How To Smoke a Whole Turkey: Smoked Turkey Recipe

Use These Tips for Smoking a Turkey

Smoked turkey leg

In my opinion, slowly smoking a turkey over the course of many hours is the best of all possible preparations for this noble bird. Benjamin Franklin campaigned to make the wild turkey the national bird rather than the eagle. Imagine what it would be like if he had succeeded. Would the turkey have become a protected bird? Would we not be able to sit down to a wonderful turkey dinner with all the fixings? I shudder to think.

We share holidays with my wife's folks. One household takes Christmas, and the other hosts Thanksgiving. Whatever holiday we have, I always smoke a turkey. I have used two types of smokers, so I will outline the differences as we go.  Here's how to smoke a whole turkey that's tasty enough to serve the in-laws.

  1. First, thaw the turkey. Always thaw a frozen turkey in the refrigerator, never at room temperature or in water. Bacteria will start growing in the thawed part of the turkey before the deepest interior thaws. You and your guests will get sick, and that will just ruin your holiday. Allow a day in the refrigerator for every four to five pounds of bird, so a 16 pound turkey will take four days to thaw, and a twenty pound turkey will take five. I don't recommend smoking a turkey over 20 pounds unless you have experience and a large grill. You may not be able to cook it all the way through.
  2. Start the charcoal. I use (and recommend) a charcoal chimney, but liquid starter is OK if you do it right. For liquid starter, soak the briquettes thoroughly and let sit for five minutes, then light. The coals are ready when 80% of the surface is white. If you start cooking before the coals are hot all the way through, you may end up with a petroleum taste. You are going to be adding more charcoal over the course of the several hours it will take to smoke your turkey. How long it will take to smoke your turkey will depend on the type of grill and what temperature you can achieve inside your grill. We will discuss grill differences and cooking times more below.
  3. Prepare the turkey for the grill. Remove the plastic. Remove the giblets and the neck. Look at both the body cavity and under the big flap of skin that covers the hole where the neck was. Carefully unfasten the wire that holds the legs together, paying attention to how it fastens. Set it aside. You will be putting it back the way it was. Preheat the oven to 400° F.
  4. Wash the outside of the bird with plain, cold water. Rinse the body cavity and let it drain. Choose a roasting pan a bit larger than the bird and line it with foil to prevent the turkey from sticking to the pan, or just get a thick foil roasting pan at the store for this use. Make sure this pan will fit on the grill. The pan you use will end up with a heavy coating of smoke that will never come off, so if this is a concern, get the disposable pan. Spray the pan with non-stick spray, especially the sides. Pat the turkey dry and apply a thick coating of cooking oil all over the bird. Oil the opening to the body cavity as well, and then put the wire back that holds the legs together. Put the turkey in the oven for 20-30 minutes to kill surface bacteria.
  5. I started with a vertical water smoker. I still have it, but I haven't used it for years. It smoked many turkeys. It is a tall cylinder with a domed lid. It has two enamel pans inside. The lower pan sits at the bottom and holds the charcoal. The second enamel pan hangs in the middle. It is filled with water and flavorings. It serves as a heat shield and adds moisture (and more flavor) to the smoky air inside that surrounds the meat. These smokers are cheap (around $50 or a bit less). You can smoke a 15-16 pound turkey easily in one, maybe even larger, depending on the brand of the smoker. These smokers have a crude temperature gauge and a door in front for adding more charcoal and wood chunks. Try to get the temperature to high, although it may be difficult, depending on the outside temperature and the wind. Plan on smoking a minimum of six or seven hours, or longer for a larger bird. The skin will turn dark brown from the smoke in the first half hour. It will be nearly black by the time you finish. The enamel water pan offers some interesting options. I have put wine and all kinds of fresh herbs in the pan to add flavor to the smoked turkey. If you hear a loud sizzle when checking your turkey, it means all the liquid in the water pan has evaporated. Add more.
  6. Bigger grills offer more options. If you want to know how to smoke a turkey that's larger than most, look into one of these. They offer the ability to smoke larger birds and develop higher temperatures. My grill is 21" in diameter and 30" long. The box on the side is 11" in diameter and 18" long. I can easily get the internal temperature to 350° F, so I can actually roast a turkey in it and take no longer than the oven in the house. I choose not to, however, to develop a better smoke flavor over time. I put 75% of the charcoal and wood only in the firebox on the side at first. After several hours of smoking, I add more charcoal to the main compartment and add wood to both it and the firebox. I find that five to six hours of smoking and roasting will produce a turkey with outstanding flavor, and it does not have to be finished in the oven. From what I've found thus far, it's the best way to smoke a turkey.
  7. Whichever type of grill you use, some general principles and tips for smoking turkey apply. Take the turkey from the oven where you killed off the surface bacteria. Add ½" of water to the roasting pan. Adding 2-3 tablespoons of white wine is a nice touch. Maintain this level of liquid throughout the smoking and roasting process. To be safe, the turkey needs to reach an internal temperature of 165° F, measured at the thickest part of the breast and thigh. If it does not reach this temperature, it is not safe to eat, and you will need to finish the turkey in a 350° F oven. You also need to make sure the turkey does not dry out. Brush the turkey with oil every hour or two to keep moisture sealed in. This is very important. Keep in mind that the grill may be hotter on one side of the turkey. Rotate the pan 90 or 180 degrees each time you baste it with oil so it will cook evenly. Keep adding wood and charcoal to keep the temperature up and the smoke rolling.
  8. The type of wood smoke you use is a very important consideration when you smoke a turkey. The type of wood will have a big impact on the flavor of the turkey. It is hard to go wrong with hickory. We are all used to hickory flavoring in bacon and ham. It is safe and familiar. Mesquite is a popular choice in Texas. Many fruitwoods are used to smoke a turkey. Someone once told me that if the tree produces fruit or a nut you like to eat, it is a good candidate as a smoking wood. Sounds like good advice to me. Pecan, apple, peach, and hickory are all good. I like oak, but not everyone does. An excellent option is to build a hot fire from oak, let it burn down to coals, and then use it rather than charcoal at first. Use the oak for heat, and add chunks of other wood for flavoring.
  9. Again: you absolutely cannot smoke a turkey safely without a meat thermometer. A simple small instant-read thermometer is only about $5.00. Buy one.
  10. When the turkey reaches the right internal temperature, bring it in and transfer it carefully to a platter for carving and cover with aluminum foil. Let it rest for at least 15-20 minutes, and it will carve much more easily and be juicier. Use the pan drippings to make the most wonderful gravy. You will have way more than you will use at this meal. Separate and discard the fat and freeze the broth to make a surprise gravy or two throughout the coming months.

And there you have the secrets to the best smoked turkey recipe you can imagine, better than roasted turkey, better than fried. Smoked turkey will be so popular with your family that you'll have to prepare it at least once a year. And the more times you prepare it, the better at it you will get. Bon appétit!



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Concerning Patrick's comment, when ever I barbecue outside, I add minced garlic for the benefit of the neighbors. The garlic adds a little flavor but oh the smoke it creates.

By Jim VanErmen

I am seriously considering getting a smoker. I have a neighbor who has one and when he's smoking - I'm sitting here in my house with my mouth watering!

By Patrick Smith