How to Smoke a Turkey

The swoonworthy results and surprising ease of cooking an entire turkey over a wood-infused fire should make you rethink cranking up the oven. Three steps make the method work:

  1. Butterflying the turkey creates a broad, flat surface that cooks more quickly and evenly.
  2. Slathering the bird with a fragrant paste made with brown sugar, vinegar, and red spices, along with a few fresh herb sprigs placed here and there, perfumes the meat (and bastes the skin) with warm, subtly sweet-and-spicy flavor.
  3. To address the perennial quandary of how to cook the dark meat through without drying out the breast, the coals are arranged in a crescent shape positioned under the legs and thighs, which allows both parts of the bird to reach the ideal temperatures at the same time.
Photo by Paula Disbrowe

I strongly recommend asking your butcher to spatchcock the turkey for you—or you can earn bragging rights and wrangle it yourself with poultry shears and a sharp chef’s knife (be sure to reserve the backbone, neck, and giblets for making turkey stock or gravy). It’s important to maintain the grill at a medium heat of 325°F (165°C) to 350°F (175°C) so the skin doesn’t get too dark while the meat cooks through.

Another trick that makes the process much easier? After slathering the turkey with the wet rub, place it skin-side up on a wire cooling rack that you can place directly over the hot grates, which helps prevent sticking and tearing the delicious, crispy skin you’re creating. To account for carryover cooking, I pull the turkey off the grill at the lower end of the doneness range. This turkey is delicious on its own, with a smoky gravy, in tacos, and perhaps best of all, sliced for day-after sandwiches (pass the Duke’s mayo).

Paula Disbrowe

Adapted from Thank You for Smoking by Paula Disbrowe

Ingredients

  • One 12- to 15-pound (5.4 to 6.8 kg) turkey
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup (50g) packed light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 2 tablespoons ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano
  • 2 teaspoons sweet paprika
  • 2 teaspoons pure ground chile powder (such as New Mexico or ancho)
  • 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 6 to 8 sprigs fresh oregano, sage, thyme, or rosemary (optional)

Directions

At least 1 hour before cooking, spatchcock the turkey. Rinse the carcass under cold water, pat it dry with paper towels, and place it on a wire cooling rack over a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle both sides of the bird with enough oil to lightly coat, and season generously with salt and pepper.

In a small bowl, stir together the brown sugar, spices, and vinegar into a thick, moist paste. Use your hands to slather the wet rub evenly over both sides of the turkey and set it aside to marinate while you prepare the fire. (Note: the turkey can be seasoned and refrigerated up to 12 hours in advance.

Prepare your grill for two-zone cooking and build a medium-high fire.

When the coals are glowing red and covered with a fine gray ash, use your tongs to arrange them into a crescent moon shape (it should be wide enough to stretch between the two drumsticks) and add a few hardwood chunks to the fire. Carefully wipe the preheated grill grates with a lightly oiled paper towel. Using a grill brush, scrape the grill grates clean, then carefully wipe with a lightly oiled towel again.

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When the fire begins to produce a steady stream of (clearish or blue-tinted) smoke, place the wire rack supporting the turkey on the grill, skin-side up, with the turkey legs and thighs situated over the direct heat of the coals and the breast toward indirect heat. Tuck the herb sprigs under the legs and wing joints. Close the grill, vent the grill for smoking, and smoke for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads between 160°F (71°C) and 165°F (74°C). Add additional hot coals or wood chunks as needed to maintain a steady temperature between 325°F (165°C) and 350°F (175°C).

Transfer the turkey to a cutting board to rest for at least 20 minutes (or up to 40), then slice it into portions and serve immediately.

Do you smoke your Thanksgiving turkey? Let us know how in the comments below.
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