A spatchcocked turkey on a charcoal grill (photo: pr2is/iStock)

How to Wow Your Family with a Thanksgiving Smoked Turkey

By AMA Staff

A big family feast, with a huge turkey at the centre of it all, is a Thanksgiving tradition for many Albertans.

It’s also an excellent way to support local farmers. According to Carrie Selin of Taste Alberta, the province is home to 48 registered turkey producers, who raise their birds humanely—and without steroids or hormones—during the months leading up to our favourite harvest-season holiday.

This fall, however, physical-distancing measures mean that large gatherings are off the table. For many of us, Thanksgiving during a pandemic will look a little different than we’re used to.

So why not serve your turkey a little differently, too? Members of AMA’s Backyard BBQ community grilled all summer long —and the outdoor cooking fun doesn’t have to end just because temperatures have dropped. You can use your gas or charcoal grill to make a memorable smoked turkey for your Thanksgiving repast.

“Food that’s smoked or cooked outside always tastes better,” says Janice Smella, an award-winning barbecue cook (and AMA Backyard BBQ contributor) based in Calgary. “And cooking a turkey on the barbecue also frees up oven space for preparing other parts of your Thanksgiving meal.”

Here’s how you can use your gas or charcoal grill to make a Thanksgiving smoked turkey that’ll leave a lasting impression on members of your celebratory bubble.

“The turkey production system really supports Canadian and Alberta farmers,” Selin says. “If you’re buying a whole turkey at your local grocery store or butcher, it’s most likely Alberta-grown.”

Lilydale, Winters, Sunrise and Sunworks are among the Canadian brands that source local turkeys for sale in supermarkets. Look for a black circular label that indicates the turkey was grown in Canada.

Even if you’re planning a smaller gathering this year, go ahead and buy a whole bird. There are so many ways to make use of the leftovers.

“My biggest piece of advice is to spatchcock the turkey,” Smella says.

Starting at the tail end, cut out the turkey’s backbone using kitchen shears, then “butterfly” the bird so that it lies flat, with the wings pointing inward.

“By spatchcocking, you can lay the turkey across the grill and you won’t need to have a big domed lid to accommodate it,” Smella says. “It’ll also cook faster because there’s air circulating all around the bird.”

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Prior to cooking, submerging your turkey in a salt-water brine helps to tenderize and add flavour to the meat. But it requires at least eight hours—plus a container large enough to hold the bird, as well as sufficient fridge space for it.

To avoid that hassle, Smella recommends a “dry” brine: “An hour before you cook the turkey, season the outside with a good amount of kosher salt and pepper, and let it sit undisturbed. This will season the turkey and allow it to stay juicy!” For additional flavour, you can also use an all-purpose spice rub.

Give your turkey meal a signature smoky flavour by adding a small handful of wood chips at the fuel source of your gas barbecue, charcoal grill or smoker.

“I like to use wood that’s on the mild side—an apple or cherry wood,” Smella says. “Cherry in particular will also give the turkey a nice reddish colour when it’s done.”

Smella notes, too, that there’s no point in soaking the wood chips beforehand: “When you put wet wood chips on a fire, the water steams off before the wood actually starts smoking.”

Prepare your barbecue by cleaning the grill grates, adding your wood chips, and ensuring that you have a fresh drip pan to catch the drippings as the turkey cooks. Then, preheat as you would for any other barbecue or smoking session.

“There’s an assumption that you need to go low and slow when smoking, but that’s not true for a turkey, especially if it’s spatchcocked,” Smella says. You can smoke a turkey at the same temperature you would in your oven—typically 350 F. And if it’s spatchcocked, your turkey will be done in about half the time.

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Place your spatchcocked turkey, cavity-side down, directly on the grill. If your grill has particular hot spots, you may need to occasionally turn or rotate the turkey to ensure even cooking.

Smella says an average-size turkey will take about two to three hours to smoke. Around that time, use an instant-read thermometer to check the temperature of the thickest part of the turkey, usually the breast. For safe eating, the internal temperature needs to reach 165 F.

When you remove your turkey from your barbecue, place it on a baking sheet or tray and cover it with an old bath towel for at least 30 to 60 minutes. As with any meat, resting allows the muscle fibres to relax and the juices to seep back into the meat.

After the rest period, Smella advises carving your turkey across the grain: the meat will be more tender when you chew it.

Then serve it with your preferred accompaniments. Smella goes for traditional sides: sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, a good salad with cranberries, pumpkin pie. “Corn bread can be a nice change from standard dinner rolls,” she says, adding that choosing local ingredients is always a great idea. “There are so many great harvest vegetables available in Alberta at this time of year. It’s great to take advantage of them.”

Looking for some new dishes to add to your Thanksgiving dinner? Try these these delicious recipes!

Visit AMA’s Backyard BBQ partners to pick up all your barbecue and Thanksgiving needs.