A properly cooked turkey with all the trimmings is a true sight to behold. A real titan of the tabletop.
Unfortunately, cooking a 15lb thunder chicken takes up a lot of kitchen real estate and leaves precious little room in the oven for anything else.
Enter the humble electric smoker.
Smoking your turkey, as opposed to oven-roasting, frees up your oven to house the rest of the meal and turns your humble bird into a richly-flavored masterpiece. So, if you are low on kitchen space but big on serving up delicious new twists on festive favorites, read on to find out how an electric smoker is about to become your new best friend.
Step by step guide to smoking a turkey in an electric smoker
Once you’ve got your electric smoker plugged in a ready to go, it’s time to prepare your turkey. Now, you can just thaw your turkey out, shove it in the smoker for the requisite amount of time, and you will probably get a perfectly reasonable result.
If you wanted smoked turkey perfection, however, it’s always worth spending a little more time on your bird before it goes in your smoker, starting with choosing the right turkey for you.
1. Choose the perfect turkey
The first thing to figure out is how many hungry turkey eaters you’ll be hosting. One pound of turkey, once you’ve removed the bones and giblets, works out to about half a pound of delicious turkey meat per adult.
So, if you’re hosting 10-12 guests, you need a turkey that weighs around 10 to 12 pounds.
Turkeys also come in a range of types, from self-basting to heritage. For a full breakdown of exactly what those terms mean, check out our turkey buying and thawing guide.
There is a good chance that, like most Americans, you’ll be buying your turkey frozen, so the next step is to thaw your turkey while skillfully avoiding giving yourself food poisoning.
2. Thaw your turkey
Making sure you’re turkey is appropriately thawed out is vital to it cooking at a consistent rate and not growing unpleasant colonies of day-ruining bacteria. To make this as easy as possible, we have put together a detailed guide to thawing your turkey, but here are some salient facts to remember:
- You’re going to need around 24 hours of defrosting time for every 4-5lbs (1.8-2.2kg) of turkey to make sure it is properly defrosted.
- An entirely defrosted turkey can then sit in your refrigerator for two days before it needs to be cooked.
- Defrosting your turkey at room temperature is a terrible idea. At this temperature, colonies of bacteria like Salmonella or Campylobacter will multiply every 20 minutes.
- Washing your turkey in the sink does nothing but cover everything, including you, in bacteria.
- Attempting to defrost your turkey in your dishwasher is a great way to ruin a perfectly good dishwasher.
3. Brine and rinse
Brining is a method of making meat more tender by soaking it in a mixture of water, salt, and flavorings. This method is called ‘wet brining.’
While your turkey sits in its brine, the salt permeates the flesh of the bird, breaking down proteins and seasoning the meat. A good brining enhances the taste of smoked turkey and helps to keep it moist.
How to Brine
The traditional measurements for creating your brine are 1 cup of kosher or sea salt per 1 gallon of water. Adding the salt to a few cups of hot water first is the best way to dissolve it. You then add in the cold water afterward to bring the brine back down to at least room temperature.
With the base ready, it’s time to add extra flavor. The exact combination of herbs and spices you add to your brine is up to you, but some of the most common for poultry are garlic, paprika, sugar, vinegar, and thyme.
Once you’ve made your briney bath, you need to soak your turkey in it for around 1 hour per pound. While it’s soaking, you’ll need to cover it and put it in the refrigerator.
When the time is up, take the turkey out of the brine and rinse it thoroughly before patting it dry with paper towels. If you skip this step, you might find that the end product becomes unpleasantly salty when cooked.
Dry brining is an alternative to wet brining that doesn’t involve any water. If you don’t have anything big enough to hold gallons of water and a turkey, but still want to brine your bird, check out our guide to dry brining a turkey.
4. Season your turkey
Now that your turkey is brined, rinsed, and dried, it’s time to add those finishing flavor touches. You can be as bold as you like here, creating a spicy jerk turkey, a deep south cajun turkey, or just sticking to the old favorites of salt, pepper, granulated garlic, and granulated onion.
Just remember, you went to all the trouble of brining your turkey to distribute the salt throughout the meat evenly, so you don’t need to add extra salt to it now.
If you are looking for that extra crispy smoked turkey skin, place your bird on a rack with baking paper underneath it and put in the fridge to air-dry overnight. The excess moisture this step removes will give you delicate, crisp skin.
5. Smoke that bird
Once your turkey is brined and seasoned, it’s time to get it in the smoker.
Bring your smoker up to 350°F and wait for it to start producing smoke. Once you see the smoke, place the turkey inside, and set a timer for 30 to 40 minutes per pound of turkey you are smoking.
If your electric smoker doesn’t go up to 350°F just smoke as hot as it will go and then finish it in the oven at 450°F for 10 minutes at the end to help the skin crisp up.
This timeframe is only a guideline. Keep your instant-read thermometer handy and check the bird toward the end of the cooking time. Take it out of the smoker when the thermometer reads 165°F in the thickest part of the breast meat.
Once you take the bird out, move it onto a clean baking sheet, cover lightly in a tin foil tent, and let it rest for about 30 minutes before serving.
And there you have it – beautifully smoked turkey in five easy steps!
Why smoke a turkey in an electric smoker?
Well, the simple answer is, if you only have an electric smoker, use what you have!
Choosing to smoke your turkey in an electric smoker frees up space, making it feasible to cook a massive bird in a place with limited kitchen space, like a trailer or an RV.
While this is true of any smoker, the electric smoker has the benefit of you not needing to carry extra fuel and electricity being the most ubiquitous and widely available power source on the planet.
It’s all about convenience!
Top tips for smoking a turkey in an electric smoker
As you can see, smoking a turkey in an electric smoker is really quite easy and following the steps above will give you great results. However, we also have some optional extras you can use to really make your smoked turkey stand out.
What are the best types of rubs?
Rubs are generally divided between dry rubs and wet rubs. Dry rubs are made of dry ground ingredients like herbs and spices. Wet rubs are typically made of similar elements but with the addition of a liquid component, such as oil, fruit juice, beer or vinegar.
Because a smoked turkey cooks for a long time at a relatively low temperature, a wet rub is a great way to impart a rich deep flavor to your bird.
The low temperature of the smoker won’t immediately dry out or char the rub, and the liquid in the rub will capture a little bit more of those smoky flavors.
If you need some inspiration for your rub recipes, check out our list of the best turkey rub recipes.
For a real taste explosion, you could even try using a wet rub on the outside and dry rub in the turkey’s cavity.
Should you inject the turkey before smoking?
Injecting a turkey is precisely what it sounds like. You fill up a specially designed syringe, called an injector, with things like melted butter, duck fat, cognac, maple syrup, and lemon juice, and then inject it into the meat of the turkey to give it a flavor boost.
Injecting is usually brought up as an alternative to brining. Still, there is absolutely no reason you can’t both brine a turkey and inject it, as long you’re not adding extra salt with the injections.
The only benefit of choosing one over the other is that brining takes around 24 hours, and if you don’t have that kind of time, injecting your turkey is a much faster way to add extra flavor.
If this is your first time smoking a turkey, it’s probably best to pick either a brine and rub or brine and injection. You’re already adding an extra layer of taste from the smoking, and you don’t want to overpower your turkey. You can always adjust the flavors later after you’ve had a few practice runs.
What wood chips should I use?
Hickory and mesquite have stronger flavors, that can overpower the flavor of the turkey.
Wrapping it up
Smoking a turkey in an electric smoker is so easy and it produces such fantastic results. You can just set your temperature, put your well-brined bird in the smoker and get on with the rest of your day, safe in the knowledge that dinner is going to be something spectacular.
Do you have a favorite rub you like to use with smoked turkey? Perhaps you favor brining over injecting, or the other way round. We’d love it if you’d tell us about it in the comments below.