Healthy and Flavorful Twist
You’re not coming to Chiles and Smoke to find the healthy foods, however, this delicious, juicy turkey just had to be shared. This smoked turkey pastrami is packed with unique spices, incredibly moist, and the best part: Simple. It’s not cured, and you won’t miss it.
Partnering with the National Turkey Federation, they had asked me to create a seasonal dish for March. My favorite food around this holiday is pastrami, you can clearly see that all over my website. A quick search online and I realized that there isn’t a consistent method for making homemade pastrami using turkey. This is where we roll up the sleeves and start experimenting.
Brined, but not cured
Pastrami (and corned beef) are cured, using a large cut of tough meat such as beef brisket. A brine is created using various spices with the addition of pink salt, specifically used to cure the meat. The most common curing salt is Prague powder #2, which has nitrates is lightly dyed pink as a sign of caution: You don’t want to confuse it with table salt.
Curing the turkey was the first test, which did not yield great results. Using a brine similar to traditional pastrami, it firmed up the turkey causing it to have a tougher texture. The flavors weren’t completely off, but the mouthfeel just didn’t seem right. It was much more of deli-style meat, rather than a hot roast you can slice and enjoy for dinner. The most important factor: it did not taste like turkey anymore.
Dry-Brining is the Solution
Dry-brining is seasoning and resting your food before cooking it. Read the highlights below and you’ll understand more about how it works:
- Crispy skin. Salting the meat ahead of time allows for excess moisture to be pulled off of the outside. You’ll have a better exterior, no rubbery skin.
- More turkey flavor. Removing water from the turkey will intensify the actual turkey-flavor. Using a wet brine tends to waterlog the meat, actually lessening the natural flavor.
- Stress. Curing meat with salts and brine is not always clear. Worry about the ratios? Yeah me too. Skip that for turkey.
- Less space & quicker. You don’t need a large vessel filled with gallons of liquid, taking over your fridge for a week. This process can be done overnight, with the turkey sitting on a wire rack.
- Healthier. Curing the meat is traditional, but really not necessary. Skip the nitrates and cook for flavor.
Pastrami Spice Blend for Turkey
Homemade pastrami recipes are pretty consistent with a few core ingredients in the spices: black pepper, coriander, and fennel seeds. You might see juniper berries, mustard seeds, or garlic powder, and from there it can change quite a bit. All of my pastrami recipes are slightly different as well, customized for the specific meat or dish.
Poultry can take a punch of herbs, so I decided to go more floral and aromatic with my recipe: Swapping out juniper berries for Szechuan peppercorns.
Turkey Pastrami Spice Recipe
- 3 tbsp coriander seeds
- 2 tbsp black peppercorns
- 1 tbsp fennel seeds
- 1 tbsp Szechuan peppercorns
- 1 tbsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp white sugar
Yes – sugar. Most pastrami brines call for brown sugar, which compliments the bold aromatics. This is a must, enhancing the natural flavors of turkey. The recipe will make more than enough spices for 4-6 turkey breasts, depending on their size.
You can find Szechuan peppercorns online at many places, but if you’re looking at Amazon I recommend this brand:
Preparing the Turkey
Turkey breast is used here, though if you get your hands on turkey thighs and are willing to take out the bones, be my guest. There’s a few steps and you don’t have to be incredibly skilled to pull this off.
- Butterfly the turkey breast. You’ll have to use your judgement here, but I left the tenderloin attached and sliced it to about 0.25″ thick along the thickest part. The goal is to have a large, flat piece for the most surface area for spices.
- Season the inside. Keep the skin on! Place the breast skin-side down, and season the inside first. Roll it back up with the skin on the outside, and truss the meat with some string. You want it to keep the rolled shape.
- Dry-brine. Season the outside as well, and place on a wire rack in the fridge for a few hours, up to overnight. This will allow the seasonings to penetrate the turkey and dry out the skin. We want crispy!
Preferred Cooking Method: Smoking
Pastrami isn’t pastrami unless it’s smoked. The goal is to cook it and have crispy skin, and it’s very simple.
Light up your smoker and heat it to 300°F. Turkey needs to be cooked until an internal temperature of 165°F, so just pay attention. I recommend smoking the turkey rolls until about 140°F, then turning up the heat to 350-375°F to finish it off and crisp up the outside even more. Timing will depend on how many you do, and how large the turkey breasts are.
Frequently Asked Questions
The main reason is the thickness of the spices, and the ratio of pepper. The fine ground black pepper is generally what makes the traditional pastrami so dark. Our recipe here is adjusted for the flavor of the turkey. You won’t be missing out with the results.
Juniper berries. It’s classic, and will taste great. The Szechuan peppercorns are the better choice, if you are willing to purchase them. So many great recipes out there to use them with as well.
Absolutely. Chicken breasts will be smaller, so keep that in mind. You don’t have to butterfly and roll it up, you can use it at a seasoning as well. Just make sure that you dry-brine.