How to Smoke a Turkey | Smoked Turkey Recipes
A whole turkey doesn’t have to be just for Thanksgiving, Christmas or other special occasions. It can also be a weekend treat now and then that can keep the family fed for a few days at a time. Turkeys can be easily frozen and last for a while in the freezer, so it’s possible to grab a few as last minute bargains after Thanksgiving or Christmas and keep them for the next couple of months. But then it comes to cooking it. The classic way is in the oven. I’m sure this had led to potentially rather bland turkey that was a bit drier than you would have liked and that simply didn’t live up to your expectations. Well with this tutorial and recipe we’ll teach you how to smoke a turkey that keeps it nice and moist and transforms a generally dull meat into something incredible. Not only this but it’ll be cooked in 3 hours! Much more manageable than many other guides that require 8 or more hours of cooking.
This guide is aimed at people that have never (successfully) smoked a turkey before. In this recipe we’ll keep everything simple so there’s less to go wrong and will also allow you to add extra ingredients and tweak the recipe to your liking. We’d highly recommend trying this multiple times and experimenting along the way to the get the exact recipe that you love. Use this as a base guide to get you started.
Choosing the Right Turkey
Choosing the right turkey for smoking is a simple process that can make a huge difference to the final result. We’d always recommend picking a turkey that hasn’t been enhanced with any additional flavor solution as our process and recipe will give it all the flavor it needs. Check any fine print on the turkey to make sure it isn’t self-basting or that it contains addition salt or flavorings.
Either a fresh or frozen turkey works absolutely fine but for ease we’ll be working with a frozen one and would probably recommend you do the same. We’d recommend aiming for a 12lb turkey but today we’ll be working with one that came it at just over 10.5lb. More than 12lbs is fine but may take a tad longer in the smoker, but we’ll get to times and temperatures in a bit.
How to Prepare a Turkey
Firstly, assuming your turkey is frozen you’ll need to follow the thawing instructions on the packaging.
Once thawed you’ll need to remove any string or restraints holding the legs together. Next open up the turkey and remove the giblets from the neck cavity and the neck from inside the body cavity. You may have to rummage around a little for the giblets but they will likely be in a small bag. This is also a good time to trim any obvious excess skin and generally tidy the bird up for cooking. Remove the tail if it’s attached. Trimming skin isn’t necessary so if you’re not sure what you’re doing feel free to leave this step out.
Finally, give the bird a thorough rinse inside and out and dry with paper towels.
Preparing the Brine
What will give this turkey it’s moisture and stop it from drying out is the brine. It will also help season the turkey and generally give you a much better finished product.
You’ll need a large non-reactive container that can hold the turkey and enough space in your refrigerator to hold the container. Alternatively, you can use a cooler which makes this recipe available to all those that will be trying this away from civilization. We have a list of the best coolers that money can buy so would highly recommend you having a look if you’re needing a cooler.
The ideal container would be one that tightly fits the turkey. If the container is much bigger than the turkey you’ll need to make a lot more brine. To find out how much brine you’ll need put the turkey in the container and fill with cold water until the turkey is just covered with water. Then take the turkey out and measure how much water is left. We needed just under 1.5 gallons of water. We definitely could have used a more efficient container, but our big metal pan was the best fit for the job that we had on hand. We put the turkey in breast down so the best parts were guaranteed a good brining.
For our brine we used:
- 5 gallons (roughly 5.7 litres) of cold water
- 5 cups (510g) of Kosher Salt
- 0.75 cups (255g) of brown sugar
This was then put in the fridge for 8 hours. You can place a heavy plate or something on the turkey to keep it submerged.
After the 8 hours rinse the turkey under cold water and dry with paper towels.
Preparing and Applying the Rub
The rub is one of the most defining parts of the turkey. There are many premade rubs that you can buy and we’ve run through some of our favorites in our list of the 10 Best BBQ Dry Rubs. Pretty much any of these will be fine with your turkey.
Once your turkey is brined, rinse and dried grab some oil and lightly coat the skin of the turkey in the oil. Vegetable oil works fine for this, so does sunflower oil. We used rapeseed oil as it give a slightly darker finish and is generally one of the healthiest oils in existence.
If you’re going for a visually appealing bird you can pin the neck skin down with toothpicks and ties the legs together. This is completely optional.
When the bird is tied up and oiled you can apply your rub. We decided to make our own rub with an additional splash of soy sauce. It tasted amazing but was a bit of a pain to apply as it was more of a paste than a rub. If this is your first time we’d recommend not bothering with the soy sauce.
Here’s a list of what we used in our rub (we had plenty left over):
- 2 tablespoons paprika
- 1 tablespoons smoked paprika
- 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
- 1 tablespoon of garlic granules
- 1 tablespoon of black pepper
- 1 tablespoon of table salt
- 1 tablespoon of soy sauce (optional)
At this point all you have to do is let turkey get up to room temperature whilst you go and prepare the smoker.
Prepare Your Smoker for Turkey Smoking
- To get this done in 3 hours we’ll be needing a smoker temperature of around 325°F – 350°F.
- The final temperature of the smoked turkey should be around 165°F in the breast. You can also measure from the thigh for which you’ll need a temperature of around 170-175°F but we stuck with the breast for our turkey and took it off at just over 165°F.
We would highly recommend using a digital thermometer for this. At the very least use an instant read thermometer like the Thermapen. Ideally use a proper smoker thermometer such as the ThermoPro TP20.
Here’s a few posts we’ve written that will probably be useful:
For a short and more intense cook such as this, we’d probably recommend using lump wood charcoal over briquettes. It tends to burn quicker and hotter but does lack the consistence of briquettes. Whichever you use will work, just make sure it’s good quality and you have a decent grasp of temperature control on your smoker.
We have a full charcoal guide with everything you need to know if you’re struggling.
For a whole turkey recipe or even a turkey leg or turkey breast recipe you’re going to want a nice mild smoke flavor. One of our favorites to use is apple wood. This is because it’s generally readily available and gives a good amount of smoke but with a mild flavor. Alternatives would be other fruit trees such as cherry.
We have a full wood smoking guide with all the information you need to know on which flavors work with which meats.
For our smoke we used the trusty Weber Smokey Mountain with lump wood charcoal and a few small chunks of apple wood. We think apple wood is the best wood for smoking turkey. The apple wood was basically perfect for the turkey and gave it an incredible accompanying smoky flavor without it becoming overpowered. We didn’t put any water in the water pan but instead lined it with foil to catch the drippings to make into a gravy or sauce.
A lot of this information can be found on our Ultimate Meat Smoking Cheat Sheet that gives you the basics you need to know of any type of smoking.
How Long Does it Take to Smoke a Turkey?
This is very dependent on how you choose to cook the turkey. It’s absolutely fine to cook the turkey at 225, 250, 275, 300, 325 or 350°F and you’ll probably see these numbers quoted all over the internet.
We think a higher temperature and quicker smoke works best for white meats as there is a lot less fat to reduce as there is with something like a brisket. Hence why we cook it at around 325-350°F. The added bonus of this is that the higher temperatures also help crisp the skin of the turkey and also means you can be eating it quicker.
So, how long does it take to smoke a whole turkey? If you follow this recipe it will take about 2.5 – 3 hours to smoke a turkey.
But don’t decide when the turkey is done by how long it has been in the smoker. Grab yourself a thermometer and make sure deep inside the breast is at a minimum of 165°F. That’s when your turkey is done.
If you’d like addition confirmation then cut into it slightly and if the juices that come out are clear and not at all bloody then you’re good to eat it.
How Long to Smoke a Turkey Breast?
We’ve been asked this question a lot when talking about turkey in the past but pretty much the same rules apply as we mentioned above. Use a simply process and cook at the same sort of temperatures.
This will result in a cooking time of around 2 hours for turkey breasts.
When the thermometer in the turkey reads around 165°F it’s ready to come off the smoker. At this point you’ll have to fight the temptation to start cutting it up and eating it as it really needs a 10-15 minute rest. Don’t cover it with foil. This helps keep the skin crispy as the foil will cause it to go soft.
After about 15 minutes the turkey is ready to enjoy. Expect very tender and moist meat with great flavors and a nice crispy skin. I can honestly say this was the best smoked turkey I’ve ever tasted and cannot wait to try it again.
Quick Smoked Turkey Recipe
- 1 12lb Whole Turkey
- 1.5 gallons Water
- 1.5 cups Kosher Salt
- 0.75 cups Brown Sugar
- 2 tbsp Paprika
- 1 tbsp Smoked Paprika
- 1 tbsp Cayenne Pepper
- 1 tbsp Garlic Granules
- 1 tbsp Black Pepper
- 1 tbsp Table Salt
- 1 tbsp Soy Sauce (optional)
Rinse turkey, remove giblets and neck from body cavity.
Place the turkey with the brine mixture into a large container and let rest for 8 hours in the fridge. You may have to adapt the amount of brine mixture you use to fit your container.
Pre heat your smoker to around 350°F
Rinse off brine and dry turkey then apply your own or the above dry rub on the inside and outside of the bird.
Cook for around 2.5 - 3 hours or until the internal temperature of the breast is around 165°F.
Take the turkey off the smoke and let rest for around 10 - 15 minutes before carving.