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Smoking Meat for Thanksgiving – FAQ

smoked maple barbecue turkey

As Thanksgiving approaches, I know that many of you may still have questions about smoking the turkey and ham so I have compiled a few of the most asked questions and answers to hopefully help you out a little before the big day.

Send in any questions you have and I will do my best to update this FAQ with anything new.

With that in mind, I do get so many questions this time of year, that I just cannot answer all of them. If you send in a question and it does not get an answer, try posting it at the forum.

140k+ members and more than 2.4 million posts on smoking meat and it’s absolutely free.. enough said!

smf logo revised

Let’s go!

Can I Brine a Store-bought Turkey?

Some folks will tell you to not brine a store bought turkey but, for the life of me, I am not sure why not. I have been brining store purchased turkeys for many years and some of them with as much as 12% solution added and it is NEVER too salty. I am not a big “salt” guy so I would not like it or recommend it if it wasn’t good.

The process they do at the factory does not result in a salty turkey.. not even faintly so. The brining you do at home does a much better job and if you follow my instructions of using 1 cup of kosher salt to 1 gallon of water for an overnight (10-12 hour) brine, it will be a more juicy, moist and tasty bird than it can ever be otherwise.

My recommendation is that you try to find a fresh, no solution added turkey if possible. If you can’t find that, then shoot for a turkey that has 8% or less solution added.

Once you brine the thanksgiving turkey one time, you will most likely never want to eat a non-brined turkey again.

Smoking a Turkey Larger than 14 lbs

As most of you know, I do not recommend smoking a turkey that is larger than 12 lbs.. 14 lbs is pushing it. This is due to the fact that the larger turkey takes too much time to reach a safe temperature at the low temperature. It is risky at best and in my opinion, is raising the chances that your family and guests could get a food borne illness.

To make it safe, keep the turkey on the small side (12 lbs is about right) and if you need more turkey, just smoke multiple turkeys figuring on about 2 lbs of raw weight per person.

I just usually figure a 12 lb turkey for every 6 people and it gives me plenty of turkey with a few leftovers.

So you’ve already purchased a big ol’ 22 pounder so what now? Well, you really only have a few options to smoke it up safely.

  • Cook it low and slow with smoke for only a couple of hours then crank up the heat or move it to the oven at 325 °F to finish.
  • Spatchcock (butterfly) the turkey to speed up the cooking process – here’s instructions for this
Should I Stuff the Smoked Turkey

ONLY after it’s done. Stuffing prevents the heat from flowing into the cavity as it needs to and causes it to take longer to cook, something you do not need at low smoking temperatures.

If you want the bird to be stuffed for presentation, make the dressing/stuffing in a separate container in the oven and stuff it into the turkey after the turkey is done cooking and just prior to placing it on the table.

It is fine to place a few pieces of onion, apple, butter,etc. in the cavity as long as the heat flow is not impeded in any way.

Traveling to Grandma’s House

If you must travel with the turkey, it is probably best to make it a day ahead of time and just as soon as it reaches 165°F, place it into a roasting pan with the lid off and let it cool for about 25 minutes.

After cooling, cover the turkey with a large piece of foil, place the lid on the roasting pan and place it in the fridge.

Keep it cold (less than 40°F)  while you travel.

Once you get to grandma’s house and about an hour before you are ready to eat, pour about ¼ cup of water down in the bottom of the roasting pan for humidity (prevents the meat from drying out) and if you have any extra maple/rub sauce from the smoking process, take it with you and baste the turkey again.

Place the entire roasting pan in an oven preheated to 350°F. It should take about 1 hour to reach a good eating temperature but if it gets done early, just turn the heat down to 170°F and hold it there until you are ready for it.

Keeping the lid closed, adding the extra moisture and basting again with the maple sauce will revitalize it and it will be nearly as good as it was right out of the smoker.

How Long Does it Take to Thaw a Turkey?

I usually figure on about 4-5 lbs per 24 hour period.

If you are in a hurry, you can place the frozen turkey in a sink full of cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes (very important) until the turkey is thawed. For a 12 lb turkey that is completely frozen, you are looking at about 6 hours.

Using an Electric, Charcoal or Gas Smoker, How Long to Apply Smoke?

My general rule of thumb for applying smoke is ½ of the estimated cook time. I expect a 12 lb turkey to take about 6-7 hours so I recommend applying smoke for about 3 to 3.5 hours.

As long as you have good airflow.. i.e. your vents are open enough to allow plenty of air to come into the smoker and the smoke is able to exit quickly, you can easily and safely apply smoke for the entire time, after all, that is what happens by default in a wood burning smoker and there is no better way to duplicate that real wood smoked flavor.

Smoking a Turkey on a Pellet Smoker

All pellet smokers share a common trait, the lower the temperature, the more smoke you get, the higher the temperature, the less smoke you get.

It’s just how a pellet smoker works and if you smoke too high, you’ll be wondering why you bothering smoking it since there won’t be any flavor.

The trick to this is to start the cook at the lowest possible temperature.. usually around 180°F (82°C). Leave it here for about an hour then turn it up to 225°F (107°C) – 240°F (116°C) to finish.

You can also use a smoke tube filled with pellets to create smoke. This means your pellet grill is only responsible for heat and the smoke tube is only responsible for the smoke. By separating these two, they are both able to do a much better job.

Here’s an article with more tips and tricks for using your pellet smoker/grill

What to Do When you Run Into Problems

I suspect that some of you will run into issues with your smoker such as not being able to get your heat high enough, the heat will be too high, or any number of other smoker related problems.

I suggest that you, first, do not panic.

Second, do the best you can to apply about 2 hours of smoke then, if you are still having issues that you cannot alleviate, consider moving the somewhat smoked turkey to the oven following the same temperature and process recommendations.

There is no shame in moving to the oven if that is what is needed to make sure the turkey gets done and ends up delicious.

A few things you can do ahead of time to lower the risk of problems:

  • Make sure you have plenty of propane, wood chips/chunks, pellets, charcoal, etc..
  • Do a test run or two in the weeks preceding the big day
  • Make the rub, brine, sauce, etc. ahead of time
How Do I use the Maple Turkey Recipe With a Turkey Breast?

I would not change much.. make sure it is a bone-in (better in my opinion).

I would still brine it overnight and apply the maple syrup and rub as before. It may cook a little faster simply because the heat is able to get to all part of the breast unrestricted so you’ll want to monitor it with a digital probe meat thermometer to make sure you take it off when it reaches it’s optimum temperature.

If you plan to rest it as instructed in the newsletter, you can remove it at about 160 degrees since it will rise 5-7 degrees during the rest period.

Breast meat is perfectly done at 165°F (74°C).

Last Minute Smoker Tips
  • Use the water pan if you have one for your smoker
  • Almost all smoking is done with indirect heat. The turkey is also cooked with indirect heat
  • Do NOT use wet, soaked wood. Dry wood is so much better.
  • In charcoal and wood smokers, use lump charcoal for heat, and a little wood for smoke
  • Set the turkey open in the fridge for a couple of hours after brining to dry the skin. This can help you end up with a more crispy skin.

Order Jeff’s Rubs and Barbecue Sauce TODAY!

✅ My rubs and sauce will be the best thing you’ve ever tasted and it’s a great way to support what we do!

Note: You can also order the formulas for my rubs and sauce and make these yourself at home. Grab those HERE and download immediately.

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21 Comments

  1. Regarding Mr. Butler’s post on dark skin, It may be the wood he is using. For example cherry will make your bird skin quite dark. I like Maple or Pecan for smoking my turkey’s.

  2. I’ve been wanting to try a pellet smoker tube in my pellet grill but Recteq recommended that I not. With top grade pellets, how long does one of the pellet tubes last , where do I put it in the smoker, and what can I use to light it (don’t have and don’t want to have to buy a propane torch)???
    Do these tubes alter the settings in the smoker?
    My final ? is when I go to enter my email I get a pop up that says “hide email, create a unique random address that forwards to your inbox” What does this mean, and do I have to create another email and password for that? How do I do this If I decide to ?
    THanks,
    Jim

    1. Jim,

      I’m not sure why Recteq does not want you to use a smoke tube but I and many others have been doing this for years.. with great success. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using a smoke tube and it’s exactly what most successful pellet grill owners are doing to make sure they get plenty of smoke flavor.

      All smoke tubes are different but mine is about 8-inches long and lasts about 3-4 hours.

      You do not need a large propane torch.. I buy the inexpensive blue ones in the hardware area at WM. It’s about 15-inches tall maybe, easy to light and lights up those pellets fast.

      I do not use “so called” top grade pellets. I’ve been using Pit Boss from WM for several years now and the flavor is on point, great smoke and less than $0.40/lb usually. The other day I found some bags on clearance for $0.25/lb.

      I’ve tried LumberJack and a few others and the difference in quality is not worth the extra price in my opinion.

      I place the smoke tube in the recteq right on the left side of the grate next to the thermometer cutout on the side. I leave that cutout open so the smoke tube can get the air it needs and it works just fine.

      Regarding the smoke tube altering the settings..

      The controller is PID which means it monitors the temperature and runs the machine based on that reading.

      Even if the smoke tube increases the temperature of the smoker by 10-20 degrees, the PID will know that and will still maintain the correct temperature. It’s not something to even be concerned with.

      Regarding the email, some of the newer computer and device software will create a unique email address for you so the company you are signing up with, does not have your actual email. this is to cut down on spam in your inbox.

      You do not need to do anything for this.. it is completely automated. When you receive email from the company you subscribed to, that unique email will forward to your actual email.

      For you, there is no difference. However this is a way to hide your email so it is more protected from spam.

      I am very careful with the emails that I am entrusted with, they are never shared, sold, rented, anything of the sort, however some companies may not be as meticulous as I am about it so its not a bad idea.

    1. Jim, great question!

      I need some clarification on this in order to answer it properly:

      Is the skin dark because the skin or the rub is burning or charring

      or..

      Is it covered with a black, oily substance?

      These are two different issues and it’s important to know which one it is so the issue can be fixed.

      Thanks!!

  3. Loved all these tips and comments. The last few years we vertical roast a bone in breast and also vertical smoke another one. The roast breast starts at 500 degrees for the first 15 minutes and then turned down to 400 degrees for 15 min per lbs (include the 500 degree time in your calculations.) I will use your 180 degree suggestion this year for the one in the smoker. I try to coordinate the finish time so I can wrap in bath towels and place in an ice chest till supper. They always stay hot for at least 3 hours in the ice chest if you have to wait that long. Perfect if you are traveling for the holidays and can deliver a hot bird on demand. haha

    1. The only way to get crispy skin on any poultry is to fry it, bake it or grill it at very high temperatures. Cooking a turkey for 6-7 hours in the smoker at 225-240°F does yield a skin with a decent bite but it won’t be crispy.

  4. I ordered one of your rubs for smoked turkey never received it I want it but if I don’t receive soon I will be getting ahold of my visa people please respond

    1. Richard, as my sales pages and descriptions all describe, these are recipes (formulas) for making my rubs and/or my barbecue sauce. It sounds like you misread/misunderstood what you were purchasing and I will issue a full refund right away. Let me know if you have further questions about this.

  5. We smoked our turkey today to take to my husbands parents house tomorrow. We will be re-heating it using your method above, but what do you consider a good “eating” temperature?

  6. Jeff,
    We are expecting 3 to 6 inches of snow on Thanksgiving day here in Colorado with a high of 25.
    I have a 13 lb fresh turkey to smoke, needs to be ready by 3pm.
    Should I smoke it on Wednesday, high of 45 and no snow?
    How can I “reheat” it on Thursday?

    Love your site and newsletter

    Dale

  7. Jeff,
    I am smoking a 13lb fresh turkey this year needing it ready at 3pm on Thanksgiving.
    They are forecasting snow all day and up to 6 inches here in Colorado, with temps in low 20’s at best.
    With the temperature that cold, I am afraid my Landmann smoker will have trouble reaching and maintaining the temperature needed to get the bird done in time.

    Should I consider smoking it on Wednesday afternoon since outside temp will be in the 50’s?

    Love your site, it has really helped me be a better smoker

  8. Jeff,
    I absolutely love your site and emails. I have been smoking 18-20lb turkeys for the past 6 years using a Masterbuilt electric smoker set at 230 degrees with a probe in the thickest part of the breast and another in the thickest part of the thigh.

    I have never had it take longer than 4 hours to reach temp. Is this because of the relative even temp that the electric smoker provides?

    1. Have you tested the ambient temperature of your smoker with another thermometer that you know is correct? I suspect that it may be running hotter than what it is saying. Mine runs on the cool side– when I set it at 275 it is actually about 240.

  9. Jeff,

    I smoked my first turkey breast (on an old Brinkman horizontal smoker) using the Buttermilk brine and it was fantastic. The meat was very juicy and a nice sweetness to it. I use a KC-style rub which I love. I do want to try your rub.

    Also, smoked some St. Louis ribs using your 3-2-1 method and your other instructions. My wife said it was the best batch of ribs she’s had yet. When I wrap them for the second two hours, I add some apple juice and melted margarine or butter. Thanks for the great tips – there’s nothing better than seeing family/friends enjoy great smoked meat!!

  10. I’m trying your Maple Turkey brine. My question is after I make the brine, How much more salt do I add to the 3 quarts of water? Is this in addition to the salt, rub, and Maple syrup mixed earlier?

    My family loves all of the recipes that I have made from your e-mails.

    Thank you,

    Lyndon

    1. You only need a total of 1 cup of coarse kosher salt in a gallon of liquid. I mixed all of the salt required into the 3 quarts so no more is needed after the 4th quart is mixed in.