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Whole Turkey - Honey Brine

Originally posted: 11/01/2000
Last updated: 09/26/2014

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Summary
  • Buy a regular (non-enhanced), 12-14 pound turkey. Don't use a self-basted turkey when brining.
  • Prepare the brine solution and soak the turkey for 48 hours in the refrigerator.
  • Air-dry the turkey for 24 hours in the refrigerator.
  • Brush with melted butter, sprinkle with kosher salt and ground black pepper.
  • Smoke at 225-275°F until 160-165°F in the breast, 170-175°F in the thigh, approximately 3-1/2 to 4 hours.
  • Let rest for 20 minutes before carving. Alternatively, wrap tightly in several layers of foil, place breast-side down in a dry cooler, and hold for 90-120 minutes before carving.
  • Collect the pan drippings for making gravy.
Turkey soaking for 48 hours in honey brine solution
Turkey soaking for 48 hours in honey brine solution
Honey-brined turkey after smoking for 3-1/2 hours
Honey-brined turkey after smoking for 3-1/2 hours

I first tried this honey brined whole turkey recipe back in June, 2000. It comes from Rick "Shake" Schoenberger and has been widely published on the Internet over the years and is reprinted here with permission. You can get the original recipe in its entirety from his website The BBQ Shack.

If Rick Shoenberger sounds familiar, perhaps you saw him and his Paola, Kansas restaurant featured on an episode of Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives" called "Real Deal BBQ".

Here are some photos I took when I revisited this recipe and cooked it again on November 30, 2009.

As always...click on any of the pictures to view a larger image.


Select & Prepare The Turkey

12 pound turkey in packaging
Photo 1
       

Choose a 12-14 pound turkey and thaw according to the package directions. Remove and discard any leg restraint, then remove the giblets from the neck cavity and the neck from the body cavity. Trim away large areas of fat or excess skin around the body cavity. Rinse thoroughly inside and out, and pat dry with paper towels.

When buying a turkey for brining, choose a regular turkey, not a self-basted bird that's been injected with a solution of salt and other flavorings. Read the fine print on the label—you do not want a turkey that says, "Contains up to X% of a solution to enhance juiciness and tenderness..." See Turkey Selection & Preparation for more details.

Photo 1 shows the 12.08 pound, natural free range turkey I used for this recipe.

Brine The Turkey

Heating the concentrated brine solution
Photo 2
Force-cooling the brine concentrate in an ice bath
Photo 3
Turkey and brine in a Ziploc Big Bag XL inside a cooler
Photo 4
Cooler in the refrigerator for 48 hours
Photo 5
 

Brining is the process of soaking meat in a mixture of water, salt, sugar and seasonings for several hours to several days, depending on the type and size of meat. Brining adds flavor and moisture to turkey and works well with other types of meat, too. You can learn more about the process by visiting the All About Brining page.

To brine a whole turkey, you need to:

  • find a non-reactive container large enough to hold the turkey
  • make sure the container will fit in your refrigerator
  • determine how much brine you need to prepare to completely submerge the turkey in the container

See All About Brining and Food Grade Plastic Containers For Brining for information about selecting an appropriate container, including alternatives like ice chests or turkey roasting bags inside non-food safe containers. Keep in mind that the bigger the container you use, the more brine you'll have to make, so try to match the size of the container to the turkey.

To determine how much brine you'll need to prepare, place the turkey into the container and cover with cold water. Remove the turkey from the container and measure the water—that's the amount of brine you'll need.

Here's the brine recipe:

Shake's Honey Brine 
1 gallon water
1 cup pickling salt
2 Tablespoons Morton Tender Quick
1 cup honey
4 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon pickling spice
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
 

Pickling salt is a fine-grained salt usually sold in 3- or 4-pound boxes. It does not contain the potassium iodide or anti-caking agent calcium silicate found in table salt. For the purposes of this recipe, you can substitute 1 cup of non-iodized table salt or 1-1/2 cups of Morton Kosher Salt or 2 cups of Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt.

Morton Tender Quick is a meat curing agent containing salt, sugar, sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite and propylene glycol. It can be found at some supermarkets and butcher supply stores or ordered from Allied Kenco. If you cannot find it easily, just leave it out of the recipe.

Combine all ingredients except the honey in a large pot and heat to 160°F, stirring to dissolve the salt and extract flavor from the bay leaves and pickling spice. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the honey until combined. It is said that temperatures above 160°F harm the flavor of honey, so that's why the mixture is not heated above that temperature. Finally, force-cool the mixture to room temperature using an ice bath before adding to the meat.

For my turkey, I determined that I needed 2 gallons of brine. I made a concentrated version of the brine by dissolving two recipes worth of ingredients in just 3 quarts of water (Photo 2), force-cooling the mixture to room temperature in an ice bath in the kitchen sink (Photo 3), then placing the turkey into a Ziploc Big Bag XL inside a medium-sized cooler and pouring in the 3 quarts of concentrated brine solution plus 5 more quarts of cold water to achieve 2 gallons of brine solution (Photo 4).

Allow the turkey to soak in the brine mixture in the refrigerator for 48 hours (Photo 5). Since brining does not preserve meat, the turkey must be kept below 40°F throughout the entire brining process. That's why you've got to make sure you've got room in your fridge for the container before you start this process.

Air Dry The Turkey

Air-drying the turkey for 24 hours in the refrigerator
Photo 6
Turkey ready to go into the WSM
Photo 7
     

Remove the turkey from the brine solution and pat dry inside and out with paper towels. There is no need to rinse the turkey after brining.

Although not part of Rick's recipe, I decided to air-dry the turkey. Place on a platter or rimmed baking sheet and allow to air-dry for 24 hours in the refrigerator (Photo 6). This helps create crispy skin during cooking.

Let the turkey sit at room temperature for about 1 hour before cooking. Brush the skin with a few Tablespoons of melted butter and sprinkle with just a bit of kosher salt and ground black pepper for looks (Photo 7).

Barbecue The Turkey

Two chunks apple wood, two chunks hickory wood
Photo 8
Turkey on the top cooking grate
Photo 9
     

Fire-up the Weber Bullet using the Minion Method—fill the charcoal chamber about 1/2 full with unlit Kingsford Charcoal Briquets and then spread about 30 hot coals over the unlit ones.

Place a few small chunks of your favorite smoke wood on the hot coals. I used 2 chunks of apple and 2 chunks of hickory (Photo 8).

Assemble the cooker with the water pan in place and fill it with cool water.

Place the turkey breast-side up on the top cooking grate (Photo 9). Set the top vent to 100% open and leave it that way throughout the entire cooking process. Start with all 3 bottom vents 100% open. As the cooker approaches 250°F, begin to partially close all 3 bottom vents to maintain 225-275°F. Adjust the bottom vents as needed to maintain this temperature range throughout the cooking process.

Cook the turkey until it measures 160-165°F in the breast, 170-175°F in the thigh, approximately 3-1/2 to 4 hours. My turkey took 3-1/2 hours to reach 167°F in the breast.

There's no need to baste or rotate the turkey during the cooking process.

Here's how the cooker temperatures and vent settings went during my cook:

Time Lid Temp Vent 1 % Vent 2 % Vent 3 %
5:15pm - 100 100 100
5:45pm 217 100 100 100
6:00pm 235 100 100 100
6:15pm 245 100 100 100
6:30pm 250 100 100 100
6:45pm 250 100 100 100
7:15pm 255 100 100 50
7:45pm 262 100 100 0
8:45pm 275 100 100 0

Rest Then Carve The Turkey

Finished honey-brined turkey
Photo 10
Interior view of sliced turkey breast
Photo 11
     

Holiday turkey barbecue tipsRemove the turkey from the cooker and let rest for 20 minutes before carving (Photo 10). Do not cover with foil, as this will cause the skin to go soft.

Alternatively, wrap the turkey tightly in several layers of wide, heavy duty aluminum foil, place breast-side down in a dry cooler, and hold for 90-120 minutes before carving.

After the rest, carve the turkey to your liking. See the Turkey Selection & Preparation article for carving tips. I like to remove the breast as a single piece and then cut into slices across the grain using an electric knife (Photo 11).

The turkey came out looking and tasting great. The meat was well seasoned throughout and was super-moist. In Photo 11, you can see that the Morton Tender Quick gives the meat a light pink, slightly cured look, and the meat has a slightly cured taste, too. Some people say that Tender Quick makes everything taste like ham...you'll have to judge that for yourself. I liked the taste of this turkey a lot.

I wrote in my cooking log, "I'd be happy to serve this turkey at Thanksgiving!", and I think you will be, too. Gobble gobble!

Collecting Pan Drippings For Gravy

Drippings in foil-lined water pan
Photo 12
Drippings from a 12-14 pound self-basting turkey
Photo 13
     

There are three common ways to collect pan drippings when smoking a turkey:

  • Cook the turkey in a shallow, disposable foil pan.
  • Cook the turkey on the top cooking grate. Place an empty foil pan on the bottom grate to catch the drippings.
  • Cook the turkey on the top cooking grate. Line the water pan with wide, heavy duty aluminum foil, but suspend the foil 1-1/2" above the bottom of the pan so it does not touch (Photo 12). This prevents the drippings from burning.

Assuming you don't over smoke the turkey, the drippings will be perfect for making gravy—in fact, they're already seasoned by the salt applied to the turkey.

As you remove the turkey from the cooker, pour any accumulated juices inside the body cavity into the pan. You can also use the juices left in the bottom of a rimmed baking pan after letting the turkey rest before carving.

It's not uncommon to end up with about 1-1/2 cups of drippings (Photo 13).

If you don't have any drippings, make the delicious turkey giblet gravy described on The Virtual Weber Bulletin Board using the giblets, aromatic vegetables, chicken stock, white wine, and seasonings.

More Turkey Links On TVWB

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