Anyone who’s ever cooked any sort of turkey, wild or domesticated, knows that the breast meat can get dry in a hurry. Factory farmed turkeys are often “plumped” with brine to retain moisture, and while this is not necessarily a bad thing, it does add water weight to the bird — weight you pay for as if it were meat. Better to brine yourself.
And that’s the secret to fantastic smoked turkey breast.
Smoking a wild turkey breast requires a salt brine. Period. If you are not familiar with what brining does, it uses the power of salt and osmosis to slightly denature the proteins in the meat, swelling them with salty moisture and trapping more liquid in the meat than it would otherwise be able to contain.
So when you cook it, and you get the inevitable moisture loss heat causes, there was already so much moisture in the brined meat to begin with that it remains juicy.
Once you have that set, you need to dry the turkey breast to form what’s called a pellicle on the surface of the meat. A pellicle is a thin sheen or skin of denatured proteins that, when it drys out a bit, becomes tacky. This allows smoke to adhere to the meat far better then if you put wet meat into a smoker. This is an important step in smoking ignored by a lot of amateurs. Don’t be that guy.
I like smoking over fruit woods (cherry in this case), but you can use whatever. Oak, hickory, walnut, beech, alder, mesquite…
To give the turkey one last punch, I paint it with something sweet. I used honey here, but maple syrup, birch syrup, agave nectar, a fruit syrup or even molasses would work. Why do this? Um… is there a person on earth who doesn’t like the combination of sweet-salty-smoky-meaty?
I didn’t think so.
Do you need Instacure, the curing salt? I like it, as it adds some flavor to the turkey and helps prevent botulism. I use a Traeger smoker and it doesn’t get hot very quickly, so I like the added protection of the curing salt. If you have a regular smoker, you might not need the curing salt because most smokers get to temperature quickly.
A word on smoke: I used cherry for this, and as always I leave you to your preferences on smoke. Whatever you want will be fine, only no conifers! Pine pitch and turpentine are not good eats.
Finally, keep in mind this is my recipe for one smoked turkey breast; you can easily scale this up to smoke as many as you want.
- 1 skinless turkey breast, trimmed (see note above)
- 2 quarts water
- 1/2 cup kosher salt
- 4 teaspoons Instacure No. 1 (optional)
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup honey, maple syrup or other syrup
- Mix together the salt, curing salt, water and sugar until the salt and sugar dissolve. Submerge the turkey breast in the brine and make sure it is totally covered; you might need to weigh down the turkey to do so. Cover and put in the fridge for 2 days.
Take the turkey breast out and truss it like a roast with kitchen twine. Why do this? You get a more compact piece of meat that cooks more evenly and is easier to slice when you are done.
- Dry the turkey breast to form the pellicle, a sheen that allows the turkey to take on smoke better. You can leave the breast on a rack uncovered in the fridge overnight, or you can put it on a rack in a cool, breezy place for a couple hours. Either way, turn the turkey over a few times while you do this. Don't skip this step!
- Smoke the turkey slowly at about 200ºF until it reaches an internal temperature of about 160ºF -- this takes about 4 hours with my smoker. Let the turkey smoke undisturbed for an hour, then paint it with honey every 45 minutes or so until it's done. When the turkey is ready, take it out of the smoker and set it on a rack. Paint it one more time with the honey and serve any way you like it: Warm for dinner, or cold for sandwiches.
If you want to use the curing salt No. 1, you can buy it online.
Once made, the smoked turkey will keep in the fridge for a week or so, and can be frozen (vacuum-sealed is my preference) for up to a year.