Smoked turkey is a mainstay of BBQ joints in the US and until I began my career in the food industry I always thought that brines were a typically American technique too. That was until I started seeing what goes on behind the scenes in restaurants and at food festivals where white meats such a chicken, turkey and pork were being brined to enhance their flavour and juiciness. Chatting with chefs as I prepared for this blog confirmed my observation that brining is also a mainstay of the British food scene, despite the technique being somewhat unknown to the home cook.
Brining involves submerging, in this case a whole turkey in a salty flavoured water bath for 24 – 48 hours to flavour and tenderise the meat. With an imbalance in salt concentration salt will cross the cell walls of the meat and begin the tenderise it, while at the same time drawing in more water and flavour. Though you will always lose some water content during cooking, simply put, if you begin with increased juice and lose the same amount, then your finished dish will be juicier!
To make a brine add the ingredients to a large pan of water and heat until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Allow to cool and add any necessary water following the recipe, then submerge the turkey. The basic components are salt and water but we can also use the time in the brine to infuse flavour. In the brine recipe below you will see I have added complimentary festive flavours with orange slices, bay leaves, rosemary and crushed pink peppercorns.
A key consideration when planning to brine a turkey is do you have enough fridge space to keep the turkey in a large container for 1 or 2 days. This time of year if the weather is particularly cold where you are then you can get away with keeping the container secured with a lid in a garage or shed, but just make sure the lid is secure of you may not be having the Christmas dinner you had planned!
One final point is to say that while this recipe is written for a dedicated water smoker, you can of course smoke and cook a turkey on your charcoal, gas, ceramic or pellet grill at conventional roasting temperatures of 170 – 200c, and for information on how to set up your BBQ for this type of cooking don’t forget to download my Free 64 page Ebook Banishing BBQ Myths from the homepage.
- 1 Turkey, the one in the photos was 5.6kg (12 1/4 lbs)
- 10 litre water
- 1.2kg salt
- 800g sugar
- 40 black peppercorns
- 1 tbsp pink peppercorns, lightly crushed
- 6 bay leaves
- 1/2 pkt rosemary
- 1/2 pkt fresh thyme
- 2 clementines, slices
- Put the salt and sugar in a large saucepan, fill 3/4 with cold water and place over a high heat. Add the remainder of the brine flavours and stir occasionally until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Remove from the heat.
- Allow to cool before transferring to the large container you have chosen to brine the turkey in, and add the remaining water up to 10 litres with cold water.
- Remove all packaging from the turkey along with the bag of giblets from the cavity and submerge the turkey into the brine. Secure the container with a lid and place in the fridge/cool area for 24-48 hours.
*24 hours will suffice but 48 will really allow time for the savoury aromatics to infuse the turkey and impart their flavours. There is such a thing as over-brining and this can make the meat turn soft from the tenderising effect of the salt.
- Remove the turkey from the brine, pat dry and leave to air dry as you setup your smoker or BBQ.
- For this smoke I used the minion method and 4-5 pieces of hickory wood, depending on their size. The smoker was regulated for a cooking temperature of between 110 and 120c, but if you are cooking this on a regular charcoal kettle of multi-burner gas barbecue set it up for 170-200c roasting / indirect heat and preheat for 10-15 minutes.
- Place the turkey on the smoker, insert the temperature probes (if using) and close the lid.
*On charcoal fuelled grills add the wood chips/chunks directly to the fuel reservoir, and if using a gas barbecue allow 15 minutes for the smoking pouch to create smoke before adding the turkey to the barbecue. More information on intentional smoking also in the Ebook.
- Smoke the turkey for an hour then allow the smoke to subside and cook the remainder of the time without smoke. Too much smoke can overpower a meat and any of the flavours infused into the meat by the brine.
- Cook the turkey until the core temperature reaches 68c then remove to a warm spot in the kitchen. Wrap completely in foil, place in a warm oven tray and cover over with several clean t-towels for insulation. Rest for at least an hour and the core temperature will continue to climb from 68c to the magical 75c for safely cooked food.
*If resting on stone worktops place the turkey tray on a wooden chopping board or a couple of folded over clean t-towels to prevent heat being drawn down into the stone.
- Carve and enjoy the subtly aromatic flavour of this ever-so-juicy Christmas turkey that’s been kissed with the perfect amount of wood smoke.