Fire up grill for smoke-roasted turkey

November 18, 2006|By Steven Raichlen | Steven Raichlen,Tribune Media Services

There are many ways to mark one's passage through life. Mine could be charted with turkey.

My first Thanksgiving bird was prepared by my great-grandmother, Jenny Marks. Born in a small village in Lithuania, Bubbe may have maintained a thick accent but she gamely embraced America's Thanksgiving tradition. Every year she'd ride the streetcar to Baltimore's Lexington Market to buy a turkey with the feathers still intact. Her seasonings consisted of salt and pepper, and she chose to roast 25-pound monsters -- a better value. Despite their size, her birds were always moist and tender.

The first turkey I prepared was for college roommates in the early 1970s. I don't remember the flavorings, but given the politics of the day the bird would certainly have sparked a debate about the ethics of eating meat. After college, I moved to France for culinary training at the Paris La Varenne cooking school. The next year I went native, adopting the French practice of placing paper-thin truffle slices under the turkey skin and wrapping the bird with paper-thin slices of barding fat.

After France I moved to Boston, and the birds took on a New England character. In 1990, I moved to Miami and my holiday bird became Latin. Now, after more than a decade of studying and writing about barbecue, I have come to the conclusion that the best way to cook Thanksgiving turkey is to use a technique that, like the bird itself, is also native to the Americas. You guessed it. It's barbecue.

The first step in the process is brining, which adds moistness as well as flavor. Turkey has inherently dry meat, and smoking tends to dry it out further.

You can certainly cook a turkey on a gas grill, but it's hard to get a pronounced smoke flavor. (Below I will share a little trick for achieving smoke flavor on a gas grill.) But if you want to enjoy a real smoked turkey, you need to cook it over charcoal.

The cooking technique is a method I call smoke roasting. It's similar to indirect grilling in that both techniques are done next to or between the heat source at a moderate temperature of 325 degrees to 350 degrees. What makes it smoke roasting is the addition of soaked hickory or other hardwood chips to the coals.

To smoke roast on a charcoal grill, you light the coals (preferably in a chimney starter), then rake the embers into two mounds at opposite sides of the grill. Next you place an aluminum foil drip pan in the center. When it's time to cook, simply place the turkey on the grate in the center over the drip pan, and toss a handful of soaked hickory or other wood chips on each mound of coals.

For smoke flavor on a gas grill, add a teaspoon or two of liquid smoke to the melted butter used for basting. Rest assured, liquid smoke is a natural product, made by condensing and bottling real wood smoke. Of course, you're better off smoke roasting, but the liquid smoke gives you a pretty fair simulation.

Steven Raichlen wrote this article for Tribune Media Services.

MAPLE BRINED, SMOKE ROASTED TURKEY

Serves 10 to 12

Note that the turkey requires overnight brining, so advanced preparation is required.

1 (10- to 12-pound) turkey

1 1/4 cups coarse salt (kosher or sea)

1 1/4 cups maple syrup

3 tablespoons salted butter, melted

Have ready 2 cups hickory, oak, maple or apple wood chips, soaked in water to cover for 1 hour, then drained, and natural lump charcoal.

The night before, unwrap the turkey, remove giblets from main and front cavity and wash the bird inside and out. Discard giblets or reserve for gravy or stuffing.

Make the brine in a large container by combining salt, maple syrup and 1 quart hot water, and whisking until salt and syrup are dissolved. Let cool to room temperature, then whisk in 4 quarts cold water. Place turkey in a large pan or bowl and pour brine over. To keep bird submerged, place a large heavy-duty resealable plastic bag filled with cold water on top. Refrigerate and let marinate overnight.

Set up grill for smoke roasting (for details, see accompanying instructions), placing a large foil drip pan in center between the mounds of coals.

Drain bird and blot dry inside and out. Truss it, if desired, and place in center of grill grate over drip pan and between mounds of coals. Toss a handful (about 1/2 cup) of wood chips on each mound of coals. Cover grill so that vent holes are in the center, then adjust vents to reach a temperature of 325 degrees to 350 degrees.

Smoke-roast turkey until cooked, 2 to 2 1/2 hours. (Use an instant-read thermometer to test for doneness. Turkey is ready when thigh meat is 170 degrees.) You'll need to replenish the charcoal every hour - add 8 to 10 lumps of charcoal to each mound of coals and leave grill uncovered for a few minutes to allow charcoal to light. After 1 hour, add remaining wood chips. There's no need to add wood after the first hour.

Baste turkey with melted butter after the first hour and then every 20 minutes. If skin starts to brown too much, tent bird with foil. (On a kettle grill, you'll probably need to tent the sides closest to the piles of coals.)

Transfer turkey to a platter, loosely tent with foil and let rest for 10 minutes before carving.

Per serving (based on 12 servings): 405 calories, 58 grams protein, 15 grams fat, 5 grams saturated fat, 7 grams carbohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 222 milligrams cholesterol, 3,351 milligrams sodium

Recipe analysis by registered dietitian Jodie Shield.

Tips

Brine overnight in salt, maple syrup and water.

For best results, use a simple charcoal grill.

Add soaked hickory or other hardwood chips to the coals.

If skin starts to brown too much, tent turkey with foil.

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