10 Tips for Smoking a Whole Turkey

Whole turkey on smoker

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As proud proud pitmasters we can’t sit idly by and risk letting a whole turkey get dried out and ruined in the oven when we have a 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).

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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 very 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 much more easily than other meat does.

As such, smoking a turkey requires a “gentle touch”. But fear not, that is what we are here for.

Required Equipment for smoking a turkey

Before you even start thinking about preparing your bird, it’s time to do a quick stocktake. If you smoke often then none of this should be new to you.

1. The essentials – the smoker

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 smokers name.

As a rule of thumb a 18″ or 22″ Weber Smokey Mountain will easily fit a whole turkey.

You should also be more than safe smoking a turkey in a Bradley or Traeger. The main thing you need to ensure is that there is ample space above and around the turkey to allow for airflow.

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

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.

2. The accessories

A proper barbecue thermometer setup:

Again 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 guess work, just 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.

Even though your turkey might come with a cheap pop-up thermometer, these can’t be relied on for accurate measurements.

Sharp kitchen shears

If you plan on spatchcocking your turkey, you’ll want a sharp pair of kitchen scissors.

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If you don’t have kitchen shears, a sharp boning knife will do the trick.

How to prepare the turkey

There are a lot of ways to prepare your turkey, each has their own positives and negatives and they all add a different layer of flavour.

Spatchcocking a turkey

 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.

This technique can be used in conjunction with any other method of preparation, and it means the bird will cook faster because it is thinner, absorb more smoke because of the greater surface area and allow for any rub or flavouring you use to cover the bird more completely.

Butter/Basting a turkey

If you’re a purist, and especially if you’re using a wood smoker, this may actually be the best choice for you. Some people just want to taste the turkey, no fancy rubs or spices ruining their hard work.

The butter or juices from the turkey will help to add a golden brown skin and keep things moist, it won’t do much for flavour. If you’re using a smoker the inherent nature of the cooking method will add a smokey taste, which for many, is all you need.

Though we recommend you do add a bit of salt and pepper beforehand.

Using spices and rubs on a smoked turkey

There are more spice rubs out there than their 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 flavourless 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 spice rub you can use is:

  • 1/4-cup vegetable oil
  • 2-tablespoons onion powder
  • 1-tablespoon paprika
  • 1-tablespoon mustard powder
  • 2-teaspoons garlic powder
  • 2-teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2-teaspoons white pepper
  • 1-teaspoon powdered ginger
  • 1/2-teaspoon powdered sage

Mix all your ingredients together to form a paste that will better stick to the turkey, then either using a gloved hand or basting brush, cover the outside of the turkey. Don’t be shy here. 

For more ideas check out our round-up of the best turkey rub recipes.

Brining your turkey

Brining the turkey helps to tenderise the meat and keep your bird moist all at the same time. It does require the most preparation though.

The night before you’re ready to cook, submerge your bird (breast down) in the brine. If your bird is especially large or small (but remember it shouldn’t really be above 13 pounds), you can adjust the recipe, but keep the water to salt ratio at a 1-1.

The turkey should ideally brine for 1 hour per pound of meat. A simple brine recipe you can use is:

  • 2-gallons of ice water
  • 2-cups kosher salt
  • 2-tablespoon crushed rosemary
  • 2-tablespoons crushed sage
  • 2-tablespoons dried thyme
  • 2/4-bay leaves
  • 1-tablespoon dried savoury
  • 1-tablespoon mustard seed

Take all these ingredients and put them in a clean pot or container, place your turkey inside and let sit in your fridge for the evening before cooking. Afterwards you can dry your turkey and add some rub to the skin if desired. Or just cook it as is.

Turkey smoking time and ideal temperature

No matter which exact method or temperature you cook at, your bird must reach an internal temperature of 165°F at its thickest point.

Keep your smoker between 275 – 350°F,  but if it dips higher or lower its 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 and hour per pound. Plus about 45 minutes in the oven to crisp up the skin.

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.

10 tips to smoking a whole turkey 

Now that we’ve covered all the basics you’re almost ready to start smoking. Before you go we’ve put together some helpful tips to help with your first time.

Follow these 10 tips and and you’re turkey is sure to be a hit with friends and family.

1. Spatchcock your turkey

We touched on this above, but spatchcocking (butterflying) your turkey gives you several advantages over the traditional whole cooked bird.

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 method is also especially good on the barbecue as more surface area will be browned, and you can apply a better coat of rub.

2. Use a digital thermometer

We know, we know, we already mentioned this. But 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.

Even though fresh will taste a tiny bit better, frozen can be more convenient though as you’ll be able to buy it ahead of time and defrost over the week leading up to Thanksgiving.

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For more information check out our guide to buying a turkey.

4. Put a drip pan under your turkey

Not only does this avoid creating a mess so you have to cleaning 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.

5. 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.

It’s much better to making oven stuffing which will taste better than soggy stuffing from inside the bird while cutting down the overall cooking time.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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. 

9. 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.

10. Take precaution 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 don’t wash 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.

Wrapping it up

We smoke meats because we love it, 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.

Joe Clements

Joe Clements

As the son of a vegeterian, I grew up dreaming about meat. Now as the founder and editor in chief of Smoked Barbecue Source I get to grill, barbecue and write about meat for a living! I'm sharing everything I learn along the way on my journey from amateur to pitmaster.
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