Fire Up Your Smoker for an Austin Twist on Thanksgiving
Smoke 'em if you got 'em
Picture this: Instead of hovering over the stovetop, shooing siblings and cousins out of your increasingly cramped kitchen as you turn on the oven light for the thousandth time to get a peek at the roasting turkey, you could instead take advantage of Austin's typically mild November weather and hang out alfresco with your loved ones as the big Thanksgiving meal comes together.
This more social (and far more pleasant) way of prepping Thanksgiving dinner is entirely possible thanks to an appliance already found in the backyards of many Central Texans: a barbecue smoker.
"I think that fire and smoke are important parts of Texas cooking in general," says Davis Turner, chef and co-owner of Huckleberry. "Lighting up a smoker brings people outside, and I feel things tend to be a little more relaxed when you have family, friends, outdoors, fire, drinks, and food!" While smoking a full Thanksgiving dinner requires some advance planning and plenty of patience, "smoke and fire add great flavor to anything they touch, so it would really be a unique and delicious meal," insists Evan LeRoy, chef and co-owner of LeRoy & Lewis.
If the idea of cooking a Thanksgiving meal in a smoker feels intimidating, remember this simple truth shared with us by co-owner and pit chef Barrett Black of Black's BBQ: "A smoker is really just an oven." Once you accept that any dish (and any piece of cookware) that could go in the oven is also conducive to the smoker, you'll be able to "get over the mental hurdles and make it feel more approachable," says Black.
The first mental hurdle involves time management. Thanksgiving dinner always requires a chef to abide by a strict schedule, and that goes double when you're working with a smoker. "You have to get up pretty early to get everything started," admits Rick Moonen, master development chef of CARVE American Grille. Black agrees, adding that "if you think it should take four hours to cook your turkey, give yourself eight hours. There will be obstacles, things will go wrong, and you will get distracted."
One easy way to reduce timing-related stress is to "prep ahead of time" as much as possible, says LeRoy. Steps like peeling potatoes, chopping vegetables and herbs, boiling pasta, blanching green beans, and brining the bird can happen the night before, which will allow you to get right into the smoking process on Thanksgiving morning.
When shopping for a turkey to smoke, Black urges you to go for a smaller bird because "larger birds will be in the heat longer, so they're more at risk of drying out." Black says that the sweet spot is "10 to 12 pounds," and if you're expecting a large crowd, "cook two of them."
All of our experts spoke in favor of brining the turkey before placing it in the smoker, as brining "helps the bird retain moisture," says LeRoy. You can brine turkey by soaking it in a liquid salt solution (also known as a "wet brine") or by rubbing solid kosher salt under the skin (a "dry brine"). Aromatics like dried herbs and ground pepper can also be used as flavor agents in a brine. Either way, be sure to let your turkey brine overnight so that the salt can dissolve the turkey's muscle proteins and yield more tender and more flavorful meat.
When it comes to setting up the smoker, be strategic about your choice of wood. Antonio Montes, CEO and co-founder of Keveri Grills, believes that it's best to "go light on the wood – you don't want a bitter or strong aftertaste." Because turkey is a more delicate protein than brisket or pork, boldly flavored woods like mesquite can easily overwhelm the meat. Instead, stick with the "Old Reliable" wood for Central Texas barbecue: white post oak. "It's very mild, it doesn't get bitter, and as long as you're smoking the turkeys at a nice low temperature, it gives you a lot of room for error," says Black.
Monitoring the temperature of the smoker is crucial for Thanksgiving dinner prep, and if you're using a classic live fire smoker, it's likely that the machine won't have an integrated thermometer. You can use an attachable thermometer to measure the temperature inside the smoker, and a meat thermometer will allow you to take the internal temperature of the turkey and determine when it's done smoking.
The safe temperature for a cooked turkey breast is 165 degrees Fahrenheit, but according to Haley Conlin, co-owner of Barbs B Q in Lockhart, "most [smokehouses] will pull it from the smoker just before it reaches that temperature." Conlin says that it takes three to four hours to smoke a turkey to temperature. But before she removes the turkey from the smoker, Conlin adds some extra moisture and richness by adding pats of butter to the turkey and wrapping the bird in foil for the last hour of cook time. "The turkeys always turn out amazing, and the butter makes a perfectly flavorful dip for each slice," she says.
If you're hoping to make a gravy with the turkey drippings, smoke the turkey in a standard roasting pan to collect the juices. Also, add any fresh herbs that you would use to season your bird when cooking it in the oven (like thyme, rosemary, and sage) for further flavor infusion.
Turkey might be Thanksgiving's signature dish, but for a lot of us, the side dishes are the true highlight of the meal. Because a smoker is "just an oven," any side that you would bake alongside the turkey is fair game for smoking. If you're feeling hesitant about serving smoked side dishes with a smoked turkey, Conlin suggests smoking some of the ingredients in the dish instead of the whole dish. "That will keep your meal balanced and light while adding that classic Texas [flavor] experience," she says. For instance, you could use smoked cheese in a stovetop mac & cheese or smoked sausage in a bread stuffing, or you could blister green beans in the smoker before incorporating them into an oven-baked green bean casserole.
But if you're ready to ditch the indoor kitchen entirely in favor of your outdoor oven, our experts fully endorse that effort. Rick Moonen encourages you to remember that "the temperature of the smoker is generally lower than that of an oven," so it's important to factor the extra time into your prep schedule. Aside from the longer cook time, standard baking strategies apply. Moonen says that he uses the smoker to slow-roast potatoes before mashing them and that he makes smoker mac & cheese by "assembling [his] favorite mac and cheese [in a] casserole dish and, instead of the oven, using the smoker to heat the dish through." As for LeRoy, he loves to bake green bean casserole in the smoker because "the creamy green beans will soak up a ton of smoke flavor. I would mix the beans, cream mix, and mushrooms together, heat it up on the smoker in a big cast-iron pan, cook until bubbly, then finish with crispy onions." If you'd like to reduce the smokiness of the casserole, follow Black's advice and "cover the dish tightly with foil."
Fortunately, the smoker's usefulness for Thanksgiving cooking doesn't have to stop at dinner. Smoked desserts offer a pleasant flavor contrast, and while pastry baking can prove challenging in the smoker (which features lower temperatures and less temperature consistency than a standard oven), it's still very doable. "Try to make a dessert that doesn't require yeast rising," advises Black.
Pies fall into that category, and as long as you can maintain an internal temperature of 400 degrees Fahrenheit in your smoker, "it will be fine," says Montes. Pie varieties that are especially well suited to smoking include pecan (a favorite of LeRoy's), chocolate cream (Moonen says that "chocolate and smoke love each other"), and the classic pumpkin (Black favors smoked pumpkin pie because "the gelatin [in pumpkin filling]" makes it easy to set and more amenable to "variations in temperature").
Say goodbye to Thanksgiving kitchen exile and instead gather your guests around your favorite outdoor picnic table, play some tunes (or some football), fire up the smoker, and turn Turkey Day into a festive tailgate complete with crisp weather, flavorful eats, friends, family, and fun.