Award-winning barbecue pitmaster Lee Ann Whippen knows how to cook a Thanksgiving turkey that’s rich, smoky, and flavorful. In this video, we demonstrate her technique for soaking the bird in a tart brine, seasoning it with her father’s famous spice rub, and smoking it, wrapped it in thick-cut applewood bacon. Unless you’ve been to Lee Ann’s in recent years, you’ve never had a Thanksgiving turkey as good as this one. But that’s about to change.
Text and Bacon-Wrapped Smoked Turkey recipe by Lee Ann Whippen
My family barbecues. Always has. My dad grew up on a hog farm in Missouri, so he’s been cooking and eating barbecue since he was little. For the past 16 years, he and I have competed together on the national barbecue circuit. My mom helps out at my restaurant, Wood Chick’s BBQ, in Virginia, and my oldest daughter is a certified barbecue competition judge. It’s just what we do.
I’ve barbecued (aka hardwood-smoked) just about every food you can imagine, but I can clearly remember the first time I barbecued a whole turkey. I had some friends over for a cookout, and everyone was enthralled by the process. Allow me to explain: To get tons of flavor into this otherwise mild-tasting bird, I use a number of techniques that come from my competition cooking.
First, I brine the turkey to season it inside and out. The brine is a mixture of apple cider, brown sugar, honey, salt, spices, and cider vinegar; the vinegar, an unusual addition to a brine, tenderizes the meat and adds a delicious tart flavor that balances the sugar and salt.
Then, I use my dad’s award-winning barbecue spice rub to season the turkey’s cavities. I mix more of the spice rub into softened butter for spreading under the turkey’s skin to add sweet, spicy, and savory notes to the meat. Then the skin gets an oil and honey massage, which helps it brown, before a final rubdown with more of the spice mixture.
The part that always gets people excited comes next: wrapping the entire bird in bacon and smoking it. The bacon not only flavors the turkey but also protects the skin from drying out and becoming leathery on the grill. My favorite woods for smoking poultry (or pork) are apple and hickory—the fruitiness of the apple paired with the slightly stronger hickory smoke really elevates mildly flavored meats. By smoking the bird over a roasting pan, I can collect all of the flavorful drippings and combine them with a homemade turkey broth to make a knockout gravy.
As the bird finishes cooking, I spray it with apple juice every half hour or so. This is a trick I always use when I compete—it adds more flavor to the bird, keeps it moist, and flavors the pan drippings, too. The smoked turkey comes out juicy and flavor-packed, with beautifully burnished skin. It’s a bird fit for a Thanksgiving table, to be sure, but it’s so good you may be tempted to follow my lead and make it for nonholiday parties, too.