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Whole Turkey - Salted

Originally posted: 10/29/2009
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 using the salting technique.
  • Loosen the skin over the breasts, legs, and thighs.
  • Apply kosher salt and salt/baking powder mixture in the amounts and locations described below.
  • Refrigerate for 24-48 hours.
  • Brush skin with melted butter. Poke holes in skin so rendered fat can escape.
  • Smoke at 325-350°F until 160-165°F in the breast, 170-175°F in the thigh, approximately 2-1/2 to 3 hours.
  • For best skin, let rest uncovered for 20 minutes before carving.
  • Collect the pan drippings for making gravy.
Salting the breast meat under the skin
Salting the breast meat under the skin
Salted whole turkey after barbecuing
Salted whole turkey after barbecuing

Salting is a method that adds flavor to poultry and retains moisture in the meat without the hassles associated with brining. No big plastic containers taking up room in the refrigerator, and no significant changes to the texture of meat after brining that some people find objectionable.

Crispy skin is always a challenge when barbecuing poultry, and brining makes matters worse because the skin retains water from the brine solution. To promote better skin, this recipe applies a mixture of salt and baking powder to the skin that helps remove moisture, and the alkalinity of the baking powder creates more browning and crispier skin. The recipe also calls for poking holes into the skin that let rendered fat drain away, which also promotes better skin. These techniques are inspired by several articles that have appeared in Cook's Illustrated magazine over the years.

Here's how I salted and cooked a whole turkey using this method on August 22, 2009 and May 25, 2013. The photos in this article are a mix from both dates. You may notice that, in some photos, the black pepper is missing from the turkey skin...that's the August turkey.

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


Select And Salt The Turkey

Loosening skin over breast
Photo 1
Loosening skin over thigh
Photo 2
Loosening skin over leg
Photo 3
Salting the turkey cavity
Photo 4
Rubbing salt on the breast meat
Photo 5
Salt, pepper, baking powder rub
Photo 6
Applying rub to turkey skin
Photo 7
Salted turkey ready for 24-48 hours in the refrigerator
Photo 8
   

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, and pat dry with paper towels.

When buying a turkey for salting, 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.

Using the handle of a wooden spoon, loosen the skin over the breasts, legs, and thighs as far as you can in all directions (Photos 1-3). Work slowly from the cavity opening, making sure not to puncture the skin.

Salt the turkey as follows. Measurements assume Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt*.

  • Cavity: Sprinkle 1 Tablespoon salt inside the body cavity and rub it around thoroughly (Photo 4).
  • Breasts: Lift the skin and apply 1 Tablespoon salt to each breast (1/2 Tablespoon at each end of the breast), then rub it around thoroughly over the meat (Photo 5).
  • Legs and thighs: Lift the skin and apply 1 teaspoon salt to each leg/thigh (1/2 teaspoon to the leg/thigh while the turkey is breast-up, then flip over the turkey and 1/2 teaspoon to the underside of the thigh), then rub it around thoroughly over the meat.
  • Skin: Combine 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, and 1 teaspoon baking powder. Sprinkle and rub over the outside of the turkey (Photos 6-7).

After salting, cover the turkey and refrigerate for 24-48 hours (Photo 8).

* 1 TBSP Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt = 2-1/4 tsp Morton's Kosher Salt; 1 tsp Diamond = 3/4 tsp Morton's.

Skewer And Butter The Turkey

Pinning loose skin with toothpicks for neat appearance
Photo 9
Salted turkey ready for brushing with melted butter
Photo 10
Poking holes in breast fat deposits
Photo 11
Poking holes in thigh fat deposits
Photo 12
 

Holiday turkey barbecue tipsPat the turkey dry inside and out with paper towels.

Fold the wings under the turkey so they won't burn during cooking. Tie the legs together using kitchen twine so they don't splay-out during cooking.

For a neat appearance, use toothpicks to pin down the loose skin around the cavity opening (Photo 9). This prevents the skin from shrinking away from the cavity during cooking.

Brush the turkey all over with 4 Tablespoons of melted butter (Photo 10).

Use a skewer to poke 15-20 holes in the fat deposits of the breasts and thighs (Photos 11-12).

Let the turkey sit at room temperature until ready to go into the cooker.

Fire The WSM

Two Weber chimney starters lighting Kingsford charcoal
Photo 13
Two chimneys of hot coals spread inside the charcoal chamber
Photo 14
     

Fire-up the cooker using the Standard Method—one full Weber chimney of hot Kingsford charcoal briquettes in the charcoal bowl, followed by another full chimney of unlit Kingsford, allowing all coals to become fully lit before cooking.

If you have two chimneys, you can fire all of the charcoal at once, as shown in Photo 13.

Foil The Water Pan

Cover the inside and outside of the water pan with wide, heavy duty aluminum foil. Place the pan inside the cooker, but leave it empty.

No Rub Required

There is no barbecue seasoning or rub applied to the turkey as part of this recipe. If you choose to use one, try a low-salt or no-salt rub.

Smoke The Turkey

Two medium-sized chunks of dry cherry smoke wood
Photo 15
Turkey on top grate of the WSM
Photo 16
WSM thermometer reading
Photo 17
Access door propped open to make fire burn hotter
Photo 18
 

When all the coals are covered with gray ash, place 2-3 medium-sized chunks of dry cherry wood or other mild smoke wood on the coals. I used 2 chunks of cherry (Photo 15).

Assemble the cooker and place the turkey breast-side up on the top grate (Photo 16). Set the three bottom vents to 100% open. Open the top vent fully and leave it that way throughout the entire cook.

Adjust the bottom vents as necessary throughout the cooking process to maintain a temperature of 325-350°F measured at the lid.

If the cooker drops below 325°F with all three bottom vents fully open, try turning the access door upside down and propping it open (Photo 18). This allows more air into the cooker, causing the fire to burn hotter.

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

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 Meat Temp Vent 1 % Vent 2 % Vent 3 %
4:37pm - - 100 100 100
4:45pm 326 - 100 100 100
5:00pm 301 - 100 100 100
5:30pm 312 - 100 100 100
5:45pm(o) 312 - 100 100 100
5:57pm(c) 360 - 100 100 100
6:15pm 337 - 100 100 100
6:30pm 325 - 100 100 100
6:45pm(o) 315 - 100 100 100
7:00pm 349 - 100 100 100
7:07pm 362 165 100 100 100
(o) propped access door open
(c) closed access door

Rest Then Carve The Turkey

Finished whole salted turkey
Photo 19
Sliced turkey breast on cutting board
Photo 20
Turkey legs and thighs in storage container
Photo 21
Interior view of turkey breast and skin
Photo 22
 

Remove the turkey from the cooker and let rest for 20 minutes before carving. 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 20).

Photo 21 shows the legs/thighs from the finished turkey. Photo 22 shows a close-up of the moist, tender breast meat and thin, crispy skin.

Collecting Pan Drippings For Gravy

Drippings in foil-lined water pan
Photo 23
Drippings from a 12-14 pound self-basting turkey
Photo 24
     

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 23). 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 24).

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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