For the second time in my life, I played host for Thanksgiving. The first was long ago in a galaxy far, far away, or Texas, which is pretty much the same thing. It seems like a lifetime ago, but I haven’t forgotten it, or any of the wonderful people that I met while I was down there, though only a couple of them were at that dinner. It was long enough ago, it was almost like I was doing it for the first time.
We originally were supposed to have a much larger group, but due to foreign bureaucracy, our group was a bit smaller. When we were expecting the bigger group we weren’t sure if one turkey would be enough, and there was no way our small oven could make two, so I had volunteered to smoke a turkey to compliment the oven roasted one. However, after we found out about the smaller gathering, it was decided that we would drop the oven roasted turkey, and I would smoke one anyway. This would give us more room in kitchen and allow the oven to be used for other things. I have smoked a turkey before, not for Thanksgiving though. Thus putting a little more pressure on this one since it would be the center piece of the meal and had to be ready to go when all the rest of the days delicacies were. Also, even though my last smoked turkey was good, I felt I needed to elevate it a bit so that it did the day proper justice.
The easiest way that I could come up with to knock this turkey out of the ball park was to give it a good brining. Brining is commonly used in smoking meats, but I’d never done it before. Thank goodness for the good old internet, where everything on it 100% accurate and true. Well, at least occasionally, but it is a good source for things like this. I googled a few brine recipes, glanced at them, thought simple enough, and then totally disregarded them and went at it Douglas style, which means I winged the mother…
I did see and remember enough to know that generally you put some salt in water, boil with some aromatic seasonings until all of the salt is dissolved. I also saw that some of the aromatics can be added in after the boiling before you add in the remaining water. Simple enough!
Brining day was Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. We kicked off the day with an early swim, and I do mean early. Then a quick breakfast and it was brining time! I started with about 1 ½ cups of salt and 4 cups of water, but quickly learned that that wasn’t enough water to fully dissolve the salt, so I added in a couple more cups. To this I added: a handful of black peppercorns, a handful of dry thyme, a handful dry of oregano, and a handful of dry basil. Yeah, that’s about as accurate a measurement as I ever use, usually I just eyeball things, or add to taste, which is probably why I can’t bake. Anyway, I let this simmer for a while to fully release all of the flavors. I also wanted to add a handful of coriander seed, and a handful of dry bay leaves, but I didn’t have any.
Once the brine was pretty well cooked I made the bad decision that I was going to go get the coriander and bay leaves and add them in. I had my mind set on it, and couldn’t let it go, so needed to make a store run. Besides, I needed more charcoal. I told Jessica what I was doing, and my quick trip quickly became the full shopping trip for all of Thanksgiving. It was the day before Thanksgiving, it was snowing heavily, so roads were in bad shape, and therefore I was going to be fighting the last minute Thanksgiving shoppers and blizzard panic shoppers, what fun. To top it off, I went to the wrong store, the one that didn’t carry my brand of charcoal (Royal Oak. I used to be a Kingsford person, but decided I didn’t want the chemicals in my food), and had to go to a second store during my outing.
Over an hour later I was back home, and ready to continue brining. I added in the coriander and bay leaves, and set them to simmering. While the brine was cooking, I chopped some onions and garlic and threw them into my brining bucket (5 gallon bucket I bought at hardware store for $3). I added the brine to the bucket and let it soften the onion and garlic and start to draw out their flavors. Next I added what I thought was the crowning touch, the king of my aromatics, a pint of Southern Tier IPA! I felt this would really get things hopping…
Once my brine mixture was complete I added my turkey to the bucket and started adding enough water to completely submerge it. Jessica quickly noticed a problem, the turkey was starting to float, but I had anticipated it and already had a fix in mind. I took the pot I had started the brine in, put it in the bucket on the turkey and added water until the turkey sank again. I then finished adding water until the turkey was completely submerged. A quick stir and it was all set.
It was around noon when I finished and the plan was to let it brine until the next morning when it would go into the smoker. We did have a bit of a problem in regards to how to refrigerate it overnight. Our fridge was too full, and I didn’t want to remove my keg of Southern Tier IPA from the kegerator and let it get warm. There were a couple of suggestions that since it was so cold out that we could leave it out on the back porch, but I didn’t want the raccoons and neighborhood cats to feast without us. Eventually it was decided that inside my truck would be the perfect spot, so there it went for the night.
Thanksgiving morning I knew I needed to get going on things early if we were going to eat dinner at a reasonable time. I have an old charcoal smoker, and it was going to be a cold, windy day so controlling temperature was going to be a challenge. With that in mind I set my alarm for 4:30am.
The rest of this post, the actual smoking of the turkey, will follow soon in Part II…