Thursday, November 27, 2008

Innovate Or Fry: Arc-Welding The Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

On a cold, New England morning, the scenes of holiday traditions could not be more appropriate. Outside, the trees have long since given up their leaves which only recently had blazed the landscape with fiery colors. The frosted ground crunches underfoot and the familiar feeling of icy air tingling the lungs reminds us of the pleasures waiting inside. Soon we'll inhale the warm, noxious scents coalescing in the kitchen, from a glorious feast to be enjoyed later that day.

The vapors indeed tell a story of culinary tradition. The turkey, dressed and stuffed, is departing on its slow journey to..*CRACK!*…huh?…*BANG!**BANG! BANG!*

….did anyone else feel the house shake?

Loud, random, house-shaking cracks and bangs are not traditional songs of the season. My shadow appearing and disappearing synchronously on the wall opposite my kitchen, surrounded in a bluish-white light, also seems absent from Plymouth Rock folklore. Imagine my surprise (if not idiot-like awe) when I turn to face the oven, only to be blinded by an intense, flashing bluish-white light emanating from the stove’s every orifice. Peering into the oven window, I can just make out the faintest evidence of what I think is frequent movement.

In a different time and place, had a robed, Strother Martin-like figure appeared on the scene from the Ministry of Magic and said in a treble-ish drawl, “What we have here, is failure to apparate.”, my mind might have been put a little bit at ease.

No such comfort would visit on this particular early 1990’s morning. Indeed, my 1960-something Raytheon oven (prior to their using their acquired Amana brand) was in its death throes. We would later discover that the cloth-insulated, 35-amp master service wire had finished a lifetime of caramelizing, and was now arc-welding itself to the oven’s firewall.

Aside from the practical problems of safety and unplanned expense (“oh, your 1960’s stove was 35-amps…the industry shifted to 45-amps a few years ago…you’ll need to rewire your house”), there isn’t a microwave recipe in the world that can finish a 14-pound undercooked turkey to a golden brown, delicious and juicy feast. So, years ago when I faced this predicament, I was fortunate to have a few resources at hand, and some prior coaching that I never knew would prove so valuable in future years, and become a staple in my culinary repertoire.

Early in my first career, I worked in an Air Force weather lab. There I was fortunate enough to be taken under the wing of one of the staff meteorologists who was renowned for his skills with hardwood charcoal, smoking woods, and a variety of professional and individually fashioned tools of really good barbecue. He got me hooked on a Weber kettle, and taught me the basics of simple, convection cooking with indirect heat, curved geometries, and hydrodynamic flavor delivery. Little did I know at the time that I would soon need those skills to rescue a turkey dinner.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the day my stove turned into an arc-welder, pulling out the Weber and figuring out how to regulate heat and moisture, and not overcook the turkey was no easy feat. In the end, however, it was the best turkey I’d ever cooked. Since then, smoked turkey has become an annual family tradition in my home, and in recent years, I’ve moved from using a kettle to a more precise tool. Here’s my recipe and some resources for those of you looking to do something a little different and incredibly flavorful the next time you cook a turkey.

It starts a day before you actually cook the turkey, with brine, or what Alton Brown refers to as, “The Life of Brine”. Combine:
  • 1 gallon (4 quarts) of vegetable broth (not the low-sodium variety)
  • 1 cup of kosher or pickling salt
  • ½ cup of light or dark brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon of whole peppercorns
  • (optional) ½ tablespoon of allspice berries
  • (optional) ½ tablespoon of crystallized ginger

Bring the brine ingredients to a rolling boil (make sure the salt and sugar are well dissolved) then cover and let cool to room temperature. Take the room temperature brine and chill it in your refrigerator. Make sure the brine is completely cold before proceeding to the next step.

In a food-safe 5-gallon bucket, combine the brine with one gallon of heavily iced water.

Place a 12-14 pound turkey chest-down into the brine for 6-8 hours (either overnight or early on the morning of the big feast). After the first 3-4 hours, turn the turkey over (chest up) for the remainder of the brining.

The other essential element to this recipe is what’s often referred to as a bullet smoker (“bullet” refers to the cooker’s obvious shape). I’ve been using a Weber bullet smoker for years, but there are other brands available through specialty shops or online. I’m not going to go into minute details here, but I do recommend that if you decide to add a bullet smoker to your arsenal of cookware, go check out The Virtual Weber Bullet website, which contains free instructions, discussions, videos and links to amazing bullet smoker resources. Spend about half a day familiarizing yourself with the basics and with the do’s and don’ts of bullet smoker operations. Used safely, bullet smokers can produce amazingly tasty and healthy meals. They can also ignite surprise parties with all of your previously unknown friends at your local fire department if you have the foresight, patience and planning skills of a hungry ground squirrel.

The rest of this recipe is literally a simple exercise in building a controlled source of heat, and waiting for the heat to do its job. I start with any of a number of brands of natural lump, hardwood charcoal. There's a bit of a trade-off here. While the flavors aren't impacted by any glues or binders of briquettes, the lack of uniform shapes makes temperature control a little more finicky, but by no means difficult. I also make sure to properly foil the bullet smoker's drip pan to catch the juices I'll use for gravy. The Virtual Weber Bullet website has some great videos on how to foil properly (yes, you can screw this up if you don't think this through).

The assembly is straight forward. Weber's bullet smoker is assembled in three sections. Get a bed of coals started in the base unit. I recommend that you use a chimney starter (with a good, heat-resistant handle). Set the bottom vents of the bullet smoker to 50% (half-open). The goal is to regulate the temperature of the burn. Loading up on extra fuel at the beginning and just walking away will guarantee a dry bird. You'll be adding fuel occasionally as needed (mostly dependent on your local climate) to regulate a temperature range. You'll also be adding smoking wood. There's plenty to choose from - hickory, mesquite, apple, maple, though my favorite is chopped oak-barrels from the Jack Daniels' distillery. The smoke creates a whiskey-flavored glaze that is out of this world.

The middle section is basically a tube with a door to access the coals in the base section, and inner supports to hold the top shelf, and either a middle shelf, or the water / drip pan. For a brined turkey, we don't need to add water to the smoker, in fact we want to catch the drippings. Place the drip pan inside the middle tube's supports and insert the tube into the base unit. It is very important that the drip pan be properly secured. If it isn't, or if it's offset, the considerable drippings (remember, a brine uses osmosis to force moisture and flavor into the meat, so there's more to come out once the heat's applied) will cause the pan to tip off its supports, and dump lots of fatty drippings into the coals. The best way to describe a burnt fat glaze is "funky".

At this point, you're ready to put the turkey in the smoker. A final touch I like to add sometimes for additional flavor is to add aromatics to the carcass. Rosemary sprigs, half an onion microwaved for 30 seconds are good starters. There are so many possibilities for this last step. The only thing you should never put inside the carcass, is stuffing. Stuffing adds thermal mass, which lengthens cooking time and interferes with efficient heat transfer. It also harbors bacteria which may not exceed 140 degrees at the center of the turkey, creating a festively disguised biohazard.

Covering the smoker is essential - this isn't a barbecue. The dome cover allows for convective cooking and circulation of smoke and moisture. I leave the top vent of the cover fully open. Two thermometers are critical for a successful smoke. One to measure the temperature of the top section (effectively the "oven"), the other to measure the interior temperature of the turkey at the thickest point of the breast. Here is where folks tend to get a little crazy when it comes to technology. I've found that a simple woodstove stack thermometer is ok to place on the top of the dome. It's magnetic which means you don't have to worry about custom mounting, and gives an accurate enough reading to get the job done. I use a standard digital probe thermometer to measure the temperature of the turkey. I keep the dome regulated at 350 degrees (again, consult the Virtual Weber Bullet website for tips on how to regulate temperature of a bullet smoker). I cook the turkey to 161 degrees, then pull it from the smoker and let it rest for at least 20 minutes.

The efforts are definitely worth the wait. The turkey is not only incredibly moist and packed with flavor, but the leftovers make phenomenal sandwiches, stews, and especially, chili. (You haven't lived until you've had hickory smoked turkey chili.)

Had I not experienced the...exhilaration, of finding a solution to a case of sudden domestic-appliance arc-welding cuisine, I would likely not have explored the joys of preparing beef, chicken, turkey, fish, vegetables and a whole list of foods over the years in a smoker or other kettle-style cooker.

Ironically, all it took was a bright flash of bluish-white insight.

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