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A Catering Story: The Tale Of 13 Turkeys

Burnt Finger BBQThanksgiving 2008 ushered in a new era for Burnt Finger BBQ. This year we offered up our outdoor cooking skills to friends and family and wound up smoking 13 turkeys for the holiday. And as any Good Samaritan would do, we also documented the entire process to share with the world!

After conducting some recon work on the area markets, we stumbled upon a local grocer who had just received their massive pre-Thanksgiving turkey shipment. Luckily, we were able to obtain 13 turkeys that were almost exactly 14 pounds each. Once home, the birds were immediately placed into coolers filled with cold water to slowly thaw out. (Note…when thawing in a cooler, make sure the temperature stays below 40 degrees so that the meat doesn’t spoil. Also be sure to change out the water daily.)

Smoked Turkey Prep

After thawing for a better part of a week, it was finally time start the preparation process. First things first, each turkey must be unwrapped, trimmed, washed, and dried. If you so choose, keep hold of the neck and giblets for dressing and/or gravy, otherwise discard with the tail and trimmings. Once each bird was prepped, it was then placed into an aluminum roasting pan. The pans made moving the birds much easier and also provided a nice way to catch all of those delicious drippings. It’s hard to beat homemade turkey gravy on Thanksgiving, so we wanted to make sure the recipients of our birds had this option.

Next up is the seasoning process. An injection is a great way to deliver rich flavors deep into the meat. The thickest parts of the breast and thigh are difficult places for the rub and smoke to penetrate, so these are the areas that can benefit most from a flavor boost. Not only will an injection help make your bird tasty, but it will also add moisture to the meat which makes for a tender and juicy final product.

Smoked Turkey Ingredients

The injection we used this year was a simple mixture of basic Thanksgiving flavors. Since we were doing a large number of birds, we opted not to brine our turkeys. To somewhat replicate this process, we substituted salted butter into the injection recipe. Granted, if you typically go for more complex flavors with your brine then this method wouldn’t work for you, but we were shooting for simple effective flavors so this worked well. The results were surprisingly good, and also saved us the hassle of having 13 tubs of floating turkeys.

1 Stick Salted Butter
1/4 Tablespoon Garlic Powder
1/4 Tablespoon Onion Powder*
1/4 Tablespoon White Pepper
1/4 Teaspoon Poultry Seasoning

*We only had minced onions on hand, so those took a spin through the spice grinder in lieu of using onion powder. Larger pieces tend to clog the injector needle, so it’s best to have your spices finely ground. A coffee grinder can also be used if you don’t have a spice grinder.

The recipe above is for one turkey, so you’ll need to multiply it for each turkey you’re preparing. Heat all of the ingredients together in a small sauce pan until the butter is fully melted. You’ll then want to pour your injection liquid into a tall and narrow container. Most injector needles have several layers of holes that need to be fully submerged before they’ll take in any liquid. A tip I recently received was to use a travel coffee mug, which ended up working really well. Inject approximately 45% of the liquid into the breasts, 25% into the thighs, 25% into the legs and wings, and save the remaining 5% to be used a bit later. The cold meat will quickly solidify the butter, so be sure to work fast to keep your injector from clogging.

Smoked Turkey Injection

After injecting the bird, take a large zip lock bag filled with ice and lay it over the breasts for about 30 minutes. This will lower the temperature of the breast meat 10 to 15 degrees below the legs and thighs. Since the optimal internal temperatures for cooked meat varies by the cut (165 for white, 180 for dark), lowering the starting temperature of the breasts helps keep the white meat from drying out while the dark meat cooks to a higher temperature.

Once the turkey has rested under the ice bag for a good 30 minutes take the remaining injection liquid and brush all over the bird. The butter will help crisp the skin during the cooking process and will also act as “glue” to keep your herbs stuck to the bird. Coat the skin liberally with dried rosemary, thyme, and parsley. Bundles of fresh rosemary and thyme can also be places inside the cavity with sliced apples to act as aromatics.

Smoked Turkey Seasoning

Smoked Turkey Grilling

Place the turkey in a 325 degree smoker until the thickest part of the breast reaches 165 degrees. Our 14 pound turkeys took approximately 4 hours to fully cook. Fruit woods are a good compliment to the light flavor of turkey, so we used apple for our smoke layer. If you’re cooking a large number of turkeys, be sure to rotate the birds within the smoker to ensure even cooking.

Once the breast meat reaches 165, remove the bird from the smoker and immediately flip over so that the turkey can rest breast side down. As the bird cools, the juices will absorb back into the meat making it moist and tender. The breast meat is the most prone to dying out, so by flipping the bird upside down gravity will pull the juices down into the breast meat where they’re most needed. At this point you can also spoon some of the drippings into the cavity to for extra absorption. Caution…be very careful when spooning the drippings into the cavity. We learned the hard way that not all birds will hold liquid, which results in a greasy/buttery mess!!!

Smoked Turkey Grease

Smoked Turkey Gravy

After the turkey rests for 15-20 minutes it’s ready to enjoy. But in our case, we had to prep them for delivery for the lucky families. Each turkey was placed in an oven safe roasting bag and accompanied by a jar of drippings graced by our logo. Since most of the birds were going to be enjoyed a few days later on Thanksgiving Day, we also provided instructions on how to perfectly reheat them in a conventional oven. Raving reviews were had by all, and we even got a few early commitments for next year!!!!!

Smoked Turkey

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  1. [...] Just follow the link to A Catering Story: The Tale of 13 Turkeys [...]

  2. Mark says:

    You guys did some SERIOUS Turkey cooking! They looked like they came out perfect. I haven’t tried injecting the turkey yet but it looks like it works well.

  3. Aaron says:

    Thanks! We tried to make it simple and keep them nice and juicy. 13 was quite a lot to do in one weekend.

    I’m going to do two for Christmas, one just with the regular brine and butter injection and one with your apple brine and post the process and results on them. Should be fun!

  4. Denise says:

    My goodness … 13 birds … I’d be ready to fly the coop … lol!


  5. This is a fascinating story; I can empathize, as a caterer, I used to do quite a few turkeys around the holidays.

    However, your defrosting method needs improvements: all frozen meat should be thawing out very slowly to reduce loss of flavorful juices from the tissue. Defrosting in water is not good, thawing is much too fast. Leaving them in the cooler without water is better. Buying fresh turkeys is best.

    Check out my latest (Nov/08). It’s already getting great reviews:

    Tried and True Recipes from a Caterer’s Kitchen—Secrets of Making Great Foods

    On Amazon, etc.

  6. def says:

    good post !
    for the best bbq turkey on the planet check out this post @