When preparing a cut of meat for the smoker, you want to make sure the spices will stick to the exterior. This is especially important when it comes to smoked turkey, because crisp flavorful skin is one of the hallmarks of the dish.
This guide is designed to help you find the best binder for smoked turkey. You can follow the same advice when putting whole chickens on the smoker as well.
Best Binder For Smoked Turkey
Our favorite binding ingredient for smoked turkey is cooking spray made from a neutral oil. Regular oil or butter would work also, but be careful not to use too much or the grease could cause flare-ups. Water-based binders like stock and broth should be avoided.
What Is A Binder?
In barbecue parlance, a binder is an ingredient that’s used to help the seasoning rub cling to the meat. Essentially, it’s meant to function as a type of glue for the spices.
You may also hear people refer to the binder as the slather, especially if smoked brisket is on the menu. In this case, the two terms are interchangeable—which one you use is a matter of personal preference.
You can use many different ingredients for this purpose, as we’ll discuss in the coming sections. However, the binder you use should complement the cut of meat you’re smoking.
Suggestions For Binding Ingredients
Prepared yellow mustard is the preferred binding ingredient for pork ribs, pulled pork, and smoked brisket. This might seem odd, but when you think about it, mustard is composed of many of the same ingredients that are often used in seasoning rubs.
It doesn’t have to be yellow mustard, either. Dijon and whole-grain mustards are acceptable substitutions. Yellow mustard is a more popular choice mainly because it’s inexpensive and easy to buy in bulk.
Other ideas for binding ingredients include olive oil, butter, cooking spray, stock or broth, vinegar, or plain water. As long as it imparts moisture to the surface of the meat, it usually gets the job done.
Best Binder For Smoked Turkey: A Guide
We would suggest using cooking spray made from a neutral oil—like canola or grapeseed—when preparing turkey for the smoker. Olive oil cooking spray is suitable, too.
With cuts like spare ribs, beef brisket, and pork butt, your goal is to create a thick and crusty bark on the exterior. Using a robust binding ingredient can help you achieve this.
That’s not as important when it comes to smoked turkey. Sure, you want the seasoning rub to stick to the skin, but the spices aren’t going to create the same type of bark that turns up on fattier cuts.
If you don’t have any cooking spray, use a thin layer of neutral oil instead. You can use olive oil if that’s all you have, but be forewarned that the extra-virgin variety has a lower smoke point than neutral oils.
The same is true of butter. We’ve been known to rub the surface of our turkey with softened unsalted butter when prepping it for the oven, but your bird will probably be on the smoker for a longer period of time.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the extra cooking time might cause the olive oil or butter to create a smoke bomb of their own. That could make the skin taste bitter instead of succulent.
Similarly, using too much oil could lead to flare-ups. That will burn the turkey in patches, affecting both the flavor and the texture.
It’s better to avoid water-based ingredients like stock and broth when it comes to poultry. The water will keep the skin from crisping up. We’ll discuss this further in Do I Need To Use Binder For Brined Turkey?, below.
Will Using a Binder Affect The Flavor?
Yes—but maybe not in the way that you think.
As we mentioned, cooking spray made from a neutral oil is the best choice for smoked turkey. This will allow the flavor of the seasoning rub to shine and keep the breast meat from drying out in the smoker.
Cooking spray doesn’t taste like much on its own, but it will keep the spices from falling off during the initial stages of the smoke. So it will promote a flavor boost in spite of its own mild-tasting nature.
Some newbies are daunted at the prospect of using mustard to slather their brisket or pork butt, as they believe it will impart an acrid flavor to the meat. In these cases, it doesn’t happen that way because the mustard all but disappears during the long cook.
You can use mustard as a binder for turkey, but you’ll need to be careful. Turkeys are leaner by nature and don’t need to cook as long as brisket does. That means there could still be a hint of mustard flavor by the time the bird is finished cooking.
Can I Skip The Binder?
Although we prefer to use a binder on all smoked meats, it won’t do any harm if you elect to skip the step—or if you simply forget. The turkey should taste fine either way.
In fact, you don’t need to get that creative with the spice rub when making smoked turkey. A simple blend of kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper should do nicely.
Do I Need To Use Binder For Brined Turkey?
If you brined or marinated the turkey in advance, do you still need to use a binder? We would recommend it, even if the bird was in the brine or marinade for a full 24 hours. Here’s why.
You should dry the turkey thoroughly with paper towels before putting it on the smoker. When the skin is waterlogged, it will have a hard time achieving the crisp texture that you’re looking for.
Brining is meant to help the meat retain moisture during the cooking process. The salt solution plumps up the meat’s protein fibers, keeping it juicy and tender. You can add other ingredients to boost the flavor, but moisture is your key goal.
Marinades, on the other hand, are designed to impart flavor. The mixture doesn’t penetrate further than about 1/4 inch beneath the surface, but this is enough to make a marked difference in the taste of the cooked meat.
In either case, the brine or marinade should have done its work by the time you’re ready to start cooking. Leaving it on the skin won’t do any good, and in fact, it can harm your results by making the exterior too soggy.
After taking the turkey out of the brine, dry it off and set it aside while you prepare the smoker. There’s no need to rinse it after brining, but if you do, make sure to disinfect the sink and countertops afterward.
Let the turkey sit at room temperature for up to 1 hour, then apply the binder and the seasoning rub. Don’t let it sit out for more than 2 hours, as this will keep the meat in the “danger zone” between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit for too long.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to smoked turkey, a simple binder is all you need. In fact, you can apply the spice rub directly to the meat if you prefer. The flavor shouldn’t be affected—the binder just helps to keep the spices from falling into the fire.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!