If you ever want to impress someone with an incredible meal, there is no need to look further then this recipe. Apple cider brined, hickory smoked turkey is impressive and the best turkey I have ever had. I am not exaggerating. Oh my god, this smoked turkey is so good you will dream about it and want to eat turkey more than once a year.
What is so special about hickory smoked turkey? Everything. First off, the turkey bathes in an apple cider brine for 24 hours. This is not your ordinary brine, but one built with layers of flavor from oranges, fresh ginger, cloves, garlic, and bay leaves. Next, more flavor permeates the turkey from the smoke in a charcoal grill. Hickory wood chips scattered over hot briquettes create a smoke with sweet and woody notes that pair nicely with the apple cider infused turkey. The end result is a turkey that is moist and tender, with a fall fruit-smokiness and love in every bite.
I realize that I am on a trend of making absolute, “This is the one recipe you ever need” statements like I also made for my roasted vegetable stock recipe. I promise not to make this a habit because when I do say it, I want you to believe it. Honestly, I have never tasted turkey so good. Even my daughter-in-law, who does not like turkey, stated she loves this smoked turkey and will eat it without any hesitation or obligation. You know the meal is a success when everyone keeps picking away at the remaining pieces of turkey on the platter throughout the night. I started to wonder if there was going to be any leftovers for turkey sandwiches.
Mastering Smoked Turkey
First off, the brine recipe and smoking technique are from my trusted grilling source, Weber.com. I own a kettle charcoal grill, so this recipe is written using a charcoal grill. If you own a gas grill, brine the turkey with the apple cider brine then, follow these directions for smoking a turkey on a gas grill.
Other than the turkey and brining ingredients, you also need some special equipment.
- Container large enough to hold the turkey with the brine, or large plastic bag
- Cooler or refrigerator
- A couple of bags of ice for the cooler
- 2-3 large heavy-duty aluminum roasting pans. One for the bottom of the grill to fill with water, the other for the turkey. I use two pans to hold the turkey for extra reinforcement.
- 100% cotton kitchen string to tie the legs together
- Charcoal for a charcoal grill
- Hickory wood chips for smoking
- Charcoal chimney
- BBQ gloves
- Instant read thermometer
- Oven thermometer if your grill does not have a built-in temperature gauge.
Grilling and Smoking a Turkey
The biggest challenge for outdoor grilling during the fall/winter season in the northeastern part of the US is getting the coals lit and maintaining the temperature of the grill. When I mentioned this at dinner, one son responded, “If you want to get it “lit”, you need loud music and more booze.” As fun as that sounds, whenever you are cooking over an open flame, I recommend keeping the parting to a minimum, at least until the food is cooked and the fire is out.
On a windy day, it is important to watch the fire in the charcoal chimney and make sure the paper fire catches and lights the coals. Once lit, the charcoal will heat up in about 15 minutes.
The few times I grilled a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner was when the temperature was mild for a November day in New York. That means, above freezing and preferably around 40°F (4.°C) or above. However, if you have a grill that is well insulated, keeping your grill at 350°F (177°C) should not be so difficult.
It takes around 3-4 hours to cook a 12 – 15 lb. (5.4 – 7 kg) turkey in a grill. To keep the coals hot and burning, locate your grill outside in a protected area with easy to access to and from your kitchen. To maintain the grill’s temperature at 350°F (177°C), add fresh charcoal to the hot fire, every hour. Keep track of the temperature with an oven thermometer placed on the grill rack, or a built-in temperature gauge on the grill.
If you are lucky enough to live in a milder climate you should not have any problems maintaining the temperature.
For the smoke, I used hickory wood chips, but any purchased wood chips will work. Each type of wood has its own unique flavor so pick one you like. If you can find apple wood chips, they will complement the apple cider brine nicely.
When cooking with poultry it is important to keep food safety in mind, especially when brining a turkey for 24 hours. It is crucial the brine and turkey stays between 35°- 40°F (1.6°- 4.4°C). If the temperature in your cooler goes above 40°F you run the risk of developing harmful bacteria like salmonella, which will make you very sick.
Brining a turkey for 24 hours in a refrigerator is the safest and easiest option. However, if there is no room in your refrigerator, a good quality cooler is the next best thing. Fill the space in the cooler around the plastic bag filled with brine and the turkey, with ice and close the lid tightly. Periodically check the cooler to see that the ice is not melting. Replenish the ice as needed. A good quality cooler will maintain the temperature for several hours, just make sure you fill it with fresh ice before you go to bed.
Some words of advice
Brining and cooking a turkey is an involved process, even when you cook it conventionally in the oven. All the steps are not so difficult; however, it takes time and constant monitoring. If you can, buy a fresh turkey and save yourself 4-5 days of worrying about defrosting the turkey. I often use frozen turkeys, but it adds 4 more days to your timeframe just to defrost the darn thing in the refrigerator.
I quickly thaw a frozen turkey by submerging a sealed turkey in a leak-proof bag in my cooler filled with ice water. A 14-pound turkey will defrost in about 8 hours if the temperature of the ice water is between 38-40°F (3.3 – 4.4°C). It is important to check the temperature of the ice water every hour until the turkey is fully thawed.
Because you are brining the turkey, make sure the turkey you buy is not already injected with a saltwater solution. Some commercial brands, like Butterball and Kosher Turkeys, have a saltwater solution already injected in their turkeys. Carefully read the label to make sure.
If you are having difficulty maintaining the temperature of your grill at 350°F, preheat your oven and finish cooking the turkey in the oven. You will not get as much of the smoked flavor, but you will get a properly cooked turkey and that is what is important.
You can do this. Cooking a turkey is an occasion by itself and just think how ecstatic you will feel when you are done. Although, this recipe might not be the easiest starting point if you never cooked a turkey before, or you are a novice griller. It is good to have some experience before one starts to experiment. Fortunately, the apple cider brine adds lovely fruit flavor and moisture to turkey no matter how it is cooked. So, feel free to use it for a conventional roast turkey.
Over the weekend when I shared this meal with my family, an overwhelming sense of gratitude and love filled my heart and home. It was the generosity of spirit and the positive attitudes from each of my children and their significant others, that moved me more than anything. As delicious as the food was, it was only the exclamation mark to a wonderful time, not the meaning or purpose. It was an I don’t want this evening to end, kind of night. Don’t wait for Thanksgiving to show gratitude and love and make something delicious and unexpected to share. Seize the moments as they come. Light up your life with family, friends, and food in your own special way creating those moments you never want to end.
Hickory Smoked Turkey
This is one of the best recipes for making a turkey I know. Like any roast turkey recipe, it takes time and constant monitoring, but it is well worth the effort. The hickory smoke steeps into the apple cider brined turkey, creating a light smoke flavor that is sweet and woodsy with dark and crispy skin.
To determine the size turkey you need, the general rule of thumb is 1 - 1½ pounds (500 - 750 g) of turkey per person. You want leftovers for sandwiches and turkey pot pie, so you cannot err on the side of buying too much turkey. Keep in mind the smaller the turkey the lower ratio of meat to bone.
Plan ahead and give yourself lots of extra time to cook the turkey. 24 hours for brining the turkey. 1 hour to prep the vegetables, bring the turkey up to room temperature, soak the wood chips and light your coals. Cook the turkey for 15 to 20 minutes per pound depending on the temperature of your grill.
This recipe and grilling technique is by Jamie Purviance on weber.com
- 2 qt. (1 liter) apple cider
- 1 lb. (2 cups packed / 456 g) light brown sugar
- 1 cup (250 ml) kosher salt
- 3 qt. (1.5 liters) water
- 3 oranges quarter
- 4 oz. (125 g) fresh ginger peeled and sliced thin
- 15 whole cloves
- 6 bay leaves
- 6 large garlic cloves peeled and smashed
- 1 recipe Apple cider brine
- 1 12 -15 lb. (5.4 - 6.8 kg) turkey (thawed if frozen)
- 1 orange cut in wedges
- 1 lemon cut in wedges
- Enough extra virgin olive oil to coat the turkey
- Kosher salt
- Black pepper
- 1-2 TB Herbs de Provence
- 1 sprig fresh sage
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
- 2 ½ cups (600 ml) chicken stock
Make the Brine
Pour the apple cider in a saucepan and place on a burner set at high heat. Add the sugar and kosher salt and bring to a boil. Stir occasionally to make sure the sugar and salt dissolve. Cook at a boil for 1 minute then remove the pan from the heat to cool. If using the same day, cool the brine to room temperature before adding to the turkey. You can make the brine 24 hours in advance and keep in the refrigerator overnight in an airtight container.
Brine the Turkey
You need a five-gallon food grade bucket, or another large food-safe container large enough to hold your turkey and brine, or 2 large plastic bags (I use two to prevent the brine from leaking.)* Add the remaining brine ingredients to your container, stir to combine then submerge the turkey in the liquid.
If you are using plastic bags, place the bags in the cooler or container first, then add the turkey. Mix the apple cider brine and remaining ingredients in another bowl then add to the turkey. Bring the bag ends together in a way that shapes the brine around the entire turkey. Tie a knot near the top of the turkey to seal the bags and prevent the brine from leaking.
Place the turkey with the brine in the refrigerator or cooler for 24 hours. If you are using a cooler, add ice to either side of the turkey and check the temperature periodically to ensure the cooler is maintaining a constant 36°- 40°F (2.2 - 4.4°C) temperature. You do not what the temperature to go above 40° F. Add ice to the cooler as needed. Make sure to add fresh ice to the cooler just before you go to sleep for the night.
Prepare the turkey
Remove the turkey from the brine after 24 hours. Discard the brine and place the turkey on a rimmed baking sheet. Pat the turkey dry with paper towels and allow it rest on the counter for one hour to bring it up to room temperature.
Meanwhile, add 4 large handfuls of hickory wood chips in a pan and spread out in an even layer. Add water to cover the chips and soak them for a minimum of 30 minutes. Set aside.
Just before you want to start grilling, dry off the turkey again with paper towels. Stuff the cavity with orange wedges, lemon wedges, and fresh herbs. If the legs are floppy, tie the drumsticks together at the tips with kitchen string. Baste the entire surface of the turkey with the olive oil then season with Kosher salt, black pepper, and Herbs de Provence.
Add the chopped celery, carrots and onion to a large heavy-duty aluminum roasting pan in an even layer.
Add the chicken stock to the vegetables then place the turkey, breast side down in the pan.
Prepare your Grill
Light your coals 20 minutes before you want to begin grilling. When the coals are ready, place a large aluminum foil baking pan in the center of the lower grate and arrange the hot coals around the pan in a horseshoe shape. Fill the pan with a tea kettle amount of warm water. Add some more coals to the hotbed of coals and allow them to heat up for a few minutes.
Add two handfuls of the soaked wood chips evenly over the hot coals. Place your grill grate in the grill. Cover your grill with the vents open all the way and wait for the smoke to appear.
Cook the Turkey
Once you see smoke, position the roasting pan with the turkey on the grill grate with the legs pointing to the hottest part of the grill, the arch of the horseshoe. Cover the grill with the vents open. Cook for one hour.
After an hour, carefully turn the turkey over and position it the breast side up. Add more charcoals if needed and more wood chips. Cover the grill and continue roasting. After an hour and a half check the turkey and cover the wing tips and drumstick tips with foil if they are getting too dark. Add more coals and wood chips as needed. Maintain the grill temperature at 350 °F (177°C) for the duration of time while cooking the turkey.
Cook the turkey until the internal temperature reads 165°F (74°C) at the thickest part of the thigh away from the bone. Check the breast meat for the same temperature reading. Usually, unstuffed turkey takes 15-20 minutes per pound to cook. While the turkey is smoking, check the coals periodically to make sure it maintains a constant 350°F temperature.
Once the turkey is done, remove it from the grill and roasting pan and place on a cutting board. Cover loosely with aluminum foil and rest for 15 – 20 minutes before carving.
Use the pan juices for gravy. Remove the vegetables with a slotted spoon and discard or serve them with the turkey if they are not spent. I was able to save the carrots and onions, but the celery was overdone. Pour the pan juices in a fat separator or skim off the top layer of fat from the pan juices with a spoon. Pour the pan juices in a saucepan and bring to a boil.
Turn down the heat and simmer until ready to serve. The pan juices have a lot of flavor from the apple cider brine and smoke, so it should not need any seasoning. Taste first before you add any salt or pepper. This makes a light sauce, not a gravy, which is how I like it.
If you want a thicker gravy-like sauce, make a roux then add the warm pan juices. Melt 1 -2 TB of unsalted butter in a saucepan then add the same amount of all-purpose flour to the pot. Whisk the flour and butter together and turn down the temperature to medium. Cook the roux, until it has a light golden color and the flour taste is gone. Add the hot pan juices to the roux and whisk until smooth. Taste and correct the seasoning. Simmer for 5 minutes stirring occasionally until ready to serve.
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