A Smoking Thanksgiving Feast

Smoked Turkey.Duck.Kielbasa

Smoking Ducks, Turkey & Fresh Kielbasa

Thanksgiving this year was quite temperate here in southern Vermont. I took advantage of the milder than usual temperatures to fire up the smoker and prepare meats for our Thanksgiving table, as well as for a gumbo we were planning for later in the fall.

Smoking takes much of a day, so if I’m going to spend six or seven hours tending a small fire every twenty minutes or so, I’ve taken to filling the smoker with meats. I also tend to keep a guitar and a good book close by.

In the time it would take to smoke just 18 lb. turkey, I prepared two ducks and a couple pounds of fresh kielbasa, knowing I’d freeze most of what came off the smoker for future meals.

My Grill:   A Char-Griller   Smokin’ Pro Model  #1224

This grill with a side firebox, sells for around $180 comes with cast iron grates that have enough mass to hold the heat when a cold piece of meat is placed on them. When given time to preheat, they leave those lovely grill marks. When I was picking a grill, the side firebox and cast iron grates were non-negotiable.

Their product name notwithstanding, these grills are not built to withstand consistent professional use. These grills are economical backyard or driveway rigs that will serve the occasional smoker well. They are generally available at Lowe’s here in the United States.

You’ll want to get a more accurate temperature gauge. The one in the lid may be as much as fifty degrees off, which can ruin a meal.

Smoking Meats

You’re going to want to hold the meat at a low to moderate temperature (180 –220 ºF) for some hours. The size fire you build will depend on the outdoor temperature. If it’s the 4th of July in North Carolina, you’ll use half the charcoal to start when compared to Thanksgiving in Vermont. Point made.

To keep the meat from drying out, I buy a couple of heavy duty, disposable roasting pans which sit nicely under the grates in the barrel grill and fill them about 1/2 full of water. These will humidify the meat and catch most of the drippings. I clean these out and reuse them, recycling them when their useful lives are over.

You’ll build a small charcoal fire in the side firebox and soak chunks of oak, hickory, maple or a fruit wood in water to cover for at least 30 minutes, adding them to the fire to create the smoke.

You may ‘mop’ the meat once an hour or hour and a half with a sauce of your choosing. ‘Mop’ is used for both the little implement (bigger and faster than a little basting brush) and the sauce. Every time you open the grill, you’ll lose temperature and that will extend the cooking time. Mops (the implement) makes quick work of basting. Some people ‘mop,’ and some don’t. The humidifying water pans under the grates will give you some flexibility in how often you’ll open the grill to do this.

I tend to smoke birds for between 4 and 6 hours, often wrapping them up in heavy-duty aluminum foil with some of the ‘mop’ and bring them up to safe eating temperatures either on the grill or moving them inside to an oven. There is more on safe food temperatures and times below. Every cook should know this information. Learn the temperatures for different meats and safe food practices and don’t poison your friends and family.

Choice  of  Wood  for  Smoking

There is a great deal made in the advertising world of smoking with particular woods:  Apple-smoked bacon, Hickory-smoked Barbecue, etc.

In practice, you choice of wood for smoking makes an almost imperceptible difference in taste of the finished product, unless you decide to use a resinous wood like cedar, mesquite, or pine. These woods will leave a distinct turpentine-sort of aftertaste and are to be avoided.

The cedar and mesquite are lovely for grilling something, which happens quickly. But you’ll be disappointed in the flavor if you use them for smoking something. So, stick with the hard woods and fruitwoods for smoking: hickory, oak, maple, apple, pear.

Preparing  a  Big  Bird

Let’s talk turkey: at around 245º F (which is on the high end for smoking) your bird will take roughly a half hour per pound.

For a twelve pound bird you’re looking at approximately six hours at that temperature. [If bands of thunder showers roll through and your grill isn’t covered, as it did on my grill last September in Wilmington, North Carolina, all time estimates are out the window. What should have taken four or six hours took eight to ten. But the food was killer! Really.]

You can do a 10-12 lb. bird whole with some aromatics loose in the cavity (a cut up apple, onion, rosemary, garlic). Anything bigger, I cut in half, which with an 18 lb. turkey is exactly what I did.

I left the ducks whole and just tied them up with butcher twine to hold the legs and wings in close to the body and prevent them from drying out too much.

I usually cut the back bone out of a big bird and then split the breast. I salt and pepper it, and often use a dry rub mixture of four or five dried Mexican chiles, finely ground espresso coffee, and brown sugar. You can loosen the skin carefully and slip some in between the skin and the meat.

Once this is all done, I use a couple of long skewers to catch the leg and the wing on the split bird and pull them close to the body. This allows me to move them around on the grill and turn them easily if I want to and keeps the leg and wing meat more moist.

I’ve been known to wrap pork shoulders and loins, as well as turkeys and ducks tightly with plastic wrap with this chile mixture and park it in the basement refrigerator for three or four days before starting the fire.

It’s not necessary, but, well, it doesn’t hurt…if you can plan that far ahead, you’ll taste it.

A  Small Fire,  A Good Book,  & A Guitar

One of the great pleasures of making slow food like this is that you’re not going to want to get too far away or be too distracted from the task at hand. For me, I consider this a little island of enforced leisure: I get a good book, some seltzer or a beer, keep a guitar at hand and refuse to do any other meaningful labor when I’m smoking. Dear President Clinton:  It goes without saying that I don’t inhale.

When I was in college, I was saved from many a rowdy night by simply demurring: I’ve got some bread going. When you make bread or you smoke meat, you’re going to be staying home. Rather than a penance, I consider it a luxury that pays me twice:  some quiet time and great food at the end.

Kitchen Hygiene

You should learn and practice good kitchen hygiene:  separate cutting boards for meat and vegetables, cleaning cutting boards which have touched raw meats with boiling water or a weak bleach and water solution, and taking care to clean your knives and hands after working with raw meat and before turning right to the salad. E. coli or Salmonella can be unpleasant in the young and healthy, and deadly with the elderly, the very young, and people with compromised immune systems. You should establish habits in the kitchen that will minimize accidental contamination and prevent the movement of bacteria from meats and eggs to vegetables.

Food Safety Temperatures and Times

Years ago, a doctor friend told me that there was basically no such thing as what we commonly call the ‘stomach’ flu:  it’s food poisoning.

To prevent this, many cookbooks and cooking authorities encourage the overcooking of food: sacrificing texture and flavor to err on the side of safety. If you take care with your food and your kitchen safety habits are in place, overcooking food in this way is unnecessary.

The old rule of thumb is that cooking food until the core temperature is 167 °F / 75 °C (or above) will ensure that harmful bacteria are destroyed.

But, the temperature at which harmful bacteria are destroyed can be lower, provided the core temperature is maintained for a specified period of time. To wit:

140° F / 60° C for a minimum of 45 minutes

149° F / 65° C for a minimum of 10 minutes

158° F / 70° C for a minimum of 2 minutes

167° F / 75° C for a minimum of 30 seconds

176° F / 80° C for a minimum of 6 seconds

One needs to remember that these recommended cooking conditions are only appropriate and will protect your diners if initial bacterial numbers in the uncooked food are small. Cooking does not overcome poor kitchen and food preparation and storage hygiene.

Internal Temperatures for Specific Meats:  From Master Chef Tom Colicchio

In 2000, Tom Colicchio authored one of my absolutely favorite cookbooks:  Thinking Like A Chef. I’ve given away a dozen copies over the past decade. His premise in this book is that there are a number of basic techniques that one should master: roasting in the oven and on top of the stove, braising, sautéing, making stocks and sauces. Then go play with your food.

Colicchio de-constructs specific dishes, offers a wonderful array of ingredients which he like to have on hand (salt-cured lemons, for instance). The book has recipes, but is technique-oriented, which pleases me deeply. I learned a lot from his work here and, if you haven’t seen this book, my guess is you’d enjoy it.

In Thinking Like a Chef, Colicchio provides a very useful chart of internal temperatures. He encourages his readers to touch their food, and learn how it feels when a steak is rare, medium rare, or well done. Pairing personal sense knowledge with a good meat thermometer will gradually equip you to know what’s going on in your pans. His motto is “test early and often.” You may remove a roast from the oven 5-7 degrees before it is done and it will finish cooking and reach the desired temperature while it is resting.

Here’s the information Colicchio provides in his excellent book, Thinking Like A Chef:

Red Meats:

120º F. ­– rare (red, cool center)

125º F. – medium rare (red, warm center)

130º F. – medium (pink center)

135º F. – medium well (small pink center)

140º F. – well done (no pink)

Pork or Veal:

140º F. – medium

150º F. – well done


170º F. – dark meat cooked

160º F. – white meat cooked


120º F. – medium rare

130º F. – medium/cooked through

*Colicchio notes that density and thickness of fish portions varies so widely that these temperatures and hence cooking time can only approximated. Firmness, flakiness and color will be your best guides for fish, and with time, you’ll be able to judge these other meats as well.

The Smoke ‘Ring’ in Smoked Meats

When you smoke a light colored meat like a truly barbecued smoked pork shoulder, turkey, or chicken, when you cut into it you will find that the smoke has penetrated the meat and left a red color to a certain depth. This is known as the smoke ‘ring’ and is a sign that the meat before you has been smoked for a long time and come by its rich smoky flavor honestly.


Nitrites are added to the large cuts of pork that become smoked hams as well as to sausages not only to help create this pleasing red color which it will do, but also to prevent spoilage. I have never used nitrites and don’t plan on it. I mention them here only because if you’re surfing around, you may run across them.

Smoking Fish and Cheese

The grill I use is almost impossible to keep at around 100º F. or below, which is where it would need to stay to smoke fish (rather than just cook it), or cheeses (rather than just melt them). I’ve considered rigging up an external smoke box farther away from the fire box, but haven’t had the time or been ambitious enough yet to try undertake making the rig. I’m sure it can be done: you simply want the food further from the fire. If I get to it, I’ll write about it here.

…& Salt and Nuts

But I do smoke kosher salt (and could smoke almonds) in the rig I have.

Always use raw nuts, if you choose to try them. They’ll gently toast while they’re smoking. I haven’t tried them yet and can’t give you a time or technique. But with the principles outlined here, if you check them often, you won’t get into trouble.

If you have room in your smoker, it’s always nice to smoke some salt. Smoked salt makes a lovely gift and lends its smoky flavor to things in the middle of winter here in Vermont, where, unless you’re cooking something in the wood stove, that flavor is simply not available to us. I’m a fan of smoked Paprika, but haven’t tried making that at home. I fear that the grill I have would be too hot for it.

It doesn’t take more than a couple of hours to imbue coarse Kosher Salt with a wonderful smoky flavor and you can simply put a cup or so of Kosher Salt into a disposable pie pan and rest it in the smoker along with your meats. The salt on the surface will absorb the smoky flavor and color. And it will form a protective layer over the rest of it, so you should stir the salt now and again. It doesn’t matter how hot it gets. You’ll love having it around the kitchen.

Let’s Smoke Something

I hope you’ll give smoking a try. With my first try, I was amazed that one could make food that tastes that wonderful in your own back yard or driveway.

It is still one of my principle delights and a couple times a year, when I’m off the road and done with touring, I make it a point to fire up the smoker and make plans for a smoked turkey and sausage gumbo, or barbecue.

May have to write about Louisiana roux and gumbo next! We’re planning a gumbo lesson for friends here this Sunday. I’ll hope to document the process for you.

Best wishes and good cooking!

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