There are many ways to prepare and cook a turkey for the holidays from roasting whole to cutting into quarters and cooking separately.
In the end, most methods work well enough. In our journey to find the best way to prepare a turkey, we have tried it all. We always come back to the method that produces great results every time – spatchcock the turkey and smoke it. This is the method we recommend over any other when cooking a bird.
By removing the backbone and cooking the bird flat in “butterfly” form (spatchcock), it allows the breasts and thighs/legs to cook at the most even rate. It also allows you to brown twice as much surface area. Browning adds flavor, and flavor is good. You’ll see and taste why we recommend this spatchcock method over any other. Here’s the run-down:
- Pull the giblets and the turkey neck from the inside of the bird. Rinse the turkey under cold water and pat it dry (both on top of and under the skin) with paper towels. This will make the turkey easier to grip. Placing a dry towel on a cutting board will prevent the bird from slipping as you cut out the backbone while collecting any juices that would otherwise spill onto your table.
- To take the backbone out, place the bird breast side down. Cut along both sides of the backbone with good poultry shears, from one opening of the cavity to the other. Start at the back of the turkey and work your way up one side of the backbone. Cut until you reach the neck. Take the time now to try and remove all the rib bones from the turkey. This will ensure easier carving and make serving much easier once the bird is cooked. Repeat this for the left side, again making sure you remove rib bones and other loose bones as you go. Save the backbone for making turkey stock or flavoring gravy.
- Turn the turkey over, place both hands on the breast and push down to crack part of the keel bone and portions of the shoulder joints and ribs. This may take some muscle, but it is an extremely important step as this will allow the bird to lay flat, giving you a more even area to prepare and cook.
- Use a brine or injection before cooking. This will help keep the meat moist and flavorful. Injecting is a quick way to get flavor distributed throughout your meat. It can be used with any of the cooking/preparation methods discussed above. Simply use a marinade injector, such as the Broil King Marinade Injector, to inject your desired marinade. We recommend John Henry’s Pecan Marinade Injection for his technique. It adds a wonderful nutty sweetness to the flavor profile.
- Use a rub to add flavor. Be sure to pull the skin away from the meat, but leave it attached. Season the meat under the skin for maximum flavor absorption, then return the skin and add additional rub. If you’re going for a more classic savory flavor profile, use a rub like Cattleman's Grill Ranchero or Oakridge BBQ Santa Maria. If you’re looking for a sweeter rub, say to pair with John Henry’s Pecan Injection, look no further than John Henry’s Pecan Rub. Finally, our staff favorite for holiday turkey year in and year out continues to be Plowboys BBQ Yardbird Rub. This rub continues to impress all who taste it with its balance of sweet and savory.
- Lay the bird flat on a foil lined sheet pan. Cooking it on a pan will allow you to keep all the delicious juices, which you can later incorporate back into the meat, or use in gravy.
- At 325°F, a 15-pound turkey will take about 2-2.5 hours to cook. The smaller the bird, the less time. If you wish to smoke the bird, you can cook at a much lower temperature, say 225°F. Just remember, the lower the temperature, the longer the cook time. Poultry takes on smoke quicker and easier than other meats, therefore cooking at 325°F will impart plenty of smoky flavor. Cook the turkey until all the meat has reached an internal temperature of 165°F. This is your magic number. It is likely that the legs will cook a bit faster than the breasts. That is fine. However, do NOT cook the breasts past 165°F. A thermometer will make or break your Thanksgiving turkey. We recommend using an instant read thermometer like the Maverick PT-75
- The thighs will separate from the rest of the body very easily. No hunting for the thigh joint, like with a whole cooked turkey. This meat should pull away from the bones with ease, as well. Look out for bones and tendons hiding in the leg meat. The breasts can either be sliced intact or removed from the breastbone, separated from wings, and sliced to serve. For the wings, remove the skin and pull that meat, like you did with the legs/thighs.
- Until you’re ready to serve, store the pulled and sliced meat in a pan with the rendered juices while cooking.