Kevin Bludso has cooked his fair share of big birds. He’s the chef behind LA’s famous Bludso’s BBQ. His cookbook is Bludso’s BBQ Cookbook: A Family Affair in Smoke and Soul. Now, he weighs in on how to make the best turkey for Thanksgiving.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
KCRW: Which style did you grow up with: roasted, smoked, or fried?
Kevin Bludso: We did them all. Fried turkeys took off in the 90s all over, but my granny was frying turkeys in a big, old cast iron witch's brew pot, like she used to fry our fish with, way back in the day. So I was turned on to it a long time ago, but we did fried, smoked, and roasted turkey.
For smaller gatherings at Thanksgiving, you recommend smoking a turkey breast. How long do they need in the smoker?
You can smoke an eight-pound turkey breast in an hour and a half to two hours. They don't take long, and they're not that hard to smoke. You can do a quick injection with some butter, and make something incredible. I always say, ‘learn your pit,’ and a turkey breast has hardly any fat, it's very lean, so it's going to cook pretty quick.
Do you get boneless? Or do you prefer a bone-in breast?
I prefer bone-in. I always think bone-in for everything is just the best flavor to me.
Do you brine purely through injection these days?
It depends. If I’m just cooking, and say, if Evan invited me over and said to bring a turkey, I would put yours in a submerge brine. Because I would have the time to do it. But we do so many and we don't have the space to brine them all. So we mostly do injection brines. What I tell people is to make sure you know what you get, even in a chicken breast. A lot of them have already been brined and injected. If you see it's already been injected with a 6% solution, then it's already been brined with some moistness. All you gotta do is maybe come back with some unsalted butter or something like that, just to make sure that breast turkey is gonna be juicy. But it's such an easy quick injection with a regular injector from the supermarket. You can inject with some unsalted butter, maybe just a little chicken base, and inject that thing about two or three times. Put that thing on the smoker and you'll be the star of Thanksgiving in your house.
What about if we want to try smoking a whole turkey? What should we look for when we're selecting the bird?
I always say stay around 15 pounds. The bigger the bird, the older the bird, the longer to cook, the more chances for mistakes. Stay around a 15 pounder and your breast is going to cook a little quicker than your legs and thighs. Make sure if it's your first time you use your temperature gauges – I usually try to cook to about 165 degrees in the leg quarters, and maybe I'll go about 160 degrees in the breast. Until you learn how to do it by sight, get you some temperature gauges, monitor that baby, and let it go. And like I said, if you know your smoker, you work that smoker just like an oven and you can pull a perfect bird out. Between 14 to 16 pounders are the best ones to smoke.
Do you keep the bird whole? Do you like to spatchcock it? Do you cook the thighs and legs separate from the breast?
I'm still traditional. So I still like that Thanksgiving turkey sitting there, whole on the table. Some people like spatchcocking; it does cook quicker. And you can get a little bit more smoke into the cavity. But I get just as much smoke just keeping it upright and intact. And like I said, I just like a pretty bird and on Thanksgiving, especially if you’re having that big dinner, you don't want to see no bird spread all out, spread eagle on the table. You want their baby sitting upright. That's the star of the show.
A lot of people talk about bringing our meats to room temperature before we start cooking them. Oftentimes we'll get turkeys and they're almost frozen, even if we've gotten them fresh. Do we need to let them sit for a while out of the refrigerator?
If it's frozen, of course you have to make sure it's fully thawed out. But some people swear that you have to bring it up to room temperature. I mean, I've had to cook turkeys fresh out to pack and it's no different. So what I always say is when you’re reheating the turkey, that's where you’ve got to be careful, especially if you had one that you pre-bought. Or if you smoked one, and when you're reheating it, you’ve got to be careful. You don't need to cook the thing again. You just need to bring it up to temperature and get it lukewarm, not overly hot. If you're warming it at about 200 degrees for about 45 minutes, you want to get it to the point where it's warm. A lot of people put it back in the oven at 350 and you’re cooking it again.
What equipment do we need to fry a turkey?
You need an outdoor fryer. You need a fire extinguisher. It’s just like when people say, ‘I can't make grits’ and I say, ‘read the box.’ If you read the box, you can make grits. I don't know how to light charcoal. ‘Read the bag,’ like a guy told me the other day and it's great. I've been barbecuing forever and I never read the bag, and it teaches you right there how to do the charcoal. So if you read and follow the directions on the turkey fry instead, and people don't want to get sued, it's telling you exactly what to do.
The reason people make mistakes is because they are not temping the turkey and they let the grease get too hot, or they let the grease get too cold. They say to fry it at 350 degrees, but I always say maybe about 365 - 370 degrees. You want to cook it at 350 degrees, but when you drop it in there the temperature is going to come down because you are dropping in that room-temperature turkey and so that grease is going to come down. That's when you have to monitor your fry to make sure you're standing at 350 degrees.
And there's no time frame. For example, a 15-pound turkey is going to take anywhere between 35 and 45 minutes, but after that after about 35 minutes that's when you start temping. I like to temp right between the leg, the thickest part of the thigh. If you temp and it’s coming out 165-170 degrees, that birdie is done. That is something you can do excellent the first time you do it
How do you know how much fat to have in that pot before you lower the turkey, and because of the displacement?
Make sure when you get that turkey, and it's still in the pack, fill it up to the water line (there’s usually one in the fryer) and drop that turkey (still in the wrapper) in the fryer so you can see where your water line is. Most of the turkey fryers come with water lines marked for 10 to 12 pound turkey and a 14 to 16 pounder.
What kind of oil do you prefer?
I love peanut oil because it has such a high-burn content.
Whether you're roasting, smoking, or frying, do you always like to throw a couple extra necks in there?
Oh yeah. I need the necks for my giblet gravy. Plus, when your smoking the necks and the butt, the butt is the first thing I taste off the turkey – the turkey tail because that lets you know how your smoke is doing, especially when you’re smoking and frying, that lets you know the flavor. The tail is your tester. You pull that tail off most of the time anyway, but keep that tail on why you’re smoking because that's what you’re picking on while you're cooking. So make sure you keep that on and season it, because more than likely, that's what your turkey is gonna taste like.
Cooking Equipment: Kitchen twine (optional), outdoor turkey fryer, small saucepan, meat injector, deep-frying thermometer, instant-read thermometer
This is one that my granny used to do in her big old witches’ brew pot. Fried turkeys started getting popular in the mid-1990s, but we’ve been doing them forever.
Fried turkey is all about the injection. We used to eat fried, roasted, and smoked turkeys on holidays, since everybody has a different preference. I don’t know which one is my favorite, but if I had to pick, I’d probably say it’s fried.
It’s important to get your timing right. If you’re eating at six o’clock, you don’t want to drop your turkey until five. Otherwise, it will get all soggy and that butter will be leaking out before you cut it. This should be the last thing you cook on Thanksgiving.
If you’ve never fried a turkey before, please test it out before you do it for Thanksgiving.
- One 14-to 16-pound turkey
- 2 cups water
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped yellow onion
- 1 1⁄2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
- 2 tablespoons chicken bouillon powder
- 1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon Creole seasoning
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- Creole seasoning for seasoning
- Ground black pepper
- Peanut oil for deep-frying
- Choosing and Prepping a Turkey and Your Fryer: Look for a fresh turkey that has some nice skin on it and isn’t too beat up. Make sure you remove any neck bones or giblets from the body cavity (they can be reserved for Thanksgiving Broth, page 239). Keep the little high-heat plastic fastener, if it has one, attached to the legs. If it doesn’t have that little fastener, trussing the legs together with kitchen twine will make for a much better-looking turkey, but you can skip this step.
- If you are not familiar with your outdoor turkey fryer setup, please be extra careful and follow all the safety guidelines. Some fryers will have a fill-to line for oil based on the weight of the turkey. But the safest way to know how much oil you need is to put the raw turkey in the pot (I do it while it’s still in the packaging) and then add water to the pot to cover the turkey by about 2 inches. You should have several inches of space between the water line and the rim of the pot. If you don’t, the pot is not big enough. Remove the turkey from the pot and mark the water line with a piece of tape. Make sure to dry the pot completely before adding the oil.
- Seasoning Your Turkey: To make the butter mixture: In a small saucepan over medium-low heat; combine the water, onion, garlic, and bouillon powder; bring just to a simmer; and let barely simmer for about 15 minutes. Remove from heat; add the butter, Creole seasoning, and cayenne; and let stand until the butter melts fully. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into any tall, narrow container (so it’s easier to fill the injector) and let cool to room temperature. Be careful not to let it sit so long it stiffens up.
When you’re ready to inject, dry off the turkey with a paper or kitchen towel. Then fill the injector with some of the butter mixture and inject the turkey, using a 1-ounce injection each time. First, inject one half breast three times, trying to inject in three different areas of the breast but always working from the same hole (so you don’t keep breaking open different parts of the skin). Pushing the needle through the center of the breast for each injection, angle the needle toward a different area of the breast each time, so you’re injecting the right side, then the left side, and then the middle. Go toward the back of each area with the needle, continuing to inject as you pull the needle slowly out of the breast. After injecting both breast halves, inject 1 ounce of the mixture into each thigh and each drumstick.
- Next, season the turkey very liberally with Creole seasoning and black pepper. Tuck the wings behind the bird. Set aside at room temperature for at least 1 hour or in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours before cooking.
- Frying Your Turkey: Before you begin frying, be sure your outdoor fryer is set up in a safe location away from anything flammable. Then clip a deep-frying thermometer securely to the side of the pot, fill the pot with peanut oil to the marked line, remove the tape, and begin heating the oil.
- When the oil reaches 350°F, following the instructions of your fryer and rig, gently lower the turkey into the oil. The oil temperature will drop right away, but keep an eye on it, controlling it so that it goes back up to 350°F and then maintaining that temperature.
- Fry the turkey until it is golden brown and fully cooked through, 30 to 45 minutes. To test for doneness, lift the turkey from the oil and insert an instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh and the breast. It should read 165°F in the thigh and 150°F in the breast. Once the turkey is cooked, let it rest for 10 minutes before carving.
- Carving Your Turkey: Using a sharp knife, separate the leg quarters from the breast and then cut down between the drumsticks and thighs (the drumstick is a trophy and ready to serve), separating them into individual pieces. Separate the thigh meat from the bone and then cut it into slices, discarding the bone. Next, slice the turkey breast from the side, cutting into thin serving slices. Alternately, you can remove the breast halves from the breast bones and slice them crosswise. Leftover turkey will keep, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for up to 6 days
Temperature: 240° to 250°F
Rough Cook Time: 5 to 7 hours (This really depends on the size of the bird.)
Cooking Equipment: Kitchen twine (optional), small saucepan, meat injector, smoker, spray bottle, instant-read thermometer
“If you worked that smoker just like you do an oven, you’ll pull a perfect bird out,” says Bludso, who recommends using a 15 pound turkey. Photo by Eric Wolfinger.
The history of this recipe for my family is going over to my Unc’s in Watts when I was growing up; that smell of turkey coming off the pit, really gets me. Then Granny would always tell me, “You want the pit cleaned out and the wood all loaded the night before so you can hit the ground running in the morning.”
People think smoking turkey is hard, but it’s not. Some people like their poultry smoked fast, and you can do that on poultry and it’ll work, but I still like mine low and slow. I like a deep, hickory smoke—I want the bone on my turkey to be smoked. I’ve had people try my turkey and say, “Oh wait, I don’t eat pork,” and that’s the truth.
Turkey is the only meat that we inject in this book. That’s because it’s so big and has so little fat. I like to use a mixture of melted butter, water, and chicken bouillon powder.
- One 14-to 16-pound turkey
- 1 cup salted butter
- 1 cup water
- 1 tablespoon chicken bouillon powder, or as needed
- Garlic salt
- Ground black pepper
- Apple juice for spraying
- 4 tablespoons salted butter, melted
- Wood: Hickory, pecan, and apple
- Choosing and Prepping a Turkey: Look for a fresh turkey that has some nice skin on it and isn’t too beat up. Make sure you remove any neck bones or giblets from the body cavity (they can be reserved for Thanksgiving Broth, page 239). Keep the little high-heat plastic fastener, if it has one, attached to the legs. If it doesn’t have that little fastener, trussing the legs together with kitchen twine will make for a much better-looking turkey, but you can skip this step.
- Seasoning Your Turkey: To make the butter mixture: In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the butter, water, and bouillon powder and warm just until the butter has melted. Remove from the heat, taste for seasoning, and adjust with additional bouillon powder, if needed. Transfer to a tall, narrow container (so it’s easier to fill the injector) and let cool to room temperature. Be careful not to let it sit so long it stiffens up. (This is probably more than you will need, but I like to make a big batch just in case it spills out during the injecting.)
- When you’re ready to inject, dry off the turkey with a paper or kitchen towel. Then fill the injector with some of the butter mixture and inject the turkey, using a 1-ounce injection each time. First, inject one half breast three times, trying to inject in three different areas of the breast but always working from the same hole (so you don’t keep breaking open different parts of the skin). Pushing the needle through the center of the breast for each injection, angle the needle toward a different area of the breast each time, so you’re injecting the right side, then the left side, and then the middle. Go toward the back of each area with the needle, continuing to inject as you pull the needle slowly out of the breast. After injecting both breast halves, inject 1 ounce of the mixture into each thigh.
- Next, season the turkey very liberally with garlic salt and pepper. Tuck the wings behind the bird. Set aside at room temperature for at least 1 hour or in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours before cooking.
- Smoking Your Turkey: Follow the instructions in How to Light Your Pit (page 39), aiming for a temperature of 250°F. When the charcoal is ready, start with about 70 percent hickory and 30 percent pecan. Let the wood burn off for 5 to 10 minutes.
- Now load the turkey, breast-side up onto the rack in your pit and then keep an eye on the temperature. Every time the temperature drops to 240°F, add a little more wood and charcoal.
- After 2 hours, open the pit and spray the turkey with apple juice. After 3 hours, add a small applewood chunk to the firebox. From then on, it’s pecan and charcoal the rest of the way. Continue smoking, spraying with apple juice every time you open the pit to check the turkey or the wood. At 4 hours, check the internal temperature of the thigh with an instant-read thermometer. (The thigh is cooked at 165°F and the breast is cooked at 150°F.) Continue smoking, being careful not to overcook the turkey and dry it out.
- Once the turkey is cooked, baste it with the melted butter just before it comes out of the pit and then let rest for at least 30 minutes, though 1 hour is ideal, before carving.
- Carving Your Turkey: Using a sharp knife, separate the leg quarters from the breast and then cut down between the drumsticks and thighs (the drumstick is a trophy and ready to serve), separating them into individual pieces. Separate the thigh meat from the bone and then cut it into slices, discarding the bone. Next, slice the turkey breast from the side, cutting into thin serving slices. Alternately, you can remove the breast halves from the breast bones and slice them crosswise. Leftover turkey will keep, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for up to 6 days.