Below, in all its glory, is the story of this year’s Turkey, along with some historical info about each step.
This year’s turkey came from Sheridan Fruit Company, a wonderful local grocery. It’s a natural, free range turkey, meaning that it got to walk around and eat bugs and stuff, in addition to turkey feed. That also means that it isn’t a shockingly large-breasted, brine injected bird-in-a-bag that enjoyed a life of antibiotics and hormones prior to being our dinner. Not quite the same as ordering a Heritage Turkey a year in advance, or hunting our own from the area’s recent wild turkey infestation, but a decent start. We order an additional pair of legs, because drumsticks are popular with the cooking crew. At least one of the butchers at Sheridan actually remembers this order from year to year.
Wednesday morning, the bird went into a brine made with:
1 cup Morton’s pickling salt
1-cup apple cider vinegar
3 carrot sticks chopped in 1-inch pieces
3 celery stalks chopped in 1-inch pieces
1 bunch radishes, whole with ends sliced off
1 yellow onion sliced in eighths
1 white onion sliced in eighths
Water to fill the pot
The bird was in the brine for about 20 hours, after which it was rinsed and prepped for cooking.
We’ve brined the bird with an apple cider vinegar and salt mixture for the past 4 years, if I recall correctly. This is the first year that the vegetables were included. I got that idea from a friend, who mentioned that a friend of his would basically make a soup as a brine. Next year, at my mother’s recommendation, I’ll cook the mix first, so that the vegetable flavors get into the water more.
We don’t cook stuffing in the bird, because that would take much too long, and risk the stuffing not getting fully cooked. We do, however, place sliced apples in the cavity to add to the flavor and because the apples come out tasting a bit like apple pie chutney and are tasty with the bird. This bird took 3 green apples, sliced.
We use approximately half pecan and half white oak to smoke the bird. The pecan delivers a satisfying bacon flavor, similar to apple wood smoked bacon, while the oak delivers a traditional BBQ flavor to the bird. We hit on this combo last year after trying many things, including cherry wood with mesquite charcoal, apple wood with mesquite charcoal, and a hazelnut shell smoking mix. If I had to rank these, I’d place pecan/oak in first, apple/mesquite second, cherry/mesquite third (though this is top notch for smoking pork) and the hazelnut stuff last.
The bird smoked for about 8 hours between 200° and 225° F, until the last 20 minutes or so, when we took advantage of the gas burner to bump the temperature up to around 350° F to finish the bird. The past two or three years we’ve finished the bird in the oven, and before that we finished it on a grill, which added drama, but not a lot of flavor. The first year that Wil and I cooked the turkey, we actually didn’t have a smoker, and we did a combo of the oven to start, and the grill with smoking chips added to finish it.
The baste is a mix of 1-pint Old Crow Bourbon, 1-cup honey and 2 sticks butter. We don’t baste on a schedule, but try to hit it a couple times an hour.
The baste is a little funny. The first year I was making it, I heard a Garrison Keilor skit about Thanksgiving where he mentioned making the baste with 4 sticks of butter. Never having made turkey before, I went ahead with that, not realizing that it was Midwestern exageration. Before you imagine that the turkey comes out soaked in that much butter, keep in mind that most of it drips off the bird and into the water pan below it, and never touches anyone’s lips.