There is nothing that says November like turkey. We don't care if it's roasted, fried, or smoked, turkey is a wonderful protein that is as fun to cook as it is impressive to serve. After years of struggling to find ways to cook a turkey without drying the breast meat out, we discovered that the best way to make a delicious Thanksgiving Day turkey is to brine it and then smoke it. The smoke flavor is a perfect compliment to the light meat and the brine ensures we never end up with dry, flavorless turkey. We're going to share some of our top tips and recipe ideas so you can wow your friends and family this holiday season.
Why You Should Brine Turkey Before Smoking
Brining your turkey before smoking it does a few things for you, the most important of which is that the brine helps to moisturize the meat and make the turkey more tender. Your brine solution will also add flavor to the turkey so you won't end up with bland meat. Finally, brining will improve the crispiness of the turkey skin in the smoker. A properly brined turkey won't be overly salty, but it will have great flavor and be both tender and juicy.
No matter what cooking process you decide to use, brined turkey is an excellent way to virtually guarantee that you don't end up with dry, flavorless turkey breast. A brine doesn't need to be complicated; even a simple turkey brine recipe will improve your results.
How Long Should You Brine a Turkey Before Cooking?
Here is where some people get in trouble. It is possible to over-brine turkey, or any other meat for that matter. When you over-brine, you'll end up with extremely salty meat. For the same reason, you shouldn't inject your brine solution into the turkey. Timing the brining right doesn't have to be a challenge though.
Our go-to is overnight, regardless of the size of the bird. If you are smoking a massive turkey, a little longer is fine, but for the average turkey you'll find in most stores, eight hours is plenty long enough. We've experimented with longer times and found that anything over 12 hours tends to be too much.
Preparing for Brined Turkey
This is not a cooking method you want to wait until the last minute to accomplish. You'll have best results planning ahead by at least two days prior to when you want to smoke a turkey. Start by selecting your bird and getting your herbs, spices, and other supplies ready. You'll want to make sure you have enough room in your refrigerator to store the turkey at least overnight.
Picking the Right Turkey
When you buy a turkey at the grocery store, you'll want to make sure to read the label carefully. Almost all turkeys on the market these days are injected with a saline solution. A pre-brined turkey won't take a brine well and may get salty. United Stated Department of Agriculture allows "approximately 3% by weight" but mandates that the solution is identified on the label. Since processors will make more money by injecting their turkeys, they usually do. The downside is that you'll likely end up with a salty turkey if you brine or inject your turkey yourself.
Finding a turkey that hasn't been injected can be a challenge. The best way is to find a turkey rancher from whom you can buy your turkey. Another good choice is wild turkey hunting. Harvesting your turkey yourself is the best way to know how it is processed and you'll get the most flavorful turkey ever.
Some stores provide ordering of turkeys that haven't been injected and your local butcher might be able to point you in the right direction. You might be able to order a "heritage turkey" online that is processed without injecting. This is a cross-breed between domestic turkeys and wild ones. Almost all turkeys you'll buy in the store are of one breed – the broad-breasted white.
If you choose to brine an injected turkey, try to select one that has a clearly labeled salt mixture without added flavors or preservatives. Self-basting turkeys have been injected with flavors and oils that will be released into the meat when the bird is cooked. These won't brine well at all.
The Best Turkey Brine
Our favorite brine for turkey is easy to assemble and works well every time. It'll make the meat moist and the method will give you the crispy skin you crave. Before you begin your brine, you'll need to have a large stock pot you can fit the turkey into and clear enough space in your refrigerator to hold the stock pot. The brining process takes time so plan ahead at least one full day before you plan on smoking your turkey.
Turkey Brine Recipe for Smoking
You can use this turkey brine recipe for any cooking method including roasting, smoking, and frying. It'll even work for turkey parts, chicken, duck, and wild fowl.
Estimating the Amount of Water
You'll need to use enough water to completely cover your turkey. This will depend on how large your turkey is and how big your stock pot or brine bag is. Typically two to three gallons is enough to start with.
- 1 cup of salt per gallon of water
- 1 cup of apple cider vinegar or apple juice
- Enough water to cover the turkey
- 1 Tbsp black peppercorns
- 2-3 bay leaves
- 1 whole head of garlic, pressed with the flat of a knife
- Several sprigs of the following dried or fresh herbs
- Rosemary, sage, thyme, lavender, basil, lemon balm, dill, parsley, oregano, fennel seed
- peel of two large oranges
- Place the salt in the stock pot with about a half-gallon of water. Add in the herbs, garlic, and peppercorns.
- Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally until the salt has completely dissolved.
- Add the salt and herb mixture to the remaining water and apple cider or juice. Stir well.
- Place the cleaned and thawed turkey in the stock pot. Cover with brine solution.
- Cover the stock pot and refrigerate overnight or for about 8 hours. Make sure the turkey stays submerged in the brine mixture. You can use a plate to weigh the bird down.
- Remove the turkey from the brining solution and place on a wire rack to drain. Do not rinse the turkey.
Tips for Brining
The Reason Not to Rinse
We understand that there is lots of misinformation and confusion about the subject of rinsing your turkey after brining. USDA and most health organizations and research schools say not to rinse your turkey. The reason is simple; rinsing the turkey can easily spread bacteria all over the place. Bacteria from raw poultry is the leading cause of foodborne illness in the U.S.
Enhancing the Skin
Another reason not to rinse the turkey is because removing the brine from the surface will result in a less crispy skin. When you are smoking the turkey, the herbs and salts will enhance the flavor of the skin. You don't want to wash that off.
Why Not Heat All the Water
The reason we only heat a little water rather than the entire amount is because you don't want to pour hot water on the raw turkey. It'll partially cook the bird and raise the temperature to an unsafe level. Your turkey should never get above 40 degrees during the brining process.
Use the Right Kind of Salt
Don't use regular table salt for your brining solution. Instead, use kosher salt. It is a pure form of salt that is in larger crystals. Table salt is often processed and has added ingredients.
Sugar or No Sugar
Some people like to use brown sugar in their brine. Brown sugar adds a certain sweetness and may enhance the color when smoking. We don't use it but that's our personal preference.
We usually put our turkey in the brine early in the morning the day before we plan on smoking it. We give it eight hours, so it comes out of the brine in the afternoon or early evening. Then, we place it on a wire rack over a roasting pan and put it back in the refrigerator. We let it air dry overnight. This helps give your turkey an extra crispy skin.
Fresh vs Dried Herbs
We always prefer fresh herbs to dried ones. There is nothing quite like the smells of fresh thyme and rosemary that says November holiday meals quite like fresh herbs. Dried herbs work fine, but don't have the depth of flavor that fresh herbs infuse.
Tips for Smoking Turkey
You'll have the best luck using a meat thermometer probe inserted into the thickest part of the breast and another in the thickest part of the thigh. This will give you the ideal temperature readings so you'll know when the bird is at the ideal internal temperature.
If you are smoking on a charcoal smoker like the Big Green Egg, you'll have good luck using hickory. We also love using maple, which adds a glorious hue along with a slightly sweet and smoky flavor.
If you smoke a heritage or wild turkey, pay close attention to the temperature particularly at the end of the smoke. These types of birds will cook faster than the commercial broad-breasted turkey you'll buy in the store.
Brining Is The Key
Making a brine is super-simple. Commercial brine solutions are available, but why take the risk on getting a product that has a bunch of weird preservatives and artificial ingredients. Making your own lets you get the perfect blend of flavors you want. Our recipe is similar to a classic Herbs de Provence recipe. You can also experiment with adding our Bearded Butcher Blend Seasonings to get unique and delicious flavors. Brining your turkey helps to infuse moisture without overloading the salt content as long as you don't over do it. You'll get a moist, tender, and juicy turkey every time.
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