How to Smoke a Turkey
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Our Test Kitchen's step-by-step guide for how to smoke a turkey will help you cook a juicy, flavorful bird for Thanksgiving dinner.
Oven-roasted turkey is a Thanksgiving classic, but learning how to smoke a turkey is a great way to mix up your holiday cooking repertoire.
Smoking your turkey (and brining it beforehand) infuses the bird with sweet and smoky flavors, helps keep the meat juicy, and frees up oven space for all those other tasty Thanksgiving recipes. Plus, smoking your turkey in a grill or smoker is a great excuse to escape your hot kitchen and get outside to enjoy some crisp, fall air.
The Best Smoker for Smoked Turkey
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Here’s a little secret: You don’t actually need a smoker in order to make smoked turkey. You can convert your grill into a smoker, which is the method our Test Kitchen swears by. They used a Weber Original Kettle Charcoal Grill for this recipe, but you can use any charcoal or gas grill.
Wood pellet grills, which combine the functions of a grill, smoker and oven, are also a popular choice. In that category, Traeger pellet grills and Green Mountain pellet grills are well-known options.
Of course, you can certainly smoke a turkey in a smoker. Like grills, smokers can run on charcoal, gas or wood pellets—and there are also electric smokers. With so many different options, consider these things before buying a smoker.
How to Smoke a Turkey (Recipe)
This smoked turkey recipe comes straight from our Test Kitchen. It makes 12 servings, but you can scale it up or down depending on the size of your bird.
For the brine:
- 2 quarts water
- 1 medium tart apple, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick rounds
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 1 cup maple syrup
- 4 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
- 2 teaspoons whole peppercorns
- 3 quarts ice water
For the turkey:
- 1 turkey (10 to 12 pounds)
- 1 large sweet onion, cut into wedges
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 3 cups soaked apple wood chips
- 2 large oven roasting bags
- Grill or smoker
- Wood chips
- Remote probe thermometer
Step 1: Make the brine
Brining gives you a flavorful, tender and juicy turkey. To make the brine for your smoked turkey, combine the brine ingredients (minus the ice water) in a large kettle and bring it to a boil. Once the salt is dissolved, remove it from the heat and add the ice water to cool the brine to room temperature.
Test Kitchen tip: For extra flavor, add sprigs of your favorite herb (like thyme, sage or rosemary) to the brine. For a different flavor profile, try this maple-sage brine.
Step 2: Brine the turkey
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Place the turkey into two oven roasting bags (double-bagging the turkey will help protect against leaks). Pour the cooled brine into the inner bag. Squeeze out as much air as possible, seal the bags and carefully turn to coat the turkey in brine. Place the bagged turkey in a roasting pan and refrigerate for 8 to 12 hours, turning occasionally.
Test Kitchen tip: To keep the entire turkey submerged in the brine, place empty glasses inside the roasting pan to displace the liquid. (If you do this, you don’t have to turn the turkey as it’s brining.)
Step 3: Fire up the smoker or grill
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Soak the wood chips in a bowl of water for about 30 minutes—this will cause them to smolder and create a delicious smoky flavor instead of igniting into flames. In the meantime, preheat your grill or smoker to 275°F to 300°F, preparing to cook over indirect heat.
Once your grill or smoker is hot, drain the wood chips and add them to the grill or smoker according to the manufacturer’s directions. This step will look different depending on your cooking method:
- Charcoal grill: Put the wood chips directly on top of the coals.
- Gas grill: Wrap the wood chips in foil and poke holes to allow the smoke to escape. Turn off the gas, place the foil packet directly on the heating element of the grill. Re-light the grill and set it to a low flame.
- Smoker or pellet grill: Place the wood chips (or wood pellets) in the designated door or drawer.
Test Kitchen tip: Instead of using lighter fluid to start a charcoal grill, use a cotton ball soaked in vegetable oil.
Step 3: Prepare the turkey for smoking
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Remove the turkey from the brine, rinse it under cold water and pat it dry. Discard the brine. Place the onion and apple wedges into the turkey’s cavity and tie the drumsticks together. Combine the salt, sugar, paprika, onion powder and garlic powder, and rub the mixture over the outside of the bird.
Editor’s tip: Like a brine, a dry rub is another way to season a turkey. The more methods you use to add flavor, the better.
Step 4: Smoke the turkey
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Place the turkey breast-side up in two nested foil roasting pans and place it in the smoker or grill. Cook over indirect medium heat for 3 to 3-1/2 hours.
Rotate the pan about halfway through the cooking process to help the turkey cook more evenly. You’ll know the turkey is done when the temperature in the thickest part of the thigh is 170°F to 175°F.
Test Kitchen tip: Resist the urge to raise the lid too many times to check on the turkey—this will release too much heat and smoke. Instead, use a remote probe thermometer to monitor the turkey’s internal temperature.
Step 5: Let it rest
When the turkey reaches the proper temperature, remove it from the heat and tent it with foil. Let it stand for at least 15 minutes before carving. While you’re waiting, make an easy homemade gravy with the pan drippings.
How Long to Smoke a Turkey
Smoking is all about “low and slow”—cooking your bird at a relatively low temperature for a long period of time. Our Test Kitchen recommends smoking your turkey for 15 to 20 minutes per pound at 275°F to 300°F (when testing this recipe, we used an 11-pound turkey and smoked it at 290°F for 3 hours, or 18 minutes per pound).
However, the exact amount of time it takes to smoke your turkey will depend on several factors, including the size of your turkey and the exact temperature of your grill or smoker. Rather than focusing on time, it’s more important to make sure you cook your turkey to the correct internal temperature. The temperature in the thickest part of the thigh should be between 170°F and 175°F.
|8 to 10 lbs.||275° to 300°||2 to 3-1/3 hours|
|10 to 12 lbs.||275° to 300°||2-1/2 to 4 hours|
|12 to 14 lbs.||275° to 300°||3 to 4-3/4 hours|
|14 to 16 lbs.||275° to 300°||3-1/2 to 5-1/3 hours|
|16 to 18 lbs.||275° to 300°||4 to 6 hours|
|18 to 20 lbs.||275° to 300°||4-1/2 to 6-3/4 hours|
*15 to 20 minutes per pound
When it comes to temperature control, our Test Kitchen loves this Thermoworks Smoke Remote BBQ Alarm Thermometer, which eliminates the need for opening your grill or smoker during the cooking process. It has two different probes: one that goes into your turkey and one that monitors the temperature of your grill or smoker. You can use the remote to monitor the temperature of the smoker as well as the meat, and set an alarm to alert you if either goes above or below a certain threshold.
Tips for Smoking a Turkey
How big of a turkey do I need?
As a rule of thumb, plan for 1-1/4 pounds of turkey per person—this should give you plenty of food for Thanksgiving dinner with enough extra meat to make plenty of leftover turkey recipes. For example, a 10-pound turkey will feed eight people.
Keep in mind that the turkey needs to fit in your grill or smoker. If you’re feeding a crowd, consider cooking two or three smaller turkeys—this will also help the birds cook faster and more evenly.
What are the best wood chips for smoking a turkey?
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The best wood chips for smoking a turkey are apple wood chips—their sweet flavor pairs nicely with turkey and isn’t overpowering. Our Test Kitchen used these Apple BBQ Smoking Chips, which are affordable and readily available. You can also use cherry, pecan or maple wood chips. Hickory and mesquite wood chips are too strong-flavored for turkey, but you can mix them in with milder wood chips to infuse some of their flavor into your turkey.
What sides go well with smoked turkey?
All of the traditional Thanksgiving sides will taste great with smoked turkey. If this smoked turkey method is inspiring a barbecue-style Thanksgiving, try these BBQ side dishes that you can throw on the grill—but make sure you have enough grill space! (Fun fact: Our prep kitchen manager grills outside year-round and has four charcoal grills!)