Turkey breast has a bad reputation for being dry and tasteless, but this recipe keeps it moist and flavorful with an apple and sage brine and a gentle, sweet cherry wood smoke. The crispy, amber-colored skin makes it worthy of your holiday table centerpiece.
Growing up our family of six overwhelmingly loved breast meat and we ate turkey year-round. I remember my father carving the holiday turkey, dutifully asking everyone, “white or dark meat?” Operating on the ignorance of my young palate and since it looked like the inside of a chicken nugget, I responded, “white meat.”
I got the turkey breast while the dark meat (the thighs and legs) went to Dad.
Fast forward a few years, I know why Dad loved the flavorful dark meat of turkey thighs, but I’ve also learned how to make the white meat of the turkey breast compete on flavor and texture. It’s all about how you approach it.
I soak the turkey breasts in a brine of apple juice, salt, water, and sage then cook it with cherry wood. The turkey breasts not only retain moisture, but the brine imparts a robust sweetness to the meat. It's the perfect holiday centerpiece or special dinner no matter the time of year!
All About Turkey Breast
The first step is to choose the right type of turkey breast. I like a fresh free-range turkey breast that weighs 8 to 10 pounds. A whole breast includes the breast meat, skin, and bone. For a smaller occasion, consider a half breast.
If you figure 1 pound of turkey per person, this size provides plenty for a large group plus leftovers. With turkey, leftovers are state law.
How to Thaw Frozen Turkey Breasts
The words “frozen turkey” should immediately trigger a planning response, as turkey must be thawed before it can be cooked. The easiest way to thaw a turkey breast is to keep in its original wrapper and place it in the refrigerator on a wire rack over a rimmed sheet pan.
The USDA suggested 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey. For our 8- to 10-pound turkey breast, this works out to just under three days.
If pressed for time, the frozen turkey breast can be submerged in water. I like to keep a slow stream of water running over it in the sink and then change the water out every hour. If you are not running water over the frozen turkey, change the water every 30 minutes. This method reduces thawing time to just 4 1/2 hours.
No matter your process, just be sure to follow health guidelines and do it safely.
While I prefer a free-range turkey over an enhanced commercial variety, I go with what I can get and the brine still adds a flavor boost worth its time.
Turkey breast is lean and has the potential to dry out as it cooks. This is preventable by cooking it to the proper internal temperature of 165º F and by brining it.
Wet or dry, a brine is a must. A wet brine is a two-step process: brining with a solution of 2 quarts of water to 1 cup of salt followed by a 24 hour rest.
After 24 hours in the brine, leave the turkey breast uncovered on a wire rack set over a baking sheet in the refrigerator overnight. This helps the salt in the breast meat reach equilibrium. In other words, the salt is equally dispersed throughout the meat resulting in uniform seasoning. Also, the skin will dry out, which is critical for getting crisp skin as it cooks.
A dry brine, also called curing, is the application of salt to turkey. Over time, the salt draws out moisture in turn allowing the turkey to take on even more moisture while cooking.
While an overnight salting does wonders, I opted for a wet brine to introduce more flavor. A dry brine only affects moisture, while a wet brine carries its aromatics and flavors into the meat.
What About the Smoke?
Even with the perfect turkey breast and the brine, this turkey breast stands out because it’s smoked. Smoking is twofold: a lower cook temperature and the addition of smoldering wood.
Gently smoking the meat provides a sweet flavor and paints the skin into a beautiful mahogany color. If dinner was art, this turkey breast is the model.
Tips for Using a Smoker and Setting Up Your Grill
Whether it is a kamado grill, water pan smoker, or pellet grill, a dedicated smoker is the easiest way to smoke a turkey breast. With that said, since turkey breast are small, any grill can be used to smoke it. For this recipe, I used a charcoal kettle, but I could have used a gas grill.
Regardless of your smoker or grill of choice, be sure to follow these tips:
- Use indirect heat instead of direct heat. In other words, the turkey should not be placed right above the heat source. On a charcoal grill, the hot coals are pushed to one side and the turkey is placed over the opposite side. On a gas grill, the turkey sits over the burner that is turned off.
- Use lower heat. For this recipe, smoke the turkey in a smoker or grill set between 275ºF and 325º F. The turkey breasts stay delightfully moist when cooked low and slow.
- Keep an eye on the skin. Starting at just 15 minutes in, check the skin. If it starts to blacken, tent it with foil to keep it from burning. Unlike a dedicated smoker, a charcoal or gas grill’s radiant heat is closer to the meat and can quickly burn the skin. By the end of the cook, my turkey breasts are almost always completely covered with foil.
The Best Wood for Smoking
There is a wide variety of woods for smoking. When smoking anything its important to remember that smoke should always be a background note and not the main flavor.
For this recipe, I opted for cherry wood. It’s a sweet variety of wood without being overpowering. Close substitutes are apple wood or pecan wood. Steer clear of mesquite or hickory. For poultry, I find they tend to overpower the meat.
Wood Chunks vs. Wood Chips
On a charcoal grill, I use wood chunks, added directly to the coals. On a gas grill, I use wood chips either in a dedicated smoking box or a DIY aluminum foil pouch.
For the DIY pouch, tear off about 12 inches of heavy-aluminum foil. Add a handful of wood chips to the center. Fold the pouch over and crimp the edges. Then, with a fork, pierce holes through the top of the foil over the chips.
For both the wood chunks and wood chips, skip the water soak and get right to smoldering.
Side Dishes to Enjoy with Smoked Turkey Breast
Smoked Turkey Breast
I use 1 cup of Morton’s Kosher Salt, but since salt granules vary in size from brand to brand, weigh the salt—you’ll need 225 grams of kosher salt for 1 gallon of liquid. This recipe calls for 2 quarts of apple juice and 2 quarts of water, which equal 1 gallon total.
For this recipe, I use cherry wood to create smoke. If you’re using a gas grill, you will need a handful of cherry wood chips. If you’re using a charcoal grill or smoker, you will need 3 cherry wood chunks.
For the brine
2 quarts apple juice
1 cup (225g) kosher salt
1/2 cup (125g) brown sugar
1 head garlic, cut in half crosswise
1 tablespoon dried sage
3 dried bay leaves
2 quarts water, cold
For the turkey
1 (8- to 10-pound) free-range turkey breast, thawed
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Prepare the brine:
In a large pot, add the apple juice, salt, brown sugar, garlic, sage, and bay leaves. Bring it up to a boil over high heat. Once the salt has dissolved remove the pot from the heat and add the water.
Bring the brine to room temperature on your kitchen counter and then chill it in the refrigerator until cold, at least 3 to 4 hours.
Brine the turkey breast:
Once chilled, add the turkey to the chilled brine. This can be done directly in the same large pot or in a separate large container. Use a plate or bowl to weigh the turkey breast down so that it stays fully submerged. Refrigerate it for 24 hours.
Dry the turkey breast:
Remove the turkey from the brine and place it on a wire rack set over a baking sheet. With a paper towel, remove any residual salt and brine ingredients from the turkey. Discard the brine.
Place the turkey in the refrigerator uncovered for 24 hours. This will help the skin to dry out and crisp when smoked.
Oil the turkey breast:
Remove the turkey from the refrigerator. The skin might look taught. It's OK. Drizzle oil over the turkey can brush it over the surface or rub it in with your fingers.
Prepare the grill or smoker:
Prepare the grill or smoker for indirect medium-low heat, 275ºF to 325º F.
For a gas grill: Use one or two burners to heat it. Keep at least one burner off—you will set the turkey breast on the side with the unlit burners.
For a charcoal grill: Add half a chimney of unlit coals to one side of the grill and half a chimney of lit coals on top of it. This allows the coals to maintain a low temperature for a longer period.
Add the wood for smoking:
If you’re using a gas grill use wood chips either in a dedicated smoking box or a DIY aluminum foil pouch.
To make the aluminum pouch: Tear off about 12 inches of heavy-aluminum foil. Add a handful of chips to the center. Fold the pouch over and crimp the edges. Then, with a fork, pierce holes through just the top of the foil over the chips. Place the foil pouch right on the lit burners.
Once the charcoal grill comes to temperature, place three cherry wood chunks directly on the coals.
Smoke the turkey breast:
Place the turkey breast over indirect medium-low heat.
On a gas grill, this will be where the burners are turned off.
On a charcoal grill, it’s the area without any lit coals beneath it.
Once the turkey breast is placed on the grill, close the lid.
Check the breast:
After 15 minutes, and every 30 minutes thereafter, check the turkey breast and tent with foil if the skin starts to turn too dark.
If using, insert a wireless temperature probe into the center of the breast meat to keep an eye on the temperature.
When done, the turkey will be a dark amber from the smoke. Smoke the turkey breast until the internal temperature reads 165º F with an instant-read thermometer, 2 to 2 1/2 hours.
Rest the turkey breast:
Transfer the turkey breast onto a platter and loosely tent it with aluminum foil. Allow it to rest for 15 to 20 minutes before serving.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 11g||14%|
|Saturated Fat 3g||15%|
|Total Carbohydrate 8g||3%|
|Dietary Fiber 0g||1%|
|Total Sugars 6g|
|Vitamin C 13mg||66%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|