Brined and smoked Thanksgiving turkey from Heartlandia
Why this recipe?
We wanted to cook Thanksgiving-ish food for our current round of the Sunset Cookbook Club, and this was the only turkey recipe in the book. Plus, the turkey looked amazing. I’m also a big fan of cutting the turkey up beforehand and cooking the white meat and dark meat separately—as this recipe instructed—because that way, the white meat never dries out. (A wonderful, easy recipe from Sunset food stylist Val Aikman-Smith introduced me to the technique a few years ago.)
What was it like to make it?
Ridiculously laborious, and I say that as someone who loves “project” cooking. Left to my own devices, I would streamline this recipe mercilessly, excising ingredients and steps to make it doable. I should have been forewarned by this line in Chef Adam Sappington’s headnote: “Simply brine and smoke the breast and marinate and braise the legs, and boom—it’s done!” Really? “Simply?” If you’re a professional chef, maybe. But I think he’s fibbing.
You start by making a brine—with a prodigious amount of spices. I’d cut out half of them next time, since they made no impact (for example, I would lose the 1/2 cup of fennel seeds; they’re overshadowed by the star anise anyway). Once it’s cool, you plunk the whole turkey breast in the pot (…I think. More on that below). Then the whole thing goes into your fridge overnight.
Next, you busy yourself with trimming, peeling, and thinly slicing celery, carrots, and onions. Also finely chopping three different herbs.
Meanwhile, you season the turkey legs, combine them with the vegetables, and also refrigerate them overnight. You’d better hope that you have a giant fridge that’s not full of other Thanksgiving ingredients! (When I was making this dish, I had to use my cousin’s fridge next door.)
I have to pause here to say that I was already perplexed by the recipe directions. First, you’re supposed to “remove the legs and wings from the turkey, keeping both breasts intact and the spine attached.” So, I cut off the wings and the legs—only to see, in the photo of the turkey, that the wings were supposed to stay connected to the breast. (I ended up braising the wings, not knowing what to do with them; the recipe never mentioned them again.) Also, if you keep the spine—the backbone—attached, you are left with the whole ungainly football-shaped carcass. Figuring that the chef meant to say “breastbone,” I cut the backbone off. At that point, my turkey more or less matched the turkey in the photo. Also, it then fit in the brine pot.
Day 2: Time to smoke the breast. My parents have neither a smoker nor a charcoal grill, the only options offered by the recipe, so I decided to try smoking the turkey on their little gas grill. Unfortunately, the grill temperature wouldn’t drop down to 200° no matter how low I turned the dial. So, I resorted to oven-smoking. Luckily, I’d learned how to do this from Sunset’s oven-smoked chuck-eye recipe, based on one from Tracy Smaciarz of Heritage Meats in Rochester, Washington.
Next: Browning the legs (and the wings, since the recipe had told me to sever them from their rightful spot on the breasts) and the vegetables. Mom has one medium-size cast-iron skillet, so this took a while. Actually, the recipe specifies that you should cook the turkey legs in a Dutch oven, but I was confused, because the photo clearly shows a skillet.
After the marathon browning, you’re supposed to have the legs and vegetables in one pot and then (somehow) fit in a cup of wine, along with 2 quarts of chicken stock. That’s 9 cups of liquid and probably 4 cups of vegetables. I don’t know how the food stylist crammed all of that into the skillet shown in the book’s photo, even without the wings. I suspect that the food stylist was fibbing, too.
So, I had to switch to my Mom’s most massive piece of cookware, a copper casserole that she bought in Yugoslavia 40 years ago. The recipe did not say whether to braise the legs covered or uncovered. Figuring that the legs and vegetables would never cook unless they were covered, I wrapped foil over the dish and shoved it in a second oven.
When the legs and wings had finished braising, I looked at the book’s photo again. The braising skillet shows no liquid (my turkey was swimming in it). Guess I shouldn’t have covered the pan. Also, I noticed chunks of vegetables in the photo, and only a few of them. Why’d I thinly slice all those vegetables? I muttered to myself.
At last, everything was ready. I served the turkey as best I could, with the vegetables and all that sauce on the side in a gravy boat.
How did it turn out?
The breast meat was pink from the smoking—which I expected (and I am curious as to why the meat isn’t pink in the official photograph; perhaps that’s more food-stylist fibbing).
I almost regret to say it—because cooking this dish was so troublesome and confusing—but the turkey was really, really tasty. My family loved it: the breast was delicately smoky and perfumed with star anise, and the legs were tender and succulent.
Will I make it again?
When I explained the process to my family, and why it had taken me so long to produce the one turkey, they were amazed. They thought that I’d been cooking two separate recipes. My sister, Julie, doubled over laughing. “That’s a crazy-ass recipe!”
Although it was delicious, I would never, ever make this recipe again. Besides the aforementioned Val Aikman-Smith recipe, I’d turn to Sunset‘s grilled butterflied turkey. Both recipes are just as good and infinitely easier. Had I actually made this recipe at Thanksgiving, when I’m typically cooking a bunch of other stuff, I would probably have lost my mind.
BRINED AND SMOKED THANKSGIVING TURKEY
“I’m proud to say that I’ve never cooked a turkey the traditional way in my entire life,” writes Adam Sappington. “Here’s why: When you break down the whole bird into parts, you can cook each part in the most forgiving and painless way possible. Simply brine and smoke the breast and marinate and braise the legs, and boom—it’s done! When it comes time to serve that bird, you’ll be the hero who cooked a juicy, tender Thanksgiving turkey that everyone will talk about for years to come. I’ll be damned if anyone cooks a whole turkey again after trying this process.”
1 (12- to 14-pound) turkey4 cups packed light brown sugar1 1/2 cups kosher salt1/2 cup ground fennel seed1/4 cup whole allspice berries1/4 cup whole black peppercorns1/4 cup juniper berries5 star aniseFinely grated zest of 2 oranges3 medium celery stalks, trimmed, peeled, and thinly sliced (see Chef’s Note, below)2 medium carrots, peeled, trimmed, and thinly sliced2 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced2 tbsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary2 tbsp. finely chopped fresh thyme1 tbsp. finely chopped fresh sage leavesKosher salt and freshly ground black pepper2 cups hickory chips, for smoking2 tbsp. vegetable oil1 cup dry white wine, such as Chardonnay2 quarts chicken stock
1. One day before serving, on a large cutting board, remove the legs and wings from the turkey, keeping both breasts intact and the spine attached, and set aside.
2. In a large pot, combine 2 quarts water, brown sugar, salt, fennel seed, allspice berries, peppercorns, juniper berries, star anise, and orange zest. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to help the sugar dissolve. Once the liquid is hot and the sugar has dissolved, remove the pot from the heat.
3. In a large stockpot or container, place 2 quarts ice cubes. Pour the brine over the ice cubes and stir to incorporate and cool down the brine. (The brine should feel lukewarm. If it is still hot, add a little more ice.) Place the turkey breasts in the brine, cover the container with a lid, aluminum foil, or plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 24 hours.
4. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine the celery, carrots, onions, rosemary, thyme, and sage. Season the turkey legs with salt and pepper. Add the turkey legs to the bowl and toss to combine. Cover the bowl with aluminum foil or plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight or up to 24 hours.
5. The next day, soak the wood chips according to the package instructions and preheat a smoker to 200°F. (Or see “Smoking Without a Smoker,” below). Remove the turkey breasts from the brine and pat dry. Place the wet hickory chips over the fire or in an electric hopper and smoke the turkey breast for 3 hours. Place a wire rack on a large baking sheet and transfer the turkey breasts to the wire rack to rest.
6. Meanwhile, arrange a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350° F. Remove the turkey legs from the vegetables and set the vegetables aside. In a large Dutch oven set over medium heat, warm the oil. Place the turkey legs skin-side up in the pot and lightly brown them on all sides, about 5 minutes per side. Remove the turkey legs from the pot and set aside.
7. Add the vegetables to the pot and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until slightly caramelized, about 10 minutes. Add the wine, scraping the bottom of the pot to incorporate the brown bits. Return the turkey legs to the pot, skin-side up, and add the stock. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then transfer the pot to the oven and braise the turkey legs for 2 hours or until they are fork-tender.
8. Remove the turkey legs from the oven and transfer them to a cutting board. Pull the meat off the legs, but don’t shred it. Transfer the meat and vegetables to a large serving platter. Slice the turkey breasts and arrange the meat on the platter. Dig in.
CHEF’S NOTE: To peel the fibrous strings off a celery stalk, trim the top and bottom off the stalk. Hold the stalk vertically over a cutting board and place a vegetable peeler against the outside of the stalk. Then run the peeler down the length of the stalk like you would when peeling a carrot, to remove the strings.
Smoking without a smoker: If you don’t have a smoker but do have a charcoal barbecue, you can use it to smoke foods. By making an indirect heat source in a barbecue pit, you are creating the ambient heat needed for smoking as opposed to the direct heat that is used for grilling. While your wood chips are soaking, build a medium-hot coal fire with charcoal briquettes in your grill and burn the coals to a chalky white. Spread out the coals and move them to one side of the grill, opposite of where you want to place the item. Drain the hickory chips and place them directly onto the coals. Place the item on the grill opposite the coals and hickory chips. Cover the barbecue with the lid and smoke the food according to the recipe instructions, checking on the coals occasionally to make sure the heat stays even.