The sort of meat that works well with almost every cooking method is turkey. But smoking gives the chicken a unique taste that elevates it to a whole new level. It’s the ideal Thanksgiving dinner, and you can be sure it will fill you up, too.
We’re offering a comprehensive manual for smoking a full turkey today. Everything from the fundamentals of preparation to the optimum cooking temperatures and everything in between. Therefore, without further ado!
Advantages of Smoking a Whole Turkey
There are plenty of reasons why smoking a turkey is considered superior to other cooking methods, perhaps the most obvious being the superb flavor it brings. Natural wood and charcoal work well to infuse an earthy smoke flavor in the bird. And given just enough time to coat well, the result is a golden crispy turkey.
Second, too many times the concern with a big bird is drying it out. The chances of this are slimmer when smoking is involved majorly because it is a low and slow technique. The important thing is to get your smoker at the right temperature and maintain it here. And if you have been around BBQ long enough, this shouldn’t be so hard.
Taste and texture aside, smoking is done outside in an open environment with good airflow. This spares you the discomfort of having to do it inside your kitchen because it gets hot pretty fast in there. Plus, you get to free up your oven for the preparation of side dishes, especially during those busy thanksgiving dinner nights.
Equipment You’ll Need to Smoke a Turkey
Thankfully, smoking a turkey only needs a handful of BBQ equipment and some of these may already be lying around somewhere in your home. If not, you could find the same at your local mall or have a look online for affordable prices.
For this, the biggest consideration is size. There are thousands of smoker models out there that work well but not all are big enough to fit a turkey. So be careful on this particular aspect. An 18 or 22-inch smoker should be just about right for a turkey weighing about 12 pounds.
You want to have enough room above and around the meat for maximum airflow. This way the smoke has ample space to circulate and catch on nicely. Anything less than this and you may be forced to split the turkey into halves.
If you already have a smoker at home, do a quick test by placing the turkey onto the grates and see whether it fits. And in case you need to head out for a new smoker altogether, Weber is a competitive brand, at a budget-friendly price.
An accurate digital thermometer
The word digital is there for a reason because there are so many kinds of thermometers available, unfortunately, most of which miss the mark. You may have heard of the classic pop-up timer commonly associated with turkey recipes.
The problem with this is that it gets faulty over time and has a tendency of giving inaccurate readings. That translates to A dry, overcooked bird. So rather than risk messing up your special diner, go the safe way and invest in a proper barbeque thermometer.
The dual probe is recommended in this case because it doubles up for the meat and your smoker pit too. Its hands-free and easy to use, and the best part is, it monitors your cook keeping you informed of true temperatures.
These are especially handy if you intend to spatchcock your turkey. Spatchcocking (or what is more commonly known as butterflying) is where the spine of the bird is removed and the breast bone compressed to lay the bird flat.
Get the heavy-duty kind because cutting through flesh and bone is no easy task. Again, an ergonomic fit will enable you to exert the needed pressure for the job.
How to Prepare Your Turkey?
We’re making good progress! Now that you know what tools you need, let’s look at ways to prepare your turkey.
You may be asking why this is important and here is the answer. Butterflying your turkey exposes a larger surface area as opposed to if the backbone was intact. The bird sits flat on the grates and therefore it can cook faster and better.
Moreover, it simplifies the hustle of rubbing spices on a turkey that’s wound up. You can use your fingers or a brush to get the rub generously coated without missing a spot.
Basting the turkey with some butter is an optional step. Nonetheless, you may not want to ignore it because it contributes to browning the surface evenly and giving that nice crispiness at the end.
And for those who like to season their bird with more than just pepper and salt, the extra coating works to stick the spices onto the meat longer so they cook together.
Use Spices and Rubs
Here’s the fun part and we recommend throwing in your favorite ingredients. You could use store-bought spices or make some of your own at home. The choice is yours. And to help with creating a good spice combo consider:
• 2 teaspoons garlic powder
• 2 teaspoons kosher salt
• 2 teaspoons black pepper
• 2 tablespoons onion powder
• 1 tablespoon paprika
• 1 teaspoon powdered ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon powdered sage
• ¼ vegetable oil
The above measurements are enough for a turkey no more than 13 pounds. If you go heavier, add the proportions. Unless you prefer to preserve the authentic taste of your bird, these make a good rub when mixed in.
Simply, brine is water and salt mixed at a 1:1 ratio. The whole point of brining is to tenderize your whole turkey while simultaneously locking in as much moisture as possible. If you can, do this overnight in the fridge so that the bird has plenty of time to soak in all those juices and fatten.
Use a bowl big enough to fit the bird and leave spare room for the solution. Ideally, the turkey should brine one hour per pound of meat, so do the math and see how long it’s going to take depending on the size at hand.
Apart from water and salt, you could also add herbs like sage, rosemary, thyme, and bay leaves, to boost the flavor a notch. Remember to pat dry the poultry with a paper towel before smearing your rub.
Smoking Time and Temperature
The average temperature rests between 275F-350F. So whatever you do strive to maintain this range for the perfect juicy turkey. Seeing it is a heavy cut, don’t be in a hurry to take it out. Give it about an hour per pound so that everything can cook well.
Most importantly, do not attempt to serve your guests before the internal temperature reaches at least 165F. And the only sure way to know this is by pushing your probe thermometer deep into the thickest point of the meat. Not the bone or periphery, but the center of the turkey.
10 Tips to Make the Perfect Whole Smoked Turkey
Maybe you already have a homemade turkey recipe that works just fine, but how about some 10 pro tips to polish your bird skills? Here they are:
1. Use Fresh Turkey
Why this is better is because frozen turkey that has lasted in the refrigerator for too long may come off as flat. This is especially true if your meat has frosted for weeks leading up to a month or more. It is incomparable to one that is fresh off the meat market.
If you have no time to shop last minute, consider picking up your turkey just a few days before the d-day. It’s going to have a richer taste and will not need to defrost for as long as one that has been in the freezer for weeks.
2. Spatchcock Your Turkey
Still emphasizing this crucial detail because it makes all the difference. Pro-tip, leave the wings of the bird resting on the breast when you spatchcock your turkey. Why? The breast is very tender and has a higher likelihood of drying out even before the other parts cook.
Having the wings on top serves somewhat as a protective layer to this disaster ensuring that the whole turkey smokes at an even rate. As a bonus, if you need to quickly drizzle some sauce on your turkey or extra rub, you can easily do so.
3. Do not Stuff Your Bird
Now, this may be contrary to age-old tradition but there’s a good reason for it. A stuffed bird has more ingredients to cook other than the meat itself, and these extras prevent heat from reaching the center of the bird. By the time your turkey reaches the safe zone, your stuffing is almost certainly already soggy.
A smarter way, that’s not going to make a mess, is to bake your ingredients separately in the oven while the turkey smokes. It’s going to cut down on time and the results will be far better. Plus, no one leaves the table hungry!
4. Bring on Your Water Pan
The most logical explanation behind this is to collect the drippings during the cook. While this is true, it doesn’t end there. A water pan avails moisture thereby reducing the chances of an overly dried outcome.
Be sure to place your pan right under the turkey for maximum collection, and while at it, add some celery, onions, and carrots to the combo. The stock from these ingredients comes in handy when giving your meat the final baste.
5. Avoid Opening Your Smoker too Much
Unless you want to spend eternity waiting for your turkey to get done, stay clear of the main chamber. Each time you open the lid you cause a temperature dip thus affecting your smoker’s performance as well as overall cooking time.
At the same time, this echoes the importance of investing in a dual probe thermometer. You can monitor temperatures inside easily without having to open your cooking chamber now and then.
6. Look at the Weather
Particularly if you’re using a wood and charcoal smoker, climatic changes can cause problems if it gets too windy. Remember the goal is to maintain your smoker at 275F without much fluctuation.
So if you notice the wind is getting too strong, look for a spot that’s not so open, say with trees. You may need to adjust the cooking duration when things get severe.
7. Pink Turkey Meat is Okay
Owing to the texture of the meat, the turkey tends to absorb smoke faster and in turn darkens much quicker. You shouldn’t be worried though if you notice a pink hue while slicing through. Provided you double-checked to confirm the meat has reached 165F, you should be good to go.
After all, just like with most meats, a slight pink finish is the preferred level of doneness. It keeps the juices intact so that you enjoy every bite.
8. Skip the Resting Time
Contrary to popular opinion, the extra minutes given for the meat to rest may not be necessary after all. It has been found that waiting does little to redistribute the juices back so it’s okay to skip past it. In fact, carving your turkey hot preserves the crispy nature and tightness of the skin so you might as well maximize on this.
If you need to rest your cook, let it only be for the purpose of bringing it up to the ideal temperature. As it sits, the turkey will continue to cook slowly rising by an extra 5F. Pitmasters use this trick to hit the bull’s eye and avert the possibility of overcooking.
9. Proper Turkey Hygiene
Raw turkey is prone to salmonella and campylobacter bacteria both of which are dangerous to the immune system. Washing your turkey sounds like a good idea but this actually helps to distribute the bacteria all the more.
Avoid this and instead focus on cleaning any surface that came into contact with the bird, for instance, utensils, your hands, countertops, and any other kitchen surface. Particularly be careful that none of it is transmitted to your guests.
10. Get a Young Turkey
If you can, get a turkey that hasn’t aged. Fair enough you may not be able to tell at a glance, but you could ask your butcher for help. Older turkeys have tough meat and you can bet you will spend a lot more hours trying to soften it.
This is not a problem with younger turkeys because their connective tissue is not so brittle. If you notice the meat is excessively wrinkled this could be an indicator that the turkey is old.
Worry no more about drying your turkey when you have a reliable smoker pit by your side. It’s a set-and-forget technique that hardly comes up short of five-star results. All you need is to marinate your bird, prepare your tools and leave the rest to the smoker.
Remember not to go overboard with the side of the bird or else you’ll have a whole new problem. Leave the stuffing for the oven and have your meat thermometer with you to monitor temperatures every step of the way. Bon appetite!
You may also like our comprehensive guide on how to reheat smoked turkey.