Thanksgiving is all about tradition. We find ourselves cooking the same foods—the same way—year after year, and there’s really nothing wrong with that. An oven-roasted turkey is the classic way to cook your Thanksgiving bird for a reason, and it feels safer than delving into the unknown territory of a smoked or deep-fried turkey. It can be scary; after all, if you don’t know how to smoke a turkey, you might accidentally under- or over-cook it and ruin dinner!
We turned to Michael Parulski, the brother-in-law of one of our editors, for advice. He’s been smoking meats in his backyard for ten years. After we heard that his very first turkey turned out so juicy and tender it fell right off the bone, we knew we had to give his recipe a try.
If you still need convincing, there are a few reasons you might want to smoke a turkey this Thanksgiving:
- It tastes fantastic. An oven-roasted turkey is good, but a smoked turkey is really next level. Cooking over charcoal or wood chips infuses each bite with a sweet and smoky flavor, something that’s impossible to achieve inside.
- Smoking the turkey keeps it juicy and moist. Combine your favorite turkey brine with the low temperature of the smoker, and you have a recipe for juicy, moist turkey. Even the breast meat won’t dry out!
- It frees up the oven and gets you outside. This benefit has nothing to do with the turkey itself, but smoking a turkey for Thanksgiving can be a welcome excuse to hang out outside. Running the oven all day long can amp up the heat in the kitchen, so popping outside to check on your smoked turkey is a great way to cool down. As a bonus, the smoker also frees up the oven, so you’ll have more room to make Thanksgiving side dishes.
When you’re ready, fire up your smoker and follow our step-by-step instructions to make the most flavorful Thanksgiving turkey you’ve ever had. If you don’t have a smoker, never fear; you can convert your grill into a smoker.
How to Smoke a Turkey
- 1 turkey (12 to 14 lbs.)
- Kosher salt for the brine (1/4 to 1/2 cup salt for every quart of water)
- 2 to 3 teaspoons coarsely ground pepper
- 1 to 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- 1 to 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
- 2 cups white wine, chicken broth or a mix
- A smoker. This propane gas smoker can cook two 12lb. turkeys at once ($329)
- A large roasting pan or tinfoil pan
- Two cups of wood chips (if using)
Step 1: Brine the turkey
There are some great recipes out there for brined turkey, Michael likes to brine his for 24 hours with water, kosher salt and garlic cloves, using a ratio of 1/4 to 1/2 cup of salt for every quart of water. You can also skip the water and use a dry brine, rubbing the turkey directly with a tablespoon of salt for every two pounds of turkey. Here are a few more ideas from our Test Kitchen to get you started:
Editor’s tip: No matter how you brine, make sure you’re not skipping this step. It takes some extra effort, but it’s worth it when you end up with moist and delicious meat.
Step 2: Prepare the smoker
Most people use cooler temperatures for smoking brisket or pulled pork, but we like smoking turkey between 325°F and 350°F. Smoking at lower temps can take too long for turkey, infusing it with too much smoky flavor. Instead, smoking at 325°F takes about 12 minutes a pound, so a 16-pound turkey will be finished in about three hours. It’s the perfect middle ground for smoky flavor and juicy, tender meat.
Get started by preparing a gas, charcoal, pellet or wood-fired smoker according to the manufacturer’s directions. If you’re using wood chips, be sure to soak them an hour in advance.
Editor’s Tip: We like using apple wood for smoking poultry. It has a sweet flavor that goes well with turkey, and its smoke won’t overpower the delicate flavor of the turkey. You can use another fruit wood like cherry, or look to mild woods like pecan or maple. Hickory or mesquite wood is too powerful to be used 100% for turkey, but you can definitely blend with more mild woods.
Step 3: Ready the bird
The first time Michael smoked a turkey, he put it directly onto the grill grates. It was so tender after cooking that it fell apart as he was pulling it off the smoker! After that, he learned to use a large tinfoil pan or a roasting pan. The pan also allows you to catch the turkey drippings to make gravy, and filling it with white wine or chicken broth adds humidity to the smoker to keep the turkey from drying out. Here’s your guide to making gravy.
Remove the turkey from the brine and pat it dry. Tuck the wings underneath the bird to help them cook evenly. Rub the turkey with the ground black pepper, garlic powder, paprika and any other herbs and spices you’d like to use. Place the turkey on a rack in the roasting pan and add the wine or chicken broth.
Editor’s Tip: If you don’t have a rack for your roasting pan, add the liquid to your smoker’s water pan or in a separate pan next to the turkey.
Step 4: Smoke until it reaches the proper temperature
Place the turkey in the smoker and close the lid. That’s it! Resist the urge to raise the lid too many times to check on the turkey, which can release most of the heat inside. If you’re using a charcoal smoker, you may need to add briquettes to maintain the smoker’s heat, so set a timer to remind yourself to add ten briquettes every hour.
Cook the turkey for about 12 minutes a pound, until the thickest part of the breast reaches 165°F on an instant-read meat thermometer (or 175°F if you’re probing the thigh).
Step 5: Let it rest
When the turkey reaches the proper temperatures, remove it from the smoker and tent it with foil. Let it stand for at least 20 minutes (but preferably 30 to 45 minutes) before carving. While you’re waiting, make gravy with the pan drippings.
While you’re out there, you may as well change things up this Thanksgiving with one of these amazing side dishes you can throw on the grill.