Brining, smoking, rubbing and spatchcocking your turkey (we swear it's all totally legal)
November 24th, 2010
10:30 AM ET
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From the Eatocracy inbox, longtime pal Pete M. from Chapel Hill, NC writes:

"I need a crash course on turkey brine. My bird is should be thawed by around 6 p.m. tomorrow in the refrigerator unless I need to take other steps to speed that up. I'm planning to smoke it beginning at about 5-6 a.m. Is 11 or 12 hours enough time soaking in the brine? "

"More importantly HOW do I brine it, what is the best brine for smoking and is it something that I can skip? Additionally, since I'll have the smoker going all day any way, can I put other things in there without
affecting the flavor of the bird?"


Now – I've spent every Boxing Day for the past 14 or so years with Pete, and the boy can COOK. Smoking is a bold move, though, and while I've got every confidence he can pull it off, here's a few things he'll need to know:

What is brining?

Brining, essentially, is a technique used to enhance the flavor, texture and moisture of a piece of meat through the prolonged application of salt. Osmosis allows muscle tissue to hydrate, absorbing water and flavor.

Wet vs Dry

There are two basic categories of brines: wet and dry. Many Thanksgiving fetishists will insist that at this point, starting a wet brine is a fool's errand. Those people have the text of the late R.W. Apple's 1999 New York Times recipe for a 72-hour fennel, coriander and star anise brine tattooed somewhere upon their spongy parts. Surely, they'll be possessed of a monumentally moist bird, but Pete doesn't have that kind of time.

Nor does he necessarily need to. While many, many food media outlets are all a-bray about brine - the Bieber of cooking techniques for the past few years - failure to brine won't condemn you to a dessicated dish. First of all – many birds, such as fresh Kosher turkeys and some pre-packaged varieties of brands like Butterball, have already been treated with a brining solution as part of processing. Read the label to assess saline levels.

Give that bird a bath

If the bird still could use a boost, don't overthink it. In a glass or plastic container (buckets and coolers work well), or a plastic brining bag, dissolve 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup kosher salt into each gallon of water it take to thoroughly submerge the turkey. Bay leaves, juniper berries, gin, spices, chiles and other flavor agents aren't verboten, but they're by no means essential.

Next comes the tricky part - keeping the whole mess chilled for the next 6-24 hours. A cooler with frequently updated freezer packs (make sure to wash them off before and after contact with the raw poultry water) will hold at a steady 40°F, but your best bet is to clear out some shelf space in the refrigerator. The meat will need to be turned halfway through the process, so be mindful of splashes.

Once the cycle is finished, rinse the bird with cool water, pat it dry with paper towels and get cooking.

Here's the rub

However, if I were the one helming the smoker, I'd rub that bird - essentially dry-brining it. A solid, basic formula consists of:

1/4 cup Sweet paprika (or hot or smoked if that's more to your liking)
1/4 cup Kosher salt
1/4 cup Brown sugar
2 Tablespoons freshly-ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients in a bowl with your fingers, working out any brown sugar lumps.

From here, you can add your own personal twists - tablespoons or teaspoons of dry mustard, coffee, celery seed, dried chiles, powdered onion, garlic salt - up to you. Coriander and cumin play beautifully with heady wood smoke like hickory or apple, and dried herbs like thyme and sage add festive holiday notes.

Rinse and pat the bird dry with paper towels and, after removing any innards, pop-up timers or plastic trusses and trimming excess skin, rub the inner cavity, as well as under and atop the skin first with a light layer of cooking oil and then with the mixture. Put it back into the refrigerator while you set up the smoker - complete with a big ol' foil drip pan at the bottom.

Ssssssmokin'!

Though most smoking calls for a steady 225°F, bacteria control is paramount with turkey. Aim for somewhere between 235°F (30-35 minutes per pound) and 275°F (20-25 minutes per pound). Time, however, is just a guideline. For the turkey to be safely edible, the internal temperature needs to reach 165°F at its thickest part, read without the meat thermometer touching a bone. Place the bird breast-side up over the drip pan, close the lid and sidle away. Baste with oil or butter in the last hour of cooking.

Spatchcocking. (Heh!)

Spatchcocking is another option. Just cut out the bird's backbone with poultry shears or a sharp knife, open it up like book, crack the breast and flatten the whole body. Not only will it save you a good bit of cooking time - it also gives you a great excuse to say "spatchcock" in polite company.

Smoke 'em if you've got 'em

And as to your question up top - I've often said it's a sin to waste good smoke, especially if you've got the monster stoked up all day. Slide in foil pans of halved lemons and limes, pierced ginger root, salt, cherries (when in season), apples, garlic, potatoes - and let them soak up the flavor as well. When you go to replenish the coals and wood chips, give the pan a shake and just make sure they're not drying out. Rotate in pans of fresh supplies as needed.

Smoked cherries can be refrigerated in jars of whiskey or brandy, lemons, limes and ginger made into crowd-pleasing cocktails, and smoked salt adds depth of flavor to any dish it's in.

Here's to a divine brine and a stupendous smoke, old friend!

Got a Thanksgiving kitchen conundrum of your own? We'll be here, manning the hotline. Just share your query in the comments below or @eatocracy on Twitter and we'll do our best to educate - or at least amuse.

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Filed under: Barbecue • Grilling • Help Desk • Holiday • Holidays • HolidayShopping • How To • Make • Recipes • Techniques & Tips • Thanksgiving • Thanksgiving


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soundoff (79 Responses)
  1. bisnono

    The secret to a moist, flavorful turkey is nothing special, and it doesn't matter if you buy the cheapest or most expensive bird. Take 4 tablespoons of softened (not melted) butter and smear it on top of your turkey, then brush on a layer of vegetable oil over the top of the buttered skin. My turkeys all turn out perfectly moist on the inside and crispy on the outside. Quick, easy, inexpensive, and rave reviews every time!

    November 25, 2010 at 9:12 am | Reply
    • bisnono

      By the way, you do this BEFORE it goes in the oven. Then just leave it to cook. No basting necessary.

      November 25, 2010 at 9:14 am | Reply
  2. Dennis2547

    Not bad. My great grandmother whom immigrated to the US and started Mimi's at the foot of Canal Street in New Orleans had a great recipe which I am sworn not to tell.
    Look one can submerge a turkey in all sorts of flavorings, juices, spices and the like. Trail and error is not a bad place to start and finish. Just make sure the bird in in a large container within one of those large garbage bags inside a container placed in a refrigerator. Loosely tie the top of the bag and you're good to go until you take it out and prepare it for the oven.
    A retired US Army veteran from Northern California

    November 25, 2010 at 12:46 am | Reply
    • Wednesday

      Don't ever use a garbage bag. The chemicals from manufacturing are not food safe and can sicken your family.

      October 29, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Reply
  3. Danielle Dimovski

    Advising to : Baste with oil or butter in the last hour of cooking. over a charcoal filled grill with a turkey being cooked is asking for a whole lot of fire and flame-ups very dangerous advice for a novice griller or bbqer. A much safer advisement would be to grill the turkey indirect. Additionally you should never ever sidle away from a grill that has food on it. Its dangerous to leave a grill with lit coals in it with food being cooked.

    November 24, 2010 at 6:46 pm | Reply
  4. mizjdizzle

    Happy Thanksgiving to all of you. Jdizzle will be proud to know he created controversy without even being present. May you all enjoy delicious turkey, perfect potatoes, and flawless stuffing!

    November 24, 2010 at 2:43 pm | Reply
  5. Truth@Snowbunny, RichHead, Jerv, AD et al...

    I'm out!
    Have a great thanksgiving all!
    Travel safely if you are going anywhere.

    November 24, 2010 at 2:33 pm | Reply
    • Jerv

      Same to you and the rest. Talk at cha next week. I unplug on the holidays.

      November 24, 2010 at 2:57 pm | Reply
  6. Amber

    As much as its fun to argue the fine points of tipping or militant veganism, these are the kinds of stories it would be nice to see more often on eatocracy. Lots of helpful info.

    I personally am trying an apple juice brine this year and I'll rub it down with rosemary and salt and give it apple juice showers and steamers just like I would a good set of barbeque ribs while it's cooking.

    After adding kosher salt and black pepper and boiling the apple juice this morning, i swear it's the foulest tasting liquid I've ever cooked...but it should make for a tasty bird theoretically. Bird won't bathe in it until tonight. I'm not a 72 hour briner.

    November 24, 2010 at 1:36 pm | Reply
    • Kat Kinsman

      I would love to know how that turns out. I've got a friend who is cider-brining, so I'd imagine that's somewhat akin. Is the juice sweetened or just plain ol' pressed?

      November 24, 2010 at 2:20 pm | Reply
      • Amber

        Pre-sweetened. Fructose added. I momentarily considered getting the good juice for this and then realized that ultimately it was just a brine so that was probably not worth it. So I went for the "just barely passable as maybe having been from real apples" variety. But yeah, it had added fruit sugar. I thought about adding brown sugar too, but ended up deciding if I do that I'll just put a little in the salt when I rub it later.

        November 24, 2010 at 2:59 pm | Reply
      • Amber

        It turned out pretty good actually...I didn't end up adding any additional sugar, but I did squirt more apple juice on the turkey as it cooked...it got a bit blacker than normal, but it ended up not tasting burnt...more crusty and sweet. The best thing I did was put apples and oranges with red pepper and cinnamon inside the turkey (instead of stuffing). Oranges ended up losing all their sweetness and tasting nasty (so I threw them out) but the apples were delicious so I left them in when I made the gravy. Sweet apple turkey gravy :)

        November 30, 2010 at 2:55 pm | Reply
  7. AuroraDawn

    ...and you're posting...what in regard to brining,smoking or rubbing???

    November 24, 2010 at 12:51 pm | Reply
    • wherestheturkey

      I came here looking for information on Brining, not how you are doing at work. You can go do that on FB, but too each their own. If you want to catch up with people you don’t know, have fun. Have a good Thanksgiving and I will not catch up with you later.

      November 24, 2010 at 1:17 pm | Reply
      • AuroraDawn

        UMMM...There is a recipe for brine and people are discussing it. If you see something that doesn't interest you...don't read it. Anyway, a Happy Thanksgiving to you too....and Sweeten up a bit!!!!

        November 24, 2010 at 1:48 pm | Reply
      • Jerv

        Wow, got humor? Or how about civility? I'm sure there is a lot that gets lost on you. I'll bake you a STFU pumpkin pie.

        November 24, 2010 at 2:02 pm | Reply
  8. moneal

    Chapel Hill making it on to Eatocracy!! I'm from and still living in the southern part of heaven...Who's Pete M?

    November 24, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Reply
  9. wherestheturkey

    I thought this was a post on Brining, smoking, and rubbing your turkey, did not realize it was really a "as the world turns" reunion. Go Auburn, WAR'damn'EAGLE

    November 24, 2010 at 12:40 pm | Reply
    • Snowbunny

      Where's you post on brining, rubbing or smoking??? Close your piehole if you have nothing nice to say.

      November 24, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Reply
      • wherestheturkey

        nothing nice to say?? I did not say anything mean....yet. but now I will, Shut the hell up!!! Hope your bird is dry.

        November 24, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Reply
      • Snowbunny

        LMAO!! That was funny. "Hope you bird is dry". I'll give ya that much. Very funny!! May your potatoes have lumps and your stuffing turn out soupy. :)

        November 24, 2010 at 1:26 pm | Reply
  10. RichardHead@Mizjdizzle

    Happy Thanksgiving to you and the kids. His brother says the '49-ers suck yet not as much as the Cowboys.I'm thinking about him.

    November 24, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Reply
  11. Jerv

    I don't know the jdizzle family personally, but I honestly hope for a wonderful recovery for him.

    November 24, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Reply
  12. mizjdizzle

    Thanks to all of you for your thoughts and well wishes for jdizzle. Things are going well, and he looks forward to rejoining the act soon. I must agree, he adds an unique and unequivocal piece to your commentary, as well as my world. I will let him know your thinking of him.

    November 24, 2010 at 12:19 pm | Reply
    • Snowbunny

      I hope you have a nice holiday... I'm sure it will be tough without him home. Keep your chin up! :) HUGS.

      November 24, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Reply
  13. AuroraDawn

    Soaking them actually will reduce the starch and result in less of a chance of a gluey potato. So go ahead and peel,and store in water. I would just wait till maybe this evening to do it. Also, just make sure they are all submerged so you don't get oxidation.

    November 24, 2010 at 11:55 am | Reply
  14. Laura

    Hi all. 2 Tday questions. Can I peel, chop and put fresh potatoes in water (in fridge) today? I don't want to mess up texture of mashed potatoes tomorrow. Also, can I pre-bake stuffing today? My oven is extra small. Thanks.

    November 24, 2010 at 11:49 am | Reply
  15. smoker213

    I smoke a turkey every year...they're pretty hard to keep lit (haha). But, seriously, I use the "Ultimate Smoked Turkey" recipe from http://www.amazingribs.com and it is tremendous. I've tried to mess with it and alter steps in the process, but there is really no need unless you just like certain spices more than others. I will never go back to the oven or the fryer again. I usually start getting phone calls from buddies in mid September asking about the turkey – I completely understand as I wake up thinking about it for most of the rest of the year – haha. I started with a 15 pound bird a few years ago and am up to 30 pounds plus now just to ensure enough for sandwiches the next day – it goes that quickly! Anyway, a few tips from someone who has messed around with turkey smoking enough to know what not to do:

    1. Always brine the turkey (I usually do it for 11 hours) – smoking will cause it to dry out if you don't.
    2. Never use a "self-basting" or pre-injected turkey – they will also dry out. I get organic birds from Whole Foods and they do really well.
    3. Turkey (as well as chicken) does not require the "low and slow" approach – there just isn't as much fat content as in a pork shoulder or a brisket. I keep the smoker at around 300-325 for turkey and chicken. The whole point of "low and slow" is to tenderize very tough meats – a turkey does not fit into that category.
    4. You don't need much wood to smoke a turkey – just a few chunks as soon as the bird goes on is plenty. With turkey, you run a very real risk of over-smoking and having the bird take on that horrible, bitter liquid smoke taste. I've used hickory, apple, and peach and everyone seemed to like the hickory best but it's a strong smoke so you have to go really easy on it.

    Other than that, I've learned to never skip anything from the recipe above and do everything exactly like Meathead says and you'll be fine. Also, the smoked gravy recipe included really takes it up to eleven. Enjoy!

    November 24, 2010 at 11:18 am | Reply
  16. Shawna

    Thanks for such a great article!! We always smoke turkey for T-day. We dry rub and inject the night before. I am going to try your rub on one of them. We are doing three this year. We hate to waste the smoke and it freezes well I am also putting in the potatoes for smashed potatoes. Yummmy! Can't wait!

    November 24, 2010 at 11:08 am | Reply
  17. someguy02

    Thanks for the recipee, I was looking for sommething straightfoward like this.

    November 24, 2010 at 10:58 am | Reply
  18. Evil Grin

    Hm... this thread's comments are far cleaner than I thought it would be. I think we're growing!

    November 24, 2010 at 10:58 am | Reply
    • Snowbunny

      Ya mean like... Oil that bad boy and give er' a rub down? LOL

      November 24, 2010 at 11:00 am | Reply
      • Evil Grin

        Heh, something like that, I suppose. It was far worse in my head. ;)

        November 24, 2010 at 11:02 am | Reply
      • Jerv

        Oil and spatchcocking for me.

        November 24, 2010 at 11:03 am | Reply
      • Snowbunny

        What in the heck is spatchcocking??? LOL Sounds, um, nevermind...

        November 24, 2010 at 11:24 am | Reply
      • Jerv@AD

        I know, a crazy word. Never heard it myself until today.

        Spatchcocking. (Heh!)

        Spatchcocking is another option. Just cut out the bird's backbone with poultry shears or a sharp knife, open it up like book, crack the breast and flatten the whole body.

        November 24, 2010 at 11:30 am | Reply
      • Truth@Snowbunny

        That would cost you $350 in Las Vegas...

        November 24, 2010 at 11:31 am | Reply
  19. someguy02

    By the way, there is a new Android app called Turkey Timer, seems it will be very helpful when cooking tomorrow.

    November 24, 2010 at 10:56 am | Reply
  20. AuroraDawn

    I'll have to work all week :( You have a great Thanksgiving too!!

    November 24, 2010 at 10:31 am | Reply
    • DrieriguilD580

      -

      April 12, 2011 at 9:48 pm | Reply
  21. AuroraDawn

    LOL Milton would be a stone cold,stud compared to Bob....I would tell you what just happened but...it's too hideous yet funny to repeat. I almost spit my Chai Latte all over my computer. The poor guy is just a disaster, I'm still laughing so hard...OMG...I have to take a personal day today I think. LOL

    November 24, 2010 at 10:20 am | Reply
    • RichardHead@AD

      Gotta work Friday? If your leaving early have a Great Thanksgiving!

      November 24, 2010 at 10:28 am | Reply
  22. Dimitrios

    http://amzn.to/aV2dQa Funny, touching, memorable short Thanksgiving stories about holiday disasters, family & friends

    November 24, 2010 at 10:03 am | Reply
  23. Truth@RichHead, AD, Jerv

    I am getting a visual of "Milton" from the movie "Office Space"...

    November 24, 2010 at 9:58 am | Reply
    • Jerv@Truth, RicHead&AD

      Laughs! Great flick. My favorite scene was when they went gangster on the copy machine.

      November 24, 2010 at 10:15 am | Reply
    • RichardHead

      Just found my WKRP dvd and am gonna watch the turkey episode again. I always LMAO at Les Nesman and Mr. Carlson saying"I swear I thought Turkeys could fly"!

      November 24, 2010 at 10:24 am | Reply
      • Truth@RichHead, AD, Jerv

        For the uninitiated:
        [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ST01bZJPuE0&w=640&h=390]

        And for the record, I always preferred Jan Smithers to Loni any day.

        November 24, 2010 at 10:33 am | Reply
      • RichardHead@Truth

        Thank you Truth. This computer stuff is highly testicle to me.

        November 24, 2010 at 10:38 am | Reply
      • Jerv@RicHead

        WKRP in Cincinnati great stuff. I remember that episode, soo funny.

        November 24, 2010 at 11:22 am | Reply
  24. AuroraDawn

    LMAO I never though of that.....I better cut back on the Febreeze.

    November 24, 2010 at 9:51 am | Reply
  25. RichardHead@AD

    He's probably from Undercover Boss trying to figure out why you are overbudget on the Febreeze purchase orders.

    November 24, 2010 at 9:46 am | Reply
  26. AuroraDawn

    Truth....very true. I will check immediately!!!! LOL Every time he talks to me his top bridgework falls down and it makes me gag. When he sneezes (which is every 3 minutes) he then snorts till the next fit of ...tuberculosis or whatever he has comes on. I don't know who I ticked off to get stuck with him...

    November 24, 2010 at 9:40 am | Reply
    • Jerv

      Sounds like that dude is falling apart or is some kind of genetic anomaly.

      November 24, 2010 at 9:48 am | Reply
    • 4U Mister

      Geeze, AD, they certainly make you earn your day off there...he sounds dreadful!!

      November 24, 2010 at 11:17 am | Reply
      • AuroraDawn

        LOL He is dreadful!!! I kind of feel bad for him....a bit. This morning our Administrator came down for a report...Sorry, it still makes me laugh. He had some Board members with him. So anyway my co-worker hands the report,sneezes and...to be polite "breaks wind" while all these people are standing there. It wasn't a ...small incident of wind breaking either. Well, any semblence of professionalism I ever had flew out the window. I cracked up, they cracked up he tripped on the wheel of his chair.....it was funny yet....tragic sort of. I feel kind of bad for him....it was funny though...*sigh* damn conscience of mine.....I feel like I should buy him a new Zamfir CD or something.

        November 24, 2010 at 11:22 am | Reply
      • Jerv@AD

        LMGDAO! Had the exact same thing happen to me in 8th grade, Never lived that one down.

        November 24, 2010 at 11:27 am | Reply
  27. AuroraDawn

    LMAO@RichardHead Don't tempt me...the idea of impaling him with something is...somewhat cathartic....

    November 24, 2010 at 9:17 am | Reply
  28. AuroraDawn

    Morning all!!! Hope everyone is having a nice day, and hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving. I myself am glancing over at that work of art that sits across from me...*sigh* He has outdone himself this morning....bowtie and all. I Febreezed the office when he went to get his coffee so I should be good for a few minutes. He doesn't however smell like bologna today. He has stepped up to mothballs,and BEN-GAY.

    November 24, 2010 at 9:07 am | Reply
    • RichardHead@AD

      An obvious sign of an severe rectal disorder. You can always splatchcock him,but I'd do it in the hallway as it gets messy.

      November 24, 2010 at 9:12 am | Reply
      • Jerv

        In tears over here.

        November 24, 2010 at 9:14 am | Reply
      • Truth@RichHead, AD, Jerv

        You might want to check with the hospital's HR department to see if there are any policies in place regarding spatchcocking. Don't want to get in trouble you know.

        November 24, 2010 at 9:28 am | Reply
  29. RichardHead

    Good Morning Fearless Leader. How's the back and how did the deep fryed turkey turn oot?

    November 24, 2010 at 8:50 am | Reply
    • Kat Kinsman

      Fried turkey was incredible! Details to follow. Back is variable, but it's very kind of you to ask!

      November 24, 2010 at 12:27 pm | Reply
  30. Pete M.

    Thanks Kat. I'm going with the dry rub for sure, and while I plan on saying or writing "spatchcock" at every opportunity from now on, I'm not sure my barrel smoker can accommodate a splayed bird. I'll send you an update as to how it turns out. Thanks again, you're the best! See you on Boxing Day?

    November 24, 2010 at 8:17 am | Reply
  31. mizjdizzle

    My turkey will be unavailable for rubbing or spatchcocking this year. But I'm still thankful he exists!

    November 24, 2010 at 7:22 am | Reply
    • Jerv

      Smiles. How is your turkey doing?

      November 24, 2010 at 7:42 am | Reply
      • RichardHead

        Morning Jer and Mizjdizz-how goes it this fine day?

        November 24, 2010 at 8:42 am | Reply
      • Jerv@RicHead

        Morning goes well, thanks for asking. A lot of folks here putting in orders before the holiday keeping me busy.

        November 24, 2010 at 9:01 am | Reply
      • RichardHead@Jerv

        What type of work? A little leery on the other poster this morning.

        November 24, 2010 at 9:05 am | Reply
      • Jerv@RicHead

        Yeah I was a little leery as well but thought I'd give it a shot.

        I do grant accounting work for a hospital. Everyone needs drugs for the holiday.

        November 24, 2010 at 9:08 am | Reply
    • Truth@MizJDizz

      Please wish your turkey all the best from the crew here and tell him that the rest of the stooges await his return. The act is not the same without him.

      November 24, 2010 at 10:35 am | Reply
  32. Tes

    I love the informative detail of this post! I will definitely get it right with the turkey this year :)

    November 24, 2010 at 3:56 am | Reply
    • Kat Kinsman

      Definitely let us know how it goes!

      November 24, 2010 at 4:00 am | Reply
  33. giz

    265F??????? I seriously hope that is a typo, otherwise, you may as well be eating the charcoal!

    November 24, 2010 at 3:50 am | Reply
    • Kat Kinsman

      You're right. It's late. I'm tired. Fixed. Thank you.

      November 24, 2010 at 3:57 am | Reply

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