With Thanksgiving fast approaching, you’re probably already thinking about what you’ll need to cook for the dinner and how to prepare the most iconic staple of all—the turkey. Because Thanksgiving is the only time some families can gather together for a meal, you want to be sure that your turkey is well prepared and enjoyable. After all, there’s nothing worse than looking forward to the feast only to get a mouthful of dry turkey. Here are six tips for making the best smoked Thanksgiving turkey.
Choosing Your Turkey
Merely choosing your turkey at the store is a critical and more complex step than you may realize. There are many variations that you may encounter while shopping, though you may not always recognize the differences. To help you understand which kind of turkey you want to buy, you can take a closer look at turkey naming.
- Self-Basting Turkey: Typically found in frozen turkeys, self-basted turkeys are whole birds that companies have injected with or marinated in a solution that may include butter, edible fat, broth, stock, or water. They typically do this as a way to ensure the freezing process doesn’t make their turkeys dry out, but it also makes the meat incredibly high in sodium. Basting will also include a few spices or flavor enhancers. While all of this helps retain the moisture content in the turkey, it also covers up its natural flavors. As a result, you should weigh these pros and cons before deciding to buy this type.
- Free-Range Turkey: These are typically the best and most ethical turkeys to buy. “Free-range” means the turkey was able to live comfortably. It had access to the outdoors, where it could roam and grow until it was ready for processing. This is how you know the turkey didn’t come from factory-like farming techniques that mass-produce animals in a far less ethical method. Free-range turkeys are often synonymous with “organic” ones, as the organic label also refers to turkeys that were able to roam and live comfortably.
- Kosher Turkey: These are birds that companies have killed and prepared in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. These turkeys undergo salting inside and out, then sit while they drain before soaking and washing. Because the salt pulls moisture from the turkey, these birds are much denser, but they do feature a very full flavor that your family may appreciate.
- Organic Turkey: If organic is so similar to free-range turkey, why does it have a different label? Organic turkey refers to two key aspects. First, the farm the turkey grows on does not use any chemicals, antibiotics, or roughage fillers to enhance the turkey’s growth and force it to become plumper. The turkey’s feed also consists of organic plants that farmers have grown without pesticides or enhancing chemicals. Second, like free-range turkeys, organic turkeys have opportunities to be outside and in the sunlight.
- Natural Turkey: Not to be confused with organic, natural turkey can have antibiotics. However, companies don’t add artificial flavors, synthetic ingredients, coloring, chemical preservatives, or any other additives when preparing natural turkey for sale.
With a better understanding of what different kinds of turkeys are available to you, you’ll be able to select the right one for your family’s needs and desires.
Preparing the Turkey
Once you’ve selected your turkey, you should know how to prepare it ahead of time before the cooking even begins. It can take up to a week for your turkey to thaw, and you never want to thaw your turkey at room temperature to try and expedite the process. When you’re within a day or two of smoking the turkey, you can use water to help finish the thawing process, but many experienced cooks will instead remove the internal organs to speed things up.
Furthermore, you can just remove the plastic pop-up temperature indicator that may have come with the turkey. You never stuff a turkey you intend to smoke, so the indicator is a moot addition. Instead, you should use a meat thermometer, which we’ll expand upon later.
Brining the Turkey
After thawing the turkey, a fantastic tip for making the best smoked Thanksgiving turkey is to brine it. There are two methods of brining: dry brining and wet brining. Dry brining is simply sprinkling your turkey liberally with salt and then placing it back into the refrigerator uncovered. The skin will then dry out overnight. Wet brining involves submerging the turkey into a brining solution, which tenderizes and permeates the turkey much more quickly. To wet brine, a lot of people will use a bucket of some kind, but you can also find brining bags.
Seasoning the Turkey
Turkey is a surprisingly versatile meat and is thus compatible with a plethora of seasonings. Because you intend to smoke your turkey, you don’t want to overpower the smokey flavor with a seasoning that is too strong. As a result, you should opt for a savory seasoning that complements the smokey flavor of your meat and allows it to shine.
Smoking the Turkey
To smoke your turkey, you’ll need to select an appropriate type of cooking wood. Different kinds of wood, such as oak, hickory, or apple, can provide your turkey with different flavors and aromas during the smoking process. It all comes down to your personal preferences. Most people like to use sweet woods like apple wood because they burn at a temperature that crisps up the skin and add a sweeter flavor to the meat. If that sweetness is not to your liking, however, you’re not out of luck. There are plenty of cooking wood splits to choose from that’ll help you tweak and augment the qualities of your turkey to your liking.
Using a Meat Thermometer
As we mentioned, you should opt for a meat thermometer to check the turkey rather than depending on the plastic pop-up indicator. Not only is it more accurate, but its modern features make it easier than ever to monitor your turkey and ensure you know when your turkey is ready the moment it finishes cooking. With a proper thermometer, you’ll always smoke your turkey to perfection for a delicious Thanksgiving meal.