Smoking a turkey is a great way to change up your annual roast turkey tradition. The process is both approachable and, most importantly, rewarding.
Make this Thanksgiving one to remember by introducing the wafting smoke of smoldering pecan wood to a brined turkey. The brine ensures rich succulent meat while the smoke imparts a sweet nuttiness to the crisp mahogany skin. When you see the smiling faces at dinner, the extra two days it takes to prepare this recipe will be long forgotten.
There is always a little bit of pre-holiday dinner stress, especially when it comes to the main turkey course. Add in a grill, and you may think about pulling up a meditation app on your smartphone to soothe the nerves. Fear not! I’ll walk you through the process and even the most infrequent smoker can find success.
When the carving knife pierces the crispy skin to reveal the moist meat hidden below you'll know smoking your centerpiece entrée was the right call this holiday season.
How To Smoke Turkey
For this recipe, I use a 12-pound turkey that has been brined and dried. To smoke the turkey, you’ll need either a dedicated smoker or a grill.
I use a water pan smoker lit with briquettes and 3 pecan wood chunks. It may take up to two hours to set up the smoker and get the perfect smoke, before you start smoking the turkey. The turkey is smoked low and slow until it hits the target temperature of 165º F.
How Long Does it Take to Smoke a Turkey?
With the smoker set at 275ºF to 325ºF, it will take a 12-pound turkey 3 to 4 1/2 hours to smoke.
- Keep in mind, much like heating up an oven, it takes time to get the smoker not only lit but also settled into the temperature range.
- When the smoke put off by the smoker goes from thick white to soft blue, it’s time to add the turkey.
- All in all, figure an extra hour or two depending upon how long it takes for your smoker to regulate on top of the actual cook time.
Do I Need a Dedicated Smoker?
The difference between a roast turkey and a smoked turkey is a slightly lower cook temperature and the addition of smoke. While you can create smoke in a gas or charcoal grill, I find the best smoked birds are cooked in a dedicated smoker.
Dedicated smokers are easier to keep at a constant low temperature, they are the right size, and the grates are perfectly distanced and protected from the heat source to gently smoke just about any size turkey.
You can find many smokers on the market today. Three of the most common are:
- Water pan: This is what I use. It’s a vertical charcoal-fueled grill that uses a large water pan to act as a heat sink and heat deflector helping to maintain a low temperature for an extended amount of time.
- Kamado: Often made of ceramic, kamados are known for holding low temperatures for incredibly long periods of time with little charcoal fuel. A ceramic heat deflector promotes indirect cooking, transforming the appliance into an outdoor oven.
- Pellet grill: This is an electric grill that uses an auger to feed pulverized wood pellets to a fan-controlled firebox to create heat and smoke. A built-in heat deflector gives pellet grills the benefit of performing as an indirect smoker and a high temperature grill.
Setting up your smoker depends entirely on what type of smoker you have. Since their operation can vary widely, set your smoker up according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.
The Best Wood for Smoking Turkey
The smoke is produced by smoldering wood on hot briquettes. The best smoke isn’t thick white billowing smoke, it’s the wispy blue smoke you get after the smoker has had a chance to settle in.
This turkey calls for pecan wood chunks, but depending on the type of smoker you’re using you may need a different form of wood:
- Wood chunks: If you have a water pan or kamado smoker, use wood chunks. As the name implies, these are large chunks of wood, roughly fitting in the palm of your hand. Their size makes them ideal for a long smolder over charcoal. A few chunks of wood go a long way to create smoke. The fewer times you open the smoker to add more wood means the more heat the smoker can retain.
- Wood chips: If you have a gas or charcoal grill, use wood chips. Chips are small pieces of wood, about the length of your pinky and half the width, so they require more frequent replenishment.
- Pellets: If you have a pellet grill, use pellets. Created from a mechanical process, pellets are compressed capsules of wood debris.
I like the sweeter varieties of wood, both in taste and scent, such as cherry, maple, or what I used here, pecan. It is a mild yet sweet species that paints the bird a beautiful mahogany when smoked.
Nothing says you have to use just one type of wood. Experiment with a blend. In the end, the best choice is what you like. Plus, don’t worry about pre-soaking them in water.
How Much Turkey Per Person?
The general rule of thumb is one pound of turkey per person. Remember this is uncooked weight so the bones are included in that as well. I use a 12-pound turkey for this recipe so it should serve 10 to 12 people with leftovers.
Why Brine a Smoked Turkey
I always brine turkey before I smoke it. You can rub a dry brine (cure) on it or soak it in a wet brine, a flavored salt water solution. In this case, I went with a wet brine.
I use the brine as an opportunity to impart earthy citrus flavor into the turkey, with the addition of herbs, onion, garlic, and oranges. However, the brine’s most important duty to ensure tender, moist meat after hours in the smoker.
Once the turkey has been removed from the brine and dried uncovered in the refrigerator overnight, the only additional item I add is a thin coat of olive oil. You could certainly add pepper, fresh herbs, or citrus zest, but I believe less is more when it comes to smoking.
The Best Turkey for Smoking
The best turkeys are fresh free-range ones that are not injected or “enhanced” with salt or fluids, as many store-bought turkeys are. If you have one of these turkeys, it is best to skip the brine altogether—go ahead and smoke it.
When is a Smoked Turkey Done?
The turkey is done when the temperature of the breast reads 165º F with an instant-read thermometer.
The best way to keep track of the temperature while the turkey smokes is with a wireless thermometer. It consists of a base and receiver. The base has one to four temperature probes (and sometimes more!) and it transmits the temperature of the turkey to the receiver. The receiver can even by downloaded as an app on your smartphone. Yeah, technology.
How to Plan Ahead
Like any major holiday to-do, a smoked turkey takes some planning. For this you are going to want three to four days to dedicate to the bird. If you are starting with a frozen turkey plan on an additional four days to thaw a 12-pound bird.
Regardless of your path, the plan for smoked turkey is measured in days, not hours, but it is well worth the effort!
Day 1: Find a local fresh free-range bird.
Day 2: Soak the bird in the brine for 24 hours.
Day 3: Remove the bird from the brine and let it rest uncovered in the refrigerator for 24 hours. This will allow the skin to dry out and crisp better when smoked.
Day 4: Smoke the turkey.
Recipes for Leftover Turkey
Pecan Wood Smoked Turkey
This smoked turkey starts with brining it for 24 hours, then letting it rest for another 24 hours in the refrigerator before you actually smoke the turkey. The brine recipe is linked in the ingredient list below.
If you're new to smoking remember it can take up to 1 to 2 hours for your smoker to come up to temperature and smoke at optimum levels before you actually put the turkey on the smoker.
The time it takes a turkey to smoke depends on it's size. It's best to use a probe thermometer to check for doneness. For a 10-to 12 pound turkey plan for 3-4 1/2 hours of actual smoke time.
- 1 (10- to 12-pound) fresh free-range turkey
- Smoked Turkey Brine
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Brine and dry the turkey:
Brine and dry the turkey following the Smoked Turkey Brine recipe. After soaking in the brine for 24 hours, remove the bird from the brine and let it rest uncovered in the refrigerator for 24 hours. This will allow the skin to dry out and crisp better when smoked.
Note: While the linked brine recipe calls for a larger bird, the additional brine for a smaller turkey will not negatively impact the turkey.
Prepare the smoker:
Prepare the smoker for medium-low heat, 275ºF to 325º F, per manufacturer directions.
For a water smoker: Remove the grates and separate the lid and center section. Fill half of the base’s fuel grate with unlit charcoal briquettes. You may have a fire ring there to keep the briquettes together and to promote air flow.
In a charcoal chimney, light enough briquettes to cover the top of the unlit briquettes. Transfer the lit briquettes onto the unlit ones in the smoker. Reassemble the smoker, fill the water pan with water, replace the grate, and attach the lid.
Start with the bottom vents fully open. As the temperature starts to rise, close them little by little, but not all the way, until the smoker reaches 275º F. Limiting the air flow helps keep the smoker’s temp low.
For a pellet grill: Just set the temperature from the control panel and you are off.
If you are smoking your turkey on a gas or charcoal grill, you can find instructions here.
Add pecan wood chunks:
Add 3 pecan wood chunks to the lit coals. Let the chunks begin to smolder. When ready, the smoke should be light and blue and not rolling out like dinner was burned.
Figure up to 45 minutes to an hour to get the smoker dialed in with those blue wisps. The wood should smolder, not burn. If your smoker is in the right temperature range, those wisps are just a matter of time.
Oil and truss the turkey:
Remove the baking sheet with turkey from the fridge and place it on the countertop. Do not be alarmed if the skin looks grey and dried out. It should, as that overnight drying sets the stage for crisp skin.
Cut off about 10 inches of kitchen twine for trussing the turkey and set it aside. Brush the outside skin with the olive oil. Or, if you are like me, use your hands.
Tuck the wing tips behind the neck. It should look as if the turkey is kicking back and taking a nap with its wings behind its head.
Using kitchen twine, tie the legs together. I make a loop with the twine, place the ends of both legs in the loop, then tighten the loop so that the legs are crossed bone on bone.
Here is a detailed guide on how to truss a turkey with step by step photos if you'd like more information.
Smoke the turkey:
Open the lid of the smoker and place the trussed turkey in the center of the grate.
If using a wireless thermometer, place the probe horizontally into the center of the breast. For reference, the tail of the probe should face the same direction as the neck. The tip of the probe should be in the thickest part of the breast to ensure a proper temperature reading. Close the lid.
Check on the turkey at the 45-minute mark. The skin should be a light brown. If the turkey legs or breast appears to be charring (it may look black) from excessive heat, tent it with foil or consider wrapping the turkey with cheesecloth. Check the turkey every 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Smoke the turkey until the internal temperature of the breast reads 165º F. For a 10- to 12-pound turkey, it will take 3 to 4 1/2 hours. If not using a wireless thermometer, start to check the turkey's temperature at the 2-hour mark and then every 15 to 20 minutes thereafter, but try to keep the lid of the smoker closed as much as possible.
Rest the turkey:
Transfer the turkey onto a platter and loosely tent it with foil. Rest it for 15 to 20 minutes. Carve and serve.