Thanksgiving is tomorrow, and along with all the joy of the holiday comes stress for those who have volunteered (or been "volun-told") to make the family turkey.
This is especially true for those of us who are opting to use ceramic outdoor cookers to roast or smoke the Thanksgiving bird. Whether you have a Big Green Egg, Kamado Joe, Primo or "other," these hugely popular, kamado-style cookers can produce the most amazing turkey anyone in your family has ever tasted -- or they can produce one that makes you wish you'd opted for a mail-order bird instead.
In our experience, it's well worth the effort and, well, risk of using your kamado to cook the Thanksgiving turkey -- and with a few helpful guidelines you can feel confident that your bird will turn out perfectly, regardless of whether you're a rookie or veteran.
Following, then, are the SmokeBloq team’s tips for turning out the perfect Thanksgiving turkey for your family. Some are tips we’ve borrowed from the online community (especially the legendary Mad Max Recipe), some from noted chefs, and some from our own trial and error after more than 15 years of cooking turkeys on our own Big Green Eggs.
We are keeping these tips short-and-sweet so you can use them for quick reference. We here at SmokeBloq hope you and your loved ones have a safe and happy Thanksgiving!
- Brining is a matter of preference. You can turn out a great bird with no brine, a wet brine or a dry brine. We prefer a wet brine because it makes for a juicy turkey and also shortens the cooking time.
- If you are using a brine that contains a lot of herbs, go easy on any herbs you may use to stuff the bird as it will overpower the flavor.
- If you plan to make gravy from the drippings, wash the bird after removing it from the brine. Otherwise it will make the gravy too salty. For the same reason, use unsalted butter when making the butter paste for the skin we mention in the “Bird Prep” section that follows.
- Place a gallon zip-top bag of ice on top of the breasts about 30 minutes before you put the bird on the smoker. This will help cool the breast temp so that the white and dark meat gets done at the same time.
- Soften two sticks of butter and mix into a paste. You can mix herbs into the paste, but if you used an herb brine you may want to leave them out. Apply the paste liberally over the entire bird and under the skin of the breasts and drums.
- If you’re making gravy with the pan drippings, use a flat-bottomed roasting pan as it will be easier to whisk the flour and butter together when making the roux. Don’t use a non-stick pan as the drippings won't adhere to the surface of the pan and you'll find it impossible to make the roux for the gravy!
- A little wood smoke goes a long way with poultry, which absorbs smoke much easier than beef and pork. A few palm-sized wood chunks are plenty for a 20 lb. turkey.
- We prefer wood chunks over wood chips. Chips tend to produce a lot of smoke quickly and also burn up quickly, whereas chunks smolder and produce a milder, longer-duration smoke.
Don’t soak the wood! Soaking your wood chunks in water results in a heavy, white smoke that leaves a bitter taste in the meat. You want a clearer, “blue” smoke that doesn’t have all the acrid compounds that white smoke contains.
- We recommend putting the wood on the fire 30—60 minutes before you put the bird on. This allows the wood to get to the blue-smoke stage before you start cooking. Trust us – there will still be plenty of smoky flavor!
- We prefer a combination of fruit wood (such as cherry or apple) and pecan, which adds a mild, nutty flavor note to the meat. We usually opt for cherry over apple as it also helps give the skin that nice, bronze color everyone loves. Avoid mesquite wood as it can turn the skin very dark, even black!
- Use the indirect cooking method with a ceramic barrier between the coals and the roasting pan.
- Elevate the roasting pan slightly so that it’s not in direct contact with the ceramic barrier; otherwise the direct heat will burn the pan drippings. You can use rolled-up aluminum foil or a heat-proof trivet. We use these ceramic “feet” that came with one of our Big Green Egg purchases many years ago.
- If you want crisp skin, roast the bird between 300 and 350 F. Smoking at 225-250 F gives a great flavor but also results in a soft, rubbery skin.
Cooking the bird
- Place the meat probe on your thermometer in the deepest part of the breast. If you have a SmokeBloq Wi-Fi smart thermometer, you can use up to four probes. We put an extra meat probe in the joint between the thigh and drum to monitor the dark meat temperature as well. Be careful not to place the probe tip on a bone as it will give a false high reading!
- After 30 minutes to allow the butter paste to melt, loosely foil the breasts, drums and wing tips as they will brown quickly and burn if left unprotected. Don’t put the foil on too tightly as it will keep the smoke from penetrating the meat.
- Rotate the roasting pan 180 degrees a couple of times during the cook as the heat is more intense toward the back of the cooker and will brown that side faster.
- Use a basting bulb to baste the bird with the liquid in the bottom of the pan every hour or so.
- Periodically lift the pan on one end to drain the liquid accumulating in the cavity into the pan. This will both transfer the flavors from the fruit, veg and herbs you stuffed inside it and help to drain out any accumulating liquid that may remain at a lower temp than the bird and thus still in the “danger zone” for bacteria.
- If you brined your bird, anticipate about 4.5 to 6 hours for a 20 lb. bird to reach an internal temperature of 160-165 F in the breasts and 170-175 F in the thighs. If not, add about 20% to this estimate.
- Remove the foil from the turkey about 60-90 minutes before it’s finished to let the skin brown up to your liking. If it’s getting too dark in spots, put the foil back on those areas.
Here's a look at the cook session for our 23 lb. turkey, which took about 5.5 hours. Our ambient temp stayed around 325-350 F for most of the cook, although it ranged from 270 to 370 at times. (We had already removed the ambient probe from the Egg when this screen shot was taken).
The SmokeBloq app sent us alerts any time our temps got too high or too low.
Final results: Overall, we were very happy with the way our turkey turned out. The meat was incredibly moist and flavorful, and the texture of both the white and dark meat was perfect! We'd give ourselves a solid "B" for the appearance. We were happy with the color overall, but we let the wing tips and front of the breasts get darker than we'd have liked. No worries, though - it gives us something to shoot for next time!
Bonus Tip: We are big fans of a turkey-carving method from Ray Venezia, a master butcher who did a demonstration video for the New York Times in 2008. We’ve been using this method for a decade and it never fails to be a big hit with the family. You’ll be stunned at how much more meat you get from this technique than the traditional way of carving the bird!
Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at SmokeBloq!