- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 14, 2006

There are many ways to mark one’s passage through life. Mine could be charted with turkey.

My first Thanksgiving bird was prepared by my great-grandmother, Jenny Marks. Born in a small village in Lithuania, Bubbe may have maintained a thick accent, but she gamely embraced America’s Thanksgiving tradition.

Every year, she would ride the streetcar to Baltimore’s Lexington Market to buy a turkey, its feathers still intact. Her seasonings were salt and pepper, and she chose to roast 25-pound monsters — a better value. Despite their size, her birds were always moist and tender.

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The first turkey I prepared was for college roommates in the early 1970s. I don’t remember the flavorings, but given the politics of the day, the bird certainly would have sparked a debate about the ethics of eating meat. It also would have been served with wheat-germ-and-soybean casserole to satisfy the vegetarians in the household.

After college, I moved to Paris for culinary training at La Varenne cooking school. My first holiday dinner abroad — complete with apple-raisin-bread stuffing — strove to recapture the turkey of the America I had left behind. The following year I went native, adopting the French practice of placing paper-thin truffle slices under the turkey skin and wrapping the bird with paper-thin slices of barding fat.

After France, I moved to Boston, and the birds took on a New England character, basted with maple syrup and stuffed with oysters and corn bread. In 1990, I moved to Miami, and my holiday bird became Latin. I seasoned it under the skin with a Cuban-inspired cumin-and-sour-orange marinade called adobo.

The gravy of the North gave way to a garlicky citrus sauce called mojo. In the mid-1990s, I embarked on the world’s barbecue trail to research my first book on live-fire cooking. Now, after more than a decade of studying and writing about barbecue, I have come to the conclusion that the best way to cook Thanksgiving turkey is to use a technique that, like the bird itself, is native to the Americas. You guessed it: barbecue.

There are at least five advantages to barbecuing turkey.

• The smoke adds an amazing depth of flavor.

• This method, especially when combined with brining, another traditional barbecue technique, produces a turkey of incomparable succulence.

• It is simple. Once the bird is on the grill or in the smoker, you can pretty much leave it there until it’s done.

• The process takes the mess outdoors, freeing up your kitchen and the oven for other Thanksgiving dishes.

• It’s a great excuse to spend the afternoon outdoors, beer in hand, bonding with your buddies.

The first step in the process is brining, which means nothing more than marinating the bird overnight in a mixture of salt, maple syrup or sugar and water, and sometimes a few spices. Turkey has inherently dry meat, and smoking tends to dry it out further. Thanks to the process of osmosis, the brine absorbed by the turkey adds moistness as well as flavor.

The next step is to fire up the grill. The options are numerous: offset barrel smokers, upright water smokers, kettle and wood-burning grills, and even kamado smoker grills, such as the Big Green Egg.

I won’t ask you to buy a special smoker. If you own a simple charcoal kettle grill, you can smoke a magnificent turkey.

You certainly can cook a turkey on a gas grill, but it’s hard to get a pronounced smoke flavor, even if the gas grill has a smoker box and a dedicated burner. (Later, I will share a little trick for achieving a smoke flavor on a gas grill.) If you want to enjoy a real smoked turkey, you need to cook it over charcoal.

Finally, there’s the cooking technique. It’s a method I call smoke-roasting. It’s similar to indirect grilling in that both techniques are done with the meat next to or between the heat sources at a moderate temperature of 325 to 350 degrees. What makes it smoke-roasting is the addition of soaked hickory or other hardwood chips to the coals.

Don’t confuse smoke-roasting with true smoking. The latter refers to a process in which the bird is cooked at a low temperature of 225 to 250 degrees for 4 to 6 hours. This is the method practiced by competition barbecuers, and it produces a bird of astonishing flavor and tenderness. The bad news is that it produces rubbery, not crisp, skin.

To smoke-roast on a charcoal grill, you light the coals (preferably in a chimney starter), then rake the embers into two mounds at opposite sides of the grill. Next you place an aluminum-foil drip pan in the center.

When it’s time to cook, simply place the turkey on the grate in the center over the drip pan and toss a handful of soaked hickory or other wood chips on each mound of coals. (Soaking makes the chips smolder, releasing all that flavorful smoke.) The main advantage of smoke-roasting is that it results in both a smoky flavor and crisp skin. To this add minimal effort. All you need to do is replenish the coals and wood chips every hour.

So what’s the secret to acquiring smoke flavor on a gas grill? Add a teaspoon or two of liquid smoke to the melted butter used for basting. I can see a few raised eyebrows, but rest assured, liquid smoke is a natural product, made by condensing and bottling real wood smoke.

Of course, you’re better off smoke-roasting, but the liquid smoke gives you a pretty fair simulation of the real McCoy.

Maple-brined smoke-roasted turkey

Note that the turkey requires overnight brining, so advanced preparation is required. Have ready 2 cups hickory, oak, maple or apple wood chips, soaked in water to cover for 1 hour, then drained, and natural lump charcoal.

1 10- to 12-pound turkey

11/4 cups coarse salt (kosher or sea)

11/4 cups maple syrup

3 tablespoons salted butter, melted

The night before, unwrap the turkey, remove giblets from main and front cavity and wash the bird inside and out. Discard giblets or reserve for gravy or stuffing.

Make the brine in a large container by combining salt, maple syrup and 1 quart hot water, and whisking until salt and syrup are dissolved. Let cool to room temperature, then whisk in 4 quarts cold water.

Place turkey in a large pan or bowl and pour brine over. To keep bird submerged, place a large heavy-duty resealable plastic bag filled with cold water on top. Refrigerate and let marinate overnight.

Set up grill for smoke-roasting (for details, see preceding instructions), placing a large foil drip pan in center between the mounds of coals.

Drain bird and blot dry inside and out. Truss it, if desired, and place it in center of grill grate over drip pan and between mounds of coals. Toss a handful (about ½ cup) wood chips on each mound of coals. Cover grill so that vent holes are in the center, then adjust vents to reach a temperature of 325 to 350 degrees.

Smoke-roast turkey until cooked, 2 to 2½ hours. (Use an instant-read thermometer to test for doneness. Turkey is ready when thigh meat is 170 degrees.) You’ll need to replenish the charcoal every hour. Add 8 to 10 lumps of charcoal to each mound of coals and leave grill uncovered for a few minutes to allow charcoal to light. After 1 hour, add remaining wood chips. There’s no need to add wood after the first hour.

Baste turkey with melted butter after the first hour and then every 20 minutes. If skin starts to brown too much, tent bird with foil. (On a kettle grill, you’ll probably need to tent the sides closest to the piles of coals.) Transfer turkey to a platter, loosely tent with foil and let rest for 10 minutes before carving. Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Steven Raichlen is author of “Barbecue Bible,” “How to Grill” and “Raichlen on Ribs” (Workman). His television show, “Barbecue University,” appears on PBS.

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