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Butterflied Turkey - Salted

Originally posted: 11/01/2011
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 in the amounts and locations described below.
  • Refrigerate for 24-48 hours.
  • Butterfly the turkey by removing the backbone and flattening the breastbone.
  • 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 to 2-1/2 hours.
  • For best skin, let rest uncovered for 20 minutes before carving.
  • Collect the pan drippings for making gravy.
Removing turkey backbone with poultry shears
Removing turkey backbone with poultry shears
Butterflied turkey after barbecuing
Butterflied turkey after barbecuing

The benefits of butterflying a turkey are the same as for a chicken—more even cooking of the white and dark meat and a very attractive presentation. You'll need a pair of sturdy poultry shears or kitchen shears for this task. Don't try it with wimpy shears or with a chef's knife...or a visit to the emergency room may be in your future.

I salted this turkey overnight, then butterflied it. Salting is a great technique because it adds flavor to poultry and helps it retain moisture 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.

Here's how I cooked this butterflied turkey on October 8, 2011. The technique is based on an article from Cook's Illustrated magazine.

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


Select, Prepare And Salt The Turkey

Loosening skin over breast
Photo 1
Loosening skin over leg
Photo 2
Loosening skin over thigh
Photo 3
Salting the cavity
Photo 4
Salting the breast
Photo 5
Rubbing salt on the breast meat
Photo 6
Salted turkey in Ziploc bag
Photo 7
     

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 (Photos 5-6).
  • 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.

After salting, cover the turkey and refrigerate for 24-48 hours (Photo 7).

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

Butterfly, Skewer And Butter The Turkey

Cutting out the turkey backbone
Photo 8
Turkey backbone removed
Photo 9
Flattening the breastbone
Photo 10
Butterflied turkey with legs tied
Photo 11
 

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

Use sturdy poultry shears or kitchen shears to cut through the bones on each side of the backbone, staying as close to the backbone as possible (Photos 8-9). It's similar to removing the backbone from a chicken, but some of the turkey bones are harder to cut through. Take your time and work carefully.

With the backbone removed, flip the turkey over and press down hard with both hands to crack and flatten the breastbone (Photo 10).

Fold the wings under the turkey so they won't burn during cooking. Tie the legs together using kitchen twine (Photo 11).

Brush the turkey all over with 4 Tablespoons of melted butter and sprinkle with freshly cracked black pepper.

Use a skewer to poke 15-20 holes in the fat deposits of the breasts and thighs. This lets rendered fat drain away, which promotes better skin.

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

Fire The WSM

Firing two Weber chimneys of Kingsford charcoal
Photo 12
Two chimneys of hot coals spread inside the charcoal chamber
Photo 13
     

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 12.

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

One chunk apple, one chunk cherry smoke wood
Photo 14
Turkey goes into the WSM
Photo 15
Propping open access door with tongs
Photo 16
   

When all the coals are covered with gray ash, place 2 medium-sized chunks of dry, mild smoke wood on the coals. I used 1 chunk of apple and 1 chunk of cherry (Photo 14).

Assemble the cooker and place the turkey breast-side up on the top grate (Photo 15). 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 16). 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 to 2-1/2 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 %
2:00pm - - 100 100 100
2:15pm 292 - 100 100 100
2:30pm(o) 285 - 100 100 100
2:45pm 323 - 100 100 100
3:00pm 333 - 100 100 100
3:15pm 326 - 100 100 100
3:30pm 327 - 100 100 100
3:45pm 330 - 100 100 100
4:00pm 325 155 100 100 100
4:30pm 324 160-165 100 100 100
(o) propped access door open

Rest Then Carve The Turkey

Barbecued butterflied turkey
Photo 17
Close-up of leg and thigh
Photo 18
Slice into breast reveals smoke ring
Photo 19
Whole sliced turkey breast
Photo 20
 

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.

Photo 19 shows the smoke ring in the breast meat. I like to remove the breast as a single piece and then cut into slices across the grain using an electric knife, as shown in Photo 20.

Notice the amount of juice on the cutting board in Photo 20—salting makes for a very moist, juicy and flavorful turkey.

Collecting Pan Drippings For Gravy

Drippings in foil-lined water pan
Photo 21
Drippings from a 12-14 pound self-basting turkey
Photo 22
     

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 21). 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 22).

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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