Despite owning several smokers, when it comes time to cook the turkey, I find I almost always end up firing up my pellet grill.
Smoking a turkey on the pellet grill is the easiest way to get a perfectly cooked bird with crispy skin and a subtle smoky flavor.
It’s also a great way to free up space in your kitchen during busy holiday prep time.
Pellet grill smoked turkey
The number one complaint I hear about smoked turkey (or any poultry, for that matter) is rubbery skin.
This happens when the temperature never gets hot enough to crispen and render the fat in the skin properly.
To avoid this, I always like to start low and slow, right around 225°F, and then ramp the temperature up to 350°F to finish.
This technique is easy on a pellet grill where you can dial in the temperature and make a quick adjustment without fussing around lighting more fuel.
If this is your first time using a pellet grill, read our article on how to use a pellet grill in 9 simple steps. Then come back and you’ll be ready to smoke a turkey.
How do you keep turkey moist in a pellet smoker?
I think one reason people are hesitant about smoked turkey in general is they believe it will dry out the meat. The main way we keep turkey moist in the pellet grill is by brining the turkey beforehand.
Using a wet brine is the key to getting a flavorful and juicy turkey. Your fresh turkey sits in water flavored with salt, herbs, and other seasonings for up to 24 hours.
Another option is to dry brine a turkey. It’s essentially a wet brine without the water. The dry brine includes rubbing salt on the uncooked turkey and letting this absorb into the meat overnight.
If you’re short on time, consider injecting instead like we did in our cajun-style smoked turkey.
What is the best temperature to smoke a turkey?
For the best smoked turkey, we recommend smoking it at 225°F. We then crank this to 350°F at the end so you get the crispiest skin.
How long does it take to smoke a turkey?
For this smoked turkey recipe, we’re smoking according to temperature, not time. This is because the cook time can vary depending on both the turkey size and the grill type. So we recommend using a good thermometer and taking the turkey off the pellet smoker once the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees.
But at 225 degrees, the general rule is that it takes about 30 minutes to smoke per pound of turkey. Spatchcocking the turkey though does make it cook faster.
What you’ll need to smoke turkey on a pellet grill
The ingredients for this smoked turkey recipe are super simple. First, you’ll need a 10 to 12-lb turkey. Smaller turkeys tend to have better flavor and cook more evenly. If you have a frozen turkey, follow our step-by-step guide to thawing a frozen turkey.
Then you need a rub. I’m using my smoked turkey rub. It’s a perfect blend of sweet and savory notes, with brown sugar, thyme, rosemary, mustard powder, smoked paprika, and garlic powder. Note that the brown sugar does caramelize the skin and make it appear darker. It’s not burned, we promise.
Anyway, feel free to experiment and use any sort of rub or seasoning. You can even keep things simple and just use salt and pepper when smoking turkey. Here are 8 other smoked turkey rub recipes we love and recommend.
The last ingredient is unsalted butter for basting. People ask if you should spray turkey while smoking. While you can spray the smoked turkey with cooking oil, butter is just that little bit better.
- Pellet grill – I used my Pit Boss 1600. But this recipe works great on a Traeger or any wood pellet grill. Just make sure you have enough space to fit the turkey and check if you’ll need to remove any warming racks.
- Kitchen shears – I like to spatchcock the turkey, so some nice shears will make it much easier to remove the backbone.
- Meat thermometer or probe – You don’t want to overcook turkey so make sure you have a good thermometer like a Thermapen.
- Brining container – You need a container or bucket capable of holding the turkey and two gallons of water, plus herbs and spices.
What pellets to use for turkey
For this recipe, I used cherry wood pellets from Bear Mountain. You can’t go wrong sticking with any of the common smoke woods like pecan, maple, or apple.
Some people like to use oak or mesquite, although the latter can pack a bit more punch. We have a whole article on the best wood for smoking turkey if you want to learn more.
How to smoke a turkey on a pellet grill
1. Brine the turkey for 24 hours
Most people only smoke one turkey a year, so you might as well pull out all the stops to make it as good as you can.
If you don’t have the time or just can’t be bothered, you can skip this step. But at the bare minimum, I would recommend sprinkling the spatchcocked turkey with kosher salt and letting it sit in the fridge for a few hours before applying the rest of the rub.
We have a smoked turkey brine recipe you can use, but the exact ingredients aren’t crucial. I like to use a mixture of salt, sugar, spices, fresh herbs, and citrus.
Leave the turkey in the brine mixture for 24 hours. When you are ready to move on to the next step, remove the turkey from the brine and wipe it down with paper towels.
If you have extra time you could place the turkey in the fridge for a few hours to help dry the skin out. This helps the skin get crispy, but I don’t think it’s required.
2. Spatchcock the turkey
If you want that traditional-looking Thanksgiving turkey you could skip this step. But I find spatchcocking has so many advantages.
You can get a more even coating of rub across the whole bird, it cooks faster, and more of the surface can absorb smoke.
To spatchcock a turkey:
- Lay the bird breast side down and find the backbone.
- Using kitchen shears or a sharp boning knife, cut along both sides of the spine until you have removed the backbone.
- Now flip the bird breast side up. Place your hands on the middle of the breast and press down with some force to flatten the bird.
You can hold on to the backbone for making stock or delicious gravy.
3. Season the turkey
Start by applying a light coating of olive oil to help the rub stick and then apply a generous, even coating of your turkey rub.
I love using my smoked turkey rub, which combines the herby elements of a poultry rub with some more typical barbecue flavors.
Be sure to apply the rub all over, lifting the wings and legs to get a nice coating of rub across every surface.
3. Fire up the smoker to 225°F
Allow the rub to sit on the turkey while you get your pellet smoker up to temperature. Then set the whole turkey on the grill grate as pictured.
The first stage of the cook is all about getting some smoke flavor into the whole turkey while gently bringing up the internal temperature.
You could go as high as 250°F for this step, but I find on most pellet smokers that the level of smoke really drops off once you get above a grill temperature of 225°F.
If you have a smoke boost feature on your pellet grill, this would be a good time to use that.
4. Crank up the heat to crispen the skin
Once your turkey has been smoking for at least an hour, I like to bump the temperature on my pellet grill up to 350°F for the final stage of the cook.
At this temperature, the pellet grill will be producing very little smoke, so all we’re trying to do is get the skin nice and crisp before taking it off for a quick rest.
Basting the skin a few times with melted butter helps get it nice and crispy and develops a better color.
Once the internal temperature of the breast measures around 160°F you can remove it and cover it loosely with foil. Don’t wrap too tight, as you’ll make the skin go soggy after working so hard to make it crisp.
After resting for 15 minutes, the turkey breast will be a perfectly safe 165°F and you are ready to carve and serve.
Follow our step-by-step guide on how to carve a turkey and you’ll be set!
Before you go… you may also like to check out our 15 tips for smoking a whole turkey. Combine these tips with this delicious turkey recipe and you’re guaranteed to have your best Thanksgiving dinner yet.
Pellet Grill Smoked Turkey
- 1 12lb turkey See note 1
- 4 tbsp Smoked Turkey Rub See note 2
- 4 tbsp unsalted butter For basting
For the brine
- 2 gallons water Less if you plan on cooling down with ice
- 1 ½ cups kosher salt
- 2 cups brown sugar
- 3 tbsp black pepper
- 3 oranges cut into wedges
- 3 lemons cut into wedges
- 5 garlic cloves
- 4 tbsp fresh rosemary
- 4 tbsp fresh thyme
To brine your turkey (optional)
- Bring one gallon of water to a boil in a large pot and mix in the rest of the brine ingredients. Stir together until dissolved.
- Add the other gallon of water and stir. If the brine is still warm you can top up with ice until cool.
- Place uncooked turkey in with the brine in a large cooler with ice or a container large enough to hold the turkey and brine for 24 hours.
To smoke your turkey
- Remove turkey from the brine, dry with paper towels. There is no need to wash the turkey.
- Spatchcock the turkey by cutting down both sides of the backbone with kitchen shears or a sharp knife. Flip the turkey over and press down on the middle of the breast with bone hands unil flat.
- Apply a light coating of olive oil, then apply rub, making sure to lift wings and legs to get an even rub application.
- Fire your pellet smoker up to 225°F. I used cherry wood pellets, but any fruit wood will work. Place the turkey breast side up on your grill grates.
- Once the turkey breast measures 130°F, crank the temperature of your pellet grill up to 350°F for the final stage of the cook.
- Baste the skin a few times with melted butter, and then remove once the breast measures 160°F. Cover loosely with foil and rest for 15 minutes before carving.