Chef and butcher Elias Cairo loves cooking game, and uses a whole turkey broken down into parts and cooked separately for his smoked turkey cabbage rolls. The legs and wings are braised in homemade turkey stock until tender, then the pulled meat is folded with hearty vegetables for the cabbage roll stuffing. He brines and smokes the turkey breasts until tender and juicy. Finally, the assembled dish is briefly smoked to bring all of the flavors together.
This smoked turkey recipe will work with a farm-raised or wild turkey. If you’re fortunate to cook a wild turkey, it’s important to note that the bird bears little resemblance to the domestic version you pick up at the grocery store. Wild birds are structurally different and have tiny bones and tendons in their legs that need to be removed before eating. This is a lengthy recipe but the results are worth it—and nothing goes to waste. The braised turkey legs and wings can be made a day ahead and stored in their braising liquid. The breasts should be brined the night before smoking.
Find whole turkey here.
Prep: 12 hours brining, 3+ hours cooking
For the Brine:
- Toast the star anise, juniper, and black peppercorns in a large pot over medium heat. Once the spices are aromatic, carefully add apple cider, water, salt, dark brown sugar, and bay leaves to the pot and bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve the salt and sugar. Remove from heat and chill completely before using.
For the Turkey:
- Using a sharp knife and clean cutting board remove the breasts as close to the bone as possible. Check the underside of the breast for any knicked bone that’s still connected and remove it. Place the turkey breasts in the brine, cover, and refrigerate for 12 hours.
- Remove the entire turkey leg, moving the knife carefully around the thigh. Repeat on the other side.
- Remove each wing at the shoulder joint, slicing with a knife, and moving it around to pop the joint from the socket.
For the Stock:
- Place the turkey carcass in a roasting pan with 2 carrots and half of the yellow onion, cut into quarters. Roast for 1 hour at 350°. Transfer everything from the roasting pan to a stock pot with 1 sprig each of rosemary, sage, and thyme. Cover with water and bring to a very gentle simmer. Simmer for 3-4 hours, removing any foam that forms off the top and discarding. Strain the stock and store in the refrigerator for a week or in the freezer for up to 6 months.
For the Braise:
- Season the turkey legs and wings with salt. Preheat the oven to 300°.
- Heat a heavy-bottomed pot over medium, high heat. Add a small splash of oil and brown the legs and wings on all sides. Add the wine and scrape the bottom. Cook for a minute and add 4 cups of turkey stock. Bring to a boil, add remaining sprigs of rosemary, sage, and thyme. Cover with a fitted lid and transfer to the oven to braise for 2½ to 3 hours, until fork tender. Note: Wild turkey can be finicky and it may take longer to cook.
- While the turkey legs and wings braise, medium dice 2 carrots and the remaining half of the yellow onion. Set aside.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Peel 12-16 whole cabbage leaves off the head. Blanch leaves in boiling water for 3 minutes before dunking into ice water. Cut the bottom 2-3 inches of the hardy spine from the cabbage leaves and set aside.
- Once the braising turkey is fork tender, remove the cooked pieces and allow to rest, reserving the braising liquid.
- Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Melt the butter and add diced carrot and onion. Sauté until just tender; add the cooked diced potatoes. Season everything with salt and fresh cracked pepper, coating in the melted butter. Add 3 cups of the braising liquid and bring to a simmer, until fork tender, about 10 minutes.
- While the vegetables cook, pick the turkey meat off the bones in large chunks. Be mindful of the many small bones in the leg. Mix the picked meat with the cooked vegetables and coat in the reduced braise. Top with rough chopped parsley. Taste the dish for seasoning. Move to the countertop to fill the cabbage leaves.
- Lay one cabbage leaf on your cutting board. Spread the full leaf out and lay a second leaf over this in the opposite direction, filling the hole left by the removed spine. Scoop around 1 cup of pulled turkey and vegetable mixture directly into the center. Working away from your body, wrap the cabbage leaf over the filling, tuck in the sides and roll the entire cabbage roll over on itself so it is sealed with the remaining leaf and resting on the seam. Repeat until all the wraps are filled.
- Place remaining filling into the bottom of a large oven-safe pan and lay the cabbage rolls around the rim. Set aside until ready to smoke.
For the Smoked Turkey Breast:
- Remove the turkey breast from the brine after 12 hours. Dry the breast off and transfer to a heated active smoker, set to 300° or a manual smoker with low burn. The turkey breast should be smoked to 150° and will take around an hour at 225°. Remove the smoked turkey and slice into thick pieces. Place in the center of the pan with cabbage rolls and return the entire dish to the smoker and let roast for another 15-20 minutes. When warmed through and smoky, dress the entire dish with melted brown butter. Serve immediately.