexity, and may someday create Cold Fusion… There are no set rules for making BBQ sauces, but the most common ones use readily available bases such as tomatoes, tomato sauce, catsup, mustard, vinegars, beer, wine, liquors, peppers, onions, garlic, spices, and even mayonnaise (which is the base for my all-time favorite BBQ sauce, Alabama White BBQ Sauce. If you’ve never tried it, you really need to….). The only real rule is that it probably shouldn’t be too toxic… Other than that, anything goes…
Tools Of The Trade
First off, you will need a smoker. This can be a smokehouse, or even a pit smoker, but these are usually only going to be available to people in very rural settings, and if this applies to you, you probably already have one, and don’t need me to tell you about them. For most people, you will need to buy, or build a smoker/grill. While it is possible to smoke food on a normal grill, it is a lot more problematic, and does not do as good a job. True smokers are inexpensive in their basic form, and can also be used as a normal grill, so there is really no reason not to have one.
There are three main types of smokers; an upright, or canister smoker, an offset smoker, and a cabinet smoker. There are advantages and disadvantages to each of the three types, and I can’t say that one type is any better than the other. I have all three, and use them all pretty much equally. If I am just smoking 1 turkey, I usually use my canister smoker. If I am doing more than one turkey, or combining it with other meats such as a ham, then I use my offset smoker because it holds a lot more food. But it also requires a lot more wood and charcoal to use. I use my cabinet smoker mostly for things that I want to hang, such as rib racks, making bacon, hams, whole fish, etc…
As you can see, a canister smoker is not very complicated. In fact, I have made several really nice ones from discarded 55-gal. steel oil drums. Coals and smoke wood are fed oxygen from the lower vent so they keep smoldering. The vents are usually adjustable so you can control the temperature. More air = more heat. Above the coals is a water bowl/drip tray. You can fill it with any liquid you want, from plain water, to beer, spirits, juices, etc.., or nothing at all, for dry smoking. It keeps your food from drying out, but also catches dripping juices from the food so that the fats will not ignite flames in the coals, which would ruin your food. The turkey is placed above all of this on a grate. The top of the smoker comes off for easy access. On the very top, there are more vents to promote smoke and air circulation. These are also adjustable. It is not in the drawing, but most canister smokers will come with a thermometer mounted on the lid, so you can monitor the internal temperature. The legs hold the entire unit up off of the ground so as not to start any accidental fires, but it should still be placed on a non-flammable surface, just to be safe. The advantages of canister smokers are that they are inexpensive, easy to use, do a fantastic job, and are easily transported, so they can be used at the lake, tailgate parties, etc…. They are light and easily cleaned. They also work as a straight grill for hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks, or whatever.
Offset smokers are usually much larger, some as large as 12-15 feet long, large enough for a whole hog or side of beef. As a rule, the average size of an offset smoker designed for home use is less than 5 feet long, big enough for several turkeys and maybe a few hams. As you can guess, offset smokers are great for smoking large volumes of food at once. They do require a lot more coals and smoke wood, but your are smoking a lot more food as well, so they are still economical. And, they make great large grills for cooking dozens of hamburgers, hot dogs, several chickens, etc… You can place the coals right under the grates, just like a regular grill, for direct heat cooking. The main advantage to an offset smoker, other than size, is that the coals can be placed in a separate fire box, so there is no danger of a flame up from dripping fats. On many units, the top of the firebox also doubles as a works station, or a place to keep things like sauces warm while the rest of the food is finishing. The firebox has an adjustable vent which draws in air and keeps the coals and smoke wood smoldering. Another vent placed above the coals leads to the main body, where smoke is drawn in, around the food, and out through the chimney, which also has an adjustable vent to control the temperature. Just as on the canister smoker, many units come with a built-in thermometer to monitor the smoking temperature.
Cabinet smokers, while appearing outwardly similar to the canister type, are somewhat less versatile, because they cannot be used as a grill. They most closely resemble a refrigerator sitting on a fuel box. They have heavy doors and the shelves are adjustable to accommodate different sizes and cuts of food. Although there are some rare models that are wood fueled, the vast majority of cabinet smokers are electric, or propane fueled. All you do is place your smoke wood in the bottom, turn them on, set the time and temperature, and pretty much forget about them until everything is done. The front loading doors make it easy to load and unload, and since they are electric or propane, much easier to control the temperature. They also have hooks for hanging meat while it is smoking.
Whichever type of smoker you decide on, be sure you understand how to use them before actually trying to smoke a turkey with them.
Wood Is Good
Different types of wood will give you different tastes. Most kinds of wood that are not toxic (unlike pine…never try to smoke with pine wood…) can be used to smoke food. But, some woods are more suitable. For instance, cedar can be used, but your turkey will probably taste like a set of dresser drawers. For turkeys, the best woods are hickory, mesquite, apple, cherry, and maybe pecan. You can mix your smoke woods, and my favorite mix for turkey is half hickory, or mesquite, and half cherry. It gives a wonderful sweet and smokey flavor with just a hint of fruit.
Most smoke wood will be in chunks or chips. If you want to use chunks, you can omit charcoal and just use the wood by itself, but it will burn a little hotter and quicker than charcoal, so keep a close watch on the temperature and adjust as needed. Chips will usually need to be soaked in water for a bit, so that they smolder rather than quickly burn up. Either way, you will probably be adding more smoke wood several times during the process. There is another alternative, however. Some companies, like A-Maze-N Smoking Products make wonderful little smoke wood pellets that burn great, are inexpensive and last for a long time. They have a special tray that you simply load with the pellets, light one end, and it burns like a fuse, for about 10-14 hours, so you usually never have to add more wood. They even work for cold smoking. There are other pellet brands available as well, and though I have not used all of them, the ones I have used all worked great. I highly recommend using pellets for consistent results.
To Brine is Divine…
I can’t recommend strongly enough that any meat destined for smoking needs to be brined. You will be subjecting the meat to hours and hours of heat and smoke, all of which can dry out meat. Brining causes the individual cells in the meat to become saturated with all the water (and flavor) they can hold. Without going into complicated chemistry, the salt n the brine causes the cells to suck in all the water they can hold. It is because of the natural tendency of everything in the universe to seek a state of equilibrium, also called homeostasis. If one area is hotter than another, the heat and cold will mix with each other to even out the temperature. If something has more salt outside than inside, it will attempt to draw the salty water into itself to equalize everything. Salt cannot cross the cell barrier because the molecules are too big, but the water can, so the cells become saturated. The salt stays on the outside, where it can be rinsed off.
Injecting liquid into the turkey does no good, because the liquid does not absorb into the cells, and most of it just leaks out of the same holes it went in during the long smoking process. Brining is the only way to guarantee a moist, flavorful finished product. It really does make a huge difference.
You can use just about any combination of liquid. Good choices are fruit juices, especially apple, beers and ales, modest amounts of spirits, condiments, etc… Or you can use just plain water. My personal favorite is apple cider. Limit the flavor liquids to no more than 10% of the total liquid, or it can interfere with the brining process.
The amount of salt needs to be 1 cup of salt for every gallon of liquid you use. Any less, and the meat will not absorb the liquid properly. It’s better to err on the side of more salt, rather than less. You will be rinsing the salt off before cooking anyway. The brining process takes about 1 hour per pound, so for a 20 lb. turkey you need to allow at least 20 hours brining time.
So how much liquid to you need? The easiest way to determine how much water you will need is to get your container (I use a cooler) that you will be brining the turkey in, place the turkey in it and cover it with water. Remove the turkey and one gallon of water, and what’s left is how much water you will need. Remember, your turkey must be kept cold during the brining process, so it will have to be in the ‘fridge, or you will be adding ice several times during the process. Unless you have a huge refrigerator, it is easier to use a cooler, and just add ice when needed. When using ice, remember, as it melts it will dilute the brine, so you should increase the salt content of the brine to 1-1/2 or even 2 cups per gallon of liquid to compensate.
There are lots of great brine recipes online. My favorite brine is 2 quarts apple cider, some sage, garlic, onion, a little rosemary, and a little thyme. Add this to one gallon of water and boil it for around 8 minutes. Add this to the rest of the water and stir. Allow this to cool (or g ahead and add the ice), then pour it over the turkey, put on the cooler lid, and check it ever few hours, adding ice when needed. It also doesn’t hurt to turn the turkey once in a while.
When the turkey is brined, rinse it very, very well inside and out, and discard the brine (never, ever use the brine to make a sauce or gravy, as it has been in contact with raw poultry). Pat the bird as dry possible, and let it sit in the refrigerator for a few hours, if you can, to allow it to dry some more. You can add a rub now, if desired.
Stoke the Smoke…
About 30 minutes before you want to start smoking, fire up the smoker and make sure it is putting out smoke ( it doesn’t really take that much smoke for the process to work… ), and it is at between 235ºF – 260ºF. Any less than 235ºF and you risk bacterial contamination. Any more than 260ºF and you stop smoking and start slow-roasting.
Once your smoker is right, put liquids in the water/drip tray if desired, add the turkey, close the smoker, and smoke it for 30 minutes per pound. This means our 20 pound bird will need to smoke for about 10 hours. There is no need to baste, but you can check the bird and turn it every few hours if you want. But do keep a close eye on the temperature and smoke wood, and adjust when necessary.
If you want to barbecue your turkey, begin basting the bird with your favorite sauce during the last 2 hours of cooking. I usually give it a good coat every 30 minutes. Don’t sauce it during the last 15 minutes of smoking, so that it will create a wonderful crispy, spicy crust.
Your turkey is done when the internal temperature in the breast is 180ºF. Remove the bird and let it rest for 15 to 20 minutes before serving.
Your turkey should have a delectable reddish appearance and smell like a slice of Heaven. It will be tender, moist, and irresistible. There are few things in life that can equal eating smoked turkey. You worked hard. Now it’s time to enjoy the fruits of your labors.
But the smoking process is not over just because the food is done. You need to care for your smoker. After removing the turkey, extinguish the coals, or allow them to burn out by closing all the vents, and let the smoker cool. There is no big hurry, so go ahead and enjoy your banquet. Once everything is cool, remove the ash, but be careful. Even though it feels cool, hot embers can hide in ashes for hours. Kill any embers you find. I usually spray my ashes with the garden hose just to be sure that all embers are dead. Once you are sure all embers are dead, you can just scatter the ashes wherever you want, or place them in a garbage bag and dispose of them. Next, you need to scrub out the smoker. I use the garden hose and a wire brush, but sometimes I take the smoker to a local car wash and blast it with super-hot water and detergent. And don’t forget to clean the grates, as well. However you do it, be sure to rinse it well, then dry it completely. Once it is dry, I coat the insides and grates with a thin coat of olive oil, or food-grade mineral oil. If you don’t, the bottom of your smoker will eventually rust through and your grates will look nasty.
Once everything is done, cover the smoker and store it in a dry area. Now, you can congratulate yourself on a job well done.