As proud pitmasters, we can’t sit idly by while the turkey gets dried out and ruined in the oven. Not when we have a perfectly good smoker sitting right outside.
Turkey belongs on a smoker, especially around Thanksgiving when oven space is at a premium.
You don’t have to worry about ruining Thanksgiving, though.
By following these tips for smoking a whole turkey, your guests will be begging you for your secret recipe (and if you want a detailed recipe, check out our smoked spatchcock turkey recipe).
15 tips for the best smoked turkey ever
1. Spatchcock your turkey
Spatchcocking (butterflying) your turkey gives you several advantages over the usual whole smoked turkey.
The whole turkey will cook faster and more evenly so the breast won’t dry out while the rest of the meat is coming up to temperature.
This technique is my favorite method. Opening the turkey up helps it absorb more smoke, and the rub or flavoring you use can cover the bird more completely.
To spatchcock a bird, you take a pair of butcher shears and cut along the spine, removing it and the breastbone. Which will allow you to lay the bird flat.
Mark Bittman goes through how to properly spatchcock a Turkey in this video below.
If you plan on spatchcocking your turkey, you’ll want a sharp pair of kitchen scissors like these ones from Zwilling. If you don’t have kitchen shears, a sharp boning knife will do the trick.
2. Monitor your turkey temperature with a digital thermometer
This is should be common knowledge if you’ve smoked before. Don’t rely on the built-in thermometer on your smoker (it lies to you), or the cheap pop-up thermometer that comes with some turkeys. These can’t be relied on for accurate measurements.
Invest in a proper dual probe thermometer so you can measure the internal temp of the bird while ensuring your smoker stays at the ideal temperature.
If you’re not already using a proper thermometer this is the best thing you can do to improve as a pitmaster.
A proper smoking thermometer will read more quickly and accurately than a traditional “dial” one or those “turkey poppers” your butcher gives you.
If you don’t know which thermometer to use, check out our guide.
3. Buy fresh if you can, but don’t stress about buying a frozen turkey
If you can skip the freezer aisle of your grocery store and head to a butcher. He or she can help you decide on size and the end product will be so much more flavorful and juicy.
Plus no defrost time.
4. Bigger isn’t always better
Stick to smaller turkeys between 8-12 pounds (unstuffed).
“This size turkey cooks evenly throughout the breast and thighs, and the meat is very tender in young turkeys.”howtobbqright.com
5. Experiment with different rubs and spices
There are more spice rubs out there than there are stars in the sky. Check out our guide to the best store bought rubs (you can order them all online if you’re in a hurry) or just make your own.
Just remember that turkey is a relatively flavorless meat and that you want to coat it as thoroughly as possible. A spice rub will also add a great texture to the skin and help to “catch” the smoke you use to cook it.
A simple smoked turkey rub you can use is:
- 4 tbsp smoked paprika
- 3 tbsp brown sugar
- 3 tbsp salt flakes
- 2 tbsp black pepper finely ground
- 1 tbsp ground cumin
- 1 tbsp mustard powder
- 1 tbsp garlic powder
- 1 tbsp onion powder
Mix all your ingredients together, then spray your turkey with oil to help the rub stick and the skin to crispen.
For more ideas check out our round-up of the best turkey rub recipes.
6. Give yourself enough time to brine
Brining your turkey is an important step if you want maximum juiciness and flavor.
You can go with a classic wet brine where you submerge the turkey in a bath of salty water with other herbs and spices.
Or, if you want to keep it simple, just sprinkle the turkey with kosher salt and leave uncovered in the fridge.
7. Allow enough time and smoke hotter than usual
No matter which exact method or temperature you cook at, your bird must reach an internal temperature of 165°F at its thickest point.
Cooking low and slow will result in rubbery skin that is unpleasant to eat.
Keep your smoker between 275 – 350°F, but if it dips higher or lower it’s not a huge deal.
Just make sure it doesn’t stay that way for too long.
At this temperature, the turkey may take as long as 45 minutes to an hour per pound. Plus about 45 minutes in the oven to crisp up the skin (not necessary if you are smoking above 325°
Refer back to our smoking times and temperatures chart.
This method is good for keeping your turkey moist and delicious, though you may need to finish it in the oven to get a good skin color.
8. If you’re using a pellet grill, start low and then ramp up the heat
Most pellet smokers struggle to generate much smoke above 225°F, so one tactic we like to use is to smoke low and slow for the first hour or so, and then crank the heat up to 350°F for the final part of the cook.
We used this exact technique to smoke turkey on a pellet grill for Thanksgiving, as it gives you the best level of smoke flavor, while still getting really nice crispy skin.
9. Put a drip pan under your turkey
Not only does this avoid creating a mess so you don’t have to clean your smoker the next day, but you will also catch delicious drippings for gravy.
For extra flavor, fill the tray with chopped-up onions, carrots, celery, herbs, and stock.
10. Don’t stuff your bird
When you stuff a turkey, it takes longer for heat to travel to the center of the bird. This results in the breast drying up before the center is cooked.
Plus if you take our advice and spatchcock your bird, there won’t be anywhere to put the stuffing!
It’s much better to make pan stuffing which will taste better than soggy stuffing from inside the bird while cutting down the overall cooking time.
11. Some pink turkey meat is okay
Don’t worry if your bird is a little bit pink on the inside, it’s a natural process of cooking.
“Turkey can remain pink even after cooking to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F. The meat of smoked turkey is always pink.”USDA – Is Pink Turkey Meat Safe?
As long as the internal temperature reaches 165° and you measure it with an accurate meat thermometer you will be safe.
It’s a little hard to make out but in the photo below you can see the drumstick meat has a definite pink hue to it even though it was cooked to a perfectly safe 165°F.
12. You might not actually need to rest cooked turkey
Traditional advice is to let your turkey sit for about 30-45 minutes after cooking.
The argument is that this allows moisture to redistribute through the muscle so when carving the juices stay in the meat, and not all over the table.
Nowadays we know that resting doesn’t actually redistribute juices, and you’re better off serving the turkey when it’s hot.
Leaving the turkey too long risks it going dry and the skin will lose its crispiness. I like to give the turkey 10 minutes with a loose foil tent, so the skin doesn’t steam.
13. Don’t keep opening your smoker to check it
If this is your first time smoking a turkey you’ll be tempted to open the lid every 5 minutes to check on it.
But you need to let the turkey be, or it will never finish cooking.
Again having a dual probe thermometer setup will save your bacon here.
14. Beware of mother nature
If it’s cold outside try and put your smoker somewhere with no wind. Or you will have a tough time keeping your temperature consistent.
You’ll also need to allow a little extra time for the turkey to finish cooking, especially if your smoker is prone to temperature swings.
15. Take precautions to avoid poisoning your guests
You should always be extra careful with raw poultry. Even free-range and organic birds can easily contain salmonella or campylobacter.
Always wash your hands, countertops, cutting boards, sink, and anything that comes into contact with raw turkey.
Counter to popular wisdom, avoid washing your turkey as this doesn’t kill any bacteria and will only spread it around your kitchen.
The USDA updated its safe cooking guidelines for turkey way back in 2006 but some people still don’t know that turkey is safe at 165°F for all parts, not 180°F.
You can actually take it off at 160°F as it will keep cooking a few degrees while you get ready to carve.
Why smoke a whole turkey
Using your smoker to cook the turkey comes with a few hidden benefits besides delivering a beautiful end product.
If you have a smaller kitchen you will know how hot it gets in there with the oven on for the entire day.
Cooking the turkey outside will keep your kitchen from becoming a sauna.
You’ll also free up the oven to be used for any other side dishes. As well as dividing up the work and cutting down stress for everyone.
So ditch the oven, fire up the smoker, and let’s get started.
While smoking a turkey is no different than any other piece of meat, there are a few aspects of added difficulty that can stump even the most veteran pitmasters.
Turkey is a delicate meat that doesn’t have a lot of connective tissue or fat. It will dry out and darken quickly, as well as absorb the flavors of smoke more than other meat does.
Smoking a turkey requires a “gentle touch”. But fear not, that is what we are here for.
How to smoke a turkey on different smokers
Obviously, the main piece of equipment you’ll need to worry about is the smoker.
You need to make sure you have a large enough smoker for the size of the bird you plan on cooking.
There are so many different types of smokers it’s hard to cover them all so we suggest doing a quick Google search for “smoking a whole turkey” + your smoker’s name.
As a rule of thumb, an 18″ or 22″ Weber Smokey Mountain will easily fit a whole turkey.
You should also be more than safe smoking a turkey in any pellet grill The main thing you need to ensure is that there is ample space above and around the turkey to allow for airflow. Smoking a turkey on an electric smoker can be tricky, but you should be able to move the racks around to create room.
Don’t worry if you haven’t already bought a smoker. We have a comprehensive guide to the best smokers for beginners all under $500.
Depending on your type of smoker you’ll also need some smoke wood (or pellets). We have a list of best types of smoke wood for turkey you can check out.
Wrapping it up
We barbecue because we love it, so take pride in your work but remember this isn’t a competition.
Have a beer, spend time with family, laugh it up, enjoy the holiday. It’s okay if not everything is perfect.