If you’re lucky, you’re a hunter. If you’re wise, you understand what it means to be one. If you’re conscientious, you embrace every part of it, and if you’re diligent, you’ll reap its benefits. Full freezers mean food security, healthy meals and the drive to do it all over again.
Everyone has their own favorite wild game and preferred preparation, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who has turned their nose up to a beautiful lump of meat smoked to perfection with care and attention.
It’s May in Maine, and for the hunter, that means turkey season. Salty, sweet, savory and juicy, it’s hard to find a better way to enjoy that spring gobbler than a smoked turkey breast.
Smoking allows us to preserve food over longer periods of time, adds flavor and makes life infinitely better. Yes, there is a science to it. No, I don’t fully understand it, nor will I profess to be any sort of expert in its execution — but I do know it works. Intimidating as it can seem at first, with just a few ingredients, simple equipment and some time, it’s very easy to put together a smoked turkey breast to be proud of and something your family and friends will look forward to every year.
Some prefer to pluck their bird, keeping it whole to be roasted in the oven or deep fried. The more popular method, however, is to butcher, sectioning the bird piece by piece. When properly butchered, a wild turkey yields two of each: breasts, thighs, legs and tenderloins. Legs and thighs can be slow cooked, ground or otherwise prepared in a number of ways. The same goes for the breast meat but it’s most commonly turned into nuggets, marinated, fried or grilled. It’s all delicious but I make sure to save one of the breasts to smoke.
After the breast is removed, its shape is a bit triangular, with the bottom portion considerably thinner than the top. In order to achieve uniform cooking and flavor, the bottom couple of inches should be cut off, leaving a somewhat oblong chunk of meat. Though the meat could be left as is, tying — or “trussing” as it’s called — with butcher’s twine will produce a nice, tight little package that will cook evenly and add a beautiful finished look coming out of the smoker.
Wild turkey has a reputation of being a bit dry, and that’s because it is. For this reason, it should be brined before smoking. Brine not only adds flavor but helps the meat retain moisture. Brines are simple and typically comprise water, salt, herbs and often sugar.
I enjoy simple things, so I stick with a basic brine for turkey. To make it, pour a few cups of water into a pan, toss in 1/2 cup of kosher salt, 1 1/2 cups of brown sugar, a pinch or two of dried thyme and one bay leaf. Heat until the salt and sugar are dissolved then remove from the stove. The brine needs to cool before use, so add another cup of water and allow it to cool on its own or add some ice cubes to quicken the process. Once the brine has cooled, transfer it to a non-metallic container that can be covered. Add the turkey breast, making sure it’s completely submerged. Cover the container and place in the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours.
Once the turkey has brined, take it out and rinse it with cold water. Pat it dry then let it sit for an hour or so. This does a couple things but most importantly, it allows a layer of proteins called pellicle to form on the surface of the meat. Pellicle gives the smoke something to stick to. While the turkey is drying, get your smoker ready and up to temperature.
With enough money, these days you can buy a smoker that will basically do all the work for you. For nothing, you could hang the meat over an open fire on sticks. I’ve landed somewhere in the middle, using a basic propane smoker that requires a fair amount of effort and attention but it allows me to enjoy the process. Whatever your smoker, get it to land on a temperature between 200 and 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
Once the smoker is up to temperature and there’s a healthy amount of pecan, cherry, apple or other light-flavored smoke rolling out, quickly brush the turkey with a bit of honey, put it on a rack and close the door. The turkey will need to find its way to 165 degrees, which for me takes about four hours. If you need to open the door to check on the temperature, that’s OK, but make sure to do so sparingly and use a digital meat thermometer, which will make life much easier.
At 165 degrees, remove the turkey breast from the smoker. You can let it sit for a few minutes and enjoy it warm but I prefer allowing it to rest vacuum sealed in the refrigerator for a couple days, then slice it off for sandwiches or plate it with some crackers and cheese.
I hope this spring you were one of those lucky, wise, conscientious and diligent hunters who brought home a beautiful Maine longbeard. I hope you enjoy everything about it, especially some great meals.
If you’re so inclined, however, and want to try your hand at it, smoked wild turkey breast rewards in more ways than one and I’m willing to bet you’ll wonder where it’s been your whole life, I know I did.