We’re sharing our top smoking turkey tips that will help you make a memorable and mouth-watering holiday feast. You’ll learn everything you need to have an amazing meal!
If you have friends coming over for a holiday meal, and you’re thinking of preparing a creative dinner for them. Last year was a blast, but you intend to up your game this year with a smoked turkey for them to enjoy.
Let’s get that smoker ready!
🦃 Advantages of Smoked Turkey
Have you ever wondered why folks prefer to have turkeys during Thanksgiving? It’s because these farm birds are large enough to serve the whole family and they were historically large enough for butchering in the late fall.
Over the years, people developed a lot of techniques to prepare turkeys during celebrations. The method that we will focus on is a long and slow smoking. We love to Spatchcock Turkey for tender and juicy meat.
Adding different varieties of wood for that deep, rich smoky flavor makes all the difference in the world!
Aim For Fresh and Well-Rounded Turkey
We prefer fresh turkeys over frozen ones. Unfortunately, you typically need to work with your butcher or local farmer’s market vendors and order those well in advance. Expect to pay a premium as well.
If you don’t have the time or money to pay for the organic, fresh turkey, don’t worry. With these tips and tricks, you’ll still have an amazing main course.
The United States Department of Agriculture suggests that fresh turkeys should be cooked and served a maximum of two days after purchasing them.
Before buying, choose one with a well-rounded breast. These are typically much juicier. I always try to choose smaller turkeys for the smoker, keeping them under 12 pounds.
It seems to be the sweet spot of requiring enough time on the smoker to get that wonderful flavor, but not too much time where it risks drying out.
How to Spot a Fresh Turkey
Look for a turkey that has a milky-white skin. If there are discolored blotches, it may indicate spoilage.
Check the sell-by date to make sure it is within the range.
If you are picking a frozen turkey, feel the packaging looking for soft spots where it may have defrosted.
Note: One year, I picked out a frozen turkey and didn’t realize until I was home that it had defrosted in the store. When I opened it up, it smelled rancid and I had to throw it away. Make sure it is fully frozen if you are picking a frozen one.
The best way to tell is to ask. Your butcher wants your repeat business and will be more than happy to steer you towards the freshest turkeys.
Buy Two Smaller Turkeys
Buying a big turkey if you expect a lot of people to attend your party is understandable. You obviously want everyone to have enough. So, if you’re expecting to feed around 14 people, you need a turkey that weighs at least 20 pounds. Before you run out and pick up a 20+ pound bird, there are a few factors you should consider.
A large turkey will take a lot more time to cook, and extended the smoking time may spell disaster. Prolonged exposure to heat could suck the juice out of the meat and result in a very dry turkey.
You will have to cook the turkey until every part of the bird reaches the minimum internal temperature of 180°F in the thigh and 170°F in the breast. Unfortunately, a larger bird will require more time and these parts of the turkey will not be done at the same time.
It also might be hard to fit such a large turkey on your smoker. My Large Big Green Egg easily handles a smaller turkey, but I am not too sure the bigger birds would work.
How do you solve these issues? Buy two smaller turkeys.
Two turkeys that weigh 12 pounds each will easily feed 16 people. If your smoker can’t accommodate two turkeys at once, either smoke one earlier, or make a grilled turkey first, and then smoke the second one. You may find that not all of your guests will enjoy the smoky flavors, and it is great to give them options.
Don’t Put Stuffing In Your Turkey
While it would be nice to put some nicely-chopped onions, garlic, and celery with some sausages into the turkey, stuffing this bird is counterproductive.
That’s because the stuffings will slow down the heat from getting to the inside of the turkey, extending the cooking time unnecessarily.
Spatchcock Your Turkey
Spatchcock (aka butterfly) is a technique where poultry has their backbone removed, and then is flattened by pushing it flat. As an interesting tidbit, the term is derived from the Irish phrase “dispatch the cock.” This is a technique that adds surface area to the bird, and substantially speeds up the cooking process.
We love this technique for butterflied chicken and spatchcock turkey.
By opening a turkey, you’re allowing heat to thoroughly cook more of the bird much faster. The shortened cooking time keeps the bird much juicier.
By laying the turkey flat, you are able to season both sides much easier than if it were still in the round form. Additionally, this increase in surface area will absorb the smoke flavors much quicker.
Since it will cook faster, make sure you adjust your schedule.
Tip: Make sure you have a solid set of poultry shears. The ribs along the backbone are thick in turkeys, and regular kitchen scissors may be tough to use. Alternatively, ask the butcher to spatchcock it for you.
Wet or Dry Brine
You can either wet brine or dry brine a turkey to add additional flavors and juiciness.
Bathing the turkey with brine doesn’t only enhance flavor but also helps to soften the meat.
Historically, brining has been the method used by people for hundreds of years before refrigeration was available. We don’t need to worry about brining for a preservation tool nowadays, but we still do it to add flavors and juiciness to traditionally dry parts of the turkey.
We made an apple cider wet brine for our turkey breasts, and you can easily modify the ingredients to suit your tastes. Our smoked turkey thighs were soaked in a beer brine, so you can see the range of flavors that can be added.
Also known as pre-salting, dry brining is a process of rubbing salt and other flavors into the turkey’s skin and meat. While this method doesn’t require water, the salt seals the pores and keeps the juices sealed in.
We show this technique in our dry brined whole smoked chicken recipe. It takes some planning as you’ll need to give enough time for the dry brine to do its job. If you are short on time, this may not be the best option.
Butter and Seasoning Rubs Make Turkeys Better
Applying butter or seasoning rubs make turkeys taste better.
Butter makes everything better, right? A nice turkey is no different. Pads of butter inserted between the skin and meat will slowly melt with the heat of the smoker and will serve as a binding agent to allow the smoke flavors to stick more easily to the bird.
You’ll also find that the butter will help the skin become more crispy and you’ll love that crispy, smoky turkey skin!
Tip: If you brined the turkey, the brine will have added salt to the meat. If you use a salted butter for this step, the end result might be a bit too salty. Plan accordingly and use less butter, or make sure to use an unsalted variety.
Since butter is made of milk, it may cause an issue for lactose-intolerant people and if you have a large crown coming, odds are someone may be impacted.
You can take your turkey up a notch by rubbing some seasonings on it. Herbs like rosemary, thyme, and sage mixed with salt can add a distinctive and organic taste to your turkey. You may use ready-made barbecue-flavored rubs if you want to save some time.
If you’re a bold and adventurous eater, consider rubbing a mixture of salt, cayenne pepper, paprika, as well as onion and garlic powder. This seasoning rub will surely spice up your holiday dinner. We used a Yucatan Rub for our Spatchcock Turkey. Be creative!
They say that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” However, in smoking turkey, herbs and spices may also better our hearts’ health too.
Choose the Right Smoker
Choosing the kind of smoker to get your turkey cooked depends on your personal preference. There are several smokers out there, but the most popular ones are designed to use wood chunks, chips or pellets.
It’s important to note that not every smoker cooks via direct heat. In fact, offset smokers operate using indirect heat so the flame doesn’t sit directly below the grate.
I prefer the Big Green Egg as it allows you to grill and smoke with just a couple of changes to the setup. Traegers and Masterbuilt are two of the most popular smokers.
If you only have a gas grill, don’t worry. You can still smoke using that by adding an inexpensive smoker box. This is a small, stainless steel box that you add wood chips to and the heat of the gas flames will create smoke.
Choose the Right Wood
Choosing the right wood for smoking turkeys is critical for a a successful meal. Too much smoke may leave the meal tasting more like smoke than turkey.
You should use woods like hickory, oak, mesquite, and others with strong flavors moderately and cautiously. Remember, a little goes a long ways!
If you are unsure which variety to use, I recommend you stick with mild fruit woods. I have a dedicated article on the best wood to smoke a turkey, but will summarize the top choices here as well.
Apple Wood is the go-to for folks looking to add some sweet flavor to their turkeys.
This smoke is very mild and adds a wonderful aroma to the bird.
Cherry Wood is a common variety used by pitmasters and chefs to smoke turkeys. The versatility of this wood is what makes it a favorite among many smoking enthusiasts. It isn’t too strong and it is easily found in BBQ specialty stores, online, or even at big box retailers.
Maple Wood leaves an amazing golden color to the turkey and is extremely mild. I highly recommend this if you are using an herbal seasoning on the bird.
You’ll find folks will mix the wood together to create their own custom blends.
Tip: Keep in mind that a little goes a long ways. The turkey will be on the smoker for quite a while and you don’t want large billowing smoke. That will overpower the flavor of the bird. Instead, a small, consistent trickle of smoke will give just enough flavor that will win over your guests!
Use a Rotisserie
From the French word rôtir, which means “to roast,” a rotisserie is a remarkable innovation that helps a lot of folks prepare deliciously smoked and well-cooked food.
This apparatus works by skewering the turkey with a long rod. The rod rotates at a slow, constant speed, to evenly cook and smoke the bird.
While you can cook meat using a manual rotisserie, using a motor-powered attachment kit will save you a lot of time and energy.
There is an attachment for Kamado-style grills that allow you to add the rotisserie to the Kamado Joe or Big Green Egg. Hey, it’s close to Christmas, so you might just need to buy yourself a gift!
Below are some of the reasons why you should consider having a rotisserie a part of your grilling and smoking tool kit:
- It provides well-distributed heat.
- A rotisserie is a fantastic tool for larger poultry.
- It helps the turkey remain juicy.
- The slow rotation of the rod likewise makes the turkey’s skin evenly browned.
- A rotisserie causes fats to drip into the tray, stopping it from soaking into the turkey.
Collect Juices With a Drip Pan
Use a drip pan when smoking the turkey to collect the drippings.
I use them to prepare a sauce or gravy for the mashed potatoes and the hint of smoky flavor adds a great flavor profile.
Drip pans will also make your job much easier by preventing juices from messing up the smoker. They’ll cut down your cleaning time significantly.
If you’re using a charcoal smoker, a drip pan prevents drippings from getting into the flame and will prevent flare-ups. A flare-up happens when the fats drip on to burning charcoal. It just takes a minute for a flare-up to ruin your meal.
I use a rack to hold the turkey out of the drippings. It also allows the entire surface area of the bird to be exposed and collect the smoke.
Plan Your Cooking Time and Temperature
Ready your smoker and wood chips because we’re about to take a look at how you can plan your cooking time and temperature.
So if you’re to smoke a 12-pound turkey, expect 3 to 4 hours of cooking time with the smoker set to 325°. Use a meat thermometer and remove when the internal temperature of the thigh reaches 165°F.
Lower smoking temperatures will cause this expected times to take a lot longer!
Smoking turkeys take careful planning and preparation.
Plan ahead for the time to defrost, season, and smoke the turkey. It can be an amazing meal with rich, earthy flavors, and we hope that the top smoking turkey tips we shared in this article help you in preparing an unforgettable and flavorful dinner with friends and family.