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How to Smoke a Turkey

Smoked Turkey

There are good and bad things about having a kid with the flu on Thanksgiving.  Both the good and bad have to do with family.  The bad is that when you are quarantined with a sick kid, you can’t go hang out with the rest of the family.  The good is that you have an excuse to stay at home, sit on the porch, smell the sweet smoke from the smoker all day and watch football!  I’d by lying if I said I didn’t enjoy a nice Thanksgiving at home without rushing around to see two families.

The best part is that I used our quarantined situation as an opportunity to really plan and smoke a turkey in my homemade smoker this year.  I recently tried fried turkey, since everyone is always raving about it.  Although I love how fast you can fry a turkey, it didn’t really impress me in the taste department.  This smoked turkey, however, was a real winner and I think I’ll have to celebrate half-Thanksgiving this coming year, just to have leftovers.

Choosing and Brining Your Turkey

You really don’t want a huge, stork-like turkey for smoking.  A 10 – 12 pound turkey is the perfect size for the smoker.  Make sure you buy a “natural” turkey, not one that says it has been “enhanced”, or “self-basted” with juices of any kind.  It’s pretty easy to tell once you read the label.  If you do happen to get an enhanced bird, just skip the brining process because an enhanced turkey means it has already been injected or soaked in a salty substance.

Once your turkey has been thawed (make sure you take out the neck and gizzards, but save the neck for the gravy!), it’s time to brine that sucker.  Brining adds a lot of moisture and taste to the bird.  If you have never brined meats before, you are about to start.  Rather than repeating ourselves, wander on over to our article on how to brine a turkey for the brine process and recipe.  Meet me back here once the turkey has soaked in the fridge.  While you wait, you still need to think about all of those side dishes that need to be created to go along with this beautiful bird.  Or do you?  Let the rest of your guests worry about them by creating a Thanksgiving sign up sheet with ThingToBring.com.

Fire Up the Smoker and Get the Bird Ready

Ok, the bird has been soaking for a while (if it wasn’t already “enhanced”) and getting itself ready for it’s journey to smokey deliciousness.  It’s time to get the smoker going and make some final preparations to the turkey.  We need enough charcoal to smoke this baby for around 4 hours.  For my smoker, that means about a half of a bag of charcoal.  To enable my smoker to burn nice and evenly for that long, I need to make a ring of unlit charcoal and then dump a chimney-full of lit charcoal into the middle.  Here’s a visual:

charcoal ring for smoker

Once the charcoal is lit, get your smoker into the “zone”, we are looking for 250 degrees.  If it creeps up around 300, no worries, just make sure you have some foil around to cover the breast so it doesn’t cook too quickly…we’ll talk about that later.

Now that the smoker is heating up, let’s get the turkey ready.  If your bird has a little clip holding the legs together, go ahead and remove that.  Remove any excess fat around the bottom opening of the bird, along with the tail while you are at it, but save those for the gravy pan!  Now rub the whole turkey down with some olive oil.  Using your fingers, gently separately the skin from the breast and work your fingers all the way to the top of the bird.  Now make sure you rub the inside of the breast with some olive oil as well.  Mix together some fresh chopped rosemary, Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper and rub the entire bird down with the mixture.  Make sure you stuff some in between the breast meat and skin as well.  This is an optional step, but if presentation is a big thing for you, you’ll want to create some socks and gloves out of aluminum foil.  Gloves and gloves?  Yeah, wrap the ends of the drumsticks and wing tips so they don’t burn to a crisp, like this:

_D223855

Let’s Talk Wood, Smoke, Moisture and Gravy

One misconception about smoking meats is that you need a lot of smoke throughout the cooking process.  Turkey does not need a lot of smoke and as a matter of fact, you can ruin a good turkey with too much smoke.  For turkey and chicken, I like to use a fruit wood like apple.  I also prefer chunks over chips.  If you can get the chunks, you only need one chunk the size of a baseball for smoking a turkey.  If using chips, just use the same amount.  Throw your wood right over the coals right before you put the turkey in the smoker.

A pan of water under your turkey serves multiple purposes when smoking a whole turkey.  For one, it keeps a lot of moisture in the smoke chamber, that’s good for obvious reasons.  The second and third benefits involve catching the drippings from the turkey during the cooking process.  We need those delicious juices for the gravy!  The other benefit is easier clean up.  Ever seen all of the juice coming out of a turkey?  Want to clean that mess out of a of 55 gallon drum smoker?  I think not.

So let’s give that gravy a head start.  Place the neck, 2 onions, a few carrots and a sprig of rosemary into the pan and heat it up on the stove.  Once it’s about to start boiling, shut off the stove and transfer the pan to the smoker.  I installed an additional rack 7 inches under the smoking rack of my ugly drum smoker for this exact reason.  As the turkey cooks, it deposits it’s juices into the simmering pan of deliciousness below, all the while taking in that great moisture to stay nice and juicy!  Oh man, I can almost taste it again as I write this…

Ok, Enough Already, Let’s Smoke This Sucker!

Ok, I think we have covered everything.  We have a hot smoker, we’ve got a prepped bird and a pan to start making our gravy.  Throw your wood onto the coals and place the turkey on the cooking rack directly above the gravy pan and close the smoker.  Again, we want to cook at around 250 degrees.

Smoking a turkey

After about an hour, remove the aluminum foil from the legs and wings.  At this point, loosely place a sheet of aluminum foil over the breast so that it doesn’t get too brown.  If you think it needs more time to brown up, you can cover it at a later time, just a warning that the breast will brown quickly and at some point you are going to want to cover it with the foil to make sure it doesn’t get too brown (burnt).

A 12 pound turkey will take around 3.5 – 4 hours to cook at 250 – 300 degrees, but go by meat temperature and not time!  When a meat thermometer placed into the thickest part of the breast (without hitting the bone!) reads between 155 – 160, the turkey is done.  Once it’s done, remove the turkey from the smoker, making sure to dump out all of those great juices into the gravy pan and then transfer the bird to a platter.  Loosely cover the turkey with foil for at least 20 minutes before you even think about trying to carve this sucker.  We want those juices to have a chance to settle back into the meat.

Use the turkey stock from the pan to make some good gravy, slice your turkey masterpiece and enjoy!  It was a real hit around my house, for all ages, even the sick little guy:

how to smoke a turkey


5 Responses

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Andrew G

10-18-2010

great post! Would love to see a full size picture of the smoker though… and specifically how deep the rack is. I just built an upright 55 gal smoker (I’m guessing like yours) and I’m still messing with height and the lid. It’s amazing how much air flow influences heat output.

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Jeremy D

11-14-2011

Smoked a 9.14LB bird this weekend and basically followed the same instructions shown here. 225 to 250 degrees. A couple of things I did do differently is: 1) after about an hour of smoking I draped foil over the breast for an hour, just to prevent over-cooking and 2) I let the heat creep up to about 275 – 300 for the last 5 degrees of cooking. This helped crisp the skin up a little without again worrying about over-cooking. It turned out delicious and sooooo very moist. We used the drippings from the bird to add to the gravy which added an amazing smokey flavor. A+ instructions and the best darn turkey I ever ate.

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