In barbecue, bigger may not always mean better, but it certainly helps with those all important bragging rights. So why stop at beer can chicken? Why not bring out the big guns and do an entire turkey beer can style! I say if you're a pitmaster, it'll certainly score you big points on impression, and luckily, it's also pretty damn delicious.
As I do with most of my holiday birds, I started this one off with a brine. There's debate on whether flavor brining has anymore effect than using water and salt alone. Either way, the same injection of moisture into the meat will occur, but whether the bird really picks up the flavor of other liquids or seasonings is suspect. I contend there is a difference, however minute it may be, and getting creative with a brine can add a nuanced flavor to the turkey that can make it stand out.
With my beer can bird, I started to build the barbecue flavor with the brine by using apple juice, brown sugar, and molasses in addition to the salt and water. The turkey sat in this solution for 12 hours to let the brine do its work.
Following the brine, I let the turkey air dry in the refrigerator overnight. I've been finding this step pretty essential in attempting to get a decent skin out of a smoked bird. If you've ever done a turkey low and slow, you'll likely have encountered tough and leathery skin. Unfortunately turkey likes high heat to get nice and crackling skin, but air drying the bird seems to assist it making smoked turkey skin more edible than it would be otherwise.
Right before the bird was ready to hit the smoker, I applied a rub. This was a fairly straightforward barbecue rub, but I did add in some extra herbs—in the way of thyme and oregano—that pair nicely with poultry.
I really wanted to find one of those Heineken keg cans to call this "keg-can turkey," but alas, I could not locate one in the quaint town of New York City, so instead opted for a tall 24-ounce can, which worked perfectly in terms of weight and size to support the 12-pound beast.
It's also worth mentioning that the beer as a means of keeping the meat moist has more-or-less been debunked. The beer never reaches the point of boiling, so never releases steam, so it can't add moisture into the equation. If there's any advantage to the beer can method, besides just looking cool, it's in the vertical orientation that keeps the breast meat further from the fire, cooking it slightly slower than the more forgiving dark meat. In a smoker with even heating, this really isn't a concern though, making the beer can primarily for show.
The turkey was then smoked—you can do this on a kettle grill, but will need to extend vertical cooking space by using something like an extension ring or the Smokenator—at 350 degrees over apple wood. I know 350 doesn't qualify as low and slow, but the turkey doesn't have the internal fat and connective tissue that need a long time to break down like traditional barbecue cuts like pork shoulder or brisket. So there's not much benefit to the long cook, in fact, turkeys I've done at 225 or 250 have sometimes come out overly smokey and/or with extra tough skin, so higher heat is actually preferred based on my experience.
What emerged after a couple hours was truly something worthy to brag about. The skin turned a beautiful mahogany color, and the meat was incredibly moist and flavorful, with a light sweetness, a little spice, and a distinct smokiness. My only regret is not doing a chicken alongside it so you can get a real sense of the scale of this accomplishment when the two birds are set next to each other, because if I'm not going to really show off, what's it's all for?
- Yield 8 to 10 servings
- Prep 30 Minutes
- Inactive 12 Hours
- Cook 2 Hours 30 Minutes
- Total 15 Hours
- For the Brine
- 2 quarts apple Juice
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup molasses
- 3 quarts ice cold water
- 1 whole natural turkey, 12 to 14 pounds
- For the Rub
- 1 tablespoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 medium chunk of apple wood or other light smoking wood
- 1 (24 ounce) tall can of beer
- To make the brine: Whisk together apple juice, salt, brown sugar, and molasses in a large container until salt and sugar are dissolved. Stir in 3 quarts ice cold water. Submerge turkey, breast side down, in brine. Place container in refrigerator and brine for 12 hours.
- To make the rub: In a small bowl combine paprika, salt, chili powder, garlic powder, black pepper, onion powder, thyme, oregano, cumin, and cayenne pepper. Set aside.
- Remove turkey from brine. Pat dry inside and out with paper towels. Using fingers, gently separate skin from meat underneath breasts and around thighs. Spread about 1 1/2 tablespoon of rub under breast and thigh. Sprinkle remaining rub all over turkey, inside and out.
- Fire up smoker or grill to 325 degrees, adding smoking wood chunks when at temperature. When the wood is ignited and producing smoke, drink or empty 1/3 of beer and place can on smoker. Carefully lower turkey onto beer can, legs down. Adjust turkey legs so it stands vertical stably. Cover and smoke until an instant read thermometer registers 160 degrees in the thickest part of the breast, about 2 to 3 hours.
- Remove the turkey from the smoker and allow to rest, uncovered, for 20 to 30 minutes. Remove beer can; carve and serve.
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Brad Greer Looks soooo good!
Do you have any suggestions for picking out a bird? Enhanced, frozen etc...
Josh @Brad Greer I always go with a "natural" bird, which means it has no added flavorings or preservatives, and added moisture in natural birds tends to be minimal. Here's a good guide on turkey selection.
Al This looks like a recipe I definitely want to try. I've had bad results in the past when smoking poultry - tough skin - so found the step of overnight air-drying to prevent this very interesting. My question is this: should any oil be added to the skin after air drying to both help the rub adhere and help the skin crisp? Thanks.
Josh @Al I didn't use any oil, but it wouldn't hurt here. I'd mainly only use it for applying the rub, the skin will crisp without oil.
Gary If the beer “can't add moisture into the equation”, why not drink the beer and fill the empty can with water?
Josh @Gary You can certainly do that. I don't imagine you'd taste any difference in the final turkey.