Using Brine to Produce a Moist Smoked Turkey

While the turkey marketing people would have the bird be the center of any holiday meal, for some people it has become more of an obligatory item than one they look forward to, like stuffing or macaroni and cheese. The turkeys themselves can’t be blamed: Breeding for bigger birds and amateur cooks have frequently relegated them to being a bland, dry, chewy meat.

Smoked Turkey on Smoker

In an effort to address those issues, some people are turning to smoking to cook their birds. If you’ve made that choice yourself, read on for tips on how to produce a bird that is moist and flavorful.

To brine or not to brine? Not to be corny, but that is the question everyone who sets out to smoke a turkey or any other meat must consider. There are strong arguments on each side. Some people maintain that brining just adds water weight, not flavor. Others insist a dry rub is the best way to go, potentially with injection of a brine or other flavor solution. Still others endorse proper brining as a way to add both flavor and moisture.

I fall on the side of brining, particularly with poultry, which dries out like the Sahara even with normal cooking. That drying can be exacerbated by the long hours it takes to smoke a bird. Most turkeys offered in the typical American grocery store are pre-brined, a fact that will be indicated with a note something like, Contains up to X% of a salt solution.

If you’re more exacting, as I am when it comes to barbecue, you may want to do your own brining. In that case, you’ll want to find a turkey that hasn’t been frozen and hasn’t been brined. That’s not often easy without going to an upscale grocery store like Whole Foods or our region’s Earth Fare. Getting one, though, will allow you to infuse your own flavors, while pre-brined birds won’t have much room for additional liquids.

Turkey Smoking Tips

Everyone who’s involved in barbecue seems to have his or her own brine recipe, and there isn’t one I would necessarily endorse over another. At its most basic, a brine is a mixture of salt and water, often with a bit of brown sugar. A good equation for this simple brine is 1 cup of salt – opt for non-iodized or kosher salt if available because these provide a better flavor – to 1 gallon water. If folks who are watching their sodium intake will be dining with you or if you’re just concerned about that level, cut it as you see fit.

For turkeys, people dress their brines up with things like apple cider, chicken stock, and various herbs. If there’s a flavor profile you want to build, give it a try or look for a pre-mixed brine base in your grocery store’s spice section. Whatever you try, remember to build your foundation of water and salt first, as the sodium chloride helps relax parts of the muscles that would normally keep out any additional moisture. Research has shown a brined bird retains about 12 percent more moisture than one that isn’t brined. That may not seem like much, but it can make a huge difference on your plate.

For the next step in the process, click here to read tips on food safety when smoking a turkey.

Derek Hodges
Derek Hodges

Derek Hodges is a proud North Carolinian who moved to Tennessee in 2006 to preach the gospel of Cheerwine and mix some Tar Heel blue in with all the orange. He has made wonderful friends who tolerate occasional remarks like those above. He and his wife Amanda enjoy spending weekends at Dollywood and trying to convince their dog Shiloh to get over his fear of swimming.

Connect with Derek Hodges on Google+