This smoked turkey recipe is a great twist on the classic Thanksgiving roast turkey.
Spatchcocking is a great way to cook turkey as it speeds up the cooking time and allows you to apply a nice, even coating of delicious herb rub.
You have plenty of freedom to customize with this recipe, so we’ve broken it down into a step by step process, or you can skip right to the recipe.
Supplies you’ll need
You’ll need to make sure you have a few things handy before you get started.
- A fresh or thawed turkey – Allow 24 hours in the fridge for every 4 pounds, so a 12 pound turkey will take 3 full days to thaw properly.
- Fuel – depending on your smoker make sure you have enough charcoal, propane or pellets.
- Smoking wood – Apple or cherry both work great, check out our post on the best woods for smoking turkey for the full list.
- A meat injector – Injecting is a great way to get some more flavor and moisture into the bird.
- Poultry shears or a sharp knife – Makes it much easier to spatchcock the turkey.
- Drip pan for gravy – Even if you’re not making gravy, you’ll want a pan to catch the dripping to keep everything clean.
- Meat thermometer – A dual probe remote thermometer like the Smoke is best so you can see exactly when the turkey breast hits 165°F.
- Fat separator jug – Not essential but makes removing the fat from the gravy a lot easier.
Smoked turkey prep work
Cooking a whole turkey can feel intimidating, especially if it’s your first time.
The good news is you can get a lot of the work out of the way early.
I recommend getting the rub, injection, and gravy (if you’re making it) ready ahead of time so you can focus on smoking the turkey.
You can even do this the night before if you need to make an early start.
1. Assemble the gravy tray
I like to place all of the dry gravy ingredients in an aluminum tray and then set it aside until the smoker is ready. The tray will be much easier to move this way, and you’ll avoid spilling liquid all over yourself.
- The vegetables can be roughly chopped as you’re going to be discarding everything except the liquid at the end.
- There’s plenty of room to customize the gravy so if you want to use white wine or water instead of chicken stock that’s fine.
- The reason you leave the skin on the onions is that they have a pigment in them that gives your gravy a richer, more appealing color.
- Don’t add salt until the very end.
- When you take the turkey out of the bag you’ll be pouring the juices into the gravy, as well as the backbone.
2. Get the dry rub ready
I really like this herb rub from amazingribs.com on turkey as it gives it a beautiful crust and mild flavor that won’t put anyone off.
For this recipe, I modified the rub a little by leaving out the crushed sage and using fresh sage leaves which I slid under the skin of the turkey around the breast.
- Mix all the dry ingredients together in a small bowl.
- If you have a spice grinder or blender give the ingredients a blitz to turn it into a powder.
- Mix four tablespoons of the rub with olive oil to make a wet rub paste.
- You don’t need to add salt to the rub, because in most cases the turkey will have already been brined.
Feel free to play around with the rub. A more typical barbecue rub that’s sweet with a little bit of heat will also work wonderfully.
3. Get the turkey injection ready (optional)
This step is optional, especially if your bird has been well brined. Some people find the taste of injection overpowers the flavor of the smoked turkey.
To get the injection ready just melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat, add the remaining ingredients and stir until everything is well combined.
Getting the turkey ready for the smoker
Take your turkey out of the fridge and carefully remove it from its packaging.
If you are making gravy, pour the juices from the packaging into the tray of vegetables.
Depending on the type of turkey you bought, you may find the neck and giblets inside the cavity. Add these to your gravy as well.
If you brined your turkey, give it a rinse under cold water.
1. Spatchcock the turkey
Spackcocking (aka butterfly) a turkey has several advantages:
- It speeds up the cooking process as there is no cavity.
- Allows more surface area on the turkey to brown which equals more flavor.
- Allows the turkey to cook more evenly so you don’t end up with dry breast.
- It makes it easier to apply seasoning all over the bird.
It might not look like the traditional style turkey, but I’ll take taste over looks any day.
To spatchcock a turkey:
- Place the turkey breast side down on a large clean chopping board or butcher block
- Starting at the neck end, use a sharp boning knife or some poultry scissors to cut along the side of the backbone towards the legs. Try and take your time, and you may need to use a little force to cut through some bones. If you hit a lot of resistance, you can take the knife/scissors out and start cutting from the other end and you should get through fine.
- Repeat the process on the other side of the backbone.
- Add the backbone to the gravy pan.
- Make a small cut on the neck end of the breast bone, and then flip the bird over and press down with your palms so the bird is flat and spread out.
Trim any excess fat or skin from around the cavity. It’s a good idea to wear gloves, as the tiny bones around the backbone can be razor-sharp.
2. Applying the rub
Before you apply the rub, use paper towels to dry all around the turkey, being sure to dry under the wings and inside any nooks and crannies.
You want the turkey to be as dry as possible to help the skin go nice and crispy.
If you have dry brined the turkey in the fridge overnight, you may not need to do this.
To apply the rub
- Start by placing the turkey breast side down
- Give the turkey a good spray with olive oil. This isn’t essential if you are using the rub paste, but it will help the rub stick if you are using a dry rub, and will help the skin brown.
- Spread approximately two tablespoons of the herb rub all around the underside of the turkey, being sure to get a nice even coating.
- Flip the bird over carefully, and now we want to get some of the wet rub under the skin to help that beautiful flavor penetrate the meat.
- Starting at the neck (wing end), slide your fingers under the skin and push down to create a little bit of space. Be careful not to break the skin, although it is quite sturdy.
- Pour in some of the rub and use your fingers to spread it around and push it down towards the thigh.
- Repeat the process on the other side, and then spread the rub all around the outside making sure to get an even coating all around the wings and drumsticks.
- If you have some fresh sage leaves, slide a few under the skin to help flavor the meat.
3. Injecting the turkey
You can be quite liberal with your injecting. Be sure to hit it in both breasts, drumstick, and thighs.
Getting your smoker ready
The key to smoking poultry is to cook at a higher temperature. The usual 225-250°F range won’t give you nice crispy skin.
I recommend 300-325°F for turkey, although anything over 275°F will do the trick.
I smoked this turkey on my Weber Smokey Mountain. To set up the smoker I lit a full chimney of charcoal and poured it into my Smokey Mountain once it was ashed over. We also have a guide to smoking a turkey in an electric smoker.
I added another full chimney of unlit briquettes on top of the lit briquettes.
This was probably a little bit overkill, but it was a cold day and I didn’t want to run out of fuel before the turkey was finished.
Add two fist sized chunks of mild smoke wood like apple.
Depending on how long it takes you to get your smoker ready, you can start this process and then go back to getting your turkey ready.
If you’re making gravy, place the tray in your smoker. A useful tip is to wait until the dry ingredients are safely placed in the smoker before pouring in the liquid ingredients.
Smoking the turkey
Once your smoker is up to 300-325°F add your turkey breast side up.
A small turkey like this one that has been spatchcocked is only going to take 1.5-2 hours cooking at this temperature.
See the section on turkey cooking time further down for more information.
If you are using a smoker with different levels like the
After an hour on the smoker we’re going to hit the turkey with a simple butter herb and garlic baste to help the skin get nice and crispy.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan and then add a few cloves of garlic and a bunch of fresh herbs (thyme, sage and rosemary) and cook on low for a few minutes to flavor the butter.
Use a basting brush or mop to gently drip the butter on to the turkey. You can spread it around if you want but I find this just washes the rub off.
This is also a good time to insert a thermometer probe into the thickest part of the breast.
Just make sure you aren’t touching bone as this will put the temperature reading way off.
Keep smoking until the breast hits 165°F internal. You can hit it once more with the butter baste although it shouldn’t be required for nice crispy skin.
Carving and serving the turkey
Depending on the size of your turkey, actually getting it off the smoker can be a bit of a mission.
Place your turkey on a large cutting board or butcher block and bring it inside.
You don’t need to worry about resting your turkey for a set amount of time, and you definitely don’t want to tent it with foil as the steam will soften the skin.
If you’re worried about resting, I find that the time it takes to get the gravy pan inside and get everything ready is plenty.
Getting the gravy ready
If you are making gravy, now is the perfect time to finish it off.
Start by discarding the backbone and any other large chunks, before straining the liquid through a colander.
If you have a fat separator jug use that to quickly separate the unwanted fat.
You could serve that liquid as a thin jus, or reduce it on the stove until it gets a little bit more concentrated.
I like my gravy a little thicker though, so I make a medium roux with butter and flour in a pan, before stirring in the gravy.
How to carve a turkey
There are lots of different methods and guides for carving a turkey. I like to carefully remove the thigh and drumsticks before separating them, and then take the wings off.
This makes it much easier to remove the breasts before slicing them.
To carve the turkey:
- Start with the turkey breast side up on a large cutting board with the legs facing you
- With a sharp knife carefully remove the leg and thigh from one side. If you lift up the leg with one hand you can use the other to carefully slice the skin which should make it easier to remove the leg and thigh from the bird.
- Separate the drumstick from the thigh by cutting through the joint that connects them.
- Pull back the wings and cut at the joint
- Repeat the process on the other side
- I find it easier to remove each breast whole and then slice into sections so each piece has a little skin attached. Just slide your knife down one side of the backbone, and then turn at the bottom and cut towards you.
- One removed, slice the breast into individual portions.
Depending on how many people you are feeding you can cut the meat from the thigh, but I like to serve it whole.
For more tips check out our post how to carve a turkey.
How to serve the turkey
I like to arrange the turkey portions on a platter so that each person can grab what they like.
You can pour a little of the gravy over the top, although you might want to just serve it on the side so people can choose.
Side dishes will depend on the time of year. For a Thanksgiving feast (or anytime really) you can’t go wrong with Stuffing Muffins.
This recipe from Amazingribs is worth checking out.
If you decided to make gravy, you’ll also probably want some mashed potatoes to help soak it all up.
- 9 lb turkey
- ½ tsp kosher salt per pound of meat unless the turkey has been brined or is self-basting
- Olive oil spray
- 4 tbsp rub Depending on the size of the bird you may need more or less
- 4 leaves fresh sage
For the butter injection
- 3 tbsp butter
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- ½ cup chicken broth
- ½ tsp garlic powder
- ½ tsp black pepper
- ½ tsp salt
For the turkey baste
- 3 tbsp butter
- 3 cloves garlic slightly crushed
- 1 hand full fresh thyme, rosemary & sage leaves
For the rub
- 1 tbsp dried parsley
- 1 tbsp dried rosemary
- 1 tbsp dried thyme
- 1 tbsp dried oregano
- 1 tbsp dried basil
- 1 tbsp dried crushed bay leaf
- 1 tbsp black pepper freshly ground
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 2-4 tbsp olive oil
For the gravy
- 1 quart chicken broth
- 1 cup apple juice
- 2 onions skin on, cut into chunks
- 2 ribs celery cut into 2 inch pieces
- 1 tbsp dried thyme
- 2 dried bay leaves
Making the injection
- Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat.
- Add the lemon juice, chicken broth, garlic powder, black pepper, and salt and cook on low for a few minutes stirring frequently.
- Set aside until just before the turkey is ready to go on the smoker.
Making the baste
- Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat.
- Add the garlic and fresh herbs and cook on low for a few minutes, stirring frequently until nice and fragrant. Set aside.
Making the rub
- Mix the dry ingredients together and blend into a powder
- Add olive oil and stir to form a wet paste
Smoking the turkey
- Preheat your smoker to 325°F and just before you add the turkey, add two fist-sized chunks of mild smoke wood e.g. apple or cherry.
- Spatchcock the turkey by cutting out the backbone then making a small cut along the breast bone. Flip the turkey so it is breast side up and press down so the bird is flat and spread out
- Dry the turkey thoroughly with paper towels and then give both sides a few sprays of olive oil.
- With the turkey breast side down, spread two tablespoons of the herb rub evenly over the whole underside.
- Flip the bird and repeat the process, being sure to get some rub into all the crevices.
- Use your fingers and a teaspoon to get some of the rub under the skin around the breast, pushing it down around the leg and thigh area. You can also slide a few fresh sage leaves under the skin.
- Inject the turkey with the injection mixture in both breasts, drumstick, and thighs.
- Place the turkey on the smoker breast side up and smoke at 300-325°F for one hour.
- Use a basting brush drip the herb-flavored butter over the turkey
- Keep smoking until the internal temperature of the breast reaches 165°F, this could take up to 1 more hour so keep checking regularly.
- Remove turkey from the smoker and carve into portions.
Making the gravy (optional)
- Chop the vegetables into pieces and add to an aluminum drip pan with all of the dry ingredients and backbone from the turkey.
- Place in your smoker, preferably under where the turkey will be sitting, and then pour in the liquid ingredients you are using.
- Remove after the turkey has finished cooking, and strain until you are left with only the liquid.
- Make a medium roux by melting 2 tbsp butter in a saucepan before whisking in 2 tbsp plain flour. Continue whisking for a few minutes until it has turned a light caramel color.
- Slowly pour in 1/2 cup of the gravy liquid, whisking as you go to avoid lumps.
- Slowly add the rest of the liquid, whisking as you pour it in.
What kind of turkey should you buy?
The ideal size turkey for smoking is 8-12 pounds. Anything larger is likely to dry out due to the amount of time it takes to cook a huge bird.
The golden rule is to allow one pound of turkey per adult you need to feed.
Buying a turkey can be a little bit confusing, with lots of different terms you need to understand, so we put together a guide to help you choose the right bird.
Read more – Turkey Buying & Thawing Guide
If you just want the quick rundown, the main things you need to know are:
- If the label says “basted”, “self basted” or “enhanced” it means the turkey has been injected with a salt solution.
- Kosher turkeys have been salted on both the inside and outside
There’s nothing wrong with either of these approaches. Pre-salting or brining is essential if you want to serve a moist turkey.
I prefer to buy a turkey that hasn’t been salted, as I like to control the whole process and what goes into the turkey.
The problem is turkeys that have had a salt injection can still be labeled natural or organic because those are natural ingredients.
If you can source it easily, a fresh turkey will be slightly better.
Most people find it much easier and more convenient to get a frozen turkey ahead of time and let it defrost in the refrigerator for a few days before cooking.
We recommend the pasture-raised turkeys from Crowd Cow. To make sure you don’t miss out be sure to pre-order a few weeks ahead. They ship the turkey frozen a week before Thanksgiving.
Brining your turkey
If you’ve been lucky enough to find an unsalted bird, you will definitely want to brine it ahead of time.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to brining a turkey.
1 – Soak the turkey overnight in a wet brine
This has long been the recommended method. You submerge the turkey in a bath of salted water for at least 8 hours.
Liquids, herbs, and spices like beer, vegetable broth, rosemary, sage, and thyme, are commonly added to the brine. This method works, but does have its drawbacks:
- Finding room to fit the brine tub in your refrigerator can be a nightmare, especially a day before Thanksgiving.
- The process wastes a lot of ingredients as it has been proven that besides salt none of the ingredients actually absorb into the meat.
- The wet brine softens the skin when you should be trying to get it as dry as possible.
If you’re still not convinced, this is what Meathead Goldwyn has to say about wet brining:
“I quit wet brining because it wastes a lot of herbs, spices, salt, and with some recipes, fruit juice. Salt gets in, but only a little salt. The rest are wasted because most of their molecules are too large to penetrate the skin or the meat which can’t absorb any more water anyway.”Meathead Goldwyn – amazingribs.com
2 – Dry brine the turkey
A better approach that gives you all the benefits without the same amount of mess is to simply dry brine your turkey with 1/2 a teaspoon of kosher salt per pound.
I like to spatchcock the bird first so you apply a nice even coat of salt all over.
Once salted, leave the turkey uncovered in the fridge overnight. The process sucks the salt into the meat which enhances flavor and helps it hold on to moisture better.
It also dries out the skin, which helps it go nice and crispy.
How long does it take to smoke a turkey?
Smoking a whole, unstuffed turkey between 12-14 pounds at 325°F will take two to two and a half hours. If the turkey is larger you will need to allow up to four hours.
If the turkey has been spatchcocked it can be done within an hour and a half to two hours.
You will know the smoked turkey is done when the breast temperature measures 165°F.
The only way to reliably know when the turkey is done is by using a digital meat thermometer or a leave-in style probe.
You can actually take the turkey off the grill when it hits 160°F as it will continue to cook while it rests.
It’s important to note that these are general guidelines which can vary wildly due to a number of factors including:
- The internal temperature of your smoker.
- The thickness of the thickest piece of the bird.
- How well the turkey has been defrosted, the temperature of your fridge and if the turkey sat at room temperature for any amount of time.
- The humidity in your smoker and how well it holds a stable temperature.
If you cook the turkey at a lower temperature it will take longer, and we wouldn’t recommend it as the skin goes a rather unpleasant, rubbery texture.
Stuffed turkeys will take even longer to cook, but we always recommend making your stuffing separately to avoid overcooking the breast.
The stuffing tastes better cooked separately as well.
What type of wood is best for smoking turkey
The best wood for smoking turkey is a mild fruit wood like apple, pecan or cherry. This imparts a mild, sweet flavor and gives you good color without overpowering the meat.
Avoid wood like hickory and mesquite and some oak as they tend to overpower the flavor.
You need to be careful not to overdo it with the smoke. On my charcoal smoker, two fist-sized chunks of wood at the beginning of the cook is plenty.
Should you brine and inject a turkey?
With brining, using a rub, injecting and basting we sure are doing a lot to the turkey!
Overdoing it is definitely a concern.
The truth is that you can use a combination of marinade techniques to impart moisture and flavor so long as you avoid over-salting the turkey.
For example, if you buy a self-basting or kosher bird, you can probably skip the dry brining stage.
We recommend using a combination of brine, rub, injection and baste to maximize the flavor and tenderness of your turkey.
What is the difference between white and dark turkey meat?
The color of the meat changes based on the type of muscle it is, and how much myoglobin it has.
Lots of people reach for white meat from the breast first because it is thought to be healthier.
The actual difference in calories is small with white meat containing 46 calories and 1 gram of fat compared to 50 calories and 2 grams of fat per ounce of boneless, skinless thigh.
Dark meat has other benefits like more iron, zinc, riboflavin, thiamine and vitamins B6 and B12.
Is pink turkey meat safe to eat?
Cooked turkey that has a pink appearance is safe to eat so long as the internal temperature of the turkey has reached 165°F
We’re conditioned to treat pink meat with suspicion, but there are plenty of scientific reasons why safely cooked meat can be pink:
- Chemical changes during cooking – Burning fuel produces a variety of chemicals that interact with the myoglobin to form a pink appearance.
- Young birds – Younger birds show more pink because thinner skin allows more gases to reach the flesh
So as long as you cooked the turkey to a safe temperature, don’t worry about a little pink color.
In the photo above you can see a pink tinge to the meat, especially around the drumstick.
Can you cook a frozen or partially thawed turkey?
So you cut things a little fine and the turkey is still frozen on Thanksgiving morning?
First off don’t panic and submerge your turkey in hot water or leave it on the counter for a few hours.
The risk of food poisoning isn’t worth it.
If you have a few hours you can submerge the turkey in a bath of cold water, flip the turkey frequently and change out the water every 30 minutes.
If you’re in a rush the good news is you can still smoke a frozen turkey. It’s going to take 1.5-2 times as long and you’ll need to cook at a lower temperature to make sure the exterior doesn’t dry out.
It’s not ideal, though, as the breast will be overcooked by the time the center is cooked.
Oh and you absolutely must use an accurate meat thermometer to ensure it’s cooked to a safe temperature.