The preparations for the Thanksgiving feast are well underway at my house. For many folks, cooking this meal is stressful, hot, and no fun. Many years ago, I took some of the stress and heat out of cooking the Thanksgiving meal by chasing the turkey out of the house oven to a charcoal-fired with oak-wood chunks smoker! The secret to a yummy turkey is all in the wood and brine, using green garden ingredients in the preparation.
Wood serves three primary functions in plants: it conducts water from the roots to the leaves, physically supports the plant, and stores bio-chemicals made in the leaves. Wood is made from the products of photosynthesis. The rich blend of bio-chemicals from the wood structure and storage gives wood smoke its aroma when burned. In turn, the smoke imparts those complex flavors to food. Many bar-b-que chefs consider the selection of wood an integral part of the recipe.
Choose a hardwood such as oak, hickory, citrus, or maple for use with food; soft, resinous woods such as pine, juniper, or other needled evergreens may contain tar, which is not tasty and may be dangerous to ingest. Also, if harvesting instead of purchasing wood for the smoker, be sure the wood is free from harmful substances such as pesticides. Each wood conveys a unique flavor; I mix oak and citrus wood for a mellow but slightly fruity taste.
I had been smoking turkeys for years before I learned of the most essential step in producing a moist, succulent turkey – brine. My favorite TV chef, Alton Brown, recommends submerging a turkey in a brine solution before smoking. His recipe for turkey brine includes water, kosher salt, and honey. This recipe provides the basic how-to and ingredients. Or he used to.
Over the years, I have modified how I brine my turkey for the smoker. My brine recipe is now a simple dry brine of salt and includes the addition of garden-grown thyme, rosemary, and sage, as well as a few cloves of garlic and black peppercorns in the cavity. Chef Alton now includes a dry brine, which can enhance the occurrence of crispy skin.
Take the turkey out of the brine or the fridge if dry brining, brush off any remaining salt, and remove the herbage in the cavity used during the brining. Let the turkey come to room temperature and fill the cavity with fresh herbs from the garden and a few pieces of fruit – I use orange, lemon, onion, and apple. Follow your smoker’s manufacturer’s directions and leave plenty of time for the smoke to work its magic.
My family and friends claim a 24-hour dry brine followed by smoking with great wood in the smoker to make the best Thanksgiving turkey ever.
Peace and Happy Gardening to all.