Thanksgiving Q&A

thanksgiving dinner 1

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I asked you to send me all of your Thanksgiving questions so I could compile them and answer them. Boy did you guys get serious about this!

I received hundreds of questions and after spending hours grouping similar ones together into categories, I have answered as many as possible. I will continue to add to this FAQ so keep checking back for more.

Because this is a huge document, I have included jump links below to each section:


Can you give the time and temp for a pellet smoker? Any suggestions?

I hear some folks say that everything they cook in the pellet smoker gets done faster due to the air movement from the fan but I have not seen anything real significant in my own cooking and I have a LOT Of pellet smokers including Traeger, Camp Chef, Pit Boss and Z-Grills.

In my own experience, which is what I have to go by, a 12 lb turkey cooked at 225°F – 240°F (107°C – 116°C) is going to take about 6-7 hours to get done regardless of the smoker as long as the thermometer runs true and I know what the temperature is at grate level.

If it gets done an hour early, you have a couple of options:

  1. you can FTC* the bird
  2. You can turn the pellet smoker down to it's lowest setting once the turkey is finished cooking and just keep it warm until it's time to eat.

*FTC – An acronym that means foil, towel, cooler. Wrap the turkey in heavy duty foil, wrap it in a thick towel, then place it in a cooler. I take it further by filling in any remaining space in the cooler with crumpled newspaper, extra towels, etc. The FTC method keeps meat above 140°F (60°C) for up to 4 hours and possibly longer in some cases.

Note: it's important to make sure the thermometer on your smoker is working correctly. Before doing an important cook like the Thanksgiving smoked turkey, use a thermometer to test the temperature at the grate to make sure it's reading true.

Here's a discussion on Smoking Meat about pellet smokers and convection cooking and how this affects times.


I have a large frozen butterball in the freezer. If I thaw the bird, then cut it in half, can I refreeze one half for later use?

This depends on how you thaw it out.

If you thaw the turkey in the fridge the entire time and the turkey does not spend more than 2 hours out of the fridge at any time, you can certainly re-freeze half of it.

If you choose to thaw it out under cold water or in the microwave, etc. then it will need to all be cooked.

Plan ahead for about 4-5 lbs of thawing per day in the fridge.


Have you ever used a buttermilk brine on your turkey? If yes did you find it worth it to do? What was the recipe?

I have used buttermilk in my brines many times and I definitely feel like it makes a big difference in the finished product.

Buttermilk has enzymes that help to tenderize the turkey or whatever you are brining and it also gives the meat a really rich flavor. The salt in the brine, of course, helps the meat to retain more of its juice during the cook.

My basic buttermilk brine:

  • ½ gallon of buttermilk
  • ½ gallon of water
  • 1 cup coarse kosher salt

Stir salt into buttermilk/water mixture for about 1-2 minutes to give the salt time to dissolve into the liquid.

Pour the brine over the turkey to cover. Keep turkey and brine at or below 40°F (4°C). Brine overnight or 8-12 hours.

Here's more turkey brine recipes

Do you recommend to still brine a Butterball turkey that is frozen in a brining solution, after it’s thawed out? I’ll be smoking on my offset smoker, spatchcock style.

Yes. I've been brining pre-injected birds for years and I'm always glad I did.

They try real hard at the butterball turkey factory (bless their hearts) to inject flavor into the meat but it just doesn't hold a candle to what you can do at home.

Go ahead and brine it even if it's 8-12% solution added and I'm telling you, it'll end up a lot better than it would have otherwise.

All of my turkey brines recommend 1 cup of coarse kosher salt to 1 gallon of liquid as a base.

I brine my turkeys every year but have trouble with how to keep the turkey submerged for overnight. I purchased a brining bag last year but it leaked out. I don't have a lot of room in my garage fridge and do not have a large enough container or pot.

Turkeys like to float so I usually put a plate on top of the turkey to hold it under. You can also fill a freezer zip top bag with ice and lay a couple of those over the top of the turkey to keep it under. Sort of have to get creative.

You could use an ice chest or a 5-gallon water cooler (the one with the faucet on the side) to do the job as long as you lay down ice in the bottom, a large food-grade plastic bag with the turkey and brine and tied up real good and then ice packed around it.

The ice packed around it would hopefully hold it upright so it couldn't leak and I don't think there would be much melting in just 8-10 hours if it was kept in the garage or somewhere that was pretty cool.

Bottom line, the turkey and brine must maintain at or below 40°F (4°C) for the entire time in order for it to be safe to eat.

Brining outside of the fridge requires some pre-planning and extra creativity but it can be done properly and safely if you're careful.


what do you think about cutting the turkey in half before smoking it?

I think it's a grand idea! Simply cut along both sides of the backbone then open it up like a book. Many people cook the turkey just like that. If you want to take it further and cook the turkey in halves, you can separate the turkey at the breast bone to create (2) halves.

This also makes it easier to brine and gives you much more manageable pieces to cook.

If you are using a really small smoker, this is the best way to make the turkey fit.

Can you recommend a good turkey rub?

You can, of course, use an equal mix of salt and pepper or you can use a SPOG rub which is a mixture of salt, pepper, onion powder and garlic powder.

My own SPOG recipe is:

  • 2 TBS coarse black pepper
  • 2 TBS coarse kosher salt
  • 1 TBS onion powder
  • 1 TBS garlic powder

If you want to know what I use most of the time on turkey, it's my Texas style rub. It's low in salt, contains everything that SPOG has in it plus several extras and the ratios are fine tuned over months of careful work.

It just works. Ask anyone who uses it and they will tell you that it works great on burgers, steaks, seafood, almost anything including turkey. Not only is it very low in salt, there's no sugar or sweetener of any kind involved.

The most important thing with rubs, seasonings and sauces.. use what YOU and your family enjoy.

Smoking/Cooking Process

With whole birds, 12 lbs seems to be the recommended size to ensure they get done safely in the low and slow environment. Since spatchcocked turkeys cook faster, what is the recommended size. Should I cook a large one or is it still best to cook (2) smaller ones?

Spatchcocked birds definitely cook faster and more evenly than whole birds so, while I haven't seen a recommended size for this, I would say it's a lot safer to cook a much larger turkey if you want to do that for presentation sake. 18-20 lb turkeys wouldn't be out of the question in my opinion.

However, for less work and less time, I still think it makes sense to stick with birds on the smaller size. Even when spatchcocking, I tend to go with turkeys that are 12-14 lbs to give me more time with my guests and less time tending the smoker.

More birds also gives you extra legs, thighs and wings if that's something your family seems to never have enough of.

See my instructions for spatchcocking a turkey

How long to smoke a 16 lb turkey on a Traeger pellet smoker?

There's a lot of variables that go into “how long it takes” including but not limited to:

  • Temperature of the turkey when it goes on the smoker
  • Outside temperature/weather
  • How often the lid/door is opened on the smoker
  • How well the smoker maintains a set temperature

With that in mind, I typically do turkeys that are in the 12 lb range and they typically get done in about 6-7 hours when I am maintaining a 225°F – 240°F (107°C – 116°C) temperature in my smoker.

A 16 lb turkey is going to take around 8 hours or slightly longer. To offset the extra time, you can cook at a higher temperature or cut out the backbone (spatchcock) to make the turkey cook faster and more evenly.

Here's a recipe for how to cut out the backbone (spatchcock) and smoke it that way. There's also a video at the bottom of that page if you'd rather watch it being done.

Another part of this equation is that if it's being cooked on a pellet smoker, it's real easy to just cook it at much higher temperatures if you'd rather keep it whole.

Pellet smokers do not put out a lot of smoke at higher temperatures so you'd want to smoke it on the lowest setting for about 2 hours to get some smoke flavor on it and then crank up the pellet smoker to 325°F (163°C) for another 2 hours or until it reaches 165°F (74°C) in the thickest part of the breast and thigh.

Here's some tips for cooking on a pellet smoker

I’d like to start my TG turkey in the smoker and finish it in the oven. I figured maybe 2 hours in smoke at 225-250, then a higher temp in the oven to help crisp up the skin. Would 350 be good for that, and how can I calculate the total amount of time using two different temps? (Of course, I’ll cook it to 163 internal, but trying to figure out when to put it in the smoker.) I have a 15lb bird that I plan to spatchcock.

No problem at all giving it a little smoke and then finishing the cooking process in the house. I am not aware of a calculator that can give us a definitive time but I can get you pretty close just based on experience.

A 15 lb spatchcocked turkey would take around 4.5 hours to reach done in normal low and slow temperatures of 225°F – 240°F (107°C – 116°C).

In 2 hours, you will likely be able to bring the turkey up to about 140°F (60°C). Placing it in a 350°F (177°C) oven will speed up the cooking significantly and give you another ~hour or so of cook time.

As with most things, pad the timing and if it gets done early, it's pretty easy to keep it warm for an extra hour.

How will smoking multiple turkeys affect the total time it takes to cook?

The heat is affecting all of the meat in the smoker at once so it doesn't change the cooking time dramatically but you do need to allow for a little extra time depending on the size of your smoker in relation to how full it is with meat and how much the airflow is restricted.

In addition to this, the extra turkeys are cold and introduce more cold mass into the smoker that the heat must overcome.

If you have a smaller smoker and it is packed full of meat, then yes, it's going to take quite a bit more time since the airflow is restricted.

In a typical backyard smoker, I usually allow an extra 30-45 minutes for each turkey as long as the airflow is not greatly restricted.

If you have a really large offset smoker, you may not need to add any time at all.

If you have a lot of food to smoke and not a lot of smoker room, consider spatchcocking the turkeys which will help a lot. You can also cut the turkey up into it's pieces before smoking to help fit things in the smoker without restricting airflow.

Another options is to cook some of the meat ahead of time and then reheat it right before dinner.

How to get crispy skin on the turkey?

This was a very popular question and I completely understand. At typical low and slow temps, turkey skin ends up less than crisp.

Outside of frying the turkey or cooking it the entire time at really high temperatures, the skin is not going to have that satisfying crispness that most of us are longing for. But there are a few things you can do to make it a whole lot better.

  1. Dry the skin in the fridge for 12- 24 hours before smoking it. That's right. After brining it, use a paper towel to pat the outside of the turkey as dry as you can get it then place the turkey on a pan with a rack and set it in the fridge uncovered for 12-24 hours. A full day is going to be your best bet.

    The dry, cold air will dry the skin and you will notice the skin getting very tight around the bones and meat and a lot more translucent.

    After drying, add the dry rub or seasoning over and under the skin and place it on the smoker.
  2. Cook at a higher heat. If you happen to be using a smoker that can handle higher heat such as a pellet smoker, you can give it some smoke at a really low setting for an hour or two then crank the heat up to 350°F (177°C) or even a little higher.

    The alternative is to give it smoke for a couple of hours at low and slow then move it to the oven at 350°F (177°C) to finish.

    The higher heat will greatly improve the outcome of the skin.
  3. Dry the skin and cook at a higher temperature. Do a combination of #1 and #2 above for the best possible outcome.

How do you smoke the turkey for a while and then finish it off by frying it?

I don't do this often but it's a sure-fire way to end up with really good turkey skin. The recipe is in my first book called “Smoked Fried Turkey” on page 64.

The recipe in my book recommends you smoke the turkey at 225°F – 240°F (107°C – 116°C) for about 90 minutes and then finish it off in peanut oil heated to 375°F (191°C). A 12 lb turkey should take about 30 minutes to reach 165°F (74°C) in the hot oil.

Caution: follow the turkey fryer manufacturers instructions very carefully and lower the turkey into the oil very slowly. Safety is key to prevent an emergency room trip on Thanksgiving day!

Haven't ordered my book yet? Get it now!


How do I reheat a bone in smoked turkey breast that I smoked the day before ?

Whether it's a bone-in breast or whole turkey, once it's done cooking and rested, I like to go ahead and remove the legs, thighs, wings, etc. if it's a whole turkey, then slice up the breast meat.

Note: To slice up the breast meat, I recommend trying to remove the whole breast from the turkey as one large piece then slice that up rather than slicing it from the carcass.

Place all of that meat into a foil pan and if you happen to have saved some of the juices (hopefully) you can pour that over the top of the turkey.

Cover the pan tightly with foil and put it in the fridge as quickly as possible to keep it safe.

To reheat, leave the foil on the pan. Preheat the oven to 275°F (135°C) and once it's ready place the pan of turkey + drippings into the oven for about 30-45 minutes. How long it takes will depend on how much meat is in the pan.

If you do not have any drippings, you can pour a cup or two of chicken stock/broth over the turkey.

After 30 minutes of reheating, check the temperature of the turkey with a thermometer or you finger and when it gets to a good eating temperature, you're good to go. You do not have to reheat it to 165°F (74°C)! A good eating temperature is generally around 120°F (49°C) in my opinion.

The less reheating you do, the less chance it will have to dry out. With the foil over the top and the drippings/broth in the pan, it should retain it's moisture and be an amazing meal.

I've done this many times with great success.

You can also leave it whole and reheat it that way if presentation is a big factor.. sometimes it is.

If you plan to reheat the whole turkey without carving it first, place it into a large foil pan once it's done cooking. Pour any drippings you have into the bottom of the pan and/or about a cup of chicken broth and cover tightly with foil. Refrigerate quickly.

Preheat the oven to 275°F (135°C) and once it's ready place the pan of turkey + drippings into the oven for about 60-90 minutes. How long it takes will depend on how much meat is in the pan.

Check the internal temperature of the turkey using a meat thermometer and once it reaches a good eating temperature or about 120°F (49°C), carve and eat.

I purchased one of those Popeye's pre-cooked/frozen Cajun turkeys. What do you think about reheating/finishing it off in my Traeger smoker?

There's not too many things I won't reheat on the smoker but part of this would need to be a little experimental if you're wanting some smoke flavor on it.

Their instructions are to wrap foil around it tightly and cook in an oven preheated to 375°F (191°C) for 1.5 hours.

I'm worried it would dry out if you reheated it open for the entire time. I guess an option would be to smoke it on your Traeger's lowest setting for maximum smoke for about 30 minutes then cover it up and follow the instructions as stated or until it reaches an internal temperature of 150°F (66°C).

30 minutes is pretty safe.. it will give you some smoke flavor and isn't enough time to reduce the moisture.

I plan to smoke a couple of turkey breasts for Thanksgiving, then travel a short distance for the dinner. Can I take off the turkey early, travel, enjoy the day with relatives then finish the bird in the oven?

You can't cook the turkey in (2) different stages unless it is back to back (no travel time, wait time, etc.).

For instance, you could smoke the turkey for 2 hours and then move it to the oven at 350°F (177°C) but you can't smoke the turkey for say 2 hours and then wrap it up, travel to your inlaws, place it in the oven there and continue cooking it.

During this time, the turkey would drop into the danger zone which is 40-140°F (4°C – 60°C), the zone in which bacteria grows really fast. You must get the turkey through and beyond this zone as quickly as possible for it to be safe.

Just to reiterate, I get asked this question a lot and just to reiterate, it sounds good in theory but in reality, this would be extremely unsafe to do.

The better option is to cook the turkey all the way, then use one of the following options:

  1. FTC the finished turkey until it' time to eat.
  2. Refrigerate and reheat


I've received LOTS of questions about time per pound for turkey and I'll address all of those here.

In my experience, I am not aware of any time per pound that works consistently for cooking turkey outdoors in a smoker. There are too many variables such as wind, how often the lid/door is opened, temperature of the turkey when it goes into the smoker, etc..

Try to do the same size turkey every single time and after a while, you start getting a “feel” for it. I recommend going with a 12 lb turkey, it's safer to cook, gets done in about 6-ish hours at 240°F (116°C) if you cook it whole or about 4 hours if you spatchcock it. If you want to get it done faster than that, you can certainly turn up the heat.

Of course, as I've said many times, if you need more than 12 lbs of turkey, cook a 2nd turkey of the same size. Leftovers anyone?

I want to cook a 14 lb turkey and double smoke a ham together. How do I make sure everything gets done at the same time?

The turkey is going to take roughly 7.5 hours or so. The hams are usually heated through in 3 to 4 hours max.

With that in mind, whatever time the turkey goes in, the ham goes in when there's only 4 hours left.

Turkey time minus ham time = offset hours or better written as 7.5 – 4 = 3.5

If you put the turkey in at 8 AM, the ham goes in 3.5 hours later which is 11:30 AM and hopefully everything gets done at about 3:30 PM.

The ham is very flexible so it can easily go a little longer or may even be able to be done slightly sooner if the turkey happens to finish early.


Have you ever put the Turkey dressing in the smoker to cook and give it a smoky taste?

I don't typically do this but it's easy to do. I recommend keeping your smoker at around 250°F (121°C) for about 45 minutes or until the stuffing/dressing is done through. If you need it browned on top, you can give it a few minutes under the oven broiler just before serving.

I’ll be up at 7000’ getting ready for my elk hunt on Friday following turkey day, I won’t be able to smoke my TG dinner but will be cooking it over a bed of oak coals in what will be probably 30’ weather, with knowing that, would you recommend an elk loin steak or a mountain lion loin steak? Both were from last years hunt.

Both of these are extremely lean and while I've never eaten mountain lion/cougar, I love elk so that would definitely be my first choice. I don't do a lot of wild game but what I have done has benefited greatly from plenty of bacon and butter and a good 24 hour soak in buttermilk.

Of course, anything cooked over hot oak coals in the middle of the woods is going to taste amazing!

What is the best smoked side dish to go with Thanksgiving? I am already smoking the turkey.

Some people smoke the dressing/stuffing but if you're looking for something different, I recommend smoked Mac-n-cheese or smoked cheesy corn. Both are showstoppers and amazing with smoked flavor.

Here's a lot of smoked side recipes if you want to browse.

I will be smoking ribs for Thanksgiving. What is your best recipe for smoking babyback ribs?

There's nothing wrong with going non-traditional for Thanksgiving and smoked pork ribs are a great alternative!

My favorite smoked baby back rib recipe is the coffee brined baby backs I did a while back. They are tender, tasty and I don't think your TG crowd will mind a bit.

Here's my list of favorite smoked pork ribs

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  1. Jeff – thanks for all this great info. Quick question – you mention a safety issue with smoking a larger turkey. What exactly is the safety issue? That it will sit at a lower temperature for too long, thus potentially growing bacteria? Or is there some other issue? We’re having a ton of people over next week, and I’m planning to smoke a larger turkey (18 pounds). I’m thinking spatchcocking may be my best bet to ensure I don’t run into trouble.

    1. Jay, you got it. Larger turkeys can stay in the danger zone (40 to 140°F for too long and it increases the risk of bacteria causing a food borne illness. Spatchcocking is definitely a great way to mitigate this since it causes the turkey to cook faster and more evenly.

  2. Jeff, thanks for all your great recipes and tips on cooking Thanksgiving turkey. My question is I plan on doing 2 to 4 whole turkeys and 2 to 4 turkey breast for Thanksgiving at my brother-in-law‘s which is 2 1/2 hours away. We are having probably 100 to 150 people. My question is Not if that’s enough to feed all of the people but my question is I plan on doing these before travel and not refrigerating it but freezing it. I assume that this process would be the same for freezing the Turkey. I might have it done say next week, maybe do it in two days, cut it up, put it in metal foil pan, put the juices that I catch into each one or chicken broth and then freeze it. Then travel to my brother-in-law‘s and put it in the oven until it reaches 120°.

    Plan sound solid??

    Thanks Barney

  3. For keeping the bird cold in the cooler over night, I use artificial ice cubes which eliminates the issue of melting and diluting the brine.

  4. Might be a.silly question but I have a beef tenderloin I found in the freezer(still sealed and been in about a year and a half). Was planning on using my seven pepper rub and doing a layered(layering different kinds of pellets) in the smoker. I don’t see any freezer burn, do you think the meat is still ok?

    1. I usually trust my nose more than anything. Thaw it out and if it smells fine, then I’d say you’re good to go. Additionally, you can cut off a small piece and fry it in the pan real quick. Give it a taste and that is another indicator for you on whether to throw it out or cook it up and serve it.

  5. My brining container is a Firehouse Subs pickle bucket that you can purchase at the restaurant and the proceeds help firefighters. It works great and it’s already food grade. It also doesn’t take as much brine.

  6. Jeff, Here is a question that I haven’t read in previous newsletters or recommendations. We all love the use the drippings to make gravy. When smoking a turkey can I place the turkey in a roasting rack and then place in a shallow foil pan to catch the drippings?

  7. Jeff,
    Thanks for taking the time to put this extensive and very useful FAQ reference together. No easy task for sure. Appreciate and enjoy all your posts. Keep up the good work!
    Happy Thanksgiving!

  8. Nice group of questions and responses. I really think once someone tries cooking a bird via the spatchcock method, they’ll never go back. I get it, it’s not Norman Rockwell’s turkey, but his wasn’t done on a pit either. It’s just so much faster and the result tends to be a more evenly cooked and juicier bird.

    Thanks for the cheesy corn recipe too. I’ll be trying that soon. I didn’t see a link on your pages to share to Facebook, etc. I just copied the URL and shared so my friends could see it.