What words come to mind when thinking about Thanksgiving turkey? For us, it’s moist, juicy, tender and flavorful. And our Ultimate Guide to Thanksgiving Turkey has got you covered for the Best Turkey Ever!
First, Have a Plan
Thanksgiving Day aka Turkey Day can be a bit stressful, so we’re Freaks for getting organized and having a game plan. Get as much done as you can in advance (think shopping, table settings, side dishes, desserts.) Plan ahead if you’re ordering a fresh turkey so you don’t get shut out. And if you’re going the frozen route, leave enough time (and space) to fully defrost it.
To Brine or Not To Brine
Wet brining is a technique to improve the turkey’s ability to retain moisture while adding a little flavor. If our turkey is fresh from the farm, we’ll use a wet brine to promote moist, juicy meat. But if it’s packaged in a salty solution like most birds you get at the grocery store, well, it’s already brined, so we’ll just leave it in the bag until cook day.
Some great options for flavorful brines are Oakridge BBQ - Game Changer Brine & Injection, Coastal Goods - Brine Time, Heath Riles - Chicken Injection & Brine, Malcom’s Bird Brine, Cattleman Grill - Butcher House Brine, and Meat Church - Bird Bath Brine. Each of these will ensure your bird is juicy and flavorful.
When brining, try this Turkey Brining Bag, a heavy-duty, leak-proof bag designed especially for birds up to 20 pounds. Brining takes lots of fridge space, so if space is at a premium, put the turkey and brine in a clean insulated cooler and pack with bags of ice. Replace ice as needed.
Injecting is another way to add flavor and moisture, and you can target it at the breasts, which tend to dry out faster. We’re big fans of Butcher BBQ’s Bird Booster Original Flavor, Bird Booster Honey Flavor and Bird Booster Chipotle Flavor and both Oakridge BBQ and Heath Riles brines double as injections as well. We like the Melissa Cookston Meat Injector to pump up that bird.
Ultimate Flavors for Thanksgiving Turkey
We think of turkey as somewhat of a blank canvas, just itching to pick up your favorite flavor profiles. You'll want to go easy with the amount of seasoning, especially if the turkey was brined — a light to medium coat should do. Use the Flavor Guide to see how we've rated the saltiness of each seasoning so you don't end up with overly salted turkey. Here are a variety of options to make that bird sing.
Herb-Based: If you’re a fan of classic flavors packed full of culinary herbs like thyme, sage, marjoram and rosemary, look no further than Meathead’s Amazing Tuscan Herb Poultry and Coastal Goods - Turkey Time. Pitdaddy Outfitters - Northwoods is another great choice.
Savory Profiles: Garlic and onion savory flavors are perfect for turkey, and these savory superstars pack on the delicious factor. Use them on their own or as part of a combo with another rub: Heath Riles - Garlic Butter, Flavor Anonymous - Cock-A-Voodoo and Oakridge BBQ - Smokey Chili Lime.
Cajun Profiles: Cajun-inspired seasonings use a blend of paprika, garlic, cayenne, peppers and herbs, which works so well with turkey. Our favs: All Q’ued Up - Bayou Bandit, Heath Riles - Cajun Creole Garlic Butter and Pancho & Lefty - Piney Woods Cajun Shake.
Sweet Profiles: A kiss of sweetness is a nice flavor variation for turkey. These seasonings lean sweet but not overly so, thanks to just the right amounts of underlying salt, savories and heat: R Butts R Smokin’ - Honey Chipotle, Simply Marvelous - Pecan and Fergolicious BBQ - American Pie LUV.
Glazes & Sauces: Fruit-infused glazes and sauces work really nicely with turkey, either as a glaze at the end of the cooking process, as a sauce or as a spread on your leftover turkey sandwich. We love Blues Hog - Raspberry Chipotle Sauce, Croix Valley - Blue-B-Cue Sauce and Big Butz BBQ - Cranberry.
3 Great Ways to Cook A Turkey
Juicy, moist and flavorful is what it’s all about. Here are 3 ways to get there...
Smoke That Bird: Smoked turkey is our hands-down favorite, and makes for the best sandwich leftovers, too. The smoking process imparts a complex flavor that turns ordinary turkey into something special. Almost any smoke wood will do, just avoid the strongest ones like mesquite and hickory. We love the light, sweet smoke of fruitwoods like apple, cherry and peach. Sugar maple is another excellent choice. Bonus: more room in the oven for side dishes and pie.
We find sweet, savory or herb-based flavors work best, and here are a few common preparations:
Spatchcocked: This is our preferred method, because it increases the surface area of the turkey, allowing it to cook more evenly and in less time. Check out our Smoked Spatchcocked video for tips.
Whole Turkey: Cooking a whole turkey in a smoker works pretty much the same as in an oven at a similar temperature, making this a good choice for many cooks. Place the bird in a roasting pan to catch juices if you plan to make gravy.
Turkey Breast: Cooking on a smaller scale but don’t want to sacrifice flavor? We won a grand championship with this Smoked Turkey Breast recipe, which features a wonderful spicy-sweet profile.
Deep-Fried: This is the fastest way to cook a flavorful, tender turkey — figure on about 3 minutes per pound at 350F, plus about 5 mins. But it requires a large outdoor burner with a sturdy pot, 30 quarts or larger.
To be safe, do not attempt to deep-fry a bird that isn’t completely thawed. Lower turkey slowly into oil and use extreme care when removing it.
Injecting Flavor: Melt a stick of butter and mix in 2 teaspoons of your favorite seasoning, then use the Melissa Cookston Meat Injector to inject extra flavor and fat into the breast.
Seasoning Superstars: Go for seasonings that are lower on the Sweet scale to avoid the chance of sugars scorching in the hot fryer oil. Cajun-inspired profiles like the ones listed above work well.
Cooking Indoors: Sometimes cooking outdoors isn’t feasible, practical or (gasp) desirable … for example if a Norman Rockwell-style bird is part of your family tradition, or if you need that turkey to pretty much cook itself.
Oven Roasting: If I’m going for that traditional vibe, the oven gets the call every time, along with an herbal or savory profile applied just before cooking. For time and temperature, follow the directions on the bag, but allow for an extra hour if you’ll be in and out of the oven a lot.
Crock Pot: Another simple and surprisingly delicious route to tender turkey is to slow-cook a breast. We like bone-in, but boneless works fine and is best for smaller Crock Pots. Just add a stick of unsalted butter, along with any seasoning profile you like, then baste every few hours. Mr. Freak swears by a light coat of Killer Hogs - TX Brisket Rub for this preparation, with extra cracked black pepper on top. I’m more likely to go with a sweet or savory profile.
Best Thanksgiving Turkey Leftovers Ever
Consider yourself lucky to be “stuck” with leftover turkey because that’s the ticket to the perfect leftover turkey sandwich. (My formula: turkey, something crunchy, something fresh and something creamy).
Essential Tools & Supplies
In addition to the Brining Bag and Meat Injector, keep your surfaces and hands sanitary with Disposable Cutting Boards and Nitrile Gloves. Add Cloth Insulated Gloves over nitrile when working in grills and handling hot meats.
Of course, the ultimate tool for Thanksgiving is the BBQ Pro Shop Factory Team Flavor Guide, the world’s first seasonings decoder and a great resource to find your favorite Thanksgiving flavors. Already have your seasonings? Awesome; check out the Flavor Guide for our flavor ratings, usage tips and flavor notes to master your turkey creations.
P.S. If all else fails and you get into trouble with the turkey, cook a leg of lamb instead.