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The BlueSmoke Gazette--Problems Cooking Turkeys
November 16, 2009

Sometimes, Stuff Happens...

Last Sunday was one of those days when nothing seemed to go right. That afternoon I began cooking a whole turkey on my gas grill, and smoking a bone-in turkey breast in my electric smoker, but neither of them went as planned. One of them cooked too quickly and the other wasn't done until almost 24 hours later. Here's what happened...

Saturday went without a hitch. I made up a batch of brine for the whole turkey and a fruit juice marinade for the breast. The whole turkey went in an upright insulated water cooler with the brine, and frozen gallon jug of water to keep it all nice and cold. Then I injected some of the juicy marinade into the turkey breast, and put it into a large bowl with the remaining marinade, which went into the refrigerator.

Sunday came, and it was time to cook. I decided to start up the grill and the smoker at 2PM, but forgot that I neglected to clean 'em up after I'd last used them. So after scraping, washing and brushing for an hour, they were clean (enough). Problem #1- Resolved.

I set up the grill for indirect grill-smoking first, then got the electric smoker ready. With the whole turkey and the breast rinsed, drained and dried off, I gave each a dusting of a simple dry rub mixture and put them into the cookers.

I put cherry wood chips in the foil covered bread pan smokerbox I use in the gas grill, and in the tin can chipbox I use in the electric smoker. I've used cast iron chip boxes, and I've wrapped wood chips and chunks in foil, but I've finally settled on the bread pan and tin can for holding wood chips and chunks. Effective. Simple. Cheap.

Smoke began rolling out of the grill and smoker, but their temperatures weren't holding steady. The South Central Kansas wind was doing its normal thing, blowing pretty much constantly with gusts up to 30 mph. I needed to block the wind, so after looking around in the garage, I found my solution and put up a temporary windbreak. Problem #2- Resolved.

With the wind diverted and temperatures steady, I was back on track. The temperature gauge on the gas grill was holding at 250 degrees, just within the temperature range I was shooting for, between 250 and 300 degrees.

The electric smoker gauge read 220 degrees...a little cooler than I wanted, but it was the best that the Brinkmann Gourmet electric smoker could do. With the new windbreak in place there was no wind to suck out the heat. I had it plugged into the heavy duty extension cord I made, which was designed to provide maximum electrical current to the heating element. I was even running the smoker with no water in the pan (water uses a lot of the heat produced by the element to create steam- no water means more heat available for cooking).

The electric Brinkmann smoker is adequate for smoking foods that don't take a long time to cook, but is underpowered when it comes to smoking the big stuff like briskets, ribs, and pork butts. Even smoking a turkey breast is pushing its limits. My guess was that the breast I was smoking would take at least six hours, maybe even more. Problem #3- I was aware of this one, and knew it would take a while to cook the turkey breast in the Brinkmann Gourmet.

I refilled the pan and can with chips after the first hour of cooking. The turkey breast still looked raw, but the whole turkey in the grill was browning nicely.

I checked two hours later, and the temperatures were still holding nicely. The electric- smoked turkey breast was getting some color, and its internal temperature was up to 124 degrees. I thought "Three more hours should just about do it", and refilled the can with more wood chips.

Then I opened the grill, and when I saw the whole turkey, it seemed to look surprisingly "done" for the amount of time it had cooked. After only three hours at 250 the breast should have been about 120 degrees, but when I checked the internal temperature I found it was already up to 160 degrees, and the thigh measured only 155 degrees. Problem #4- This one caught me off guard.

I repositioned the probe to measure the air temperature next to the breast. I closed the lid and watched the number on the digital display rise. 100F- 150F- 200F- 300F- stopped rising when it hit 424 degrees! And that darned temp gauge mounted on the lid topped out at 250!

My first thought was that the calibration of the grill temperature gauge was off, but when I checked it out later, I found that it was right on the money. I then realized that when grilling indirectly on a gas grill, the heat coming off that lone burner was rising to the top, leaving the temperature down at grate level much lower.

I cooked the turkey another half hour, when the internal temp of the breast hit 165 degrees. Since the breast was done I went ahead and removed the turkey from the grill to rest. After it cooled enough to handle, I separated the breast section (with wings still attached) from the turkey. The back, legs and thighs went back into grill until the done temperature for thighs was reached, 170 degrees.

Learn About The New USDA Turkey Done Temperatures

To the best of my reckoning, the turkey in the electric smoker still needed about two more hours of cooking. And about that time my neighbor Jeff stopped by with a problem that needed immediate attention. Since I had no idea how long I'd be away from the smoker, I unplugged it and put the turkey breast in the fridge to finish up later. Problem #5- Sometimes you just have to shut 'er down.

The next day I finished the turkey breast in the electric smoker, but because it had cooled back down to 40 degrees, it took another seven hours to get it up to 167 degrees. It took a total of eleven hours in the smoker to cook that turkey breast. In hindsight, I should've just finished it in the oven, but at the time I was dead set on cooking it to completion in the electric smoker. On a positive note, with all that extra time in the smoker the turkey breast had a great smoky flavor!

So to recap all the "stuff" that happened last Sunday, and how it will improve my abilities in the future...

1. Problem- The smoker and the grill were both dirty from the last cookouts. Lesson Learned- Clean the cooking grates and interior buildup from grills and smokers after each use, even if I plan to use them the next day. It might end up being years before I use 'em again.

2. Problem- The wind was causing problems with temperature control. Lesson Learned- Check the forecast the day before you plan to grill or smoke, and have a plan in place for weatherproofing your cooking area. Rain in the forecast? Set up on a covered (but not enclosed) patio. Gonna be windy? Set up on the protected side of the house, or put up a windbreak.

3. Problem- The electric smoker barely reached smoking temperature. Lesson Learned- Know your smokers and grills. I did know that my electric Brinkmann Gourmet smoker cooked on the low side, and knew I'd be cooking for long time.

4. Problem- The actual grill temperature didn't match the temp shown on the lid mounted grill gauge. Lesson Learned- Again, Know your smokers and grills. I was caught off guard by this problem. Even though the grill gauge was "correct", it showed only the temperature at its location in the grill. I should have used two remote thermometers to monitor the grill temps at both the upper and lower levels of the turkey. If I'd seen early on that the temperature at breast level was running at 400 degrees instead of 250 (which I assumed because of the grill gauge), I would have been able to make adjustments to the the grill temperature or the cooking method.

5. Problem- My neighbor Jeff needed help.(not really a problem...just unavoidable "Stuff" that happened) Lesson Learned- Expect the unexpected, and know that there will be times you just have to shut everything down, and do what you can later to finish what was started.

Smoking a Turkey in a WSM

Smoking a Turkey in a Weber Kettle

Smoked Thanksgiving Turkey Recipe

Smoked Turkey Breast

Smoked Turkey Legs

Turkey Brine Recipes

Turkey Rub Recipe

How to Smoke a Turkey

About Turkey Brine

Turkey Smoking Tips

More Turkey Smoking Tips

Grill Smoked Turkey

Smoked Wild Turkey

Teriyaki Turkey Wings

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