Smoking turkey is one of the most delicious ways to cook this holiday favorite, as it adds an incredible layer of flavor that can’t be achieved any other way. While many people just throw the turkey directly onto the smoker grate, that can cause the meat to dry out quickly and lead to the infamous smoker-butt syndrome when it comes to taste. Instead, try this method on how to smoke a turkey on a smoker that results in juicier meat with outstanding flavors throughout!
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Why Should I Smoke My Turkey?
Smoke adds a unique flavor to foods, which is why so many people like to smoke a turkey for their Thanksgiving feast. But it’s not just about adding delicious flavor. The slow cooking process that smoking causes makes your turkey tender, and lets you avoid boiling out all of its natural juices during cooking. You can get an added boost in flavor by using wood chips or chunks of maple, applewood, hickory, and oak instead of just lump charcoal. And if you have time, brine the bird before cooking (don’t forget to remove the giblets!). You might be surprised at how much juicier your smoked turkey will be!
Smoking a Turkey on a Smoker: How-To and Tips
Step 1 – Prepare the smoker
In order to properly smoke your turkey, you need to make sure you have prepared everything prior to placing it in your smoker. You will want to season or prepare your smoker for smoking meat. Whether you use wood chunks, chips, or pellets is up to you; just be sure that it has been set aside and ready for smoking at least an hour before cooking. If possible, place some charcoal in your firebox as well so that once it reaches the optimal temperature, you will have lit coals ready. The water pan should now be placed in the smoker. Check that there is water in the pan; if not, add a little water until the liquid is about two inches deep. Some people like to add apple juice to the water while they are smoking their turkeys because this adds flavor, but feel free to experiment with different types of liquids if you wish!
Step 2 – Preparing Your Bird for Smoking
Before you start to smoke your turkey, there are some preparations that need to be made. First, you’ll want to pat your bird dry with paper towels and season it thoroughly with kosher salt or other coarse salts. Next, rinse off any exposed meat (breast, thighs) with water; dried skin will burn easily during smoking. Then place your turkey into an aluminum pan so it’s ready for smoking. The pan will catch the drippings as well as provide a handy way to transport the finished bird from smoker to table.
Step 3 – Smoking Techniques
Once you’ve got your smoker going, you need to monitor it. The most popular way to do that is with an oven thermometer stuck in your turkey. (If yours doesn’t come with one, you can use any meat thermometer). Insert it into your bird so that it reads as close to its core as possible, making sure not to hit bone. Make sure that if your smoker is running hot or cold—you may have to move it closer or further away from where the heat is coming from. A good temperature for smoking a turkey is 275 degrees Fahrenheit, but this does vary depending on the type of wood chips used.
If you want the flavor of hickory wood, soak some hickory chips in water for at least thirty minutes before adding them to the smoker. If you prefer mesquite flavor, soak mesquite chips for fifteen minutes before adding them to the smoker. And if applewood isn’t your thing, don’t worry! You can also smoke with oak chips which are less potent than other types of wood and provide a milder flavor that won’t overpower your food’s taste.
Step 4 – Doneness Temperature & Timing
You want to reach an internal temperature of 165°F. But if you’re cooking your bird in a smoker, your gauge is going to be more complicated than that. Depending on your smoker and type of meat, there are different ways to test for doneness. On most smokers, there is an element called the firebox at one end of the chamber—that part gets really hot! As a result, when you set up your smoker for turkey, keep it about four inches away from the firebox. That will give you a nice golden brown color with crispy skin and juicy breast meat.
It takes about 8 hours per pound to smoke a turkey on average (assuming it’s around 12 pounds). So start checking your turkey after 5 hours; if it’s not done yet, check every hour or so until it reaches 165°F internally.
Step 5 – Resting & Carving Instructions
If you’re like me, you can’t wait to dig into your perfectly smoked turkey. But don’t rush it! It needs time to rest before it’s cut up, so we recommend allowing your bird to rest for an hour or more in an empty cooler before serving. Once you feel comfortable that it has rested enough, place it breast-side down on a cutting board and remove the legs. Now slice from one side of both thighs all of the ways up to just under each breast. Using your hands or tongs, lift each leg out and separate it from its thigh bone, then set it aside for later use in making stock. Slice off each wing and also set them aside. Slice through the upper part of the breast until you reach the wishbone, then slide your knife underneath and cut it free with a gentle twist. Finally, gently pull apart the breasts until they are free from one another, remove any stray bits of meat clinging to the rib cage (if any), and discard them as well. When you’re finished with this step, save any bones left over to make stock – they’ll be very flavorful!
How Long Does it Take to Smoke a Turkey per Pound?
That all depends on how big your bird is and what type of wood you are using. A 12-pound turkey should take about 8 hours of smoking time at 250°F, but if you like crispy skin then keep cooking it until the internal temperature reaches 180°F.
The easiest way to tell if your smoked turkey is done is by using a thermometer – when the internal temperature reaches 165°F remove the turkey from the smoker.
Smoking a turkey isn’t exactly difficult, but it does take some practice to master. Because there are no hard-and-fast rules for how long to smoke a turkey per pound, your best bet is to keep an eye on your bird’s internal temperature throughout smoking. Note that if you see any pink color in your turkey at all after it’s done smoking, cook it longer (you can always eat those parts of course). But remember – if you see ANY PINK COLOR AT ALL – cook it longer!
Best Turkey Smoking Woods
In general, hardwoods with sweet flavors like apple, cherry, or hickory will make for a sweeter bird, while those with more herbaceous notes like mesquite, oak, or pecan will provide a more savory taste. Wood chips/chunks are best for most of your smoking needs—add them to your hot coals or preheat them in an electric smoker or grill.
They’ll produce a subtle smoky taste that will pair well with your turkey. And try adding different wood flavors to each part of your smoker for a more complex flavor profile. For example, you can use applewood in the center of the smoker if you want an all-around smoky flavor; add cherrywood chips near the top rack to infuse a fruity scent; use oak near the bottom rack if you want something with a bit more heat.
Some people also love to cook their turkeys using fruit woods like peach or apricot which can create a sweet and savory aroma. The wood you choose is really up to you.
The Ideal Smoking Temperature
You’re looking for a temperature between 225°F to 250°F. Any lower and you risk never getting done. Any higher and you can end up with dry meat. I find the sweet-spot to be in this temperature range. It’s also easier to keep consistent heat throughout your smoker as well as obtain an even color across all of your foods. Once you get used to smoking at these temperatures, it’s very easy to dial them up or down by 5 degrees. I recommend testing out several different temperatures before making major changes in order to figure out what works best for you and your equipment.
What works best for me is usually around 240°F, but if the fire needs more fuel I will bump it up to 250°F. If my fire needs less fuel then I will drop the temperature down to 225°F. Every smoker is different so take some time to experiment with your equipment and see what produces the most consistently good results for you!
Smoking turkeys give them an intense smoky flavor that is widely considered the best. However, smoking meat requires more precise temperature management than most other cooking methods. If you want to smoke your turkey, it’s vital to know how long to smoke it per pound, the best temperature to smoke at, and wood flavors that pair well with turkey. This information will help ensure you get the best results possible when smoking a turkey for any other occasion.