THE BLOG
11/21/2014 08:49 am ET Updated Jan 21, 2015

6 Things You Need to Know to Take Your Thanksgiving Turkey Over the Top

Steven Raichlen

Over the years, I've cooked a lot of turkey. In France, where I stuffed butter and truffles under the skin. In Montreal, where I marinated it with maple syrup and Canadian whiskey. Thanksgiving is fast approaching, and this year I'll be cooking my bird as I usually do these days--outdoors in my kettle grill. The advantages are many. The smoke adds an amazing depth of flavor, while the brine keeps the bird tender and succulent. The process takes the cooking outdoors, freeing up valuable real estate in your kitchen. And you get an excuse to bond with your buddies around the grill.

But not all turkeys are equal. Here's what you need to know to take your Thanksgiving turkey over the top.

  1. There's a big difference in texture and taste between ice-hard frozen supermarket turkeys and fresh organic birds from your natural foods store or farmers' market. The organic bird may seem a little tougher, but you can't beat the flavor--or the knowledge that it's free of hormones and chemical additives. You'll need to order it ahead, so don't wait until the last minute.
  2. So how big a turkey should you buy? Figure on 1 1/2 pounds per person. This will make you feel properly overfed (as you should at Thanksgiving) and leave you with welcome leftovers.
  3. But bigger isn't always better. For me, a 12- to 14-pound turkey is ideal. For large gatherings, I'd rather cook two 12-pounders than one 24-pound monster. (It's easier to control the cooking.)
  4. A lot of industrially-raised birds come pre-injected with stock, water, and/or butter or vegetable oil--up to 15 percent. Water is cheaper than meat, which is one reason processors do it. Try to buy your turkey un-injected. You can always brine it yourself (see below).
  5. The best and safest way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator. Depending on the size of the bird, you'll need to start thawing it up to five days ahead: figure on one day for every four pounds of turkey. Alternatively, thaw the turkey in a deep sink or cooler filled with cold water: Change the water every 30 minutes. It's important for food safety reasons to keep the water at 40 degrees or less. You can add resealable bags of ice to the water to keep it cold. Never thaw the turkey in hot water as the outside will thaw long before the inside, risking dangerous bacterial growth.
  6. One thing that makes a turkey challenging to cook is that the legs (the dark meat) take longer to cook than the breast (the white meat). This explains why so much turkey tastes dried out. One way to keep the breast moist even while cooking the legs to a safe temperature is brining. Another is injecting. A third technique is spreading butter under the skin of the turkey. A fourth method is to smoke-roast the turkey "beer can chicken style" on a tall-boy can of beer. A fifth method is to deep-fry the turkey--admittedly not barbecuing or grilling, but you also do it outdoors (get the recipe in Man Made Meals).

Want six more invaluable tips for nailing the ultimate turkey, plus a killer recipe for bourbon-brined, maple wood-smoked turkey? Head to BarbecueBible.com.

Adapted from Man Made Meals by Steven Raichlen (Workman Publishing).

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Steven Raichlen is the author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and the host of Primal Grill on PBS. His web site is BarbecueBible.com.