Thanksgiving is rapidly approaching! For many of us, this means it's time to prepare a turkey strategy for this year's celebration. We admit that we do love the traditional method of roasting a turkey, and we also enjoy a delicious, deep-fried bird (despite the obvious danger). But for those looking to take their turkey game to the next level, the perfect option might just be a smoked turkey. Before smoking a bird, there are a few things you need to know. Be warned, though, as these steps just might make you a Thanksgiving legend.

What Does It Mean to "Smoke" a Turkey?

turkey in smoker

Smoking a turkey is simply cooking the bird slowly over indirect heat for an extended period of time. Cooking over an open fire allows the smoke to naturally flavor the meat while it cooks. While the method does take a lot longer than roasting, it's worth it because the smoke gives the turkey a unique flavor and texture.

Slowly smoking a turkey keeps the moisture from evaporating too quickly, resulting in a melt-in-your-mouth combination of juiciness and tenderness. Cooking over high heat usually dries the meat out because it blasts out the moisture, which makes it chewy.

No matter what kind of grill or smoker you have, you can successfully smoke a turkey. As Hey Grill Hey notes, the important things to remember are to create indirect heat, maintain consistent temperatures, and add the wood smoke.

Types of Smokers

turkey in smoker

Whichever type of smoker you have determines the type of wood you need. Smoking on the grill calls for wood chips or chunks, while a pellet smoker uses wood pellets.

Easily found at grocery stores and hardware stores, wood chips are commonly used to smoke a turkey. Since they can easily be placed in foil and moved around, chips work for smoking on both gas and charcoal grills. Chips burn quickly, but you can easily toss more on the fire.

For beginners, wood chunks might be the better way to go. Chunks burn more slowly than chips, which allows more control over the turkey-cooking process.

For those with pellet grills, wood pellets are just as easy to use as chips. Simply toss them on to the fire when needed. Some pellet grills even have automated augers that will feed pellets into the pit when the thermostat tells it to do so. This will keep the heat consistent and create a clean smoke for delicious flavor without the need for babysitting.

Smoked Turkey Supplies

turkey with thermometer
  1. Turkey: Should be around 15 pounds or less and must be fully defrosted.
  2. Fuel: Before smoking the turkey, make sure to have plenty of gas, propane, or pellets.
  3. Smoking Wood: Usually consists of chips, chunks, or pellets.
  4. Drip Pan: This is necessary to catch the droppings from a juicy turkey.
  5. Meat Thermometer: Temperature is important!

Smoked Turkey Temperature

turkey with thermometer

A delicious smoked turkey needs indirect heat at consistent temperatures. If you have a dedicated smoker, set the temperature to 225 degrees and preheat before you begin. Then, follow the manufacturer's instructions to get an even smoke.

Ambient grill temperature should be 225 degrees, throughout the duration of the cook. If you are using a gas grill, leave half of the burners off and keep the other half at medium-low. Use a smoker box for the chips, which will generate smoke.

For a charcoal grill, preheat the coals until they are just ashed over. Then, dump them onto one far side of the grill and set the vents to 25% open. To generate smoke, place the wood chunks directly on the preheated coals.

No matter which method you choose, the goal is to have thin, swirling smoke (that is just lightly tinted blue) emitting from the grill vents.

For both food safety and for optimal juiciness, the safest internal temperature for a smoked turkey is 165 degrees. Start testing the turkey's internal temp about an hour before it's supposed to be done. All birds cook differently, so be sure to keep an eye on it.

Smoked Turkey Brine

raw turkey in brining solution in red bucket

If you purchase a pre-brined turkey, then you are ready to build your fire and start smoking. But you can also create a brine for your turkey to add even more flavor. A turkey brine with apple spice will not only add moisture and tenderness to your meat, it will also add nice fall flavors.

Brine the bird for at least an hour per pound in a large stockpot, zip-top bag, or small cooler. Be sure the entire turkey is submerged, and that the temperature stays below 40 degrees. Once your bird is brined, rinse it thoroughly so it doesn't end up too salty.

How to Prepare a Turkey for Smoking

turkey in brine with orange and garlic
  1. Remove the packaging from your completely defrosted turkey.
  2. Remove the neck and giblets from the inside cavity.
  3. Rinse the exterior with cold water.
  4. Using a paper towel, pat the turkey down on all sides.
  5. Tie the legs together with butcher's twine and tuck the wings tips behind the shoulder joint.
  6. Coat the exterior with olive oil or melted butter.
  7. Season on all sides with rub (if you didn't brine)

Turkey Tip: Don't stuff a smoked turkey. By the time the stuffing is cooked inside, the meat will be overcooked. However, stuffing the turkey with herbs, onions, or apples will add a nice fall flavor. Just don't pack it in too tightly so the air can circulate.

How Long to Smoke a Turkey?

When your smoker is preheated and ready, it's time to put the bird on the grill. There is no need for a roasting pan. Instead, place the turkey breast side up on the indirect heat side of the grill grate. For gas and charcoal grills that have slightly higher temperatures on one side, make sure to rotate the turkey frequently for even cooking.

At 225 degrees, plan on a cooking time of 30 minutes per pound. This is why it's best to avoid turkeys bigger than 15 pounds. Any bigger than that and the process will take too long, and the turkey will end up in the food safety danger zone.

Smoking a Bone-in Turkey vs. Smoking a Boneless Turkey Breast

sliced meat

All of these smoking methods are best for bone-in turkey. Not only does smoking a bone-in turkey lock in delicious flavor, but it also keeps it moist. However, if you have your heart set on smoking a boneless turkey breast, check out this recipe from Oh So Delicioso.

There is definitely more than one way to smoke a bird. There are also a plethora of delicious recipes for different brines and rubs to help you achieve the perfect turkey flavor. You can even choose to marinate your turkey before smoking.

Smoking a turkey takes more time and attention than traditional roasting, but the results are worth it. Be patient and let the smoke do its job. Your smoked turkey at Thanksgiving will be so mouth-wateringly delicious that everyone will ask you how you did it.

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