From the Eatocracy inbox, longtime pal Pete M. from Chapel Hill, NC writes:
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)
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.
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 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!
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