For a Thanksgiving turkey with a surprising flavor profile, head outdoors (weather permitting) to transform your grill into a smoker. Slow-cooking your bird barbecue-style also frees up oven space for the remainder of the meal. Plus, sipping bourbon and catching up with family and friends out back is a great way to pass the appetizer hour. You’ll need a charcoal grill to turn into a smoker (or better yet, if you have a smoker, use it). You will also need long heatproof tongs, matches or a lighter, newspaper, 1 disposable aluminum 11-by-6-by-3-inch loaf pan, 2 disposable aluminum 8-inch square pans, a baking sheet, 2 oven mitts, 2 buckets of water (one to soak the wood chips and the other to refill the aluminum loaf pan), an oven thermometer, and a meat thermometer. Twine or string is useful for tying the legs together, and you will need a 4-gallon container or larger for brining the turkey. A chimney starter is handy for lighting charcoal.
Lump charcoal is preferred because the charred pieces of wood burn hotter and cleaner than briquettes, uniform black pillows made from carbonized wood and a starchy binder. If you do buy briquettes, avoid the self-lighting ones, which are laden with chemicals. Buy pure, resin-free, bark-free wood chips. Choose your wood chips based on the origin of the ingredient you are smoking. For this turkey, we recommend apple, but hickory or any wood will do.
Keep in mind that you’ll need to start this recipe the night before by brining the turkey, then smoke the bird the next day. While you let it brine, throw together the rest of your feast.
- Yield: 8 servings
- Difficulty: Medium
- Total: 4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hrs, plus overnight brining and drying time
- Active: 1 hr 15 mins
For the brine:
- 10.4 ounces salt (2 cups Diamond Crystal kosher salt OR 1 1/3 cups Morton kosher salt OR 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons fine sea salt)
- 1 1/4 cups packed dark brown sugar
- 1/4 cup whole black peppercorns
- 2 tablespoons whole allspice berries
- 2 gallons cold water
- 1 (12- to 15-pound) turkey, thawed if frozen
- About 6 cups apple wood chips
- 8 to 10 quarts lump charcoal
- 1/3 cup vegetable oil
- 1 small yellow onion, cut into quarters
- 1 medium tart apple (such as Granny Smith), cut into quarters
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter (3/4 stick), melted
For the gravy:
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 small yellow onion, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch pieces
- 1 small tart apple (such as Granny Smith), cored and cut into 3/4-inch pieces
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup bourbon
- 1/2 cup apple cider or juice
- 1 small bay leaf
- 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
To brine the bird:
- The night before cooking, combine the salt, brown sugar, peppercorns, allspice, and water in a 4-gallon container; set aside.
- Remove giblets and neck from the turkey cavity. Reserve and refrigerate the neck; discard the giblets, or reserve them for another use. Remove any wire or plastic holding the legs together. Rinse the turkey inside and out with cold water. Holding the legs, slowly submerge the turkey into the salt-water solution. Cover and refrigerate for 8 to 10 hours.
- The next day, remove the turkey from the brine, rinse with cold water, and pat dry with paper towels. Place on a baking sheet and refrigerate, uncovered, for at least 2 hours.
To smoke the bird:
- Soak the wood chips in a bucket of water for at least 15 minutes.
- Prepare the grill. Remove the cooking grate and set it aside. Fill a chimney starter three-quarters of the way with charcoal; pour the unlit charcoal onto one side of the charcoal grate. Using tongs, stack the charcoal in a slight slope against the side of the grill bowl. Remove 1 cup of the wood chips from the water, shaking off any excess water, and lay the chips in the middle of the unlit charcoal. Fill the chimney again halfway with charcoal. Place the chimney on the charcoal grate next to the unlit coals. Twist two or three sheets of newspaper, form the twisted paper into rings, and place them under and inside the chimney. Light the newspaper through the holes at the bottom of the chimney. After about 5 minutes, the charcoal should be red and flames should have appeared toward the top of the chimney.
- Carefully pour the lit charcoal onto the pile of unlit charcoal on the grate. Use tongs to stack the lit coals on the pile. Top the lit charcoal with another cup of drained, damp wood chips. Set the empty chimney aside. Place 2 (8-inch square) aluminum pans next to the hot charcoal (these are the drip pans).
- Set the cooking grate back on the grill. Fill the loaf pan (the steam pan) three-quarters of the way with water (this water is needed throughout the cooking to keep the grill temperature low) and set it directly over the burning charcoal. Set an oven thermometer on the cooking grate near the edge of the grill and opposite the charcoal. Cover the grill, making sure that the bottom and top vents are open and that smoke is coming out of the vents. (If smoke is not coming out, check your fire to make sure it is lit. If it’s not, relight it, using tongs to transfer the warm charcoal from the grill back into the chimney starter.) Let the grill heat until it reaches at least 250°F, about 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, remove the turkey from the refrigerator. Rub the cavity with about 2 tablespoons of the oil, then stuff it with the onion and apple and tie the legs together with twine. Tuck the wing tips back and underneath the drumettes to form two triangles. Rub the turkey all over with the remaining oil. When the grill has reached temperature, place the turkey, breast-side down, on the cooking grate over the drip pans (not over the lit charcoal). Cover and cook, making sure the lid’s vent is over the turkey (not the fire), for 30 minutes. Check the grill temperature—it should be between 250°F and 350°F. If it is too hot, add more water to the steam pan and close the lower vent by half. If the temperature is too low, make sure the bottom and top vents are open, or you may need to feed your charcoal by lighting more in the chimney. If the smoke has died down, carefully remove the steam pan and transfer the cooking grate (with the turkey on top) to a heatproof surface and add another 1 cup of drained wood chips to the charcoal. Return the cooking grate to the grill and set the steam pan back over the burning charcoal. (Alternatively, slip the wood chips through the cooking grate so they fall on the charcoal.)
- Baste the turkey with the melted butter. Using two sets of tongs (one inserted into each cavity), rotate the turkey 180 degrees on the grill. Cover and cook for 30 minutes more, baste with butter, then rotate again and flip so the turkey is breast-side up. Continue to cook, covered, rotating the bird 180 degrees and basting with butter every 30 minutes, until the internal temperature reads 165°F on a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast and thigh (for an accurate reading, make sure it’s not touching the bone), about 1 1/4 to 1 3/4 hours more, depending on the temperature of the grill. Keep feeding the fire and adding wood as the heat and smoke die, respectively.
- When the turkey is done, remove it from the grill, transfer it to a cutting board or baking sheet, and immediately baste with melted butter. Tent the turkey with foil and let it rest for at least 30 minutes.
To make the gravy:
- Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the onion, apple, and reserved turkey neck. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the neck is browned on both sides and the onions are translucent, about 6 minutes. Add the bourbon, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to release any browned bits, and boil until the alcohol is nearly evaporated. Add the apple cider or juice and bay leaf, continuing to scrape up any browned bits, and boil until reduced by half. Increase the heat to high, add the broth, and bring to a boil. Remove and discard the neck. Strain the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer set over a medium heatproof bowl; set aside.
- Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour, whisking constantly until it’s the color of peanut butter, about 5 minutes. Slowly pour in the strained sauce, whisking constantly until smooth. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium low and simmer, stirring often, for 2 minutes more. Season as needed with salt and pepper. Carve the turkey and serve with the gravy.