How to Smoke a Turkey: Tips from the Butcher

With the Thanksgiving holiday right around the corner, it’s time to start thinking about the turkey. Thanksgiving is truly my favorite holiday. It’s all about smoking that bird, being with family and friends, and giving thanks for what we have. Especially during this challenging year!

How to choose the perfect turkey

With so many different types of turkeys out there, it can be overwhelming and confusing to decide which one to get; a frozen bird or a fresh one?

Frozen Turkeys

Frozen turkeys are usually self-basting, meaning they are injected with a solution of either margarine or butter, broth, water, salt, and possibly a flavor enhancer. Check the label for the percentage of self-basting ingredients. These ingredients are meant to keep the bird from drying out during the cooking process.

Frozen birds may be more convenient. You can buy it weeks in advance and store it in your freezer, so you're not running around at the last minute trying to find a turkey.

If you do buy a frozen bird, you will have to defrost it. The best way is to place it on a pan in your refrigerator. A good rule of thumb in determining how long it will take to defrost is one day for every five pounds of turkey. Never defrost anything by just leaving it out at room temperature; it’s just not safe!

Fresh Turkeys

Fresh turkeys are always non-injected, are minimally processed, and contain no artificial ingredients. Fresh birds are chilled between twenty-six and forty degrees Fahrenheit. They do require some extra special handling to maintain freshness, as most turkey farms only deliver them locally.

Fresh turkeys usually start showing up at your local markets about a week before Thanksgiving, and when they’re gone, they’re gone. It’s best to order one in advance if your market takes pre-orders. Fresh birds are usually more expensive than frozen ones. Brining a fresh turkey is a great idea and adds more flavor and moisture back into the bird.

How big of a turkey should I get?

I always figure one pound of a bone-in turkey per person. If you think there may be some big eaters at the table, or you want some decent amount of leftovers, I recommend a pound and a half per person. After all, leftover turkey is sometimes the best!

Photo of raw turkey next to bowl of salt and pepper

How to prep a turkey

The key to successfully smoking a great turkey is in the preparation. Start by making a list of items that you are going to need, such as:

  • Enough fuel for the smoker
  • Special pans
  • Utensils
  • The right seasonings (always plan ahead)

How to brine a fresh turkey

Brining a fresh turkey is a great way to add in more flavor and moisture. There are two ways to do this.

Wet Turkey Brine

Wet brining consists of fully submerging the bird in a solution of water, salt, sugar, and spices for no longer than two days prior to cooking. The challenge of the wet brine is finding the proper container to hold all the liquid without spilling it all over the fridge.

Photo of raw turkey dry rubbed with salt and pepper

Dry Turkey Brine

Dry brining is much easier than wet brining. You don’t have to worry about finding the right container or making a big mess. The process is simple: start with a bowl and mix some kosher salt with a little fresh ground black pepper. Rub it all over the turkey and make sure you get it in the cavity and under the skin. Our Old Timers herb dry rub is also fantastic on smoked birds.

Place the bird on a rack with a pan underneath uncovered in the fridge for two days. The salt in the brine draws out some of the moisture then dissolves into the moisture. It is then reabsorbed back in the meat, making it moist, flavorful, and tender. Finally, leave the turkey uncovered in the fridge to dry the skin, which makes it nice and crispy when you smoke it.

Photo of raw turkey covered in herb dry rub seasoning

How to smoke a turkey

I get my smoker to 275 to 300 degrees and like to use apple or cherry wood for great flavor. Next, I place a drip pan on the lower rack of the smoker with the giblets from the turkey, some chopped up carrots, celery, onions, and fill it about half way with some stock.

I then place my bird on the upper rack of the smoker and cover it with a beer-dredged cheesecloth. The cheesecloth prevents the turkey from getting too much color too soon. I remove the cheesecloth about halfway through the total cook time. This helps achieve the perfect golden brown color.

The total cook time for this bird will be about 15-18 minutes per pound. Always check for doneness though with a good instant-read thermometer at the thickest part of the thigh. It should read 165 degrees when done. The most important part is to tent it with foil and let it rest for about 20 percent of the total cooking time.

Photo of fully cooked smoked turkey

Some interesting turkey facts:

  • Almost 90 percent of Americans will eat turkey on Thanksgiving
  • About 46 million turkeys will be consumed on that day
  • Turkey is low in fat and high in protein
  • Turkey is the fourth most popular protein behind chicken, beef, and pork
  • Both Hen and Tom turkeys have the same meat ratio and should be equally tender

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Photo of sliced smoked turkey