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Want a fresh take on your standard Thanksgiving turkey this year? Smoked turkey, made using a low-and-slow cooking method in a smoker or barbeque grill, doesn’t only yield tender, flavorful meat; it also frees up oven space for desserts and side dishes.
Never smoked meat before? Don’t worry—you can learn how to smoke a turkey in just a few simple steps.
Learning how to smoke turkey begins with a few key preparations and purchases, from gathering your equipment to selecting a turkey.
Gather Your Equipment
Most importantly, you need a smoker. If you don’t have a dedicated smoker, you can also use a charcoal or gas grill. However, to generate smoke in a gas grill, you need a smoker box—you’ll add wood chips to the box, then place the box on the burners of the grill. This will produce smoke, allowing you to successfully smoke a turkey.
Finally, make sure you have a meat thermometer. Keeping an eye on the internal temperature of both the turkey and the smoker is essential to achieving an evenly cooked bird.
Choose the Right Size Turkey
Before you toss a turkey in the smoker, there are a few considerations to keep in mind. First, it’s best to smoke a turkey in the 10- to 12-pound range. Larger turkeys may not cook fast enough in a smoker to avoid food safety issues. In other words, a large turkey may begin to spoil before it cooks all the way through.
Time the Smoking Process
Timing is everything when it comes to planning your Thanksgiving meal. Smoking a turkey can be a long process because it cooks at a low temperature. Plan for about 30 to 40 minutes of smoking time per pound—so about five to six hours total, depending on the size of your bird.
Choose Your Wood
Your wood choice can help impart additional flavor to the turkey. Applewood, for example, can add a mild, sweet flavor. Other common wood choices include hickory or cherry.
Step 1: Prepare the Smoker or Grill
If you have a dedicated smoker, load it with your chosen wood, and preheat it to 250℉.
If you’re using a grill, it gets a bit trickier. Ideally, the grill needs to maintain a consistent and even 250℉ temperature, but that’s difficult when you can’t set a precise temperature. Fortunately, there are ways to get as close as possible.
For a gas grill, set half of the burners on medium-low, but leave the other half off. Then, add your wood chips to the smoker box. For a charcoal grill, arrange the preheated charcoal on one half of the grill, add your wood directly on top of the charcoal, and then open the vents about 25%.
Not sure you set it up correctly? Look for a thin, swirling, slightly blue-tinted trail of smoke coming from the grill or smoker—this indicates your smoker is ready to go.
Step 2: Prepare the Turkey
To ensure an evenly cooked turkey, thaw your bird completely before smoking it. Remove the giblets and drain the juices, and then pat the turkey dry with a paper towel.
You can use several different methods to prepare your bird and inject it with flavor:
- Brine: Just like you would prepare a turkey to fry or roast, you can brine your turkey in a mixture of water, salt, herbs, and spices to keep the meat moist. Submerge the turkey in the brine overnight. After you remove it, use paper towels to pat the turkey dry before smoking it.
- Dry brine: A dry brine is made up of mostly salt, although you can also add spices for maximum flavor. Different from a dry rub, a dry brine is applied to the turkey a day or two before cooking. After you rub the dry brine onto the bird, leave it in the fridge to work itself into the meat.
- Dry rub: A dry rub, on the other hand, is applied to the turkey right before smoking it. You can create a dry rub in a wide range of flavor profiles, from barbeque to herby. Pro tip: Add a little baking powder to the dry rub. This will cause tiny bubbles to form on the turkey skin when it smokes, creating a nice, crispy skin.
- Injected marinade: While brines are primarily salt-based, you can introduce more complex flavors—including ingredients such as butter, herbs, and even beer—using an injectable marinade. After mixing up your marinade, use a meat injector to distribute it throughout the meat.
At this point, you can smoke the turkey whole; however, to cut down on cooking time, you can also opt to butterfly or spatchcock the turkey. Essentially, this involves removing the turkey’s backbone and flattening it. This spreads out the turkey, which allows it to smoke around 30% faster.
Step 3: Smoke the Turkey
Place the turkey in your smoker or on your grill. You don’t need to wrap it in foil—simply place it directly on the grates of the grill or smoker, with the turkey breast side up and the legs pointing toward the coals or heat source. If desired, place a drip pan underneath the turkey—you can use the juices for basting (more on that later) or making gravy when the turkey is done.
Generally, it takes about 30 to 40 minutes per pound to smoke a turkey, but that depends on your individual grill and smoker. Check the internal temperature of the grill or smoker periodically; you may have to add more coals or wood chunks throughout the process to maintain the right temperature.
Begin checking the turkey’s internal temperature about an hour before you expect it to be ready, or at the 3 ½-hour mark—whichever comes first. The turkey must pass through a critical temperature range of 40℉ to 140℉ in four hours or less; otherwise, it may not be safe to eat. If the turkey’s temperature is too low at this point, remove it from the smoker and finish it in the oven.
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Step 4 (Optional): Baste
If you didn’t brine your turkey, you may choose to baste it instead, which can make the meat extra juicy. To baste, use a silicone brush or a turkey baster to periodically coat the bird with chicken stock, melted butter, or drippings from the drip pan.
However, be aware that every time you open the smoker or grill to baste, you’ll release some of the heat. Aim to baste only every 30 to 45 minutes, working as quickly as possible.
Step 4: Let It Rest
When the internal temperature reaches 165℉, the bird is ready. Remove it from the smoker.
Like any other turkey-cooking method, the final step is to let the bird rest for about 15 minutes, covered with an aluminum foil tent. This will keep the turkey warm while the juices settle into the meat, so it remains moist. After that rest period, the turkey is ready to carve.
If you haven’t smoked a turkey before, you might be a little apprehensive. Here are a few additional tips to ensure you end up with an evenly cooked, smoke-infused turkey dinner.
- To achieve crispier skin, try a slightly higher temperature in your smoker. If you still don’t get the golden color you’re after, you can opt to finish the turkey in the oven.
- Some store-bought turkeys come with a pop-up timer, but don’t rely on it—it’s typically not very accurate and can result in an overcooked, dry turkey. Instead, make sure you have a digital meat thermometer on hand.
- If you add a drip pan underneath your turkey, consider adding some chopped onions, carrots, and herbs to it. This can help infuse extra flavor into the turkey.
- Need to smoke a larger turkey to feed your family (or simply for leftover turkey sandwiches)? Go for two smaller turkeys instead of one large bird. They will cook faster than one large turkey, and they’ll be less likely to dry out.
Serve It Up
While it may seem untraditional, smoked turkey is an ideal choice for your Thanksgiving meal. It has an irresistible smokey flavor, and it frees up space in your oven for the other dishes and desserts that are a staple on your holiday table. Fortunately, learning how to smoke turkey isn’t as hard as you might imagine. Try it out, and you might just discover your new favorite Thanksgiving tradition.
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