Thursday, November 20, 2014

Taste of Atlanta - Big Green Egg Turkey Demo and Turkey Grilling Tips

Last month I had the privilege of helping my good friend and colleague, Clint Cantwell, do a turkey cooking demonstration for Big Green Egg at the 13th annual Taste of Atlanta.  This lively culinary event features more than 90 restaurants, over 300 dishes, and tens of thousands of people.  It also boasted 4 live cooking stages and one of those was entirely dedicated to Big Green Egg cooking demos like the one we did for Grilled Turkey with Citrus Herb Salt and Sage Butter and Smoked Butternut Squash and Maple Bacon Soup.

spatchcock turkey, Big Green Egg turkey,
The beautiful bird that I cooked at the Big Green Egg corporate headquarters.

The event started off Friday night with a big kick off party full of entertainment, fun, music, and of course - food.  The theme was Culinary Matrimony where select chefs prepared their unique combination of ingredient pairs that while a bit unconventional - worked together.

Some of the chef's tasting stations were in individual booths on the edges of the park...

Some were under the "big top" along with other fun stuff.

Electric Avenue played the best of the 80's hits, it felt like 1985 all over again.

Chef EJ Hodgkinson's team made Grilled Chicken with Alabama White Sauce and Collard Green Salsa Verde.
 Some of the other dishes included bold offerings, such as;

Trio of Oyster Shooters and Champagne
Pulled pork, homemade pimento cheese, and Granny Smith Apple Slaw
Smoked Chicken Sausage with Hot and Sour Green Tomatoes
Venison Meatballs with Chipotle Cranberry BBQ Sauce
Twice Baked Potato with Lobster, Grained Mustard, and Saffron Aioli

Of course there were some ingredient pairings that evening that made Clint give the "wonk eye".

The entertainment included gaming's all legal for charity.

I absolutely loved this serving set up for Jim and Nick's BBQs pulled pork nachos.  I fully plan to use this idea at some point in the future.  

The Big Green Egg crew was at the kick off party serving the crowd some great food off of the Ultimate Cooking Experience.

Celebrity Chef and BGE Spokesperson, Linkie Marais, was cooking for the crowds.  She took a quick second for this BGE selfie.  

For me, one of the personal highlights was cooking our turkey at the Big Green Egg Corporate Headquarters and Retail Store.  You know how in the cooking shows they already have a finished version of the recipe ready 2 minutes after putting it in the oven?  We needed one of those but all the Eggs at the event were in use.  To have a turkey ready for the cooking demo, we ran over to the store to cook that.  Store Manager, Terry McMillan and his crew could not have been more friendly and helpful.  Every single worker I spoke with told me that this was the best job ever.  

Terry greets the first customers of the day.

A full nest of Big Green Eggs...

The BGE Retail Store has more accessories and gear than I have ever seen in once location.  Clint joked that it looked like my living room.

Clint prepping for his fire roasted butternut squash soup. 

fall vegetables, Big Green Egg veggies
We roasted the butternut squash with butter and sage until tender and then pureed it for the soup.

It was a crazy morning prepping - in the middle over everything, Clint had to run over to the Weather Channel studios to do a live spot on TV.  [Photo credit:  Blatantly stolen from Clint's Facebook page]

spatchcock turkey, Big Green Egg turkey,
That left me to cook the turkey.  If I messed this up - no cooked turkey for the demo.  Nah - no pressure or anything....

spatchcock turkey, Big Green Egg turkey,
No problems at all, it turned out perfectly!
Not all of the weekend's cooking occurred at the Big Green Egg store or demo stage.  Some of the prep actually took place in the hotel room.

Clint finishing up prep for the roasted cauliflower.

Pro Tip:  Your hotel room closet doubles as a drying rack after you wash dishes in your shower.
My favorite cooking experience I think was Sunday morning cooking bacon on a Big Green Egg in the middle of Downtown Atlanta.....

On mostly deserted streets - It reminded me of a scene from The Walking Dead!

When we got all of our prep done and arrived back at the event to do our demo I was stunned, startled, and surprised at the sea of people.  

We briefly got to check out what some of the restaurants were serving.

Jim and Nick's BBQ had this cooker front in center.  You want something like this visible to draw in the crowds and they had a line the whole weekend.  You want to tantalize the crowds into thinking this is where we need to be.

Linkie did a fantastic demo set.  I took mental notes watching her delivery and how she engaged the crowd.  This weekend was definitely a learning experience for me.

Bruce from Big Green Egg and the culinary students from Le Cordon Bleu fed the steady crowds with delicious food cooked on a battery of Big Green Eggs. 
The Eggs attracted a bunch of attention throughout the event.

Good luck selfie just before we started the demo. 

Clint Cantwell
Clint talking turkey with the crowd.

Clint is a bit of a ham and couldn't resist playing to the camera a bit.

Chef and The Fatman were the emcee's and they did a spectacular job keeping the crowds engaged.  I have seen them live a few times and they are a lot of fun.  Check out their live radio cooking show on Sundays online.  

Clint finished the demo by serving up samples that disappeared quickly.  People were even asking for the last scraps.

Chef and The Fatman Radio Show
The seal of approval from Kevin - aka "The Fatman".  
We got through the weekend's cooking demos and before I knew it I was on the road back to Knoxville.  Like most cooking demos it was prep, prep, prep, prep some more, BLUR, it's over.  I had a complete blast.

Turkey Grilling Tips
Farmed turkey by itself is a very mild taste and it benefits from layers of flavors which is why I prefer to fire roast mine on the grill.  Sure it saves the oven for cooking other dishes but cooking the bird on the grill imparts that subtle smokiness that pairs well with a lot of the flavor profiles used with turkey.  The lean, rarely exercised muscles of turkey work best with dry heat cooking methods like grilling and roasting.  Personally, I prefer not to smoke a turkey at 250°F because the skin can be rubbery.  I like to "smoke/roast" the turkey by smoking it at a higher temperature.

Choosing the Right Turkey
Fresh is the best option and if you are able to go that route, look for a turkey with no broken bones or obvious bruising and has skin that is free of tears and blemishes.  Technically, "fresh" turkey means it has been kept above 26°F so it could be below freezing at 32°F [USDA]. 

But fresh or frozen, the majority of turkeys sold in grocery stores come in plastic packaging that keeps you from visually checking it out.  In those cases, you can only choose based on size and what the label tells you.  I prefer one that has the least amount of "solution added for enhanced tenderness".  As far as size, I find that 12-14 pound turkeys cook the best for me.  I avoid those 20+ pound monsters and if I need that much I'd rather cook two smaller birds.  To figure out how much turkey you need, check out Butterball's Perfect Plan Portions Calculator - it lets you choose a variety of factors to figure out exactly what you need.

Thawing the Turkey
If your turkey has gone below 26°F then it is going to take some time to thaw.  The safest way is keeping it refrigerated just below 40°F for 2-3 days. I'm not that patient and don't have that kind of room in my refrigerator.  I use the cooler method by placing the packaged bird in a cooler of water and changing out the water about once an hour. I usually do this for 5 or 6 hours the night before, then dry it off and keep it in the fridge overnight. 

Turkey Preparation
Farm raised turkeys do not get the exercise that free range or wild turkeys do, so their meat is often pale due to lack of myoglobin and mild to approaching bland in flavor.  That's why you should take a few steps to add flavor and moisture in your bird.
  • Marinades - this adds flavor but really only affects the surface of the meat.  It doesn't penetrate down into most of what you will be eating so I would only use this for smaller cuts of turkey such as individual breasts, roasts, or tenderloins.
  • Wet Brine - I would say this is the most popular method. The salt alters the protein structure and enables it to retain more moisture and absorb flavors from the brine. As an added benefit, brined meats cook faster than non-brined ones. Don't be tempted to combine brining with thawing - it won't work that way.  Thaw first and then brine.  Try my Orange and Bourbon Brined Turkey if you want a specific recipe.  But in general:
    • Use 2 tablespoons of kosher salt (30 grams by weight for other types of salt) per quart of water.  Use an equal or lesser amount of sugar.  If you are adding seasonings that aren't water soluble, you will need to heat the brine first and then cool it back down to 40°F.
    • Increase concentration - decrease duration.  You can shorten the brine time by half by increasing the concentration of salt to up to 5 tablespoons per quart. 
    • Because wet skin won't brown evenly add enough time into the process so you can air dry the bird in the fridge for 4-6 hours before cooking
    • Keep the brine at 40°F or below.
  • Dry Brine - This works like a wet brine only without the water.  You coat the turkey with a heavy dusting of a salt based rub and let it sit in the fridge for 24 hours before cooking.  The salt will draw out moisture from the turkey.  This sounds bad, right?  If you took the turkey out 4 hours into the process it would be dry and salty when cooked.  But as time goes on, the moisture mixes with the seasonings and this flavored nectar is drawn back into the meat.  The dry brine used for Dry Brined Beer Can Chicken is a good one to use for turkey, just double the amounts.
  • Injections - This is my personal favorite because it doesn't have the long wait times of brines and it gets the flavor deep into the meat.  Use light colored injections to avoid leaving discolorations in the meat.  I inject more than half of the injection into the breast area and the rest for thighs and legs. 
    • My favorite poultry injection base is equal parts of unsalted butter, honey, and stock or white wine.  Then add other flavorings, such as; a sprig or two of fresh herbs, red pepper flakes, citrus zest, roasted garlic, or crushed whole spices.  Heat it all together over medium heat and simmer for 5 minutes.  Cool and then strain before using.  

Whether you are cooking the turkey on a grill, in a smoker, or in your oven, I believe that spatchcocking this THE way to properly cook your turkey so that the breasts are 165°F and the thighs are 175-180°F.  With a whole turkey, the entire bird is absorbing the heat pretty much as one big piece.  But a spatchcocked turkey lays flat with the thighs being a little thinner (about 3-4 inches thick) than the breast area (about 6-7 inches thick), so the thighs will cook a little bit faster and finish at a higher internal temperature than the breast - which is what you want.

To spatchcock a turkey, you simply remove the backbone by cutting along each side of it with a pair of poultry sheers or a large knife. 

Then flip it over and firmly press down on the breast bone, like you are giving the turkey CPR, until the rib bones crack and the turkey flattens out.

Crack it, crack it, crack it like a poultry chiropractor!

Cooking Turkey on a Kamado Grill (Big Green Egg, Grill Dome, Primo, Kamado Joe, Vision, etc)
My set up for cooking a turkey on the kamado grill is to mix in 2-3 small chunks of hickory with the lump and put in the platesetter/heat diffuser for indirect heat.  I put a drip pan on top of that (on a few risers or spacers so it's not in direct contact) and add some stock to the drip pan.  The cooking grate goes on as usual above that.

Preheat the grill to 325-350°F.  I put the spatchcocked turkey skin side up on the grate and cook it until the breasts are 160°F and the thighs are 175°F.  That should take about 12-15 minutes per pound.  A remote probe thermometer is your best friend for monitoring the internal temperature as it cooks.

spatchcock turkey
12 pound turkey on an XL Big Green Egg.

Cooking a Turkey on a Gas Grill
If you have a decent multiple burner gas grill, you can easily cook your turkey on that too.  I just borrow a technique from that kamado grillers use called "raised direct".  You just raise the cooking grate about 3-4 inches to help the bottom not get burned and to get the turkey closer to the reflective heat of the grill lid for browning the skin.  Fancy rig?  Nope, I just used 4 empty tomato paste cans and a resting rack like this.  Then I have the heat on its lowest settings. 

Notice the burners are all on low.

For full details on this, check out my Grilled Apple and Sage Turkey over at Char-Broil Live.

If you have any questions about grilling a turkey on your kamado or gas grill - just ask and I'll try to help.  Have a great Thanksgiving everyone and remember - it's just a bird - don't panic!


  1. And to think, you were the one calling Mom for cooking advice!

  2. This looks like such delicious fun!! Catherine

  3. Great job Chris. Love your "drying rack" in the hotel room. Very clever. Sounds like a fabulous event and the weather cooperated as well.

  4. What an absolute blast that event was. Even the trip to Whole Paychecks and Target!

  5. Your turkey tips in this mega-post will be my bible for our Thanksgiving Dinner.
    For the first time ever, Marilyn is letting me cook the bird! Woot!

  6. Looks like y'all had a blast out there!!

  7. I'm sure the hotel was used to you eggers. GREG

  8. Looks like you had a fine time in Hotlanta. Great tips on turkey cooking and I will put the grilling ones to use this year

  9. I always love that you take the time to upload so many photos to share with us. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family Chris.

  10. Another fun adventure! You have been going to some really cool events lately. The turkey does indeed look perfectly cooked - I love that you spatchcocked it.

  11. Epic post man! I see this becoming a go to Thanksgiving post for years to come!

  12. Great tips for the holiday! So happy you shared the spatchcocking technique. Never done it with a turkey, but it's awesome with chicken.