How To Smoke a Turkey

Your turkey is brined and seasoned, and now you need to know how to smoke turkey. Don't worry if you've never gone down this road before. You'll do fine with these turkey smoking tips.

Previously, you learned how to brine turkey, and then you seasoned it with a turkey dry rub mix. Now it's time to smoke it.

Turkey Smoking Tips

  • Set up your smoker or grill
    - For all vertical smokers - fill the water pan 2/3 full of very hot water. Place the turkey in a roasting pan, or put a pan on the lower rack to catch the drippings (for gravy).
    - For charcoal vertical smokers - fill the charcoal bowl or ring half full of unlit charcoal. Place a few chunks of smoke wood on top, then fill the rest of the way with lit charcoal briquettes. This creates a progressive burn, that extends cooking time. Repeat this procedure (without adding more smoking wood) as needed to keep the temperature up to the desired level.
    - For gas grills - use indirect grilling. Preheat with all burners on, then turn off the center burner(s) and place the turkey (in a pan to catch juices) there, so there's no heat directly underneath it.
    - For charcoal grills - use indirect grilling. Place a pile of burning charcoal on each side of the grill. Place the turkey in the center of the grate. Replenish charcoal as needed.
  • The best smoker temperature - Keep the temperature of your smoker or grill at a minimum of 275 degrees, up to 325 degrees. Turkey can be smoked at lower temperatures, but it's not necessary. A turkey smoked a higher temperature is actually better than a turkey smoked low and slow, at 225 degrees. The turkey cooks quicker, loses less moisture, and the skin is crispy, not rubbery.
  • How long to smoke a turkey - It depends. The correct answer is "as long as it takes to reach 170 degrees". The temperature of the grill or smoker, the size of the turkey, weather conditions, and other factors affect the length of time needed to smoke a turkey. At a steady 325 degrees, it will take approximately 15 minutes per pound. At 275, closer to 30 minutes per pound. Best bet - Use a remote thermometer and go by internal temperature, not time.
  • Placing turkey in smoker - If you want the juices for gravy, or you want to keep your cooker clean, place the turkey on a raised rack placed in a shallow baking pan. Some swear by smoking turkey breast side down, claiming the breast is juicier that way. The problem is, the breast is done at a lower temperature than the legs and thighs. And positioned breast down, it's closer to the heat, so there's more chance of the breast becoming overdone. I prefer to smoke turkeys breast up, but when done, flip it over and let it rest breast down. Thing is, if you cook it to the right temperature the breast meat will be moist.

Basting the smoking turkey - Basting adds flavor to the turkey, and helps give the skin nice color and crispiness. Butter is great, vegetable oil is ok too. Be aware that every time you open your grill or smoker, you'll have to add an extra 15 to 30 minutes to the cooking time due to heat loss.

How to Smoke a Turkey

  • Smoking wood and turkey - Good woods for smoking turkey are apple, cherry, and oak. Hickory works, but only if you like its distinct flavor. If you're not experienced at smoking turkeys, keep the amount of smoking wood used to a minimum. 2 or 3 fist size chunks, or 2 or 3 handfuls of soaked wood chips wrapped in foil packets is a good starting point. In charcoal smokers, you can bury the wood in the charcoal as you fill up the charcoal pan. In electric smokers, place foil packets of wood, one at a time, next to (but not touching) the heating element.
  • When is it done? - Safe recommended done temperature from the USDA is 170 for the breast, and 180 for the thigh and legs. Unfortunately, if cooked until it reaches those temperatures, it will be very overdone. The internal temperature rises up to 10 degrees AFTER the turkey is removed from the oven. So remove it when the breast reaches 160, thigh 170, and it'll be done just about perfectly.
  • The after-smoke rest period - Always give the turkey a rest period of at least 30 minutes after it's removed from the smoker or grill. Place it breast side down on a platter and cover with a tent of foil. As it rests, the juices become locked in to the protein fibers, and the meat will be moist. If not rested, juice will flow out of the turkey when it's cut, and the meat will be dry.

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