It’s been a year since I’ve owned a smoker now, and we’ve had some memorable meals, and some horrible waste of food that should never be repeated. And somewhere along the way, an off-handed comment about why a smoked turkey would be better than a deep fried turkey landed me in the position of head turkey chef for my girlfriend’s family Thanksgiving celebration, ironically in her home town of Palatine, IL – home of Weber Stephens company.
The 2011 Thanksgiving Turkey, on a Weber 22″ Genesis
So, what do you do when you are tasked with cooking for your girlfriend’s parents, both grandmothers, *and* her extended family? As an engineer, the answer is pretty simple: You test and document the crap out of things to mitigate ANY risks that can crop up.
Cooking data from the 3rd turkey of the month. Yes, our friends ate a lot of smoked turkey that month.
Rachel and I did two test runs to iron out the kinks, limiting ourselves to just the equipment that we will have access to in Palatine, namely, a single 22″ weber grill. We based our recipe off of Meathead’s Ultimate Smoked Turkey recipe from AmazingRibs.com.
This is what we did for our 2011 Thanksgiving Turkey:
Brining improves flavor by adding moisture and salt into the meat. We made one important modification to Meathead’s brine recipe; by substituting celery salt for kosher salt for part of the brine mix, we added in naturally occurring nitrates, which will then react with combustion gases to form a smoke ring. Our brine recipe, formulated to be diluted with 1 gallon of distilled water and a 7 lb bag of ice, consists of:
[INSERT RECIPE HERE]
We brined the turkey (24 lb bird) for 12 hours, taking care to fill the inside cavity of the bird with the brine, as that is the primary means for the brine to enter the bird. Unfortunately we did not take weight measurements of the bird before and after brining – that would be a pretty interesting figure to have for next year.
Brining the turkey in a 5 gallon bucket and plastic trash bag
Bird Preparation – Facelift and Botox
After the bird had been brined for 12 hours, we removed the bird and rinsed it throughly, inside and out, with water, and patted the external part of the bird dry. We stuffed the inside cavity with paper kitchen towels, and we pulled on the skin to stretch and separate the skin from the flesh.
Next we prepared a wet rub / herb butter, by clarifying butter and steeping herbs from Rachel’s Mom’s garden in the butter.
Clarified Herb Butter and injection syringe
We filtered the butter mix through cheesecloth to prevent any of the chunks (or milk protein solids) from clogging the injection needle. Finally with the turkey out of the brine, we injected the mix under the skin.
Botoxing the Turkey
One nice thing about using clarified butter – the cold turkey causes the butter to solidify and plug the injection hole site. Just don’t think about the analogy between the turkey and your arteries…
Try not to think of your arteries…
We left the turkey out to air dry for about 4 hours. I asked about fridge space and Rachel pointed at the garage…
Finally, we brush the outside of the bird with clarified butter and herbs, foiled the wing tips and drumsticks to prevent them from burning while the breast cooks, and trussed up the bird. Yes, I know you’re not suppose to truss the bird, but in earlier tests with a 22 lb bird, the wings overhang onto the charcoal rails and would burn to a crisp if left unattended. We therefore play it safe and truss the bird until the foil comes off, then we’ll let the bird flop and the skin brown.
Rachel brushing the turkey skin with herb butter
Temperature monitoring is done by 4 K-Type thermocouples – 1 for the exhaust vent temperature, which is fairly close to where the turkey breast is, and 3 inserted probes for the turkey. We are using 3 probes because on the first run, following Meathead’s recommendation for building an offset fire, we recorded a 10 deg F differential between the two breasts – the side closer to the fire cooked faster.
During brine-making, we used the boiling water to verify the calibration on the thermocouple probes. As expected the smaller needles have a smaller time constant, but ultimately in boiling water all the probes agreed within 1ºC of each other.
Temperature recording is handled by an arduino board, communicating over SPI with a 4 board thermocouple decoder from McLaughlin Engineering. The box also reports temperatures on the probes via a color-coded backlit display and records the cooking data onto an SD card. The last feature is actually really nice – it allows for a good “at a glance” information later to fine tune techniques and recipes.
Instrumented turkey, ready to load onto the grill
A DIY kit will be available from Tam Labs soon
I’m not OCD
Gravy and aromatics pan
We started by following Meathead’s recipe for the gravy, substituting chicken stock for water. In early tests testers complained that the gravy is too smoky, so we cooked the ingredients a stock pot instead.
The beginnings of a gravy
We simmered to reduce the gravy a little bit, and separated the gravy into two batches. One batch will be loaded up with the ingredients into the water pan for aromatic steam in the grill, while the other batch will be combined with the bird’s drippings in the cavity and thickened with a blonde roux.
We made one modification to the grill – using high temperature aluminum thermal tape, We sealed off 2 of the 3 vents underneath the grill to allow for better air flow control. The thermal tape used may be purchased from McMaster-Carr.
Foil tape over 2/3 vents
Doing this slight modification allows for a higher precision in the controls: with 2/3s of the vents sealed off, opening the vents all the way still take a while for the temperature to creep upwards towards 325 deg F.
We set up the fire for indirect heat – with Weber charcoal rails on each side to hold the charcoal in place. We further took a disposable foil pan and cold forged it (har har) into position to hold the armoatic gravy / broth that will add moisture to the cooking setup. Finally, we clip the air temp thermocouple to the lid to prepare for the bird’s arrival.
Adding water to the pan, coals already fired up
Cooking the turkey
We dumped one chimney’s worth of charcoal evenly across the two rails. Initial temperature was in the 400 Deg F range, which we then cool down by closing all the vents and keeping the lid on. When the temperature drops below 300 deg F we loaded the turkey, and tossed on the wood chunks. We tossed in 2 chunks of apricot and 6 chunks of apple for the smoking wood.
About 4 hours to go…
One thing to note: Temperature outside in Chicago, IL is enough to kill a brand new alkaline 9V battery. We ended up running a USB cable to an iPad charger to provide juice to the monitoring box so that the display is readable.
About 90 minutes into the cooking, we opened the lid to remove the foil and the twine. We also added about 12 prelit charcoal briquettes at this time, removed the wood chunks and dunked them into a bucket of water – because of the length of time the grill lid stays open, the wood chunks tend to catch fire and burn the bird. Once the fire had stabilized, we add the wood chunks back in again.
Resting, Carving, Eating…
We pulled the bird when the thermometer in the breast registered 160ºF. We let the bird rest for about 10 minutes, after which we took a few random readings with a thermopen. During resting, it was a good time to go brush up on turkey carving skills; in this case, with an Alton Brown video.
We did deconstruct the turkey by removing the legs first, to give us easier access to the turkey breasts.
Turkey breast, sliced
Carved turkey, plated
And this is what we all looked like after having our turkey: