When I was a kid, my father and uncle always grilled our turkey over charcoal coals for Thanksgiving. Grilling allowed for a smokier flavor than traditional oven-roasted turkey but can be a little trickier here in November in New England. I wanted to try it because I have never loved to cook a standard whole roasted turkey.
Most people seem to agree that stuffing, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie or any of the other traditional Thanksgiving dishes are the real holiday favorite. This year I decided to put my own spin on grilled turkey by spatchcocking and buttermilk brining my gobbler before putting it over the coals.
Spatchcocking is the basic butchery technique of removing the backbone of a bird and breaking the breastbone so that the bird can be roasted or grilled flat. This increases the surface area allows for a shortened cook time. For turkeys, this technique can help keep the breasts from drying out and provide a more even cook.
Buttermilk brining does two things for meat and poultry: the enzymes in the milk tenderize, while the salt in the brine allows the muscles to absorb more liquid, offsetting any drying out during cooking. A spatchcocked and buttermilk-brined turkey (or chicken) is great for roasting or grilling.
My family was visiting this past week from the west coast so we decided to have an early Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday. Considering that I will be either cooking or attending another two Thanksgiving dinners in the next two weeks, I decided to use two chickens this weekend instead of turkey but the recipe is the same.
Saturday proved to be a poor day to grill due to the heavy rain storm that erupted on me just as I was getting my coals ready. The chickens grilled for about 30 minutes imparting some smoke onto the meat but it was just too cold and wet for the coals to get hot enough to cook, so I finished them in the oven. Maybe I will have more luck with the weather when I grill my turkey next week.
BUTTERMILK-BRINED SPATCHCOCKED TURKEY OR CHICKEN
Two 4-5 pound chickens (or one 10-14 pound turkey)
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup water
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
2 teaspoons granulated garlic
Mix together all the brine ingredients in a bowl.
Remove the neck and any giblets from the cavity of the bird and sit the bird up on a cutting board with its wings and breasts in the air and the legs and bottom on the board.
Take a sharp chef knife, cleaver or heavy kitchen shears and make two deep incisions on either side of the neck. Working with one side at a time follow the backbone down with your knife or shears cutting through the back rib bones and through where the leg joint meets the backbone. Repeat on the other side.
Lay the bird flat on the cutting board with legs splayed out and breasts facing up. Place both hands on the middle of the breastbone where the two breasts meet and push hard down. Basically, perform chest compressions on the bird until you hear a crack. Now, the bird should lay flat with the whole inner cavity splayed against the cutting board.
Put the bird in an extra-large zip-lock or brining bag (large container works as well) and cover the turkey with brine. Put it in the refrigerator for 24 to 48 hours.
Note: If there isn’t enough liquid you can add a little more water and/or just rotate the bird every 4 to 6 hours as it brines.
When ready to cook, remove the bird from the brine and wipe off excess brine with paper towels. Allow the bird to dry a bit and come to room temperature before cooking.
At this point, the bird can be roasted or grilled. Be careful about over-salting the skin because the brine has imparted salt into the meat already so be sparing when seasoning.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends cooking poultry to an internal temp of over 165 F.