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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Water-Smoker Turkey

The last time I was out at my folks' place, the discussion fell to who would fix what for Thanksgiving dinner. Usually, my stepfather makes the turkey, but as he has been dealing with some back issues and isn't one-hundred percent, I took the opportunity and volunteered to smoke the turkey. I have always wanted to have smoked turkey on Thanksgiving. I mean, seriously. We live in Oklahoma. I have often characterized us as "redneck central." Cheez louise, who wouldn't want smoked turkey? At any rate, a thirteen-and-a-half-pound frozen bird was promptly sent home with me that night, and it stayed in my small chest freezer for most of the last month.

I had smoked a turkey once before, and my eldest son remembered it fondly, but I could scarcely remember what I did, or whether I had liked it all that much. I did remember that the previous turkey was about nine pounds, and I seemed to recall having read somewhere that nine to ten pounds was the optimal size of turkey for smoking, so my tentative plan was to smoke the bird for four to six hours, depending on how long I could maintain temperature (if you didn't know, I have gone to the trouble of installing a halfway decent thermometer in the lid of my little Brinkman water smoker), and then wrap it in foil and finish it off at low temperatures in the oven. I fished the turkey out of the freezer on Sunday afternoon and let it start thawing in the refrigerator, and this morning before I left for work, I put it in a five-gallon bucket of very salty water and put the bucket in the fridge--a process called "brining," if you're not familiar with it.

The forecast for today was for a fifty percent chance of nasty thunderstorms in the afternoon, with a fairly wicked cold front moving in around seven in the evening, so I decided that I would fire up both my charcoal chimney starters--I always use hardwood lump charcoal--and fill the smoker's firepan up just as full as it would go, so that I would at least start off with decent heat. Then I took this evil-looking instrument (no, I hadn't yet cleaned it at the time I took the picture) and shoved it up the turkey's posterior.

That contraption is intended to facilate "beer-can" chicken, but I figured it would at least hold the bird upright, and since I was going to be perching the bird directly over the water pan of the smoker, I figured to get much the same effect.

At any rate, I put the turkey in the smoker and added some well-soaked hickory chunks to the firepan, and pretty quickly I was up to 200 degrees. Every thirty minutes, I went back outside to check the temperature.

It was necessary to add charcoal and hickory every forty minutes to an hour. If the heavy rain or the cold front had ever materialized (as of this writing they have not), I might have had to do it more often, or I might not have been able to control the temperature as long as I did. I also had to add more water to the water pan at about four hours. At any rate, I managed to keep it at a pretty steady 200 degrees for six hours, at which time I decided that I was going to bring the thing in and finish it off in the oven, just so I could get to bed.

So, naturally, just before wrapping it in foil, I decide to pull sideways on the leg--and it mostly came free, which is generally considered proof-positive that a bird is "done." I was very surprised. I fully expected that a bird of that size might take ten hours of low heat to finish cooking. So I pulled on the other leg. Same thing. Took my gorgeous Henckel's chef's knife--a much-appreciated gift from my parents--and carefully sliced through the breast. Fully done. Wow.

And let me say, folks, that that turkey breast is easily--easily!--the moistest, juiciest, most delectable turkey breast I have ever tasted. They are not gonna know what hit 'em tomorrow.

So, to recap, if you want to try this yourself--and let me add that with a better smoker, you could probably control the temperature better and longer--this is the method I suggest, based on tonight's cooking:

1) Thaw the bird--this is about a thirteen-pound turkey--in the refrigerator just like they always tell you to do.

2) Brine the bird on cooking day for about 8 hours in the fridge. How strong is the salt water? Darned if I know. I just know I put a lot of kosher salt in there. A lot.

3) Use the beer-can stand to hold up the bird.

4) Fill the firepan all the way up with hot hardwood lump charcoal.

5) Put in the water pan and fill it with hot water.

6) Put the grill rack over the water pan and put the bird on it. Make sure to splay the legs out as far sideways as you can get them.

7) Put the lid on the smoker.

8) Add charcoal and soaked hickory chunks as necessary to keep the temperature at least 200 degrees and the environment smokey. Check your water level every so often and replenish with hot water when you get low. If the weather is really a witch, you may have to finish the bird in the oven. If you have to do that, what I was going to do was butter the surface of the bird, wrap it in foil, and roast it for a few hours at 250 degrees. Maybe that'll work for you. I wound up not having to go to the trouble.

9) About six hours later, check the turkey for doneness--I prefer the pull-the-leg test--and let it rest a good fifteen minutes or more before carving.

Hey, it worked for me. Your mileage may vary, or you may choose to rub the bird with other seasoning or what-not.

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