It’s that time of year again. Time to crank the smoker out of the garage, fire it up and get the bird in there. If you are a regular smoker, you probably
already know the basics, at least, but we’re going to let you in on a few close-held smoking secrets. Read on to find out how to get that bird from store to freezer to table, and beyond!
If you want your question answered quick, just click on the Contents below. Or continue reading for the complete info package.
How do you choose a good turkey for smoking?
If it’s a good turkey to roast, it’s a good turkey to smoke. There really isn’t any difference in which turkey will smoke better. Go with what you know. But if you don’t know much, we’ll try to remedy that ignorance a little bit here. Don’t take that personally. We know you know a lot about tax law or fixing cars or other stuff we don’t know. We just know a lot about cooking and we aim to share.
First things first: Plan where you’ll get your bird if you are aiming to have one for Turkey Day. You don’t want to be coming up short if the local store is out. You may need to reserve one with the store. My local store has a reservation card to fill out starting well before Halloween. Do it. Now.
So, how to choose a good turkey. Well, you can get a free range turkey from a local farm. If you can get one fresh and recently processed, you can skip the whole next step on thawing. Wouldn’t that be awesome. If you aren’t already in the know about local farms or you don’t live on one, do your homework now and get in touch with your local farm to reserve a bird. They’ll probably be processing right before Thanksgiving.
You can also hunt a turkey in the right season. Here in my neck of the woods, the shotgun season is a few weeks before and a few weeks after Thanksgiving, so I would have to freeze and unfreeze it in short order. If you can handle archery, then the season is pretty wide open. Wild turkey is yummy too and this is a good option if you are handy with a shotgun and you have a hunting license….and you are cool with handling all the processing involved.
But aside from these two options for some special people with connections (I’m just jealous), you will have to trot over to the local store and get one.
Here’s how to choose:
If your value is to have organic or free-range birds, you may be able to find these in a local Whole Foods or other natural foods store.
Aside from how your bird lived it’s life and what it ate, there is the question of how it was treated after processing. Some notable labels:
Natural – The bird was not treated with a brine solution or any salt prior to packaging. This bird will vary widely in flavor based on how it lived and what it ate. This bird can be more flavorful with a stronger turkey flavor. However, it will be more susceptible to drying out while smoking it and you must maintain temperatures carefully and not overcook it. If you choose this type of bird, you might want to brine it before smoking.
Kosher – This bird has been dry brined with salt. Dry brining helps the turkey retain moisture during the smoking process so this bird will be a little more forgiving and less likely to dry out as much as a natural bird if you end up overcooking it. It will be somewhat saltier and you will have to lay off some of the salt in your rub or basting sauce if you choose this type of bird.
Pre-brined – This bird has been injected with a saltwater solution prior to packaging. It is the most common type of turkey commercially available. The pre-brining process tends to make this turkey less flavorful and you end up paying the per pound price for salt water weight as well. However, the pre-brined turkey will be less likely to dry out during the smoking process. If you are looking for the easiest route to a moist turkey, this one may be right for you. Consider using a rub.
How do you thaw a turkey?
So you bought your turkey when they first went on sale at the supermarket. Getting ahead of the game is good. But to stay ahead of the game, you need to plan your holiday smoking well ahead of time. Truly, you likely aren’t easily going to find fresh turkey that hasn’t been frozen so you aren’t going to get to skip this step. Sorry.
You do need to plan to thaw your turkey several days before you want to put it in the smoker. Here are some tips on thawing your turkey, from longest thaw time to shortest:
1. Longest Method
Thawing in the fridge
This is the best method, in my opinion. And you don’t have to unwrap that big boy.
Place your frozen turkey in the fridge in a large foil pan to catch any liquids that ooze out. And they will, so don’t skip the pan unless you want to clean red goo from the lower shelves in the back of the fridge.
Let it rest there for 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey weight.
You have to do some math. Here’s a nifty little formula I made just for this:
T = WB/5
- WB is the weight of the turkey and
- T is the time required to defrost (number of days).
You know I’m a technical geek now, don’t you. Just divide weight by 5.
- If you have a 20 pound bird, thawing will take about 5 days.
- If your bird is 15 pounds, it will take nearly 4 days.
See how I did that?
2. Shortest Method
Thawing in the microwave
Uh-oh? Did you forget you have to thaw that thing? Here’s the quickie method defrost, but it may not work for you so don’t get too excited.
Unwrap your frozen turkey. Make sure you have removed any metal fasteners that might be on your turkey. Do NOT skip this step. Bad things happen when you put metal in the microwave. You know this.
Place your turkey in the microwave in a microwave safe baking dish. Try to get the giblets out now. You might not be able to. Remove the giblets from the cavity as soon as you can get them out. Check after every 6 minutes or so.
Use your microwave manufacturer’s recommendations on thaw times and power levels. My microwave has these listed on the inside of the microwave door. It is around 6 minutes per pound, but will vary based on microwave power. And you will need to rotate the turkey quite a few times.
This is not my favorite method. It may not be practical for larger birds. You need to make sure there is some space around the turkey. It can’t be touching the walls of the microwave.
If you are still in a big hurry, try the next method. It should get you finished before tomorrow morning if you can manage to pass the night with just 25-minute cat naps.
3. Somewhere in between Method
Thawing in cold water
This is the most labor-intensive thawing method, but it could be your method if you want to go faster than the fridge, but you can’t fit the turkey in your microwave.
Place your frozen turkey in a large container and cover with very cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes. Do this for an hour for every 2 lbs of bird weight. If you have a 20 pound turkey, it will take 10 hours and you will have to do 20 water changes. Do I need to do another formula?
Warning: Do not thaw your turkey by leaving it out on the counter. Some parts will still be frozen while other parts will come up to room temperature and can grow dangerous bacteria. Stick with the methods above. Just say NO to botulism.
While you can roast a partially frozen turkey in the oven (and it will take longer), you do not want to smoke a partially frozen turkey. So plan well to have your turkey completely thawed in time to be ready to smoke. It will keep another two days in the fridge after it is completely thawed so add a day to your plan just to be safe. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
How do you prepare a turkey for smoking?
To brine or not to brine? Wet or dry? These are the questions.
Wet brining is a process of soaking the turkey in a salt solution in the refrigerator for several hours up to a couple days. The point of brining is to infuse the meat with extra moisture so that it will not dry out in the smoking process.
Dry brining has a similar purpose but is done by coating the turkey with a layer of kosher salt and letting it rest in the refrigerator for anywhere from an hour or overnight, just like doing a marinade.
Some commercially available turkeys, like Butterball are already pre-brined, so check your labels. If you don’t want to pay for salt water weight, don’t buy a pre-brined turkey. Like we said before, a pre-brined turkey is going to be easier to keep moist, but that isn’t everything. Sometimes they have less flavor.
It is not essential to brine your turkey, so only do this if you want to and you feel it is necessary. Surprisingly, it doesn’t really make your turkey taste extra salty, like you might think. But if you are watching your sodium intake, this may not be your best option either.
If you do brine, you should use kosher salt. Table salt will make your turkey too salty. You can also add flavors (herbs/spices/garlic) to your brine solution or mixture if you like…or not.
Just remember: you’ll need a large container to put the turkey and brine solution in, and you’ll need to move some racks in your fridge and clear out some space. If you’re lucky, you have an extra fridge in the garage for stuff like this. Try to put it on the bottom of the fridge so you don’t break the shelves, because at 8.34 lbs/gal for water and the weight of the bird and the container, you risk busting your shelves. Dry brine, anyone?
If you still want to wet brine….
Here are couple of good recipes for brine solution:
This one is from the Pioneer Woman. I just love her. I’ve never tried a bad recipe from her. This one leans sweeter, but it’s got fresh rosemary….what’s not to love about that?
This one is yummy, with a little sweet and a little savory. It will add tons of flavor to your meat:
Don’t think you’re up to wet brining? You can try dry brining.
Basic dry brine recipe:
For every 5 lbs of turkey weight use:
- 1 T. Kosher salt
- 1-2 tsp of herbs of your choice
Spread under the skin of the turkey and in the cavity. Place uncovered in refrigerator for 24 hrs up to 72 hours. Rinse and pat dry before smoking. At this point you can spread softened butter or olive oil under the skin and in the cavity and season it with more herbs or a rub of your choice.
Seasoning the turkey
After thawing and brining (if you did that), rinse the turkey in cold water and pat dry. Run your hands up under the skin to separate it from the meat.At this point, you can rub softened butter all around the meat under the skin. This will help keep your turkey from drying out in the smoker.
Spread your prepared rub liberally up under the skin and around the cavity of the bird.
Here are a couple of my favorite seasoning rubs for turkey:
This one has a little kick of spice. Yumm!!
This one is a little more traditional. It uses Herbs de Provence, but they tell you how to pull this together from what you already have in the spice cabinet so you don’t have to buy Herbs de Provence and then not use them again! You can skip the part about roasting cuz you’re smokin’.
If you don’t do anything else, you can rub the turkey with olive oil and some salt and pepper. My brother doesn’t put anything on his turkey before he smokes it in our granddad’s old smoker. It is still yummy. So this step is arguably optional, but lots of people do it. Can’t hurt.
Now you are ready to put this turkey into the smoker.
How do you prepare the smoker?
For smoking a turkey, you will need to preheat your smoker. Add your charcoal if using a charcoal smoker and monitor temperatures, or set your internal temperature on your gas or electric smoker to the desired cooking temperature (see below for temps) and watch it until it comes up to cooking temps.
You don’t need to add the wood chips right away, unless you are using mesquite, in which case you might want to add those early and let the smoke become clear.
What kind of wood chips do you use for smoking turkey?
There are a number of woods that will work for smoking turkey. Mostly this is a matter of preference. If you are an experienced smoker, you will already have a good idea of what is your favorite wood for turkey. If you are using a rub, it would be good to think of what flavor will compliment your rub.
If you want a sweeter, lighter flavor, you can use a light wood like apple, cherry or pecan. If you want a robust flavor, you might try hickory, oak or mesquite. Make sure your wood is well-seasoned for best results. You should be pretty safe on this count if you used wood chips purposely packaged for smoking.
Should you soak your wood chips?
This is a burning question. Pun intended. There are a lot of different opinions on this.
First, if you are using a commercially produced smoker, check the manufacturer’s recommendations. Some manufacturers explicitly say NOT to smoke your chips. They have their reasons.
Some people like to soak their chips before putting them into the smoker. If you have smaller chips, you can use this method and it will help the chips to not burn up as quickly. Soak them in water for 4 hours up to 2 days. If you have larger chunks, you don’t really have to do this. You can just put them in there dry.
You don’t have to smoke the turkey the entire time it is cooking. A couple good hours of smoke production should be enough to get a nice smokey flavor. This is something to play around with, so plan on smoking again for Christmas. It’s like baking. Not rocket science, but a little practice will make you better, I promise.
How do you place the turkey in the smoker?
Some of this will depend on the type of smoker you are using. The most important thing is to make sure the turkey has adequate space around it so that smoke and heated air can circulate for even cooking.
In any case, you generally want to have the turkey breast-side up. You should pin the wings close to the body of the turkey with string or a toothpick. You can also stretch the neck skin over the cavity opening and secure it to further maintain moisture.
When cooking a turkey, you will probably want to collect the drippings to make gravy, so you should put a large pan below the turkey to catch drippings.
You can add water to this pan to further moisten the meat as it cooks. If your smoker already has a large enough drip pan, you may be able to use that instead of adding a pan. Some smokers, like the Old Smokey Electric Smoker, do not require the addition of any water due to being very well sealed.
How do you set the smoker for a turkey?
Go ahead now and add your wood chips, if you haven’t already. If you are using an electric or gas smoker, you can set the internal temperature to the desired cooking temperature (see below).
To determine how long to smoke a turkey per pound of meat, you will need to decide the temperature you want to cook with and how fast you want to cook the meat.
Generally speaking, slower is better, but if you have a very large bird, you do not want to cook too slowly. There is a possibility that bacteria can grow within the meat if it is allowed to remain at lower temperatures too long.
So here’s our recommendations on how long to smoke a turkey:
|Size of Turkey||Smoker Temperature||Smoking Time per pound|
|less than 15 lbs||235°F||30 min|
|less than 15 lbs||250°F||25 min|
|more than 15 lbs||300°F||15 min|
How long do you smoke a turkey breast?
Some of you white meat lovers may just be purchasing a turkey breast. Most of the recommendations for smoking a whole turkey apply here, however, you will need to monitor the temperatures closely.
As a bonus, I’m including information on how long to smoke a turkey breast:
|Smoker Temperature||Smoking Time per pound|
Turkey breast should be smoked until the internal temperature reads 165F.
Do you need to baste the turkey during smoking?
It is not essential to baste your turkey during the smoking process, however, if you want to add a flavorful sauce or coating, you can. Depending on the sauce, you can baste your turkey every 45 minutes or so. Or you can wait and do it once or twice during the last hour of smoking.
At what temperature is the turkey done?
You should check the internal temperature of the turkey a little earlier than you think it should be done, according to the smoking times listed above. If you have a built in meat temperature probe on your smoker, this is the best thing. Then you don’t have to open the smoker to check the temperature. Make sure you place the thermometer deep into the thickest part of the meat, but not touching the bone.
If you do not have a built in meat temperature probe, I really recommend getting a remote one, or one with a cord you can put outside the smoker, so you don’t have to open the smoker. It really slows down the process if you have to open the smoker, then it has to heat back up to temperature again after you close it. A remote or corded external thermometer will allow you to avoid this problem.
In any case, take care to get a good, accurate meat temperature. You can take the temperature of the turkey meat by placing the thermometer into the crease between thigh and breast and pushing it deep into the thigh meat.
When that temperature is a minimum of 165F, then you can remove your bird from the smoker. If you cook it to 175F that is OK too, but you might be drying it out much past this.
Should I rest the turkey?
It’s already dead, so it isn’t tired. No really, yes, rest. Rest is good. Allowing the turkey to sit allows the meat juices to distribute throughout the bird, making a moister finished product. There are several ways to do this. You can just wrap the turkey in aluminum foil and allow it to sit on the counter for 15 minutes or so. You can also wrap it in foil and place it into an empty cooler if you need to keep it warm longer. You can also wrap it in kitchen towels after the foil.
Can I carve the turkey now?
Yes, you can carve the turkey now. It’s going to be yummy. Let us know how it went in the comments below.
What’s the best way to save leftovers?
Leftovers from the turkey are always a great bonus. Send some home in a care package with the relatives. Then slice the rest of the turkey and wrap it in aluminum foil or plastic wrap and store it in the refrigerator for up to 48 hours. You can also freeze cooked turkey, but it will change the consistency a bit. Pick the small bits off the bones and you can freeze these in plastic or glass containers to make turkey a la king or stir fry.
Don’t throw away that carcass! Boil the bones and leftover bits to make broth. Throw in the giblets if you didn’t already use these. I would remove the smoked skin first. Cover turkey parts with water, bring to a boil and simmer a long time until liquid is reduced by half, then top off the water and do this one more time. Strain and freeze the broth or use it immediately. You can also make the broth in a crock pot. Turn it on and let it go for 24 hours.
Serving smoked turkey at your Thanksgiving feast shouldn’t take a lot of guesswork. That’s why we’ve put together this article to give you the information you need to smoke your turkey successfully. If you have further questions, please let us know in the comments below.
If you have smoked your own turkey, please let us know your preferred methods. As always, we’d love to hear from you!