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Cooking a Turkey

Updated on November 20, 2011

Easy Turkey on the Grill

Cooking a Turkey. Probably one of the most daunting tasks home cooks undertake. Thanksgiving just rolls around too soon doesn't it?

But it need not be so much of a problem. Cooking a turkey can be an easy, even fun project and really doesn't involve a lot of work. The secret? Brine that Bird!

Now if you're not familiar with brining a a turkey, it's basically soaking the meat in water with some salt and other good stuff. How it works is an argument among chefs, personally I don't care about the science and won't be going into that. What I can tell you is that it works and among competition cookers, it's a secret to success.

I use brines on many meats, venison, ribs, chickens and especially turkeys. What I'm going to tell you is how to cook a turkey on the grill, although it would be easily modified for the oven. First let's start with the bird. Now you can use one of the packaged frozen turkeys from the supermarket, ie: Butterball, with no problem whatsoever, but for the best in taste, either a wild bird you shot yourself or one of the "free range" turkeys from someone like Eberly. If you do use a frozen supermarket bird, be sure to get one that isn't packaged in a brine or is labeled self basting. These are already packed with salt and will not brine well.

Whichever you choose, it needs to be of a modest size, 14-18 pounds is great, if you need more than that, you're better off cooking two. The smaller birds will have better flavor and are easier to cook, larger birds may not heat up internally until the outer parts are drying up. Let it thaw in the refrigerator for a couple of days and you're ready to begin.

There are hundreds of brine recipes on the internet, but you don't have to overthink it. Half a gallon of water, Two cups of Kosher salt and Half a cup of brown sugar are all you really need. You can pop certain flavors by using different fruit juices, apple and pineapple are popular. I will often use a cup of coconut water and a cup of pineapple to give a nice, sweet base layer then pop it again with heat. More on heat later. For the juice, don't use one of those concentrates, buy only 100% juice that has not been concentrated or had anything added to it. You can usually find a wide variety of very interesting juices at health food stores and at Whole Foods, so give them a shot. It's probably best to go ahead and heat your brine to just under boiling and see that it's mixed well. I do this at home, but if I'm cooking for a large gathering or a competition, rarely do. I just mix thoroughly and then dump into a container that will hold the bird and brine and that I can keep cold. I use a large water cooler, 7 gallons, for turkeys, five gallon buckets and large Zip-Lock style bags also work fine. Pour your brine into the container and add 1 and 1/2 gallons of ice cold water, or slightly more if needed to completely submerge, and stir well. Then give your turkey a good cleaning in cold water and add it to the brine. If there's not enough to completely cover the turkey, mix up a little more. If you use a cooler or bucket, you need to weight the bird down so it stays submerged. An easy way is to first put the turkey in a mesh bag, like what oranges and potatoes come in, tie it off, then put a cast iron skillet lid on top of it. The mesh bag gives you an easy way to handle a wet turkey and the lid will keep it weighted down. Let this sit for 12 hours and then flip the turkey over and let it sit for another 12 hours.

After sitting, remove the turkey from the brine and rinse inside and out very thoroughly with cold water. Be sure to remove all the brine you can from the bird and then pat dry with a towel. Now the first secret to crispy skin is to get the outside dry. The best way is to put the uncovered turkey in the refrigerator for an hour or so. The air recirculation will completely dry the skin for you. Then take a toothpick or icepick and prick the skin all over the surface. You want excess fat to have someplace to go.

Now comes the time for flavoring. You can do many things, from just rubbing the bird down with a good brown mustard to exotic spices and injections. Myself, I take some of Emeril's New York Deli Style mustard and rub it onto the breast, Under the skin.I also will rub it inside the turkey, being sure to cover all surfaces. For that extra pop of heat I mentioned earlier, I'll add a spoonful of horseradish and half a spoon of Habanero sauce to the mustard. On the outside of the skin I use a dry rub, typically just paprika, cumen, rosemary, fresh cracked white and black pepper and dill. You can adjust that to your own taste. Remember, the idea is to layer flavors and never hide the true taste of the turkey. You always want to know that this is turkey you're eating so don't go overboard with spices and flavoring. You can wrap the bird in plastic and let it sit in the refrigerator for a couple of hours, but personally I just leave it out, covered up with a loose paper bag for about twenty or thirty minutes. Putting it back in the fridge will cause condensation to form and that time you spent getting a dry turkey was wasted.

Most stores will sell some sort of olive oil in a spritzer bottle or you may already have one. A can of Olive Oil cooking spray also works well for the next step. What you want to do is lightly mist the outside of the turkey with oil. You don't want to use a lot or you will mess up your rub and the skin won't crisp. Just a light spritzing until you see a thin oil sheen is all you need.

Now for the heat source, I use my large cooker as I'm generally doing several birds at once. You can do this on any grill that gives you enough room though, sometimes I'll just do a couple of breasts on my small patio grill and have excellent results. If you have a large enough cooker, use indirect heat, if not, use some aluminum foil or other shielding to deflect the heat and get it rolling around in the cooker. I start by heating the cooker for an hour or so with regular charcoal, this pre-heat is essential to even cooking. I'm looking for the cooker to be an even 250 degrees Fahrenheit. About thirty minutes before the meat goes in I'll start heating with hickory and smoking with apple and drop the temperature to 230 and try to keep it there. This combination gives a wonderful flavor to any meat although you can use whatever hardwood you like. I'm always sure to use well-seasoned wood that has been debarked. Bark can add a bitter aroma and may affect your finished product. I cook directly on the grates, using a pan or aluminum foil under the bird will result in a mushy underside. If it's a small backyard grill, laying a piece of aluminum foil on the top of the turkey, shiny side up, for the first couple of hours may help even cooking.

You will hear a lot about using a higher temperature to sear the outside and then cutting back to cook, but I don't think it's necessary and just adds one more thing to go wrong. Cooking at 230 will give you a wonderful turkey and following the following steps will ensure a crispy skin.

You will want to cook at 230 for about 30 minutes a pound. I will smoke with apple for about three hours on a 15 pound turkey and then switch to straight hickory. Every hour for the second through next to last hour, I will give the bird a little spritz with pineapple and coconut juice inside and out. You should use a meat thermometer to monitor the temperature, be careful not to stick the bird too often as this can lead to drying. When you are about 45 minutes from pulling the bird off the heat, give it a light mist of the olive oil and then again about fifteen minutes later. This will crisp up the skin. Once you have 165 degrees in two locations, you're ready to remove from the heat.

Wrap tightly in aluminum foil and let sit for twenty to thirty minutes before carving and you will have a great Thanksgiving turkey!


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