This magnificent wild fellah was shot (by camera only) a few years ago on our property. This is what the Pilgrims supposedly ate. This guy was in absolutely magnificent physical condition and hopefully he’s still strutting around to this very day.
Before I get to brining and smoking, first a little turkey biology: All the different kinds of birds that folks know as “turkeys”, commercial broad-breasted white, broad-breasted bronze, wild, and heritage are all the same species: Meleagris gallopavo. The name literally means guineafowl chicken-peacock.
Commercial, “grocery store” broad-breasted turkeys are similar to the commercial meat chickens I wrote about in a prior blog in that they are man-made creations. They grow abnormally fast, are extremely efficient converters of feed to body mass and are ready to harvest in only a few months. Broad-breasted turkeys emphasize to the extreme broad meaty breasts with abundant white meat. This variety of bird would not survive without the assistance of people far kinder than me because these birds cannot mate naturally. All broad-breasted birds have to be artificially inseminated, a job that I can unequivocally state that I do not want. The toms have way too much “stuff” hanging down in their fronts and are too heavy to perform as male birds are supposed to perform.
We’ve been raising a different type of turkey, namely heritage turkeys such as Blue Slate, Narragansett, Sweet Grass, and Royal Palm varieties for some time now. These turkeys have longer legs, grow much more slowly, can (and do) fly and roost at night, and can (and do) reproduce without human assistance. Heritage and wild turkeys are also quite intelligent, personable, and very inquisitive compared to their broad-breasted, dim-witted cousins. Once the broad-breasted birds appeared onto the turkey scene they dominated the market which caused heritage breeds to almost completely disappear. Thankfully, heritage breeds of all kinds of animals including turkeys are now making a comeback. For a lot more info on heritage turkeys, check out Porters Rare Turkeys online to see great photos of all the different color variations of these wonderful birds.
When plucked, heritage birds are more narrow than the commercial breed; their breasts are sharply V-shaped as opposed to the round “butterball” shape we’ve all come to know. Next to a commercial bird of the same weight, the heritage bird may actually look somewhat emaciated, but in actual fact, there is a nice thick layer of fat under the skin covering the breast, so meat from heritage birds is far less likely to turn out dry. Commercial birds lack that thick layer of fat just under the skin, and we all know fat is flavor! Dark meat from heritage birds is darker and also more flavorful than the same meat from a commercial bird.
One final, important difference between heritage birds and broad-breasted birds: Grocery stores frequently offer major promotions on commercial turkeys. They sometimes end up free or nearly so, with a set amount grocery purchase. Heritage birds are an altogether different story; they’re somewhat difficult to find and once found, be prepared to pay a hefty price, sometimes exceeding $200 each.
Some years ago, Miners Mix acquired a really nifty off-set pit smoker. In actual fact, this thing is nothing more than a giant wood-fired oven that has proven extremely useful when preparing food for a large crowd. The smoker is fantastic for turkeys, hams, roasts, stuffing, yams, pies, (all at the same time too!) and just about anything else that requires baking and might also benefit from the addition of a tad bit of smoke flavor.
Like most folks, we usually have a big crowd at Thanksgiving and the centerpiece is always turkey. Sure, we also sometimes do geese, ham or roasts, or other things as well, but they’re always second fiddle to the turkey (unless you’re my daughter who can’t stand the stuff). We sometimes still cook the mundane broad-breasted commercial variety turkey in the oven, but lately have been using our own heritage turkeys and smoking them in the pit smoker.
Many commercial turkeys are pre-brined or injected with a solution of salt and flavorings. Because we use our own birds, we brine before smoking and have been very happy with the results. The following buttermilk brine recipe was originally found on Smoking-Meat.com, a website from which I’ve gleaned many useful tidbits over the years. I’ve altered the proportions somewhat to impart more flavor, but the original recipe produced great results as well. Here is my slightly modified version:
2.5 gallons buttermilk
1 gallon water
2 cups kosher salt
Mix the water and buttermilk together and slowly add the salt. Stir well until all the salt is dissolved. We like to add about ½-3/4 cup of Miners Mix Maynard’s Memphis Rub to the brine as well.
We prepare the bird by sprinkling Maynard’s Memphis Rub under the skin where possible. On heritage birds, the skin is not nearly as loose as with a commercial bird, so not a lot of rub can actually be placed under the skin of the turkey.
Usually we place the bird in a new plastic trash bag which then goes into a large cooler. The brine mixture then gets poured into the bag and after as much air as possible is removed, the bag gets tied off and topped with sufficient ice to keep things nice and cold for about 24 hours, or at least overnight. It is critical to keep things cold. You need a big enough cooler to hold sufficient ice so the bird stays below 39F. It may be advisable to check the bird after several hours to insure there remains sufficient ice to last through the night and into morning.
The next morning, remove the bird from the trash bag and rinse well. It won’t need any additional salt, but we usually season the cavity with more Maynard’s and quite a few sprigs of fresh rosemary, along with half of an onion and/or perhaps part of an apple.
I like to make a paste of Maynard’s and a stick of butter, then rub the uppermost part of the bird. Not a pretty sight, but it does result in a flavorful end result! This time I cooked it breast side down and rubbed the back of the turkey. Next time I’ll try breast up. I like rubbing the breast with Maynard’s.
Into a pan to hold juices, then into the almond wood-fueled smoker went the bird. When smoking, it’s important to leave the bird unstuffed, so that it will heat up above 140F as rapidly as possible. Getting the bird above this threshold rapidly is important to hold in check those nasty bacterial buggers that want to over-run things and make everyone sick. Stuffing greatly increases the heating time which increases the danger of food poisoning, particularly when using lower temperatures for smoking compared to normal oven temperatures.
I smoked this bird at a little higher temperature than is optimal, about 300F or so. This bird was probably about 15 lbs. and I think it reached 165F in about 4 hrs.
This is what it looked like when taken out of the smoker and onto the platter. Sorry I don’t have a photo of the turkey beautifully carved, there was just no time to waste because of the hungry horde awaiting their smoked turkey dinner! However, trust me that it turned out fantastic, moist, and with a beautiful smoke turkey flavor that exceeded any store-bought broad-breasted bird I’ve ever sampled. My daughter refused to taste it. Oh well, more for everybody else.
Even if cooking in the oven this year, give the buttermilk brine a try. Buttermilk is one of the standards if you peruse any of the old time southern fried chicken recipes. It works wonders for chicken and also for turkey!