Honey-Brined and Smoked Turkey
Thanksgiving has come to represent not just the tradition of my family coming together for a meal we're bound to eating for days, but also the pre-Thanksgiving meal I share with my friends where we enjoy the spoils of my seasonal recipe testing. While I'm keen on keeping a set of solid recipes I make every year with my family, the friends meal is consistently different, which breeds comfort in its own way. For one thing, there will always be a smoked turkey, but the need for a different variety each year makes this an incredibly fun part of the meal to experiment with, most which turn out great, like this honey-brined and smoked turkey.
Although I've walked through my steps for great smoked turkeys before, a passing year seems to call for a quick refresher.
First, when brining a bird, you want to always start with a "natural" turkey, which is one that has not be pretreated with salt of additives. This provides the perfect bird to impart excess moisture and flavor using a brine.
While the medium and cooking method have stayed steady for years, brining is the part where things get creative. A brine is a salt solution that adds moisture to the meat via osmosis. At it's simplest, this is a mixture of salt and water, but adding flavors here will result in those flavors being implanted into meat during the brining process.
I started this brine with honey, and a lot of it. Then to build on that, vegetable stock, salt, thyme, and peppercorns were added to complete the flavor profile I was looking for when thinking about making a sweetened holiday bird.
The turkey was then submerged in the brine—in a food-grade plastic container—and set in the fridge for 12 hours to let the salty solution do its magic. The turkey was then removed, patted dry with paper towels, and it was all ready for the smoker.
Some people scoff when I say I smoke my birds hot, at around 325 degrees, since this is not true barbecue. This immediately puts me in defense mode and I quickly respond with what I believe about smoking turkey:
1. The turkey does not have the fat and connective tissue that necessitates low-and-slow cooking to properly render.
2. Turkey easily and quickly absorbs the smoke, sometimes too a fault. Shorter cooking times slightly aid in helping avoid an over-smoked turkey (not adding too much wood is the best way to avoid this).
3. While I've only had mixed results with smoked turkey skin in general, doing it low-and-slow has never produced a skin that's even close to edible, while going hotter does help here.
So it goes, I cook my turkey hot, and depending on the size of the bird and the temp of the smoker, this only takes 2-3 hours.
In the end, this is what emerges—a bird so beautifully browned it's a sight for sore eyes. While the skin on this particular bird did get tough and chewy, as can be the case with smoked turkeys, the meat was outstanding. The brine left the bird incredible moist, while the honey imparted a sweetness that's all too fitting for a celebratory holiday meal. The best part is the kiss of smoke, which can really transform what can be a rather dull meat into something surprising and bursting with flavor.
Eating this bird, I was pleased with yet another year filled with an array of pre-Thanksgiving awesomeness, which I know I can look forward to again next year, where my turkey adventures are bound to find me someplace else new and exciting.
Honey-Brined and Smoked Turkey
- Yield Serves 10-12
- Prep 15 Minutes
- Inactive 12 Hours
- Cook 2 Hours 30 Minutes
- Total 14 Hours 45 Minutes
- 1 turkey, 12-14 lbs., washed
- 7 quarts very cold water
- 2 quarts of vegetable stock
- 1 pound honey
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 1 bunch of fresh thyme
- 2 tablespoons whole peppercorns
- Vegetable Oil
- Place 1 quart of water, the honey and salt in a medium sauce pan over medium heat. Stir until salt is completely dissolved and immediately remove from heat. Pour mixture into your brining container and add 6 quarts of cold water, vegetable stock, thyme, and peppercorns and stir to combine. Place the turkey in the brine, adding a weight to keep it completely submerged if necessary, place in the refrigerator and brine for 12 to 18 hours.
- Remove the turkey from the brine and pat dry with paper towels. Place turkey on a rack over a rimmed baking sheet and allow to air-dry overnight in the refrigerator. (This step is optional, but will result in a crisper skin.)
- Remove the turkey from the refrigerator, fold the wings under the body and tie the legs together. Brush turkey lightly with with vegetable oil and allow to come to room temperature while you prepare the smoker.
- Fire up your smoker between 325 to 350 degrees. Add 2 to 3 small chunks of light smoke wood, like apple or cherry. When the wood is burning and producing smoke, place the turkey in the smoker. Smoke until an instant read thermometer registers 165 degrees in the thickest part of the breast, about 2 to 3 hours. Remove the turkey from the smoker and allow to cool, uncovered, for 20 to 30 minutes. Carve and serve.
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Mike One year I smoked a 22lbs. turkey at around 180-200 degrees. Damn thing took something like 14 hours to finish. I was falling face first into the mashed potatoes from exhaustion by the time we got around to eating.
Here's another vote for fast smoke!
Nate @ House of Annie I'd like to know how to get a really good skin from smoking the bird, instead of the tough, chewy, inedible skin.
Josh @Nate @ House of Annie I've had some success this year with the skin by pulling the turkey early and finishing it over an indirect fire without smoking wood, or in the oven. If you want to try this, I'd say pull the turkey from the smoker around 125-135 degrees, you won't lose a lot of smokiness at that point, and the skin has yet to become inedible.
Chris Josh, this looks like a fantastic bird. I haven't even smoked one yet this month. I'm traveling for Tgiving and not cooking the meal so I'm saving my turkey mojo for the Christmas holidays.
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Will If you want edible skin and a perfectly smoked turkey. Just smoke the turkey for at least 3 hours if going low and slow 225 degrees to 250. Then pull it out and put it in an electric roaster to finish it off. I also put a pan of water below to keep moisture in my barrel smoker. Works perfect every time and the turkey will be moist smokey and delicious.