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This recipe shows you how to make a smoked turkey using a charcoal smoker–in this case, a Weber Smokey Mountain–from start to finish. And if you want to smoke a brined turkey, there’s a perfect and easy recipe for smoked turkey brine included, as well.
Be careful; once you serve a Smoked Turkey to family and friends, you’ll be automatically signed up to host Thanksgiving for the rest of your life. It’s a holiday feast that people will talk about forever, much like the best Pumpkin Pie or Grandma’s Crescent Rolls.
And if you want to make a little extra turkey for everyone, consider smoking two smaller birds, or adding a turkey breast to the smoker. Then you won’t run out, and you’ll definitely be hosting Thanksgiving the rest of your life.
How to select a turkey for barbecue:
Fresh or frozen? While it’s really nice to have a fresh turkey at your disposal, that may not always be so easy. Turkeys are more available and at their lowest price only during the holidays. Many frugal shoppers like to buy several during this time and throw them into the deep freeze. It’s a smart idea, especially if you have a smoker. Just make sure you follow safe thawing practices, outlined below, for whole turkeys.
To Brine or not to Brine? If you’re planning on soaking your turkey in a salt solution before smoking, look for a turkey that isn’t labeled “self-basting” or “Kosher,” which have essentially already been brined. Instead, look for a regular, unbrined turkey, but read the label closely just to be sure there aren’t any added flavorings.
How big of a turkey can I smoke? Depending on the size of the smoker you have, while it’s possible to smoke a large bird, bigger doesn’t always mean better. A very large turkey could dry out before the whole turkey cooks.
In the Weber Smokey Mountain, which has two cooking shelves, a 12-15 pound turkey is recommended. Best of all, it’s no more difficult to cook two 12-to 15-pound turkeys at the same time. This is true for the medium (18.5″) and large (22.5″) size WSM, but not for the small size 14″ smoker. Look for broad turkeys that are broad, rather than high.
Can you smoke a stuffed turkey? Unfortunately, you can’t. Best to save the stuffing for the oven, outside of the turkey.
How to thaw a frozen turkey:
Please, whatever you do: never thaw a turkey using cold water or by leaving it out on the counter to thaw. It’s a recipe for foodborne illness. Here’s how to thaw a turkey the correct way:
- First, check your refrigerator’s internal temperature; it should be 40 degrees F or colder.
- Keep the turkey in its original wrapping.
- Place the turkey on a tray or shallow pan to collect any juices that may leak out as it thaws.
- Store it at or near the bottom of your refrigerator so if it leaks, it won’t contaminate anything under it.
- Allow 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds of frozen turkey. As you can see, thawing a 20-pound turkey in the refrigerator can take the better part of a week. So make sure you plan ahead!
Up to 12 pounds: 1-3 days
12-16 pounds: 3-4 days
16-20 pounds: 4-5 days
20-24 pounds: 5-6 days
How to brine a turkey before smoking:
Use a brine before smoking to help keep the meat moist while cooking. Brines can be as simple as just salt and water, but you can add spices, fresh herbs, or aromatics like lemon and garlic. Here’s how to wet or dry brine a turkey.
What you need to make Smoked Turkey:
Everything, well, maybe not everything, you need to become a BBQ pro right here. (BTW, if you feel like you can’t live without something here, purchasing through the affiliated links helps run this site, so thank you kindly!)
- A smoker. This recipe for Smoked Turkey is made on one of the undisputed champions, the good old WSM, or Weber Smokey Mountain. It uses good quality lump charcoal or briquettes, and wood chips. You can use whatever smoker you’re comfortable with, though.
- An instant-read probe thermometer. Make sure it’s of good quality, or get a fancy set up with multiple probes that get left in the meat, so you don’t have to open the lid.
- A coal chimney. Like this one. Indispensable for grilling, smoking– everything. Lights coals perfectly, every time, without starter. All you need is a match and a couple of sheets of newspaper.
- A cooling rack. This helps with moving what you’re smoking on and off the grates.
- 12″ tongs. You probably already have them. Always a good idea, no matter what you’re cooking.
- Wood chips. Adding hardwood chips boosts the flavor of smoked meat. Pecan wood chunks work great for this recipe, but so does a bag of apple wood chunks.
- Paraffin cubes. Small, odorless cubes of wax to keep the coals burning. Great for longer cooks.
- Aluminum drip pan. If you plan on making gravy, you need a way to catch all the drippings. A drip pan like this one works well.
- Aluminum foil. Foil works for tenting over the turkey in case it gets too brown during smoking.
- BBQ rub. You favorite dry rub, or make a delicious BBQ rub right here.
- Vertical turkey roaster. Optional, but a good way to cook a larger turkey is by using a device that sits the bird upright in the chamber.
- Turkey Baster. A baster and silicone brush are super handy if you’re planning on basting your bird.
How to light a smoker:
It’s time to demystify the smoker. You don’t have to be a pitmaster to smoke meat at home. You can do it!
The secret to consistent smoker temperature is a foolproof setup from the getgo. Here’s a surefire way to light a charcoal smoker like the WSM. It’s based on a technique called the Minion method, named after BBQ master Jim Minion.
Want to know even more about How to Use a Smoker? Head on over to read even more about smoking with hardwood, smoked chicken, and how to clean a smoker.
Expose the charcoal grate. First, remove the cylindrical part (center section) of the smoker, exposing the rounded bottom of the smoker, the lower charcoal grate, and the fire ring, also known as the coal chamber. Make sure these areas are relatively clean and free of ashes.
Dump the briquettes. Next, generously pour the unlit charcoal briquettes into the fire ring. Make a deep hole in the center of the briquettes with your hands. Distribute a couple paraffin cubes inside the coals.
Get the hardwood. If you decide on hardwood chunks for extra flavor, throw a few medium to large dry chunks into the top of the coals in the lower grate, preferably near the vents, to create a bit more smoke. (Only use three or four chunks, and don’t bury them deep into the coals—meat accepts the smoke flavor better when it’s raw and cool; once it starts cooking, the smoke can turn the meat bitter.)
Open the vents. For maximum air circulation, make sure the bottom vents are fully open, at least until the smoker reaches the desired temperature.
Use a chimney starter. Fill the starter chamber of a chimney starter completely full with more briquettes. Stuff the bottom with paper according to the starter’s instructions and light.
Orange coals is go time. Once the briquettes in the starter are white in color and glowing orange inside, they’re ready. When that’s apparent, pour them into the well you made in the center of the coal ring. These glowing coals will gradually light the surrounding coals; that’s what will sustain the temperature.
Reassemble smoker. Put everything back together. Return the cylinder part of the smoker to the bottom of the smoker.
Fill the water pan. Now it’s time to fill the water pan. Open the smoker door and fill the pan about ¾ of the way up with water. Throughout smoking, especially for longer smokes, it’s important to check the water levels in the water pan occasionally.
Add the drip pan to catch the turkey drippings. Pour about 4 cups of water into the pan to prevent the drippings from drying out and burning during the smoking time. Most of the water will evaporate during the smoke.
Close it up. Close the door; then double-check and make sure the vents are open. Place the lid on the smoker and keep the lid vent fully open. Chances are you’ll leave the lid vent open during the entire smoke.
Sit back and wait. Wait until the smoker comes up to temperature—about 300-325 degrees—which usually takes 30-45 minutes.
How to prepare a Smoked Turkey:
Now that you’ve lit the smoker, you’re ready to go with the turkey. By the way, the smoker can cook other things, too! Don’t waste good coal–the beauty of the WSM is that it can cook for 8-12 hours. While you have the heat, smoke some chicken wings, tri-tip, or a pork loin. Or, best idea yet, cook two turkeys!
Psst! If you’re a visual learner, these pictures show you what’s up–but for the actual recipe with specific amounts, look towards the bottom of the page!
But back to the turkey. Generously sprinkle on the dry rub. Pat the rub down so it sticks onto the skin. Do not stuff the turkey.
Place the turkey on the cooling rack and move to the smoker once you’ve reached the proper temperature, about 325 degrees. Place the turkey in the smoker where the smoke can flow freely and evenly around all sides. It should be placed squarely over your drip pan in order to catch the drippings. (Note: If you’re cooking two turkeys, you may want to place a foil pan under the turkey on the top grate to keep the drippings away from the turkey below.)
Then hurry up and close the lid–don’t let the heat escape.
At the 4 hour mark, check water level in the water pan.
If you want to baste Smoked Turkey, wait until the final hour of cooking to do so.
Finally, check the temperature. A turkey may have different temperatures, so checking in one place isn’t going to do it. You need to check both sides of the bird and in both the white and dark meat. The lowest reading is the one you use.
When the internal temperature of the breast of the turkey reaches 165 degrees, remove it from the smoker, tent with foil, and let rest for about 30 minutes before carving. Resting the neat helps keep the juices inside during carving.
How long will it take to smoke a turkey?
Unlike other BBQ, low and slow isn’t always ideal for a turkey, which is already tender. Higher heat cooking renders the fat better than lower temperatures, and yields crispy skin. Also, it cooks the turkey in about the time it would take in an oven.
Smoke a turkey at 325 degrees until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees. In general it takes about 15 minutes per pound.
10-12 lbs. 2-½ to 3 hours
12-14 lbs. 3 to 3-½ hours
14-18 lbs. 3-½ to 4 hours
18-20 lbs. 4 to 4-½ hours
20-24 lbs. 4-½ to 5 hours
- For a 12-14 pound turkey, figure about 15 minutes/pound at 325 degrees.
- To allow for different smoking conditions, start checking for doneness at least 30 minutes before the low end of the time range.
- Allow more time and use more fuel on cold, windy days or at high altitudes.
Safety first: Butterball recommends that a turkey reaches an internal temperature of 140 degrees within the first 4 hours of cooking. A “low and slow” method doesn’t always guarantee this, especially when you smoke a larger turkey. All in all, it’s better to be safe than sorry!
What wood works best with Smoked Turkey?
Pecan wood or apple wood for smoking turkey are both excellent choices. No need to soak the wood, either, just throw some into the coals.
For the rub:
- 8 tablespoons brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons kosher salt (see note 2)
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon ground New Mexico chilies or ancho
- 1 teaspoon chipotle chili powder (optional)
- 1 teaspoon ground mustard powder
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
For the turkey:
- 1 (10 to 12 pound) fresh turkey neck, heart, and gizzards removed and discarded (see note 1)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
For the rub:
- Combine everything together in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid and shake it up. Store in an airtight jar.
For the turkey:
- Bring smoker to 300 to 325 degrees. Prepare a drip pan with 4 cups of water.
- Rinse the turkey and pat dry with paper towels, making sure to remove any parts inside the turkey. Rub the turkey all over with olive oil. Evenly sprinkle the dry rub over the turkey, patting gently to ensure the rub sticks. Tuck the wings into the sides of the turkey and place in a foil tray or large rimmed bake pan.
- Once the smoker reaches 325 degrees, place the drip pan on the lower rack. Place the turkey directly onto the top rack, centering over the foil pan. Place the smoker lid back on and smoke for about 15 minutes per pound. Check the turkey after two hours, baste if desired.
- If the turkey becomes too dark at any point, especially the drum sticks and wingtips, cover the parts loosely with foil.
- About 30 minutes before the end of the time range for the weight of the bird, check the temperature in the thickest part of the turkey between the thigh and the breast. Once the turkey reaches 165 degrees on a digital thermometer, remove the turkey from the smoker and cover with foil. Allow the turkey rest for 30 minutes before carving.
- Turkey: Look for a natural or heritage turkey with the words "no salt added" on the label. Stay away from "self-basting" or Kosher turkeys, which are injected with a salt solution. Brining an already salted turkey will make the bird way too salty. How much cooked turkey per person? Plan on 1 1/4- 1 ½ pounds for each eater.
- Kosher salt: A crucial ingredient. Kosher salt is iodine-free, with a coarse texture ideal for rubbing on meat. Don't substitute standard table salt here, which is finer and much saltier than Kosher. And, you won't like the taste of the added chemicals in regular salt. Morton's and Diamond Crystal are both good brands to look for.
- Holding: You can hold a finished turkey at temperature for 1 ½ to 2 hours by wrapping it tightly in several layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil and placing it breast-side down in an empty cooler.
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Meggan Hill is the Executive Chef and CEO of Culinary Hill, a popular digital publication in the food space. She loves to combine her Midwestern food memories with her culinary school education to create her own delicious take on modern family fare. Millions of readers visit Culinary Hill each month for meticulously-tested recipes as well as skills and tricks for ingredient prep, cooking ahead, menu planning, and entertaining. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the iCUE Culinary Arts program at College of the Canyons.