Everything You Need to Know About Smoking a Turkey

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Hello friends and welcome to the greatest month of the year and with that comes my favorite holiday, namely Thanksgiving or turkey day as some call it.

It's my birthday month as well but we won't talk about that right now;-)

I have a very special month planned for all of you so listen up: Today we are talking about smoking turkey and I am not only writing about it but I have pictures and video of the process! I will be answering ALL of your turkey related questions in this issue.

As if that is not enough.. next Thursday, November 12th I will be doing the exact same thing only with Ham rubbed down with my very own rib rub. Can you say OMG!!""

If you have not tried smoking a cured ham covered with my rib rub from top to bottom then you have to try it. Enough on that, we will tackle that next week and I am almost giddy just thinking about it.. REAL smoked ham is THAT good!

Before I go any further I want to thank everyone who supports this website. I would not be doing what I am doing except for those of you who send in donations and purchase my recipes. You can pat yourself on the back because you make it possible for everyone else to enjoy the process of learning about smoking meat.

Now what you and especially I, have been waiting for.. this months mega write-up on SMOKING TURKEY.

How to Smoke a Turkey Video Series

 

The Purchase of a Bird

The process of smoking a turkey must begin in the supermarket or wherever you purchase meat. Ideally you will find a turkey of 12 pounds or less that is labeled "MINIMALLY PROCESSED" and is fresh (never frozen). This is quite difficult to find in some places and if you have to buy a bird that is less than ideal then don't stress over it. Just do the best you can and we'll work with it.

My local research revealed that all turkeys this early in the season were frozen and injected with at least 8% to 12 % of a solution.

Thawing the Bird

If the bird is frozen (very likely) then you will need to thaw it somehow or another. There are correct ways to do this and not so correct ways to do this so let me enlighten you on the subject.

There are three methods that will work but only two that work well for smoking so I am going to recommend against using the microwave as a thawing device.

**Best Option: Thaw the turkey in the fridge. Place it in a large pan and let it sit in the fridge and thaw away. Turkeys thaw at a rate of about 5 pounds per day using this method. My 12 pound bird took right at two days. If you plan ahead then this method can be the one that you use.

**The second best option is to thaw it in a pan of cold water. Submerge the turkey in a pan of cold water sitting on the counter. Change the water every thirty minutes. This method will thaw a turkey at a rate of about one pound every thirty minutes. Using this method, the turkey must be cooked immediately after thawing. I usually plan this so that the turkey is finished thawing about the same time I want to put it on the smoker.

If there is a little ice left in the cavity, I don't worry about it as it will dissipate quickly in the smoker.

Just in case you are wondering, a thawed turkey is safe for about two days in the fridge.

Brining

How and Why to Brine

I do not recommend brining a turkey that has been injected with solution however, I have done it and it turned out ok but it was not as good as a fresh, unprocessed turkey. If you decide to do this then I would cut the brine time down to about 8 hours instead of the normal 10-12 hours to reduce the saltiness.

If you are able to get a turkey that is labeled as "MINIMALLY PROCESSED" then I highly recommend brining the bird. This is a process by which you soak the bird in a salt water solution made up of 1 gallon of water, 1 cup of salt and about 1 cup of sugar along with other spices and flavors such as molasses, honey, pepper, thyme, rosemary, wine, juice, soy sauce, Worcestershire, etc..

Why brine?

I am so glad you asked;-)

Poultry has a tendency to dry out when exposed to long cook times and while there is some moisture in the fibers of the meat that help, it dissipates quickly and you can be left with meat that is less than juicy.

Brining allows extra moisture to get into the fibers so that when it cooks and some of the moisture goes away, now you are able to retain some of the moisture and you end up with a very juicy, great tasting bird.

It is scientific but I don't care to go into that.. just know that it works very well and you should do it.

To brine you simply find a food safe plastic container that is large enough to hold a turkey, sterilize it and set it aside.

Brine Container

Place a gallon of water in a pitcher then pour about  half of it into a large pot. The other half will be used later so set it aside.

Pitcher of Water

With your pot on a burner on the stove and set to low to medium heat, pour one cup of kosher salt into the pot and stir it around until it dissolves.

Add Salt to Brine

 

Salt not dissolved

Salt not Dissolved

 

Salt Dissolved

Salt Dissolved

Note: If some of the salt does not dissolve then you will need to add more water. X amount of water can only dissolve x amount of salt. I don't know what the magic formula is but I can tell you that adding more water will make the rest of the salt dissolve away.

Now add a cup of white granulated sugar and let it dissolve as well.

This is a basic brine solution. To this mixture you can add any number of things. I like to experiment with things like honey, juices, molasses, spices, etc. The heat will allow things like pepper to give off their oils into the brine so that the flavor will be carried up into the turkey even though the large grains will stay in the brine.

My Brine Recipe

My own brine recipe is located HERE

Once the brine is completely dissolved and it has simmered in a pot for 10 to 15 minutes, it can be poured into the brining container along with the other half of the water in the pitcher.

If this is not enough to cover the turkey, simply make another batch of brine. You may be able to use something like a large plastic oven bag or something similar which will allow you to brine with less liquid than in a hard container.

Add the rinsed turkey with all giblets, gravy packets and neck removed to the brining container and make sure it is completely submerged in the brine.

Add Turkey to Brine

 

If it floats, you can use a heavy plate or even a brick inside of a large Ziploc bag to help hold it under.

Place the brining container in the fridge preferably on the bottom shelf and let it stay there for 10-12 hours or overnight.

Add Brining Turkey to Fridge

Injecting with Marinade

For those who are experiencing a time crisis and just don't have the time to go through with a brining process, injecting is the next best thing and actually does a very good job of adding some extra flavor and juiciness to the turkey.

I like to use a stick of melted butter with a tablespoon of Cajun seasoning and maybe some honey and/or Worcestershire sauce for my poultry marinade.

While the butter is warm and melted, use an injector (sold at Amazon and other local cooking supply stores) to put 2 ounces in each side of the breast, 2 ounces in each leg and finally 2 ounces in each thigh.

Insert the injector needle at an angle and simple push in the plunger to inject the marinade into the meat right before placing it into the smoker.

Note: put a little oil (vegetable, olive, canola, doesn't matter) on the o-ring on the plunger for best results before using the injector.

You can also purchase pre-made marinades made especially for injecting in your local supermarket if you do not want to mix up your own. Just find one that looks good and that will work. I have yet to try one that I did not like.

Watch the video on this

Rubbing the Turkey

I like to rub the turkey with my rib rub but not just on the outside of the skin.. I like to get the rub down under the skin so that it can really influence the flavor of the meat.

Now if I have brined the turkey, I will generally leave most of the salt out of my rub since I do not want an over-salted turkey. I just want a turkey that is bursting with flavor.

I don't normally use mustard with turkey, just find anywhere you can lift the skin up and place a small pinch of rub up under there and massage it in the best you can. You want be able to get it everywhere but anything will make a huge difference in the finished product.

Note: don't cake it on just a light dusting gives the best results.

Stuffing the Turkey

Do not place stuffing in a turkey before it is smoked. The temperatures we are cooking at are low and the stuffing prevents the heat from getting into the turkey. This causes the turkey to stay in the danger zone (40-140 degrees F) for much too long and is an unsafe practice.

If you must stuff the turkey, make the stuffing in a separate container and place it into the turkey once the turkey is done smoking just right before you serve it to your guests.

This is not to say that you can't drop a couple of items such as pieces of apple, celery or onion into the cavity to influence the flavor. Just make sure there is room for the heat to get in and work on the turkey from the inside out.

Smoking the Turkey

Now for the fun part.. get the smoker ready and prepped for about 240 degrees if possible. Find a good robust wood to use such as mesquite, hickory, pecan or apple or a mixture of these.

Watch the video on getting the smoker ready

Once the smoker is ready, place the turkey directly on the grate. I have said in times past to place it breast side down for the first hour then flip it to breast side up for the remaining cook time but I do this all different ways and I can't tell a huge difference regardless. As long as you are using indirect heating and you do not overcook the turkey, the orientation is not significant in my opinion.

If you are used to doing a certain way and it gives you good results then I recommend that you stick with what works for you.

Watch the smoker carefully and make sure it does not venture too far off course from your desired temperature setting. About 3 hours into the smoke, check the turkey and if the wings or other extremities are getting too brown you can wrap them with small pieces of foil to stop the browning process.

I prefer a nice dark mahogany look so I occasionally wrap the wings at about 4-1/2 to 5 hours into the smoke but usually not before that.

Absolutely use a digital probe meat thermometer. You don't have to but it takes all the guess work out of it and guarantees a perfectly cooked bird that is not dry. That in my opinion makes it worth it.

Be sure to put the probe of the thermometer into the turkey at the beginning of the cook time. The turkey will seal around the probe and juices will not escape. Leave the probe in the turkey.. i.e. do not remove AT ALL until the turkey is finished smoking and has rested for at least 20-30 minutes.

Failure to follow this and a geyser of juices will emit itself from the turkey when you remove the probe.. juices that would be better off in the turkey for the tasting.

Watch the videos on this:

Part One
Part Two

Finishing in the Oven

It is not a crime to finish the turkey in the oven should you run into problems with your smoker or the weather or some other situation that warrants it.

This is best done after about 4 hours in the smoker if it must happen.

Simply set the oven on 240-250 and do not remove the turkey from the smoker until the oven is preheated and ready to minimize heat loss.

Using a Gas or Electric Smoker

The same rules apply to gas and electric smokers as with charcoal although some electric smokers will not allow you to set a specific temperature.

Keep adding wood chips or chunks for at least the first 3-4 hours then it can be finished the rest of the way with just heat.

Cooking the Turkey Prior to Thanksgiving

If you must cook the turkey ahead of time due to time constraints or to travel to grandma's house then simply smoke the turkey and once it is cooled, wrap in foil and place in the fridge.

To reheat, place in a 250 degree F oven for 2 – 2.5 hours or until it is hot enough for your liking. It will reach about 135-140 degrees at this temperature in about 2 hours.

If you need to re-crisp the skin, simply place it in a 375 degree oven for about 10-15 minutes once it is reheated within about 10-15 degrees of a good eating temperature.

How to Know When the Turkey is Done

Turkey is technically done when it reaches a temperature of 165° F at the thickest part of the breast. Some folks say that the dark meat of the thighs and legs actually reaches this temperature before the white breast meat does.. I have not done a formal test on this so I just monitor the temperature in the thickest part of the breast and once it reaches the exact safe temperature I get it off of the heat immediately.

 

My Famous Rib Rub Recipe and BBQ Sauce Recipe

Folks.. maybe I am conceited or just overly confident but I never stop amazing myself at how good my rib rub is on various kinds of meat.

In preparing for the upcoming newsletter on smoking a ham, I purchased a spiral sliced ham and rubbed it real good with mustard and generous portions of my very own rib rub. The only think I could say when I took that first bite was Oh my GOD! I probably said that about 5 times before I could regain enough composure to say something halfway intelligent;-)

I was blown away by the flavor AGAIN! I thought to myself, "I sure hope everyone can try this.. it is too good to go through life never having experienced this!"

I am not being dramatic.. just try it and you will join the ranks of those who know if I'm lying then I'm dying! This stuff is Fan-flavor-tastic and you need it in a bad-bad way;-)

Here is a few testimonies from other folks who took the plunge and are proud of it. Be sure to send my your testimony once you try it and realize that you have just tasted of HEAVEN.

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Jeff,have tried the Rib Rub and Sauce recipes several times.Simply awesome. Nothing more needs to be said

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I have purchased and used your Rib Rub and love it!  I recommend your website to anyone who inquires how I transform a raw piece of meat into the slice of heaven currently in their mouth

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I am making a lot of the rub for my kids in Tampa, Las Vegas and Denver.  It is the best.  They have the sauce and rave about the results.

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Jeff, I have tried allot of "bottled" sauces and a few home made ones to……This stuff is GOLD! It was a big hit Labor day..

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You deserve the very best and is is completely within your grasp! Only $18.95 and worth every penny. Not only do you get the best rub and sauce recipe available, you are supporting this website and helping to make sure the bills get paid so we can keep on doing what we do to teach thousands and thousands of people across the world the art of smoking meat.

Order Recipes | Read Testimonies

NOTE: My system is automated which means you should get a download email within MINUTES of ordering..check your spam/junk folder first then contact me to get the recipes sent to you as an attachment.


Free Smoking Meat Newsletter

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Comments

  1. Crunchy4Life says

    We are going to attempt to smoke our turkey this year in our Master Forge Vertical gas smoker. I'm going to brine the turkey before hand, but the question is- since we are getting a fresh pastured turkey from our Amish farm, I've come to the understanding that they cook faster than conventional turkeys. We roasted our turkey last year & had it ready before we were ready with everything else. I've requested about a 12lb turkey & hoping the weather is cooperative, cooking at 250F, how many minutes would you suppose per lb, should we go with? We want it ready to eat at 3pm. Also, do you lay the turkey on the rack or do you place it in a verical holder?

  2. Bo says

    When you mix the brine the 2 gallon recipe.do you mix all the  water on stove top with everything else or just part of the water? Tnx

  3. Mike Pierce says

    Jeff,

     I smoked my first whole turkey yesterday. Your instructions were a great help. I smoked mine until it was about 175 degrees and it was juicy juicy juicy. Yes the juice does come rushing out when you poke it with an instant read to double check the temp. A light dusting of your rub gave it that little extra flavor. I have used your rub on ribs, pork butt, pork loin, fish and now turkey. Amazing stuff.   Thanks!

  4. mark mc says

    I just finished my first smoking attempt with a digital electric Master Forge smoker and my turkey was done in less than 4 hours MUCH to my surprise!  I set it at 240 degrees and went to church thinking I had plenty of time, but the internal meat probe read 204 degrees when I arrived back from church :(  According to all the info I read, it should have taken approx 8 hours for this bird, what in the world????  Of course, had I been here I would have watched the temp closer and would have pulled at 165 degrees, but again, I thought I had PLENTY of time!  It is still tasty, but I was disappointed to find most all of the info I read was incorrect concerning time.  I have learned a great deal today!

    • says

      Test a digital meat thermometer in boiling water and/or ice water to make sure it is reading 212/33 respectively then use that thermometer to check the ambient temperature of your smoker against what the internal guage in the smoker says it is.

      You could also be getting some radiant heat depending on how that smoker is set up. 

      In most smokers there are barriers set up such a water pan to make sure all heat is indirect. If the water pan is too small or the meat is too close to the edge of the grate, many times this can result in radiant (direct) heat cooking the meat faster than it should.

      In near perfect conditions, I would expect an average 12 lb turkey to take about 6+ hours to reach 165 degrees F internally but as many of us have discovered over the years, rarely are things perfect and it is always risky to leave the smoker alone for more than a couple of hours at a time and this is especially true with things like poultry and lean meats which should not be  overcooked.

      Pork shoulders and briskets, a lot less risky.

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