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Nerdy Science in the Kitchen

Best Way to Smoke a Turkey



Check out this method for the best smoked turkey!
Check out this method for the best smoked turkey!

Turkey is one of the most iconic birds of the New World and is becoming increasingly popular in Europe, too. You don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving day to impress your friends and family with your very own smoked turkey.

While some may think a whole turkey must be roasted in the oven and balk at the thought of cooking their bird on the grill, it isn’t as hard as you might think. Once you’ve tried smoking a turkey yourself, you may not want to do it any other way.

Getting started

First, I recommend that you get the best-quality, fresh, free-range turkey that you can. These days, with the wide range of options that are available to us, there’s no reason to limit yourself to buying a frozen bird from your supermarket’s freezer aisle. That being said, if you do buy frozen, try to do a slow thaw over 2 or 3 days. Quick thawing can start the cooking process before you are ready.

The ideal weight range for a smoked turkey is right about 12–14 pounds—as Goldilocks would say, it’s “just right!” Any bigger and you run the risk of the dark meat being overcooked while the center is not quite cooked through. This should feed around 10–12 people or, if it’s not for a gathering or party, leave you with enough meat for sandwiches, curries, or whatever floats your boat for a week.

Turkey also freezes quite well. Whatever you can’t use may be placed in a freezer bag, dated, described, and put away for up to six months. If you have invested time, effort, and money into making something special, however, it’s always best to use it as soon as possible.

Brining the bird

Brining is key if you want the best possible end product. It is the first phase in adding some flavor to the inside, outside, and every part in between. Over the course of 24 hours, the turkey can relax in a gallon or two of water in which you’ve dissolved a cup and a half of salt and a cup of brown sugar. You can add some vinegar, molasses, pepper corns, bay leaves, ginger, BBQ rub, Worcestershire sauce, or anything else you have in your cupboards that will add a personal touch to the flavor.

It’s a good idea to put the turkey and the brine into a large plastic bag and leave it in a cooler with a little ice while it rests. The bag keeps everything clean and tidy.

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Let’s get cooking!

Once the turkey has been brined and dried off, you are nearly ready to cook. It may have been four days since it was purchased, but now is the time to reap the rewards of your patience.

Stuff the cavity with apples, onion, and celery to ensure a moist, even cook, add extra flavor, and help maintain the turkey’s plump look. You may also add herbs, such as rosemary and sage. Traditional stuffing is not recommended, as the interior may not reach high enough temperatures to eliminate microorganisms.

Now for the rub. Give the turkey a little spray with some canola oil (or brush on some melted butter) so that the rub will stick to the skin of the turkey. It also gives the surface of the meat a nice golden-brown color. A simple rub will suffice—use a mixture of salt, pepper, granulated garlic, and any poultry seasoning you can find at one of your local supermarkets. Simply shake the spice mix over the turkey and work it in everywhere, inside and out. Add a little BBQ rub for extra flavor and color.

Whether or not you want to inject is up to you. To do this, melt some butter and add any flavorings, spices, and seasoning that you see fit and inject away. This is your turkey and you can do what you like!

It’s getting hot in here!

After you learn how to smoke turkey, you won't want to prepare it any other way!
After you learn how to smoke turkey, you won’t want to prepare it any other way!

If you have a smoker, check the manufacturer’s guidelines on how to prepare the smoker.

For a water smoker: put the turkey on the top rack, breast side up. If you’re using wood chips, soak them before placing them on the coals. You will want to maintain the heat at about 250° F, so replenish briquettes and water as necessary. Cook until the meat reaches 165° F in the breast and 175° F–180° F in the thigh. The cook time will range between 6-10 hours for a bird over 12 lbs.

For an electric smoker: set the temperature to 225° F and cook for 8–12 hours (or until the temperature of the inner thigh reaches 180° F).

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The turkey must reach 140° F within four hours, otherwise you will have to finish it in the oven. A probe thermometer inserted into the breast and thigh will let you know if the internal temperature indicates that the meat is safe to eat.

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You may also choose to use a regular grill with a smoker box or a combination grill. As long as it has a lid and you keep the temperature around 275–300° F, you’re all good. For pellet grills, add a few pecan pellets as this will impart a smooth and rich smoky flavor. Turn and baste the turkey every half hour or so with more of the melted butter mix.

Let the turkey rest before carving and enjoy!

Don’t forget to see our other recipes, such as how to smoke chicken.

If you love fresh pepper with your meals, you might want to find out how long pepper stays fresh and how to keep it that way.

Image credit via Flickr Creative Commons: Austin M. and Alby H.

Kitchen Professor author
About the Author: Bryce Heitman

Bryce is not a real professor, but he's real nerdy in the kitchen. He's been barbecuing, chopping, and generally blazing food for many decades. He thinks there's definitely a better spatula or utensil out there that hasn't been invented yet.

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