Early in my career, I managed and promoted the annual Thanksgiving help line. And every fall, all of the operators would gather together for a training session that would prepare these "cooking counsellors" for the nation's upcoming turkey trauma. Everyone was assigned a different turkey cooking method and brand of turkey so we could all be familiar with the different scenarios home cooks might face.
As I watched all the veteran operators lobby to get the grilled and smoked turkey assignments, I wondered why. But after my first session, I knew! The flavour, texture and aroma of the grilled and smoked turkeys were far and away tastier than any other method, even the classic open-pan roasting method.
The natural convection-style heat of the outdoor grill is perfect for cooking a Thanksgiving turkey. But you must use a grill that has a lid and is configured for indirect heat. This is not a job for an open braiser! The lid down/indirect heat-method ensures that the skin is golden brown and crisp at the same time that the bird is done.
And there's another benefit, too. All that hot air rotating around the big bird means the outdoor grill method takes less time than traditional oven roasting. Plus, moving the turkey onto the grill frees up oven space for all those wonderful sides you're craving.
In recent years, I've upped my game by adding a brine to the recipe to produce the juiciest, tastiest, most golden brown and picture-perfect turkey you can image. The brine seasons the turkey to the bone and ensures it will be juicy. If you are brining the bird, it is important to buy a natural turkey that has not been pre-basted (pumped full of salt water).
It's been many years since my Butterball days, yet every Thanksgiving, I am still "on call" for a select few. While I am cooking my own meal or getting ready to enjoy the fruits of someone else's labour, I am on speed dial wherever I am. And answering their calls — having a turkey trauma moment, a laugh and ultimately assuring them that the turkey is going to be great (always grilled!) — has become as much a part of my Thanksgiving tradition as the turkey itself.
ORANGE TURKEY BRINE
Brining helps ensure that the turkey stays juicy while roasting. This orange brine complements the maple-Southern Comfort glaze and scents the turkey with Thanksgiving's favourite seasonings. Though some people use coolers or buckets to brine their turkeys, the easiest way is with a large brining or zip-close plastic bag. Most grocers sell them this time of year.
Start to finish: 1 hour, plus brining time
Makes enough for a 12- to 14-pound turkey
6 cups water
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
2 cups Kosher salt
3 cups ice
2 large navel oranges, quartered
3 tablespoons whole cloves
3 bay leaves
2 teaspoons black peppercorns
In a large saucepan over high heat, combine the water, sugar and salt. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt. Remove the pan from the heat and add the ice. Stir until melted.
In a turkey brining bag or other food-safe container large enough to hold the turkey and liquid, combine an additional 2 quarts of cool water, the oranges, cloves, bay leaves and peppercorns. Add the warm sugar-salt solution and stir. Let come to room temperature before using.
To use the brine, submerge the turkey in the cool brine. If necessary, add more water to cover turkey and top with a weight to make sure it is completely covered with the liquid. Refrigerate for 8 to 12 hours.
GRILLED TURKEY WITH MAPLE-SOUTHERN COMFORT GLAZE
The sweet maple syrup, sharply sweet notes of orange — and of course the Southern Comfort — combine not only to create a luscious glaze for the turkey, but also lend an amazing flavour to the pan juices, which make a wonderful gravy. Just remember to glaze only during the final 30 minutes of cooking to prevent burning.
Start to finish: 2 to 3 hours (mostly inactive), depending on size of the turkey
1/2 cup maple syrup
Juice of 1 small orange
2 tablespoons Southern Comfort
12- to 14-pound turkey, thawed and brined (neck and giblets removed)
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
Ground black pepper
Prepare your grill for indirect, medium heat cooking. On a charcoal grill, this entails banking the coals to one side. On a gas grill, it means turning off one or more burners to create a cooler side.
In a small bowl or 2-cup measuring cup, whisk together the maple syrup, orange juice and Southern Comfort. Set aside.
To prepare the turkey for grilling, remove it from the brine. Set it on a large cutting board. Use kitchen twine to tie together the ends of the legs, then tuck the tips of the wings under them. Brush the olive oil over the entire turkey, then season it with black pepper.
Place the turkey on a disposable foil pan before setting on the grill grates. Cover the grill and cook for 11 to 13 minutes per pound, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted at the thickest part of the thigh (not touching the bone) registers 175 F and the juices run clear. Brush glaze on the turkey during the final 30 minutes of the cooking time.
Transfer turkey to a platter and let stand for at least 20 minutes before carving.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned."