Smoked Turkey Breast for Thanksgiving
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The Thanksgiving holiday is upon us once again here in the USA and the tradition is to have turkey and perhaps ham and all the sides that go along with that. It’s a time when family and friends get together and remember all that they have to be thankful for.
Under normal circumstances I would be doing a full sized smoked turkey however, this time around, I plan to do a couple of smoked turkey breasts with a small smoked ham.
These smoked turkey breasts are not a lot different in process than smoking a turkey with legs and wings but they do smoke up a little faster and most of my family (other than me) prefers the white meat.
I am not as big of a fan of the white meat however, with brining, great seasoning and low and slow cooking, the meat is super tender and moist and I find myself enjoying it immensely.
Many folks are accustomed to eating turkey that is dry, flavorless and requires loads of gravy to even come close to moist but with my brining and smoking techniques, you can say goodbye to the dry turkey jerky and hello to something that you might want to do more often than just holidays.
Past Thanksgiving Newsletters
If you are interested in my complete instructions for cooking a whole turkey, here’s the links for my thanksgiving newsletters from the last two years. I still get raving reviews on these two recipes:
How to Smoke a Turkey Breast for Thanksgiving
Here’s what you’ll need
- 7-9 lb bone-in turkey breast
- Mayonnaise (Use the real stuff like Hellmann’s)
- Jeff’s rub
- Jeff’s sauce
- 1 gallon of water
- 1 cup of kosher salt
Brining the Turkey
I assume you will want to brine the turkey and if you’re not sure what brining is, well, I’ve talked about it a lot in past newsletters but for the new folks, suffice it to say that it is the best way to end up with a super moist, extremely flavorful turkey. Brining works really well on all poultry and especially turkey.
My own formula is 1 gallon of water + 1 cup of kosher salt. Mix it all up until the water is clear and you have a basic brine. You can add other things to this like sugar, fruit juices, wine, hot sauce, etc. to flavor the turkey but you don’t have to.
The bird is soaked in this solution for 4-12 hours and during the process, the water is drawn into the meat along with any other flavors that you added to the water. Using this formula, it will not be too salty but you will be able to tell that it was brined. As a result of the added water, the bird will end up more juicy than it would have otherwise.
This year I chose to go with the basic brine since I want to really accentuate the smoke flavor with my rub that going to be on the outside. I simply added the 1 cup of salt to a gallon of water and left it at that.
The best way to get the brine and the turkey breast together is in a large plastic bowl or my preferred method is a jumbo sized 2.5 gallon ziploc.
Place the turkey breast into the ziploc bag then set the bag down into a large bowl. The bowl supports the bag and acts as a safety in case it leaks a little.
Pour the brine down into the bag until it completely covers the turkey breast. Press all of the air out of the bag and zip it up tight. I like to tie the top with a rubber band to prevent any mishaps.
Place the bowl with the ziploc’d turkey breast and brine into the fridge for 4-12 hours. It doesn’t seem to make a huge difference so the only reason for leaving it longer would be if you wanted to leave it in overnight while you sleep. Otherwise, about 4 hours and you’re ready to cook.
After the bird is finished brining, discard the brine and rinse the turkey breast really good under cold water inside and out.
The turkey is now ready to be seasoned with my rub and smoked.
How to Season the Turkey Breast
In the past we have used olive oil, mustard and even fruit juice to wet the outside of the turkey and help the rub to stick better but this year I am using mayonnaise. Think about it.. mayo is just eggs and oil so it will do a great job of preparing the surface of the turkey for the rub and it should help the skin to crisp up a little bit if we’re lucky.
I originally tried this on chicken pieces years ago and while it’s never been the usual way that I do poultry, it does seem to work well.
This seems to be a fairly common practice online as well.
Here’s how I do it:
Rub about 4 TBS of mayonnaise all over the turkey. I used a squeeze bottle of mayo for convenience.
Then sprinkle a thin layer of my rub all over the turkey.
I like to then massage the mayo and the rub together all over the turkey for a nice even coating but that’s up to you. With my rub, you can be really generous with it to impart a lot of flavor without it being too salty.
Once the turkey is covered with mayo and rub, it is ready to smoke.
How to Smoke the Turkey Breast
You can make these in ANY smoker whether it’s electric, charcoal, gas or wood. As long as you have heat and good smoke.. it will work.
I chose to use my Landmann Great Outdoors Smoky Mountain propane smoker this time and I have some great news below for owners of that smoker on how to keep the smoke going for 3-5 hours straight using the same equipment that came with the smoker when you purchased it.
Get the smoker going and when it is maintaining 225 to 240 degrees F, the turkey can be placed directly on the grate.
Note: If you feel like going a little hotter, poultry can certainly handle it. I know quite a few folks who run their smokers at 275 degrees or more when cooking chicken and turkey.
Most folks recommend breast side down to allow the juices to run down into the breast meat. I generally end up cooking the turkey breast side down for a while then flipping it over to breast side up at about the halfway point and I get great results this way.
Keep the smoke going for at least 3 hours on a turkey breast but you can also keep it going the entire time with great results.
Note for GOSM smoker owners:
Fill the wood chip box with wood pellets (the kind made especially for cooking) and it will smoke for 3-5 hours straight depending on which model you have and the size of the wood chip box. I am assuming the uniform size of the pellets allows them to be packed a little tighter in the box but, for whatever reason, I have tried this twice now and I have gotten more than 5 hours of smoke out of a single load. I highly recommend that you try this.
I use the pellets made for Treager and other pellet grills and they come in various flavors such as pecan, oak, hickory, cherry, etc.
Finishing Up the Turkey Breast
Be sure to use a digital probe meat thermometer such as the Maverick ET-732 to monitor the internal temperature of the turkey while it cooks. The worst thing you can do to a turkey is to overcook it and the thermometer will tell you exactly when it’s finished and it will be perfectly done.
Cook the bird until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees F.
I glazed it with a little of my sauce just prior to it being finished. I thought it added some nice color and the flavor will be great as well.
Remove it from the smoker and set it on a serving platter with foil tented over the top for about 15-20 minutes or so to allow the juices to redistribute throughout the turkey.
When the turkey is finished resting, carve and serve.
Some Common Questions & Answers
Q: Do I have to keep the smoke going the entire time?
A: No you certainly don’t with the charcoal, electric and gas smokers however you may want to keep it going for extra smoke flavor. Some folks worry about “over smoking” but this is usually the result of not enough airflow causing creosote to form on the meat itself. This will give a chemical type taste and is extremely unpleasant.
To solve this problem, always keep the top vent open at least 1/4 of the way or more and make sure that the intake vent on or near the firebox is open at least 1/4 of the way or more.
This allows air to enter, mix with the smoke, flow over the meat gently and then exit the smoker without the formation of creosote.
My minimum recommendation for smoking is to keep the smoke going for at least half of the estimated cook time.
Q: Can I make the turkey ahead of time and then take it to Grandma’s house?
A: Yes you can and especially if it’s only a couple of hours away however, if it’s more than a 3 hour drive, you will need to refrigerate the turkey and then reheat once you get there. This works fine but there’s a trade off in that it is never as good reheated as it was when it was hot from it’s original time in the smoker.
Less than 3 hours drive: When it’s finished cooking, wrap in heavy duty aluminum foil, wrap in a thick towel then place the turkey down in a small ice chest (like the ones you fill with ice and drinks for picnics).
Fill in any remaining space in the ice chest with more towels, blankets, and/or small pillows and close the lid. Keep the lid tightly closed until you arrive.
I recommend keeping the thermometer attached so you can keep an eye on the temperature but it should stay nice and hot (above 140 degrees) for at least 4 hours in this configuration.
More than 3 hours drive: When the turkey is finished cooking, tent foil over the top and allow it to cool off for about 30 minutes. Wrap in foil and place it in the fridge. Keep the turkey iced down while traveling. Once at Grandma’s house, still wrapped in foil and sitting in a oven safe dish, place in the oven at about 300 degrees for 1.5 to 2 hours or until it reaches 165 degrees.
Alternatively, unwrap the turkey, place it in a dish with liquid in the bottom then cover the turkey completely with foil to seal in the moisture while it reheats.
Q: Is it really necessary to brine the turkey before smoking it?
A: Absolutely not. If you want to make it really easy just unwrap the turkey, apply my rub on the outside and smoke it. It will still be delicious and better than what 99% of Americans are eating on Thanksgiving day.
Brining simply makes the bird more moist and adds a lot more flavor. It is not necessary but I do highly recommend it if you have the time and the means.
Q: Is it better to smoke a large turkey or two smaller ones?
A: I have always recommended keeping the size of the turkey to 12 lbs or less for safety reasons. You do not want the bird to take so long to cook that it becomes unsafe during the process.
For this reason, you should figure out how many pounds of turkey you need and then split it between two smaller ones. For instance, Let’s say you need 20 lbs of turkey then I would recommend that you purchase two turkeys of about 10-12 lbs.
10-12 lb turkeys will take about 6-7 hours to finish even if you have more than one turkey in the smoker
Q: Can I put stuffing in a turkey that I am smoking?
A: Yes you can… AFTER it’s finished smoking but NOT before. For safety reasons, the inside of the turkey should remain open to allow it to cook properly before stuffing it.
Make the dressing on the side and stuff it in the turkey just before serving if you want to stuff the turkey.
Q: Can I brine a bird that is already enhanced with a solution?
A: Yes you can. I recommend a “MINIMALLY PROCESSED” bird if you can find it. If not, the enhanced ones will work just fine. I used an enhanced one this year and the brining and smoking process made it wonderful. What they do in the factory will never compare to what you can do at home.
Other Notes and Tips
- Give yourself some padding when cooking the turkey. It is easy to wrap and keep hot if it gets done a little early so figure your time then give yourself an extra 60-90 minutes.
- Figure the time to cook a turkey at about 30-35 minutes per pound at 240 degrees F.
- Consider explaining to folks that they might see a pink tint to the meat and that this is a result of the smoke on the meat and not undercooked meat. This is better than leaving folks wondering about it.
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HI Jeff! Why don’t you sua a pellet grill for the turkey breast? Thnks..TOM
Tom, you can use a pellet grill for the turkey breast. I cook almost everything on pellet grills as well as wood/charcoal smokers and I get great results in both.
If my turkey breast I got is “basted with 15% turkey broth, salt and sugar” should I still brine it? Cant seem to find one at this time of year without added juices. At least can’t find a fresh turkey or turkey breast.
Jim, it’s sort of up to you. I tend to go ahead and brine them since I know that what I can do at home is way better than what they do at the factory. I have never had one end up too salty that way either.
Thanks. I’ll try it.
Jeff, I just wanted to thank you for your website. I have used many many of the techniques and recipes you have developed. I have also purchased and used both the rub and sauce recipe. When I use the sauce, I get nothing but praise. It goes so well with pulled pork(best mistake recipe).
I just finished smoking a turkey breast using your brine recipe and temperature setting recommendations. Don’t know if we will ever go back to a oven roasted turkey again.
Once again, Thanks!
Jeff, are you saying I can use pellets to smoke in my charcoal smoker instead of chunks?? Thnx, David
The recommendation on pellets was specifically for propane smokers with the large metal wood box but you could definitely do that in a charcoal smoker as well.
If you do not have a metal box, you can wrap them up in foil packets with a few small holes poked in the top and lay that right on top of the charcoal. When it gets done smoking, add another and continue this process for as long as you want to keep the smoke going.
This may go without saying but, do not soak wood chips, chunks or pellets before using them in the smoker. They work best when they are dry.
Thanks Jeff! Awesome site and awesome assistance!! I greatly appreciate the advice! David
Hi, I’m a novice chef/cooker and preparing a turkey much less a whole thanksgiving dinner has really intimidated me. I broke up with my boyfriend recently and he left behind his smoker. I decided to turn over a new leaf and cook a whole thanksgiving meal complete with a smoked turkey breast… I followed your directions completely. I was rewarded with a not only beautiful, but moist and delicious turkey. I was in shock. Your recipe made me seem like an expert. I am forever in debt.
I have an ugly drum smoker. We are planning on doing two 10 pound breasts for dinner. I may do an additional 6.5 pounder for leftovers. My question is, would my smoking time be increased due to having 2 or 3 breasts in rather than one? I understand that the 6.5 pounder will get done faster.
I have your rub and sauce recipes and love them. I plan on smoking a turkey breast for Thanksgiving in my Weber Smoky Mountain Cooker. Can I do the bacon butter technique just for the breast?
You can absolutely do that.. no problem. The breast should get done faster than a whole turkey so keep an eye on it and be sure to get it out of the heat when it gets to about 160 degrees. Wrap it in foil and let it rest for about 30 minutes before carving it up. During the rest time it should rise on up to about 165 degrees. This helps to ensure that it comes out as juicy as it can especially if you brine it first.