This Thanksgiving, I’m using all the finesse techniques I’ve learned to cook my Turkey. Here’s what I’m going to do.
My first trick is to dry brine the turkey. For years, my gold standard for turkey brines was the apple cider brine from Weber’s Art of the Grill by Jamie Purviance. I am a complete convert to dry brines now, and I wanted to come up with a dry brine that uses the same flavor profile. I have most of the major ingredients from the Weber brine in my dry rub – salt, a little brown sugar, orange zest, ginger, garlic, and cloves. When combined with a chunk of smoking wood in the grill, you get layers of flavor in the bird – sweet, smoky and salty, with an interesting mix of fruit and spices. This is a turkey that doesn’t need gravy to be edible.
*You’ll see some bay leaves in the pictures of the dry brine. Ignore them. They’re not really there. These are not the bay leaves you’re looking for. (Waves hand in dismissive manner.)
**OK, OK, you caught me. I tried to crumble them by hand, and I couldn’t break them up small enough to use in my dry brine. I should have used my spice grinder, but I didn’t want to get it dirty just for the bay leaves, so I left them out. It tasted great without them.
The next step is cooking the turkey to the appropriate level of doneness. This is tricky. The white meat in the breast should just cook to 160*F so it doesn’t dry out. The dark meat in the legs should be cooked above 170*F; it needs extra heat to break down the connective tissue. The problem is – they’re both on the same bird, and cooking for the same length of time. I used two techniques to help solve this.
Following the suggestion in Weber’s Barbecued Turkey pamphlet I set up the charcoal in a U shape on one half of the grill. This focuses the heat on the turkey’s legs, and lessens the heat on the breast.
I also used a trick from Harold McGee. Mr. McGee recommended strapping a couple of ice packs over the breast of the bird after removing it from the refrigerator, so the breasts start out colder than the thighs. His family told him this was “too unappetizing”, so he switched to zip-top bags full of ice. Since McGee’s On Food and Cooking is the bible of food science, I thought it would be foolish not to take his advice.
The turkey is cooked on my rotisserie, of course. Nothing comes close to the crisp, crackling skin from the constant convection caused by the circling bird.*
*Sorry, got stuck in a “C” rut there.
The result of all these steps is the best turkey I’ve ever made. Can you skip all this detail? Sure. Dry brine the turkey with salt, cook it on the rotisserie, and you’ll get a great bird. But if you want to take the bird from great to sublime, have I got the recipe for you…
- Grill with Rotisserie attachment (I used a Weber kettle with the Rotisserie attachment. Kettle is here, and rotisserie is here)
- Aluminum foil drip pan (11″x13″, “turkey size”, or whatever fits your grill)
- Cotton twine
- Gallon zip-top bag full of ice (optional)
- Instant Read Thermometer
- 12 to 14 lb Turkey
- fist sized chunk of smoking wood (hickory, oak, pecan or a fruit wood; I love oak wine barrel staves)
- 1/4 cup kosher salt (I used Diamond Crystal; reduce to 3 tbsp if using Mortons, because it is denser).
- Zest of 1 orange (save the orange, cut in half and wrapped in plastic wrap to stuff the turkey)
- 1 teaspoon brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger (about a 1/2 inch piece)
- 1 teaspoon grated fresh garlic (2 cloves)
- 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
Note: for an overview of the technique, see my rotisserie poultry post.
1. Dry brine the turkey: 1 to 3 days before it is time to cook, dry brine the turkey. Mix the dry brine ingredients in a small bowl, then sprinkle and rub evenly over the turkey. Make sure to rub some inside the cavity of the turkey as well. Put the turkey on a rack over a roasting pan or baking sheet, and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate, removing the plastic wrap the night before cooking to allow the skin to dry. (If you are only dry brining for 24 hours, skip the plastic wrap.)
2. Prep the Turkey: One hour before cooking, remove the turkey from the refrigerator. Stuff the turkey with the halves of the orange, then truss and skewer with the rotisserie spit. Put the zip lock bag full of ice on the breast, not touching the legs or drumsticks, to chill the breast meat until cooking. Put the wood chunk in a bowl of water to soak.
3. Prep the rotisserie: Prepare the rotisserie for cooking on indirect medium heat (see details here). For my Weber kettle, I light a chimney 3/4 full of charcoal and wait for it to be covered with ash. Then, instead of pouring it in my usual two piles on the side of the grill, I pour it in a U shape at one end of the grill (see picture below). I put the drip pan in the middle of the U of charcoal. Finally, put the wood chunk on top of the charcoal, and give it five minutes to start smoking.
*If you are using a gas grill, check out my basic Rotisserie Turkey recipe for setup instructions. If you’re using a Weber Summit with a infrared rotisserie burner, set the grill up as shown in this recipe. If you don’t have a rotisserie, Weber Kettle instructions are in this recipe.
4. Cook the turkey: Put the spit on the grill, with the leg side of the bird inside the “U” of coals. Cook the turkey with the lid closed; it will take 2 to 3 hours (usually about 2 1/2 hours for a 12 pound turkey). Every hour, add 24 fresh charcoal briquettes to the grill, nestling them into the burning charcoal. Start checking the temperature in the breast with an instant read thermometer at 2 hours. The turkey is done when the breast meat registers 155*F to 160*F in its thickest part. Remove the turkey from the grill, remove the spit from the turkey, and cut the trussing twine loose. Let the turkey rest for 15 to 30 minutes before carving.
5. Carve the turkey: If you have a favorite way of carving a turkey, go ahead and use it. My preferred method: Cut the legs free from the body of the bird, and cut the drumsticks away from the thighs. I leave the drumsticks whole (my favorite part!) and slice the meat from the thighs in 1/2″ slices for dark meat lovers. Next, I cut the entire breast half from one side of the bird by working my knife down the keel bone from the top down to the wing, following the inside of the ribcage. Once the breast half is free of the bird, it is easy to slice into 1/2″ thick slices on my carving board. I repeat with the other breast half. Finally, I cut each wing away from the carcass, and separate the drumette from the wing, and the wing from the wingtip. I arrange all these pieces on a platter and serve.
*Fresh vs Frozen: There are two advantages to a fresh turkey. The first is they are rarely pre-brined, which is redundant because of the dry brine. (Watch out for the words “enhanced with a X% solution” or “pre-basted”) The second advantage to fresh turkey is no thawing is needed! If you have to get a frozen bird, make sure to leave an extra three days or so to thaw it in the refrigerator before staring the dry brine; start thawing it about a week before you’ll need it.
What do you think? Questions? Other ideas? Leave them in the comments section below.
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