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Kevin’s Almost Famous Smoked Turkey Legs

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Cooking the perfect turkey leg takes time and patience, like saving up for that iPad rather than trying to win it in a game of chance. After experimenting with several different methods (don’t worry, I’ll give all the details in a follow-up post), I have settled on a one really standout recipe.

Smoked Turkey legs

“Want to see if you can win one of those? I’ll give you a free game.” Two men stood looking over the mini bikes parked in the grass in front of a booth where the invitation to play had just emitted from. They weren’t alone. Somewhere in the throng of people who were aimlessly wandering through a net of useless trinkets, and concession stands were the women they had come with, a grandmother, and two small children…

It was a hot and hazy, fall afternoon. Dust hung in the air from the milling crowd of fairgoers. Actually, the men weren’t on the official fairgrounds even though they had come to observe the twice-yearly spectacle of a deep South festival that had grown out of a local family’s quandary of what to do with a 200-year-old plantation that was no longer agriculturally viable. When the little group had seen the ticket prices though, they frugally decided to wander through the outpost of rogue carnival tents that spilled out into the tiny, southern town instead. The tent’s owners had just as frugally chosen to squat on private and public land outside the main event rather than pay the merchant’s price of admission.

Besides the quaint backdrop of centuries-old farm implements and outbuildings, the sprawling squatter zone offered much of the same experiences. Mixed in with the displays of artwork and novelties were booths selling homemade fudge, bags of kettle corn, and not unnoticed by the group of friends, a stand selling southern-style barbeque. A complementary band played acoustic covers of old 70’s tunes nearby.

While the older of the two children bopped and bebopped to the music next to his grandmother, they briefly discussed abandoning their later dinner plans in favor of the smoked turkey legs on the menu.

If you want to taste good southern barbeque, you don’t go to the conventional brick and mortar dining establishments; you’ve got to find the food carts pulling retrofitted, propane tank, grills. The dedicated men and women, and sometimes entire families that run these carts are the true artists of smoke and sauce.  

At ten dollars a turkey leg though, a single five dollar bag of kettle corn wound up the winning compromise. They moved on, already tiring a little of the press of people, and the cries of vendors promoting their wares. They had almost slipped the dusty, smoky, greasy snare that had been set for their hard-earned pocket change…

“Come on over, and I’ll pay for your first game,” the man inside the booth said. A fan blew on his bulky, sweaty frame. Giant stuffed animals hung silently from every available space above. To the left of the man at a young girl obliviously texting on her iPhone. To his right was a shelf full of boxes of electronics like iPads, Game Boys, and Wii Consoles. The two men looked at each other, then back at the man in the booth. “OK,” said the younger man, “what’s the game?”

The man in the booth pulled out a crude box full of old golf balls and dumped them out at the top of a plywood ramp. The sides of the ramp were raised so that the balls had no way to go but down. They plinked and plunked there way past pockets made of nails and rubber bands. Some came to rest in the pockets, the rest rolled into one of several slots at the bottom of the board. Each pocket and slot had a number ranging from 1 to 9. The man in the booth quickly counted up the numbers; “Twenty-nine,” he said. He ran his fat finger down a sheet of paper that was slid into a transparent plastic, three-ring page protector that was taped to the countertop in front of him. The paper had possible tallies that corresponded with specific point values, and in the center was the bold print, “50 Points Wins!” “Twenty-nine; that’s two points,” the man in the booth said. He pushed two poker chips with the number one sharpie on them towards the younger man. Then he put the balls back into the box and handed them over. “Let ‘em roll,” he said.

The younger man did as he was told. The balls jumped and jostled to random locations around the board. “five, fifteen, twenty-two, twenty-five, thirty-one, thirty-five! Find thirty-five” The man in the booth said and gestured towards the paper taped to the counter top again. A tally of thirty-five corresponded to 15 points. Two more chips were shoved over towards the young man. One had a 10 sharpened on it. The other had a five.

“Just five dollars to roll again,” the man in the booth said. “I’ve got a lot of prizes to choose from, and I need to get rid of all of them by the end of the fair. Do you want an iPad 2? Or you could take one of those motorcycles if you would like.” The two men turned back to the mini motorcycles that had drawn them over only minutes before. They shimmered like sirens in the late afternoon sun. They turned back to the booth. Above the hastily built game hung a cardboard sign that said “Plinko” in thick, indelible ink.

The younger man said, “I only have tens.” The man in the booth said, “I’ll give you two rolls then.” Hesitantly, the young man took the box full of golf balls again, looked at the ramp as if he could strategize, and rolled. “Twenty-one,” the man in the booth said. “Find Twenty-one.” There wasn’t a 21 on the paper. “Look at the cards in front of the ramp.” In front of the ramp where a pile of cards with various tallies on them. The one with a 21 on it also said “free game.” “Free game,” the man in the booth said. “You get to roll again.”

This time the younger man rolled a 31. The paper showed that a tally of 31 was worth five points. The next roll was a 25. On the paper, it said, “lose 5 points”. The man in the booth quickly glossed over this fact and said he wouldn’t count that roll. “Roll again,” he said. This time the younger man scored 10 points! There was now a small pile of chips totaling 32 points in front of the two men, but they were out of rolls.

By now they were feeling a bit euphoric over their good fortune. Blood pumped more vigorously in their veins. The motorcycles and the iPad beckoned. The man behind the booth said, “You’re over half way! Don’t stop now. The ones who lose are the ones who quit. There’s nothing magical about what’s going on here. It’s just a numbers game. Have your friend roll them if you want”. He was starting to sound like a Vegas gaming shark. The girl on his left continued texting silently, paying little notice the unfolding drama.

The older man pulled out a ten dollar bill and handed it over. His first roll added a single additional point for a total of 33 points. The second roll tallied up to 22. “Find twenty-two,” the man in the booth said. Twenty-two wasn’t on the paper either. The card with the number 22 on it said “Win 2 Prizes”. The man in the booth said, “Now you’re playing for two prizes; ten dollars to roll again.”

“I thought it was five dollars a roll,” said the young man suspiciously.

“Now you’re playing for two prizes,” the man in the booth said. “Look. Feel this box.” He pulled one of the iPad boxes down. “Feel that? You’re not playing for rocks here. These are the real deal. You can have any two prizes you want. Just don’t fight over them. I wouldn’t want to see you on Jerry Springer tomorrow.”

Just then the two women walked up. They both looked concerned. Maybe it was the look in the eyes of the men. Maybe it was the oily tempo with which the man in the booth spoke. The younger man pulled out another ten dollar bill. He rolled another 25… “I’m not going to count that,” the man in the booth said, “roll again.” This time it was another 35! “Only two more points to win,” the man in the booth said. “Ten dollars buys another roll.”

Whatever intuition the women may have sensed was swiftly being muffled by the apparent success they now were witnessing. The younger man’s girlfriend shelled out a ten of her own and rolled the balls herself at the encouragement of the man in the booth. “Fifteen,” he counted. “No points. You gotta roll high or low to score points.”

Next up was the wife of the older man. She rolled another 22. “It says win two prizes, but you were already playing for two prizes, and you can only win three prizes total,” the man in the booth said, “and you can only take two iPads,” he added. “Its twenty dollars to play; don’t quit now. Only quitters lose and I want you to win. There’s nothing magical about this, it’s just a numbers game,” he repeated. Discernment would have noticed the well warn phrase.

It was getting harder to part with the money, but the two couples had lost track of the frugality that caused them to wonder this way in the first place rather than pay the admittance fee for the actual fair. They had also lost track of the grandmother who was watching the older child somewhere beyond the tents.

The younger man’s girlfriend pulled out another ten dollar bill. He made up the difference with his own ten and rolled again. Nothing! The smell of deep-fried elephant ears stung the back of their throats.

The man in the booth was talking fast. He could see the irritation on the faces of his players. Like a veteran student of carnal instinct, he pulled out another box containing randomly torn pieces of paper and started to write an I.O.U. “You can pick up where you left off if you decide to come back tomorrow, or you can find me at the next festival in 3 weeks,” he said.

The couples looked at each other. They knew they would never come back if they walked away, but they were so close to winning! The older man’s wife reached into the pouch under the baby stroller and pulled out a twenty. She rolled a 25. “I have to count it this time guys,” the man in the booth said. “I’ve already given you two passes. I have to count this one.” He took back one of the poker chips with the number five sharpied on it.

With their pocketbooks looking much leaner than before, and the abrupt change in fortune, the two couples suddenly felt disgusted. How did this happen? None of them would ever play the lottery in a million years, and they wouldn’t go out of their way to drop a quarter in a slot machine either. But they had just been fleeced of their hard earned money in an activity that was nothing short of gambling. As the gravity of their situation slowly pulled them back down to reality, the grandmother finally walked up. She was dragging the protesting older child and wore an “I told you so” look on her face. It was obvious too, that she was irritated at having been abandoned with the older child who had apparently stopped having fun somewhere in the last several minutes.

The two couples sheepishly waited for the man in the booth to write out an I.O.U. they knew they would never cash in. Somehow it seemed better to walk away with something, even if it was just a silly piece of torn paper. “We should have gone with the turkey legs,” the older man said as they walked back to the car…

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Smoked Turkey legs

Kevin’s Almost Famous Smoked Turkey Legs

Cooking the perfect turkey leg takes time and patience, like saving up for that iPad rather than trying to win it in a game of chance. After experimenting with several different methods (don’t worry, I’ll give all the details in a follow-up post), I have settled on a one really standout recipe.

1. Brining: if you don’t follow any other step in this recipe, you will want to follow this one. Turkey legs start out tough, and unlike a chicken leg, there are tendons that you won’t be eating, but that can interrupt the perfect bite. You want the meat to fall away with as little effort as possible. The salt in the brine helps to tenderize the leg. Another important purpose of bringing is adding moisture. If you have ever overcooked Thanksgiving dinner, you know how dry turkey can get. Normally salt pulls moisture away, but because the legs are submerged in a liquid, the effect is more like osmosis. The salt draws the moisture out, which causes more moisture to be sucked back into the meat. You’ll want to allow the legs to soak for up to 24 hours.

2. After the brine bath rinses the legs under cool, running water; carefully separating the skin from the leg so that you can get a rub right up next to the meat for maximum flavor.

3. Pat dry the legs with a paper towel. In a large dish, add olive oil and your chosen rub to each leg. It is very important that you go light on any salt! The legs will have picked up enough flavors from the brine that any excessive salt at this step will make for an unpleasant meal. If you are used to working with rubs and think you know what you are doing with them, cut back your normal application significantly.

Smoked Turkey legs

4. Set the legs in the refrigerator and go get the grill ready. The trick to cooking large pieces of meat perfectly on the grill is indirect heat. I use a Weber kettle grill, and I have specially made receptacles where I can stack my briquettes along the sides. If you don’t have something like this, you can still locate your briquettes on the side so as to leave a large cooking area where the legs will not come in direct contact with the flames. After the grill is lit, take two large handfuls of hickory chips, put them in a bowl full of water, and set them out next to the grill.

5. When the fire is ready, place the turkey legs on the grill, strain a handful of the soaked wood chips, and drop them in a pile over the hot briquettes. Close the lid. When you see the smoke start to run low, strain your second handful of chips and add them to the fire. Smoke times may vary, but two handfuls will burn up in about 1/2 hour to 45 minutes.

Smoked Turkey legs

6. After smoking, you have a choice to make. Either leave the legs on the grill for the next 4 hours, regularly basting with a little olive oil, and maintaining a grill temperature between 200-300 degrees, or move them to a conventional oven for the next several hours. Both methods will produce an amazing result, but I recommend moving the legs into a conventional oven for at least three reasons. One, maintaining a grill is a lot of work. Two, placing the legs in a Pyrex dish and covering them with tin foil will allow the legs to cook in their own juices, which will make the skin more edible, and help the meat stay moist and tender. And three, the juices can be used to make a tasty gravy. If you follow my advice, set the oven to 250 degrees and let the legs cook for about 3 hours. You can turn them over a few times to make sure the whole leg gets fully basted.

7. If you decided to keep the legs on the grill, this step is going to be easier for you. If your legs have been in the oven for the last three hours, you will probably need to get another fire going in your grill. Do the same thing as before, and keep the briquettes off to the side. You can time everything so that the grill will be hot again when the 3 hours in the oven are up, but your legs won’t be harmed if they have to rest a few minutes or even a few hours before they are finished on the grill. Place the legs back on the grill, and close the lid. You may decide to add one more handful of wood chips at this time. It all depends on your level of enjoyment for that extra smoky flavor. Keep the legs on the grill for one more hour. Continue basting with olive oil, and maintain a grill temperature of 200 to 300 degrees. When the final hour is up, take each leg and crisp up the skin by turning them over direct heat as necessary.

Smoked Turkey legs

8. Check the temperature to make sure you have reached an internal temperature of 165 degrees before serving. If you eat these legs with your hands, make sure you have plenty of napkins, and enjoy!

Smoked Turkey legs

Brine Recipe:
½ cup salt, and ½ cup sugar, to one quart of water. Increase as needed to completely submerge all of the turkey legs. The brine should be brought to a boil to dissolve all of the salt and sugar, and then cooled before the legs are added. To speed up the cooling time, try boiling half the water and adding the other half cold after the salt and sugar are completely dissolved.

Need a good rub recommendation?
I used Zatarain’s Blackened Seasoning. It was a perfect compliment to the smoky flavors of the grilled legs.

By on November 1st, 2013

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About Dani Meyer

Hi, I’m Dani! I’m most importantly mama to 3 wild little dudes. I spend my days cooking, photographing and exploring the Pacific Northwest. I'm a full time food blogger and online business coach.

I’m the author of Stress Free Camping, a 120+ page guide on making epic food in the woods. I’m also the founder of Food Blogger Entrepreneurs, the leading online academy and private community for food bloggers. → More About Dani

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6 thoughts on “Kevin’s Almost Famous Smoked Turkey Legs”

    • Thank you! The first few times I smoked something I applied smoke pretty continuously and kept the cut on the grill for the entire cook time. I realized along the way that not everyone likes that much smoke, and there is a limit on how much smoke flavor you can even get to stick to a piece of meat. I have been smoking my ribs and roasts for about 30 minutes to and hour and then placing them in the oven for most of the rest of the cook time for a while now. It turns out it works great for turkey too! It’s so much easier to keep a piece of meat moist when it’s covered. Using brine is a much more recent experiment for me. I have used a light brine on my rabbits for a short time before freezing them, but until now, that was the extent of my knowledge.

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