Everyone loves a great turkey dinner on Thanksgiving, so make sure you give them the best tasting turkey possible! Oven baked turkey is great, but it doesn't hold a candle to a perfectly smoked turkey.
Video - How to smoke the perfect turkey
Why smoked turkey is BEST
When you smoke a turkey you give it a smoky / wood flavor that you can't achieve cooking any other way. Sure, oven baked turkey is good, but a juicy smoked turkey with crispy skin is to DIE for!
This turkey is smoked low and slow for a couple hours and then the heat is turned up to get that nice crispy skin. Not only does this turkey taste fantastic, it looks just as great with a nice color to the skin and meat. This is hands down the best way to smoke a turkey.
How many people does one turkey serve?
When it comes to smoking a turkey, stick with a turkey that is 14lbs or smaller. Since we are cooking at a low temperature to start, a larger bird won't heat up fast enough and can cause food safety issues.
Count on a 10-14lb turkey feeding 7-9 people. If you need to feed more people, it's best to smoke an extra turkey rather than buying a larger turkey. With specials always going on around Thanksgiving, this won't add too much to your budget.
Choosing a smoker
Like always, the best smoker you can use is the one you already have! If you don't have one, it's time to decide whether you want to go with a pellet grill or a traditional offset smoker.
I'm smoking this turkey on my wood pellet grill, just like the Camp Chef 36 smoker or Traeger 780. Wood pellet smokers are an easy and great way to impart fantastic smoke flavor onto the meat and are extremely easy to use as well.
An electric smoker like these will hold a very consistent internal temp preventing wide temperature swings that can dry out a turkey!
They operate on wood pellets and hold a very steady temperature just like an oven. No worrying about temp spikes or dips with one of these bad boys
A traditional offset smoker is another great smoker to use. These are normally less expensive than a pellet smoker and give an amazing smoke flavor to the meat.
A traditional offset smoker, like this Oklahoma Joe's Smoker is a great option to use. Though it takes a little more attention than a pellet smoker, this produces amazing flavored meat.
Charcoal Grill / Gas Grill
I don't recommend using a charcoal grill when smoking a turkey. You can line the inside perimeter of the grill with charcoal briskets in a snake form and light only one side.
This would allow the charcoal to burn slowly and keep a lower temperature. It's pretty inconsistent with temperature unless you have a lot of experience with it. Start testing this method on a chicken, and definitely NOT for Thanksgiving dinner.
Gas grills can be used, just be prepared to have a lot of propane on hand. You will get a nice flavor on the turkey, but not as good as a wood smoker.
What you need
- Whole Turkey - Grab a 10-14lb turkey from your local grocery store. They will come frozen most of the time and around Thansksgiving, you can find REALLY good deals.
- Brine - Brining a chicken in fresh water, kosher salt, apple juice, & dark brown sugar helps keep the turkey moist during cooking and will churn out a nice tender bird.
- Seasoning - Succulent flavors and great ingredients make this turkey really stand out. Salted butter, fresh cracked black pepper, minced garlic, rosemary, thyme, & sage is all you need.
- Wood chips - Using fruit woods such as cherry wood or apple wood chips give this smoked turkey a great flavor. They don't overpower the seasonings yet still impart a nice mild smoke on the bird.
- Perfect side dishes - Mashed potatoes, stuffing/dressing, green beans, rolls, and a nice pumpkin pie really go well with this turkey.
Prepping the turkey
Before we can start cooking this bad boy, a little prep and seasoning is required. So let's get this bird ready to go on the smoker.
Before starting the smoker or seasoning the turkey, we need to remove the giblets from inside of the turkey. These are normally placed in a bag inside the cavity of the turkey.
This bag(s) will include the heart, liver, kidneys, gizzard, and neck of the bird. The neck will be outside of the bag, but inside the turkey cavity.
Brining the turkey before seasoning and smoking is optional. This will help keep the chickens moist while cooking, but is not required. To brine the turkey, grab a bucket big enough to submerge the turkey fully in water, such as a 5 gallon bucket commonly found at Lowes or Home Depot.
In a pot combine these smoked turkey brine ingredients and heat to boiling.
- 3 gallons fresh water
- 3 cups kosher salt
- 4 cups apple juice
- 2 cups dark brown sugar
After bringing to a low boil, stir pot until all ingredients are dissolved into the water. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Ice cubes can be added to speed up the cooling process.
Add turkey (gizzards removed) to the 5 gallon bucket and pour the cooled brine water over the turkey until fully submerged. Place bucket in your refrigerator and brine for at least 4 hours, if not overnight
Remove the turkey from the brine and rinse with fresh cold water. Discard the brine, do NOT save the brine to use in the future. Always use fresh brine when brining turkey or chickens.
Pat the whole chickens dry with paper towels making sure to get around the legs and under any skin. Tie the legs together with butcher twine or leave the plastic leg holder on the turkey. This helps the bird cook evenly and prevents the breast meat from drying out faster than the legs and thighs.
We're using fresh herbs and salted butter for this smoked turkey recipe.
Soften the butter in the microwave or leave on the counter for several hours. Get the ingredients ready to add to the butter.
- Salted butter
- Black pepper (freshly cracked)
- Garlic (minced, not garlic powder)
When butter is soft, mix in the remaining seasonings and mix well.
Rub the turkey
Next, it's time to rub the turkey all over with the seasoned butter. Make sure the turkey is patted dry before rubbing the butter all over the turkey.
Also make sure to rub the butter underneath the skin and onto the breast meat. This will help give the meat as well as the skin this amazing flavor.
DON'T stuff the turkey
Since this turkey is cooked / smoked at a low temperature, the cavity needs to be empty to allow that hot air to circulate through the bird. If it's stuffed with dressing/stuffing, this will make the bird cook slower.
We don't want it cooking any slower than we need to at this low temperature because it could prevent the turkey from rising above the 'danger zone of 40-140°F' in the first 3 hours or so.
When poultry is in this temperature zone, it allows bacteria to grow and multiply possibly causing food borne illness.
Smoking the turkey
Now that we have the turkey brined, dried, and seasoned; it's time to fire up those smokers and get to the fun part. Smoking the turkey!
If you have tried my smoked whole chicken recipe, you will see the similarities in the cooking methods. Low and slow for some smoke, then hot and fast for a nice crispy skin.
Smoke low & slow
Pre-heat your smoker to 225°F with a fruit wood such as cherry, apple, or your desired wood. Once the smoker temperature has leveled at 225° Fahrenheit, place the whole turkey directly on the grill grates breast side up, no need to use a roasting pan!
If you are looking for drippings to make gravy, you can place the turkey in a roasting pan. I like NOT using a pan so the smoke can rise up and all around the turkey while smoking.
Smoke the turkey for 1 hour, then begin spritzing with chicken broth every 45 minutes for the remainder of cooking to give the bird a little moisture. After the first 3 hours of the turkey being in the smoker, it's time to kick that temperature up.
Finish hot & fast
After we smoked the turkey for 3 hours and imparting some great smoke flavor on the bird, it's time to crisp up that skin by increasing the smokers temperature to 350 degrees f. Don't bother removing the turkey while increasing the temperature.
Finish cooking the turkey (about another hour) until the internal temperature registers 165°F when checked with an instant read thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh. The turkey breast should also be at least 165°F, but might be a little bit higher.
Resting the bird
Once the turkey probes 165°F, remove from the smoker and place on a cutting board. Allow the bird to rest for 10-15 minutes to allow the juices to redistribute throughout the turkey resulting in a tender and moist smoked turkey!
Do NOT cover the turkey with aluminum foil when allowing it to rest. This will undo all the hard work put into making the skin crispy. If covered, the skin WILL become soggy.
Perfect side dishes
Most people already have their favorite side dishes they serve with their Thanksgiving turkey. However, if you are looking for some new side dishes to try which are guaranteed to impress your guests. Give these a try!
You should smoke a turkey for 3 hours and then turn the heat up to 350°F and cook until an internal temperature of 165°F. A total time of about 4 hours.
Not all meat is juicy when cooked low and slow. Poultry is best when cooked hot and fast. So we smoke at a low temperature for several hours while spritzing with chicken broth then turn the heat up to finish it off. This will give it a smoke flavor yet also remain juicy and moist.
Turn the heat up to at least 350°F at the end of smoking. If you cook a turkey low and slow until finished, it will have rubbery skin.
You can baste or spritz with chicken broth while smoking the turkey to help keep it moist as well as help crisp up that skin. The butter of this recipe will really get that skin crisp, so the spritzing is more to keep it from drying out.
Try smoking these recipes!
- 10-14 lb whole turkey (giblets removed)
- 3 gallons water
- 3 cups kosher salt
- 4 cups apple juice
- 2 cups dark brown sugar
- 2 sticks salted butter (softened)
- 6 cloves garlic (minced)
- 1 tablespoon black pepper (freshly cracked)
- 1 tbsp rosemary (chopped)
- 1 tablespoon thyme (chopped)
- 1 tablespoon sage (chopped)
- Pre-heat smoker to 225°F.
- Remove giblets from inside of turkey and rinse bird with fresh water.
- Brine chicken for 4-24 hours in a wet brine or simply rinse with fresh water. Add brine ingredients in a large pot and bring to a boil to dissolve salt & sugar. Remove from heat.
- Allow brine to cool COMPLETELY before adding & submerging turkey into liquid. Once finished, rinse with cool fresh water.
- Dry turkey with paper towels and tie the legs together with butcher twine or leave on plastic leg tie that comes with most turkeys.
- Add dry seasoning ingredients to the softened butter and mix well. Rub seasoned butter all over the turkey. Make sure to get both sides of the bird and in between the skin and breast meat.
- Lay turkey directly on grill rack breast side up and smoke for 3 hours. Spritz bird with chicken broth every 45 minutes beginning after the first 1 hour of smoking.
- Increase temperature to 350°F and cook until the internal temperature is 165°F when checked with an instant read thermometer, about another 1 hour.
- Let rest 10-15 minutes and serve.
- Tie turkey legs together to prevent the breast meat from cooking faster than the legs and thighs. If turkey came with plastic leg holders, leave on and use instead of twine.
- Use a fruit wood when smoking for best flavor.
- Use an electronic carving knife for ease.