Tue Nov 26, 2013
It's been a goal of mine for quite some time to get the family to switch from turkey to ham for Thanksgiving—why settle for an inferior meat? For a holiday whose centerpiece is that iconic piece of poultry, this is a hard pill to swallow. Add to that the fact that the people I'm attempting to convince this is a good idea are Jewish (albeit Jews who no longer keep kosher), the prospect gets even harder. So it's with great pride that I announce that 2013, only 34 years after my birth, that the Bousel family will have a sweet city ham adorning the festive table for the first time ever. It was a full on sale to my mom and sister, but wasn't as enthusiastically received by my dad and stepmother. So I relented, that ham will get some company in the way of turkey, but with no need to cook an entire bird, I'm looking at the best ways to scale this down, and these herb-rubbed turkey breasts would do quite well.
My problem with turkey actually lays mostly with the breasts. You spend so much time and effort making sure those fatless and flavorless pieces of meat come out perfect, and more often than not, they still disappoint. That makes me a solid dark meat man, but I know I'm in the minority there, so I challenged myself to make some incredibly tasty turkey breasts that even I'd have to admit are pretty awesome.
For me, this is almost always going to start with a brine to ensure the meat will be as moist as possible. Wet brining is starting to lose favor to dry salt brining due to the fact that they both produce comparable results, but the water-based version over saturates the meat with liquid, lessoning its natural flavor. That wasn't a huge concern for me here because my plan was to add a ton of flavor in the way of a compound butter, plus I've always been happy with my normal brine routine, so I stuck with it and let these breasts sit in a salty solution for twelve hours.
Talking about flavor, this butter is where it's at. I whipped up a compound butter that was loaded with some great compliments to the delicate turkey. A plethora of fresh herbs—oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, and marjoram—garlic, lemon zest, Dijon mustard, red pepper, black pepper, and salt where combined with six tablespoons of unsalted butter to make one powerful flavor enhancer.
Out of the brine, the compound butter was spread evenly underneath the skin of each breast. This ensured that the flavor would stay on the turkey and the butter would do its magic as it heated and seeped into the meat, giving it a great richness. Whatever butter was leftover was rubbed on top of the chicken skin.
Then I set up the grill for the cook. I went with a three-zone fire here, with two even piles of hot coals on either side of the charcoal grate and a foil pan filled with water set in the middle. The water pan is important here—it helps regulate temperature so it's consistent and runs a little lower than normal. It also creates a moisture as the water evaporates, which is an aid from keeping larger meats that require long cooks from drying out too fast.
As an added bonus, I threw one chunk of apple wood on the coals. I figured a light smokiness would only up my turkey game, adding more flavor into that ho-hum breast meat.
The butter-laden turkey was set on the grilling grate directly above the water pan, covered, and let cook until it reached about 160 degrees in the thickest part of the breasts. This took around an hour and half running around the 325 degree mark, and didn't require me to refuel during the cook.
One thing that did help was having an extension ring for my grill. I used my rotisserie ring to add extra height to the grill, making those large breasts easily fit. They would have fit without the ring, but the top of the meat would have been very close to the lid, and since heat rises, the temperature up there is actually hotter than down by the grate, which would have led to some unevenness in cooking.
OK, so I'll have to admit that these turkey breasts were pretty fantastic. The meat was incredibly moist with a light smokiness, and the compound butter filled each bite with a diverse herbal mix that made it interesting in the best sense possible.
So am I a white meat convert now? Well, I'm not ready to release my death grip on legs and thighs, but I can at least say turkey breasts done in this fashion are worth defending and I'd welcome them on my Thanksgiving table, even if they still wouldn't live up to the ham sitting next to them.
Grill-Roasted Herb-rubbed Turkey Breasts
- Prep Time:
- 20 Minutes
- Inactive Time:
- 8 Hours
- Cook Time:
- 1 Hour 30 Minutes
- Total Time:
- 9 Hours 50 Minutes
- 8 servings
- For the Brine
- 3 quarts ice cold water
- 2/3 cup Kosher salt
- 1/3 cup white sugar
- 1 whole turkey breasts, about 6 to 7 pounds
- For the Herb Butter
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- 2 teaspoons finely minced garlic (about 2 medium cloves)
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh oregano
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh sage
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh marjoram
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon zest from 1 lemon
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 medium chunk of apple wood or other light smoking wood
- 1 disposable foil tray
- To make the brine: Whisk together water, salt, and sugar in a large container until salt and sugar are dissolved. Submerge turkey breasts in brine. Place container in refrigerator and brine for 8 to 12 hours.
- To make the herb butter: Right before removing turkey from brine, stir together butter, garlic, oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, marjoram, mustard, salt, pepper, lemon zest, and crushed red pepper in a small bowl.
- Remove turkey from brine and pat dry with paper towels inside and out. Using fingers, gently separate skin from meat underneath breasts. Spread 1/3 of herb butter under each breast. Spread remaining 1/3 of herb butter all over outside of breasts.
- Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange the coals on either side of the charcoal grate and place a foil pan between the two piles of coals. Place wood chunk on one pile of coals. Cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Place turkey breasts on grill grate situated over foil pan, cover, positioning top air vent opposite of wood chunk. Cook until an instant read thermometer registers 160 degrees in the thickest part of the breast, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Remove turkey from grill and allow to rest, uncovered, for 20 to 30 minutes. Remove breasts from bone, slice, and serve.