Smoked Turkey Breast for Thanksgiving

Smoked turkey breast is a better option for folks who do not care for dark meat or if you are cooking for a smaller crowd. It's also a little fancier in my opinion and for something like Thanksgiving, that can be important.

Turkey breasts come as bone-in and boneless but I prefer to purchase the whole bone-in turkey breast and I'll either cook them just like they are or sometimes I'll spatchcock them or even debone them before putting it in the smoker.

Brining is something I always do just because the payback is so big and awesome.

In this newsletter I will show you a few ways to prepare and cook a smoked turkey breast and most important of all, I'll show you how to make sure that it turns out extremely moist, tender and full of flavor.

If you missed my newsletter last week on smoking a whole turkey with bacon butter under the skin, you might want to check it out HERE.

Next week we'll be talking about double smoking an injected ham as well as cooking a turkey that's been deconstructed into individual pieces such as legs, thighs, wings, etc.

Stick around for the holidays.. we have you covered!

Important Information
  • Prep Time: 30 minutes
  • Brine Time: 4-12 hours
  • Cook Time: 2.5 – 6 hours
  • Smoker Temp: 230 degrees F
  • Meat Finish Temp: 165 F
  • Recommended Wood: Hickory or Cherry
What You'll Need
Brining the Turkey

Just like the whole turkey that we talked about last week, you will want to brine the turkey. This is such an easy thing to do and it does so much for the turkey that you really don't want to skip it. Once you try it one time you'll see how easy it is and you'll never smoke or cook another turkey without brining it first.

Over the years, I have come up with several really good brines and I have included the recipes below. My personal favorite is the buttermilk brine but the cranberry brine is also really good. If you just want something simple to make sure the turkey is moist and flavorful, then the traditional brine is a great choice.

All of the brines below are set to produce a single gallon of brine. Usually you can place a turkey breast into a large Ziploc container and use less than 1 gallon of brine to cover it.

Option 1: Traditional Brine

​Pour the water into a large plastic foodsafe container. Add the salt and stir until it is completely dissolved. Then add the brown sugar and rub and stir until it dissolved as much as possible.

Option 2: Buttermilk Brine

​Pour the buttermilk and water into a large plastic food-safe container. Add the salt and stir until it is completely dissolved. Then add the rub and stir until it is dissolved as much as possible.

Buttermilk brine for turkey

Option 3: Cranberry Brine

Pour the juice into a large plastic food-safe container. Add the salt and stir until it is completely dissolved. Then add the rub and stir until it is dissolved as much as possible.

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Once you have chosen and made the brine that you want to use:

Put the turkey breast into a gallon size Ziploc bag and pour the brine over the turkey until it is completely submerged.

Let the turkey breast brine for about 10 hours or overnight in the fridge making sure the temperature of the brine is less than 40 degrees to keep the turkey safe from spoilage.

Seasoning the Turkey

Once the turkey is finished brining, remove it from the brine, discard the brine and rinse the turkey really well under cold water.

Pat the turkey dry with a paper towel.

Turkey breast

Use your hands to loosen the skin so you can get some rub up under it. Once you can fit your hands in there, pull the skin away from the turkey without tearing it and pour 2-3 TBS of my rub (purchase recipe here) between the skin and the meat and rub it into the meat with your hands as good as you can.

Apply a light coat of olive oil to the skin of the turkey. Sprinkle a generous amount of my rub to the skin. Rub it in with the oil so that it forms a sort of paste.

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It is now ready for the smoker to do it's magic.

Getting the Smoker Ready

You can use ANY smoker to turn out a wonderful smoked turkey breast. Some smokers are easier than others but it all comes down to heat + smoke for a prescribed amount of time.

Set your smoker up for smoking at about 230 degrees F.

Use a water pan if you have one and I recommend a good flavorful smoke such as cherry, hickory, apple, maple, etc. depending on what you have available. I used hickory on this turkey breast.

Once your smoker is setup and maintaining 230-240 degrees, it is time to get that turkey on the smoker.

Smoking the Turkey

Place the turkey breast side down for a couple of hours directly on the smoker grate or you can use a Bradley rack if you have them available. After a couple of hours, flip it over to breast side up.

This combination of breast side down, then breast side up seems to give the best results for me.

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Let the breast smoke cook until it reaches 160 degrees in the thickest part of the breast and thigh.

The safe temperature for turkey is 165 degrees but we know that it will rise 5 or more degrees during the resting period so take it out of the smoker at 160 degrees and wrap it in foil for about 30 minutes before carving.

The most important thing to remember is to NOT overcook the turkey.. by removing it early in this way and allowing it to come up to temperature during the rest period along with the brining does a lot to ensure that your bird will be as juicy as it can possibly be.

Serving the Turkey

Carve the smoked turkey breast and serve immediately.

Other Turkey Options

Now you have some additional options in preparing the turkey breast for smoking: you can also spatchcock (butterfly) or debone the turkey breast.

Spatchcock

This just means that you remove the backbone with kitchen shears or a cleaver and lay the turkey flat like a book on the grate of your smoker.

This causes the turkey to cook faster and more evenly than it does when it is whole.

To butterfly or spatchcock the turkey:

With the turkey breast, breast side down, use a pair of kitchen shears to cut out the backbone. Just cut from front to back on both sides of the backbone and the turkey will lay out like an open book.

Warning: This requires a lot of elbow grease and determination and if you have a butcher that will do this for you, I highly recommend it. It's not hard to figure out HOW to do it but while chickens are easy to do, turkey bones are a little more difficult.

I am not trying to scare you into not doing it.. I just don't want you to decide to do it and then be surprised when you find out it's a bit of a workout.

Use a cleaver to break the keel bone (breast bone) or you can use a sharp knife to cut on both sides of the keel bone and remove it. This makes it easier to open up the turkey breast.

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I don't have pictures of me actually performing this feat however, I have included a video of me spatchcocking a chicken for you to show you the process up close and personal. Please note that cutting through the backbone of a turkey is a LOT more difficult than a chicken but it still gives you the general idea.

I don't necessarily remove the keel bone (breast bone) of the turkey like I do in the chicken, I simply use a cleaver to break it in the center to help it open up better.

Note: Don't stress over the keel/breast bone if you can't get it out or break it in the center. The main thing is for the turkey to lay somewhat flat on the smoker grate while it cooks. This is entirely possible by simply removing the backbone.

The video below is for spatchcocking a chicken and should at least give you an idea of how to cut out the backbone of a turkey.

Brine the spatchcocked turkey for 4-10 hours in a gallon sized Ziploc bag with about 1/2 gallon of brine or just enough to cover.

Season skin side and meat side with a little olive oil then shake or sprinkle on my rub (purchase recipe here) generously.

Smoke skin side down for about 2.5 hours at 230 degrees F or until it reaches 160 degrees in the thickest part.

Just as soon as it reaches 160 degrees, remove from the smoker and immediately wrap in foil for 30 minutes to rest. It will rise at least another 5 degrees during resting giving you your safe temperature of 165 degrees.

Debone

I have NEVER deboned a turkey before this one.. if you find that surprising then you may remember me saying in times past that I am in no way a professional meat cutter or turkey carver or anything of the sort.

I usually leave this to the butcher and he leaves the smoking to me ;-)

Having said that, as I was spatchcocking this bird, I decided to remove the rib bones that were there in my way and then I figured I might as well remove the wishbone since it was just right there and before you knew it, the turkey breast was deboned.

I then cut the breast in half giving me perfect little turkey breast pieces that would be easy to slice and serve once they got done smoking.

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I know, my OCD got the best of me but I ended up with a deboned turkey that might have made my butcher proud and then again, he may have furrowed his brow at me.. who knows.

At any rate, it looked good to me and I was proud of the job that I did.

I do not have any pictures of the actual deboning process as it just sort of happened, but youtube.com is your friend and if you do a search for “deboning turkey breast” you find several videos that show you exactly how this is done in great detail if you care to take it to that level.

There again, this is a great job for the butcher and he will no doubt do it for you if you ask.

Brine the deboned turkey breast halves for 4-10 hours in a gallon sized Ziploc bag with about 1/2 gallon of brine or just enough to cover.

Season skin side and meat side with a little olive oil then shake or sprinkle on my rub (purchase recipe here) generously.

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Smoke skin side down for about 2.5 hours at 230 degrees F or until they reach 160 degrees in the thickest part.

Just as soon as they reach 160 degrees, remove from the smoker and immediately wrap each half individually in foil for 30 minutes to rest. They will rise at least another 5 degrees during resting giving you your safe temperature of 165 degrees.

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After about 30 minutes, remove from the foil, slice and serve immediately.

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Here's a chart to help you with the different options, times, temperature, etc.

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16 Comments

  1. Doug K Weaver September 10, 2020 at 1:38 pm - Reply

    Jeff,
    I love your recipes. They are awsome and good to use. I have your book and really like. I haven't brined a turkey yet and I will cook a breast next week and will try your buttermilk one. Thanks for the recipes you send to my email. Have a blessed weekend.

  2. Marcel Moreau November 26, 2019 at 11:53 am - Reply

    I have been using your rub and barbecue recipes for years. Love them. Your site is an awesome resource for all us hacks learning the craft of meat smoking. Thanks for what you do. Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Jeff Phillips November 26, 2019 at 1:52 pm - Reply

      Thank you, Marcel! Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours as well!

  3. Alex November 22, 2017 at 4:03 pm - Reply

    I am smoking 2 7 lbs bonesless turkey breats. The are in brine now and not tied up. Should I tie them up before putting them on the smoker? I am guessing 4.5 hours at 230-240 for planning purposes?

  4. Fred S Bennett December 10, 2016 at 10:35 pm - Reply

    I agree, why can't I print this? When I try to print, it just rolls over

  5. Randy February 14, 2016 at 10:21 am - Reply

    I recently smoked a boneless turkey breast. When finished cooking, I wrapped it foil, placed it in a cooler, stuffed the cooler full of towels, closed the lid for an hour & a half, and to my surprise it was as hot as it was when I put it in the cooler. Also, it was the juiciest turkey breast we'd ever eaten. I hope this is useful for someone.

  6. Kenneth REUST October 25, 2014 at 10:13 am - Reply

    Have you ever smoked oysters on the half shell,

  7. Steve kinnamon August 24, 2014 at 8:44 pm - Reply

    How would you do a skinless turkey Brest?

    • CajunChef April 3, 2015 at 6:31 am - Reply

      Brine it the same way and time. Coat it with a good olive oil and Jeff's great spicy rub. If you are using a smoker which smokes drier, then get a spray bottle with apple cider, or your preferred juice and spray it about every hour after an hour's smoking.

  8. Mista Bone May 4, 2014 at 3:09 am - Reply

    Thanks Jeff, first time cooking anything turkey.

    6.8 lb breast, option 1 brine, didn't put rub under the skin after the soaking.

    Four hours at 240 and color was great, internal was 145 F, I double wrapped and let it go another hour, 165-170 temps, allowed it to rest before having Mom carve it.

    About 1/2 way through she yelled out, “You wanna cook turkey for Thanksgiving?”

    I guess my plan will be for 4 breasts and have the butcher do the deboning.

  9. Dennis Keck January 1, 2014 at 9:16 am - Reply

    Just got my new Master Build elect. smoker. Cooked a 10 lb. Did the brine set temp at 225 f. Brest showed 170 f  at 31/2 hrs. Had I not had the temp prob and left the bird in 5-6 hrs it would have been a mess.

    Did I do it wrong ? Seems to have cooked fast. What is the best way to keep it warm for 4 hrs. and what is the best temp ?

  10. Doug December 6, 2013 at 6:18 pm - Reply

    Do you put rub on non-skin sie if you debone it?

  11. Steven Gardner November 26, 2013 at 5:16 pm - Reply

    Like to learn more

  12. Paul November 21, 2013 at 1:58 pm - Reply

    Do you soak your wood chunks?  Been going back and forth just trying to get other opinions.

  13. smoken yankee November 18, 2013 at 10:19 pm - Reply

     

    Jeff, have you ever smoked a 15 lb turkey in a Bradley electric 4-rack smoker?

    I'm in the market for a electric smoker and have my eye on the Bradley

    I started out with a old Brinkman water smoker ( turned it into a electric ) , it was ok at the time but took to long to cook a turkey.

    I read your reviews on the Bradley and thinking very serious about buying one.

    Thank you Larry

     

     

     

     

  14. Charles Koch November 17, 2013 at 8:52 pm - Reply

    Hi Jeff

    why can't I print this in PDF like before

    can't seem to find the print button

     

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