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4 Different Ways to Make Your Thanksgiving Turkey

4 Different Ways to Make Your Thanksgiving Turkey
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BY STEVE NUBIE

From BBQ to smoking to deep-frying to a conventional oven there are some unique ways you can make your Thanksgiving bird better.

I’m a chef. I also happen to have the largest house in the family with a massive kitchen. The result is that every Thanksgiving takes place at our place. That’s okay. I enjoy it. But I have been challenged on occasion when up to 50 family members and friends show up, all with green bean casseroles in hand. Suffice it to say, one turkey isn’t enough for that big a crowd and as a result, I’ve had to improvise.

I’ll admit there were some fails over the years but I’ve mastered the choreography of cooking up to 4 turkeys at the same time. The fundamental problem was that I only had room for one bird in the oven so I had to consider my alternatives. This resulted in barbecuing a whole bird on a kettle grill, smoking a bird in a barrel smoker, and the terrifying experience of frying a whole turkey in 3 gallons of boiling oil. I learned a lot of lessons the hard way and hopefully I can capture them for you in this article.

To brine or not to brine 

Brining involves dissolving salt in water and immersing the turkey in it overnight. It’s an extra step that has an upside and a downside depending on how you’re going to cook the bird. The basic brine is a cup of Kosher salt or Pickling salt to a two gallons of water, although you can use iodized salt if that’s all you have. Don’t brine the bird in an aluminum or metal pot. Brine it in a crock or plastic cooler or in a plastic garbage bag. Put it in the garage and add some ice to keep it cool overnight.

However, if you’re going to deep-fry the bird -don’t brine. We’ll get into that later.

The conventional oven trick 

Cook your turkey upside down. Norman Rockwell convinced us in his classic painting that a turkey should be cooked and browned breast-side up. Chefs everywhere roast their turkeys breast-side down. The dark meat of the legs and thighs take longer to cook and the breast will always be dry as a result. Immersing the breast into a pan of vegetables like onions, celery and onions with some water will get the bird done perfectly. You can flip the bird for the last 30 minutes to crisp the breast skin, but who even sees that. You’ll be slicing the bird in the kitchen on a platter long before anyone sees your bird out of the oven.

Barbecue 

This is easy and hard. It’s easy because you can get the coals going on either side of the grill and put a water pan underneath the bird. It’s hard because you have to make sure you add more charcoal briquettes to keep the fire going. You should also slop some butter and chicken broth over the bird when you add more charcoal.

The real challenge is timing. Outside temperatures affect kettle grills. Some Thanksgivings I’ve felt comfortable outside in 60 degrees. Other times, there was rain, sleet, snow and a cold wind that took the temperature well below freezing. The outside factors affect cooking time.

Ideally you want to maintain a temperature of 325° Fahrenheit in your kettle grill. If you have a thermometer on your grill you can get a good read, but if not you can use a meat thermometer inserted into one of the top vents to get a read on temp. I use the vents to manage the heat but I also add new charcoal from time to time to keep it going. This is also a good time to baste with a little water or chicken stock.

Cooking time at 325 degrees is similar to oven cooking times per pound but things can go faster or slower outdoors. I usually start the bird a little sooner and if it’s done too soon I cover it with foil in the kitchen.

There are two ways to know it’s done. One is to move the leg and see if it moves freely but the best way is to insert a meat thermometer into the thigh without contacting the bone until it reads 165 Fahrenheit. The real challenge is whether or not the other turkeys are done if you’re cooking more than one.

Smoking 

This is a low and slow method of cooking and takes a long time, up to 8 hours.   I use a barrel smoker with coals in the bottom and a water pan between the coals and the bird. I toss some wood chips onto the coals, usually Applewood or cherry wood that’s been cut into slices and soaked in water a bit. Here again you have to keep the coals going and manage the temperature. 250° Fahrenheit is ideal and like a kettle grill, the outside temperature can slow down the cooking process. Check for doneness with a meat thermometer reading 165°Fahrenheit in the thigh.

Turkey Frying

This still scares the heck out of me. The danger is that a large pot of boiling oil can boil over and hit the gas flame of the turkey fryer resulting in an inferno of biblical proportions. Let’s get into some quick tips for success with this intense approach to cooking a turkey and this includes frying your turkey far, far into the backyard and away from any structures.

  1. Put the bird onto the bird rack that came with your turkey frying kit, and lower it into the large fry pot and fill it with water until it is just below the drumsticks. Remove the bird and put a stick into the pot to determine the water level. This tells you exactly how much oil to add. Peanut oil is the oil of choice given its high heat-point or tolerance for heat.
  2. Dry the bird. Use paper towels or wash clothes and get the bird as dry as possible, especially the cavity.
  3. Add the oil to the pot in the amount you’ve pre-measured and light the flame on the gas burner until the thermometer you should have received with your turkey frying kit reads 350 to 360 degrees Fahrenheit.
  4. When the oil has come up to temperature SHUT THE GAS OFF! You don’t want to put the bird into the oil for the first time with a hot flame underneath. The biggest problem with turkey frying is when there is a boil-over and the oil ignites.
  5. Lower the bird very slowly into the oil. I screwed a “J” hook into the center of an 8-foot two by four and my son and I use that to lower the bird very slowly into the oil.
  6. Go slow and temper the cavity. Water and frozen bits can reside in the cavity of a turkey and cause the oil to bubble up and overflow the pot. My son and I will let a little oil enter the cavity and then lift the bird to let it boil off or temper.  Fortunately, you have the flame off but if you get any overflow, you have to carefully wipe off any oil on the sides of the pot.
  7. Once the bird is settled, reignite the gas flame and bring it up to 350 degrees. Don’t put the lid on top. It will cause the oil to bubble over. Toss it into the neighbor’s yard like a Frisbee. Better yet, just toss it to the ground.
  8. A 15-pound bird will be done in about 50 minutes. Don’t you dare walk away. A lot can still go wrong. When the bird’s done, shut off the gas and very carefully lift it out and into a foil or tray. Let it rest for 15 minutes and slice and serve.

Over time I’ve managed to get multiple birds done at the same time and have recruited carvers to help me get everything sliced and onto platters for our Thanksgiving dinner. Hopefully you don’t have to go through this Turkey dance, but if you want to try turkey with a twist you might want to experiment with one of these approaches. If I were you I’d still have that old standby turkey in the oven, but you should try the upside-down technique.

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Steve Nubie
Steve Nubie has been writing professionally for 38 years. He is a published author with 10 books to his credit, has written for CBS Entertainment for the Twilight Zone series, and has written hundreds of articles for magazines and the Internet. He has served as Chief Creative officer in the marketing and advertising industry, was an Executive career-coach, is a chef and has traveled extensively living in Asia for two years, and London for two years.