Friday, October 28, 2011

How to: Smoking a Turkey 101

In 2009 a friend gave me an old smoker he never used. This was the start of a beautiful thing at my house. It was a couple weeks before Thanksgiving and I was trying to figure out what to make on it first.
The first cooker.
My wife and I talked about it and decided we would try smoked turkey. I had never smoked anything by myself. It was going to be an adventure. My wife bought two turkeys. I asked, “Why?” Her reply was, “I’ll roast one incase the smoked one doesn’t turn out.” "OK," I thought, "Play it safe so we don’t go hungry on Thanksgiving Day."

As I said earlier, I had never smoked anything so I didn’t know where to begin. I was watching the Food Network and the Neelys were on talking about smoking a turkey. I watched the show. It was very informative and I learned a lot. They smoked a 20lb bird. Most BBQ cookbooks don’t recommend smoking anything larger then a 15lb bird due to the possibility of under cooked meat. I recommend starting small. Last year I did a 20 pounder and a 15 pounder, they both came out great.
20lb bird on the left, 15lb bird on the right
You want to cook the turkey so the internal temperature of the breast is at 160º and the legs are 175º. Since you are smoking it the meat will have a pink color to it. This does not mean it is raw. The turkey meat turns pink due to the smoking process.

You should plan on cooking the turkey 30-40 minutes per pound but I have found that I am usually done cooking in about 4-5 hours. I also cook it at 275º instead of 235º-250º so that might make a difference. But like all good BBQ, “It’s ready when it’s ready.” When the temperature reads 160º pull that bird off and let it rest.

I had watched, read and researched. I was ready

There are four basic steps to cooking a turkey.

  1. Brine (12-24 hours some do it longer) 
  2. Rub & Stuff 
  3. Cook 
  4. Carve

Before you start make sure your turkey is thawed.

Brining is basically letting the turkey soak in a salt water bath. Using just salt water is boring though, so add some other spices to it. To do this you will need:

  • At least a gallon container 
  • A brining bag or a food safe 5 gallon bucket 
  • Room in your fridge or a large cooler

In the large container mix up the ingredients in the recipe below:

  • 1 gallon of water 
  • 2 cups salt 
  • 1 Woodchuck apple cider (I use Granny Smith) 
  • 1 Tablespoon pepper 
  • 1 Tablespoon favorite rub 
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar

Now you will need to put the turkey into the brine.

I don't use a brining bag as they are expensive but I do use a roasting bag and set that into a garbage bag to hold the liquid and the turkey.

Use a large stock pot and line it with a roasting bag. Set the turkey inside the roasting bag and pour the brine over it. You may have sludge in the bottom of your container, make sure you get all that onto the turkey. Close the bag and seal it trying to remove excess air. Make sure it is sealed well otherwise the brine will leak out. Put it into the garbage bag and tie it up. This keeps the liquid from getting everywhere if there is a hole in the inner bag.

If you have a food safe 5 gallon bucket you can put the turkey in it with the brine and set it in the fridge.

After the bags are sealed put them in a cooler with some ice and set it in the garage. You can also put it in a large bowl in the fridge. It is important you keep the turkey cold (< 40º) so you don’t grow any bacteria that will make you sick. Turn the turkey from time to time to time to make sure the brine covers the entire bird.

Whenever I enter the garage for something I turn the turkey to make sure the brine gets all over it. If it is in the fridge you may want to turn it every time you open the fridge.

Rub & Stuff
The turkey has brined all day and night and is ready to cook. Almost.

Much of the flavor and the juiciness of the meat comes from the brine and the smoke but you still need to put some seasonings on the outside to kick it up. There are many good rubs and spice mixes out there that you can use. Use something you like the flavor of.

I make my own, so I use that. Use what you like. If there are certain ones you use for roasting a turkey use those. It will still come out tasting good.
A jar of my rub.
For this step you will need:

  • Rub 
  • Olive oil or butter 
  • Bulb of garlic 
  • Onion 
  • Apple 
  • Disposable turkey pan (You don’t want to ruin your wife's good one. That makes for a bad Thanksgiving.)

The garlic, onion and apple will be stuffed into the cavity of the turkey to add more flavor as it cooks. Dice the onion up into large pieces and set aside. Slice the apple up into large slices and set aside. Peal the garlic and set aside. Once the turkey is rubbed these will be stuffed inside.

But before you rub, start the fire. Get your lighter chimney filled with charcoal and start it up. Set some charcoal or wood (whatever you use) in the cooker so you can pour the lit charcoal on it and get the cooker heated up. Once the chimney is lit, or starting to light, it is time to rub the turkey.

Take the the bags out of the cooler and remove the roasting/brining bag from the garbage bag and set it in the sink. Cut it open and let the brine go down the drain. Remove the turkey and place it on a cutting board and pat it dry with paper towels.

After the turkey is dry, set it in the cooking pan and rub it down with olive oil all over. On the wings, under the wings. The legs. Inside the cavity. Everywhere. Once it has been oiled sprinkle the rub on. The rub gets sprinkled everywhere and rubbed into the meat too.

After being oiled and rubbed down take the onions, garlic and apples and stuff them into the cavity until they spill out. Slide some of the garlic up under the skin for extra flavor. The turkey is ready to go on the cooker but the cooker is not yet ready.

The chimney should be ready to go into the cooker now. Pour the charcoal into the cooker and let it heat up. The turkey should be fine to sit until the cooker is up to 275º. This will give the rub and olive oil time to soak in some and help to get the full flavor.

Now that the cooker is up to 275º you can put the turkey on. Take the whole pan with the turkey in it and set it on the cooker. Shut the lid and get a cup of coffee, have breakfast, watch the parade. All you can do know is wait, and maintain temperature.

Check the cooker from time to time to make sure that the temperature is maintaining 275º. Adjust your vents as needed. Add wood or charcoal as needed.

Every time I add wood I check the turkey. If the turkey breast is the color I want it I put a foil tent on it to make sure it doesn’t get darker (shiny side out to reflect the heat). I also take the juices that run into the pan and baste the turkey with them to keep the skin moist. If other parts of the bird are looking too done you can put foil on them too.
Foil tent.
After about three hours of cooking check the temperature of the turkeys breast (I check it in the thickest part of the bird as this takes the longest to cook). It shouldn’t be ready yet. Check it each hour after that and keep basting it until the thermometer reads 160º. Once it hits 160º pull it off and let it rest. While it is resting it will continue to cook and the temperature will go up some. Resting will also help to redistribute the juices and help the flavors flow back through the bird.

I let the turkey rest for up to an hour before I carve it. I will wrap it in foil to keep it warm.
A final turkey

I’m not a professional carver but I play one at home. I learned by trial and error and discovered videos on Youtube and the Food Network that helped me figure out how to do it correctly. But the thing that helped me the most was the Joy of Cooking cookbook. They have detailed instructions on how to carve a turkey.

Instead of trying to explain it check out the following sites which have great tutorials on how to carve turkeys:

That is how I make my turkeys. There are other ways but we like this way the best. Oh yeah, that first smoked turkey I did was awesome. We had very little left overs from the smoked turkey, but almost a whole roasted turkey left. After that my wife said, “We won’t have roast turkey for Thanksgiving at our house again.”


  1. I'll be going on my 6th year deepfrying turkey for Thanksgiving. We too have forbade ourselves from roasting turkey ever again. I may have to try smoking turkey in addition to deepfrying one this year. It will satisfy my desires to barbecue and try something new. Great post Steve!
    Question... after brining, do you rinse the turkey first? or no?

  2. I don't rinse, I just brine, pat dry and rub. I have been know to use a mustard slather on it but not usually.

  3. I have not perfected the crispy skin while smoking. The skin does taste good though. It is good to eat or cut up to help flavor gravy or soup.

  4. So I just learned that the turkeys my wife bought are pre injected... do you think I should still brine or should it stand alone with the injection?

  5. I have never done a preinjected one. I have heard that you shouldn't brine them but if I had two I would try one brined one not.

  6. This sounds good.

    My wife always roasts one too for the traditional flavors (plus we feed about 20 with kids and grandkids).

    Taking it one step further, after you take all of the meat off the carcases, I boil them down to make a stock. It also gets the small bits of meat that remain. Next day I make a gumbo using the stock and meat. The smoked flavor from the smoked turkey really adds to the gumbo flavor.

  7. Navchop,

    I have decided to use the gumbo recipe I posted on my blog and use the left over Christmas turkey for gumbo. Another great way to use leftover turkey.


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  10. The first way is to cut the wood into smaller pieces that will fit into your grill. You can grill over charcoal and get rid of the fat completely. It makes it taste so much better! Get detailed info about best wood for smoking chicken on this site.