Are you tired of overly-salty sliced turkey from the supermarket’s deli? Are you thinking of doing a turkey breast instead of a whole bird for Thanksgiving? Although time-consuming because preparation includes brining and air-drying, smoking a turkey breast is pretty straight-forward and easy to do with either a gas or charcoal grill.
Purchase a turkey breast that hasn’t been “enhanced.” A lot of processors inject poultry with a solution (up to three percent by weight) of “turkey stock, sugar, salt, vinegar and natural flavoring.” If you can only get an “enhanced” breast, omit the brining as additional brining might make the bird too salty. A smoked turkey breast will yield 1 1/2 six-ounce portions per pound.
Smoked Turkey Breast
1 (five-pound) bone-in turkey breast
1 pound pecan and cherry wood chips or one cup (5 1/2 ounces) mixed pellets
2 stalks celery, roughly chopped
2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
2 onions, peeled and roughly chopped
1 1/2 cups unsweetened apple cider
For the brine:
1 1/2 gallons cold water, divided
1 1/2 cups coarse kosher salt
2 cups dark brown sugar
1 (three-ounce bag) Maryland- or Louisiana-style crab boil (or 2 1/2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning)
1/4 cup dark molasses
1/4 cup white wine (Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc)
2 tablespoons cracked black peppercorns
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary (or two teaspoons dried)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme (or two teaspoons dried)
1 tablespoon whole allspice
8 sage leaves (or 3/4 teaspoon dried)
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
Combine one quart of water, salt, sugar, crab boil, molasses, wine and pepper in a medium stockpot and bring it all to a simmer over medium-high heat. Stir it to dissolve the salt and sugar. When the salt and sugar dissolve remove the mixture from the heat and add the remaining water, rosemary, thyme, allspice, sage and Worcestershire. Cool the brine to 40 degrees F. or lower.
Trim any extraneous skin and fat from the turkey. Remove the pop-up thermometer, if there is one. Place the turkey in a large resealable bag and add the brine solution. Squeeze out as much air as you can from the bag. Brine, refrigerated, for one hour per pound or up to eight hours. Remove the turkey from the brine, rinse well and pat dry. Discard the brine.
Butterfly the turkey by removing the backbone and cracking the keel bone. Lightly coat the turkey with oil and season with your favorite poultry rub. Place the turkey on a cooling rack over a half-sheet pan and air dry, uncovered and refrigerated, for at least eight hours.
Bringing the Heat
Whether you’re a gas fan or charcoaler, a drip pan is a must for keeping the turkey moist during smoking. Not only will it catch the drippings from the bird instead of letting them burn in your heat source, if you fill the pan 3/4 full of hot water, the resulting steam helps keep the bird from turning into a dried out Thanksgiving mummy. First things first, though. You need to prepare the grill for 300 degree F. indirect cooking.
If you’re using a kettle-style grill, place the drip pan in the middle of the charcoal grate. Start a full load of charcoal or lump charwood in a chimney starter. When the coals develop a white ash, spread them evenly on both side of the drip pan. Add liquid and aromatics (carrots, onions, celery and herbs) to the drip pan if desired. Add two cups of wood chips to the coals or pellets to a smoker tray. When the wood chips or pellets begin smoking, place the turkey, bone side down, over the drip pan. Cover the grill. You’ll want to start another load of charcoal in the chimney while it cooks and add a new load every 30-40 minutes. Over the course of cooking, you’ll want about 10 lbs of charcoal on hand for this.
If using a gas grill, preheat the grill with all of the burners on high. Turn off all but one of the burners and set that burner to medium. Place the drip pan under the cooler side of the cooking grate (adding liquid and aromatics if desired). Place two cups of wood chips in a smoker tray. When the chips develop a good smoke, place the turkey on the grate over the drip pan and cover the grill.
Smoke-cook the turkey for about 25 to 30 minutes per pound adding more charcoal and wood chips as needed. Spray the turkey with apple cider every 30 minutes. Cook the turkey to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F. Remove it from the grill and tent it with aluminum foil. Allow the turkey to rest 20 to 30 minutes before slicing.
I also experimented with some new cooking gadgets for this recipe. I used the A-Maze-N 12-inch tube smoker with two cups of BBQr’s Delight pellets and the iGrill wireless Bluetooth-enabled thermometer. The filled tube smoker produced a good smoke for about four hours. The iGrill sends the grill and meat temperatures to an iPhone or Android device so you don’t have to constantly monitor the grill. Because this was the first time I used the iGrill, I also used a Maverick ET-372 to keep track of the cooking. As the bird got near the target temperature of 160 degrees F. I used a splash proof Thermapen rapid-response thermometer to check the temperature.