T-day may be the country's favorite secular holiday, but it's a bad time for Meleagris gallopavo. According to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey on Thanksgiving. That statistic is even more remarkable when you factor in our foreign-born population and vegetarians.
It's no secret that turkeys destined for the Raichlen table never see the inside of an oven. No, our turkeys cook in one of my many grills or smokers. Because my staff and I field so many questions from people determined to cook at least part of the meal outdoors this Thanksgiving, we decided to publish a Turkey Dos and Don'ts list.
- Do buy an organic or heritage turkey. Better texture and flavor and you know it was raised wholesomely and humanely. For me, the ideal size is 12 to 14 pounds; I'd rather cook two birds this size than one 24-pound monster.
- Don't buy turkeys that have been pre-injected with saline solution. Why pay for water (up to 15 percent for some turkeys) when you can brine the bird yourself--without chemical additives. (Read the fine print on the packaging.) Note: Birds labeled "kosher" have been pre-brined and will be unpleasantly salty if you brine them a second time at home.
- Do remove the giblets from the main and front cavities. Smoke the turkey liver to make pate. Smoke the neck, heart, and gizzard to make smoked turkey stock.
- Don't stuff your turkey. By the time the dressing reaches a safe temperature of 165 degrees, the turkey itself will be irredeemably overcooked. (Not to mention the stuffing steamed and gummy.) Instead, spoon the dressing into a large cast iron skillet and smoke-roast or indirect grill it to maximize the ratio of buttery crisp crust to moist center.
- Do smoke-roast your turkey on a charcoal grill or gas grill fitted with a smoker box or smoker pouch. You need a moderately high heat (325 to 400 degrees F) to crisp the turkey skin. But wood smoke adds a tremendous depth of flavor. That's why I prefer to smoke-roast my turkey (indirect grill it with wood smoke) to traditional low heat smoking.
- Don't smoke your turkey low and slow. Yes, you get moist meat and a great flavor, but the skin will be tough and rubbery. There's an easy work around: smoke the turkey at 225 to 250 degrees until you reach an internal temperature of around 130 degrees. Then increase the smoker temperature to 350 degrees (or move it to a grill set up for indirect grilling), brush the outside of the bird with melted butter, and indirect grill it until the skin is crisp and brown and the bird is cooked through.
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Steven Raichlen is the author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and the host of Project Smoke on public television. His web site is BarbecueBible.com.