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How to Smoke a Turkey

When it comes to the holiday season, we all know turkey is the undisputed king. Nothing beats a huge bird surrounded by all the trimmings on Christmas Day, and Thanksgiving is practically meaningless without the nation’s most iconic game bird. Cook your turkey to perfection, and you’re going to have a house full of happy people -- and if you want perfection, you’ve got to smoke it.

There are plenty of ways to cook a turkey, and a lot of us grew up with over-roasted birds. There’s nothing wrong with roasting. The best roast turkeys are gorgeous to behold with delicious, crispy skin. But we think it’s about time you broke tradition because smoked turkey is the stuff of holiday feast legend.

There's no single way to make "smoked turkey." The overall goal is to get natural smoke flavor, and there are lots of ways to get there.

In this guide, we'll take you through a few of the different methods so you can choose the one that's right for you.

If you’re ready to join the revolution but are worried Traegering a turkey could be tricky, don’t panic. Not only does smoking produce an incredible bird, it’s also a whole lot easier than roasting. After you do all your prep, smoked turkey is pretty much fool-proof. Just follow our comprehensive guide, and we promise this Thanksgiving will be one for the history books.

Choosing Your Turkey

Before we get into how long to smoke a turkey or the type of brine you’ll want to use, we have to start with how to choose the right turkey for your big day.

The size of turkey you’ll need to smoke depends on the number of guests. The general rule of thumb for buying turkey is 1 1/2 lbs. per person.

But be warned if you're feeding a big group. Before you go running out to find the biggest turkey you can find we recommend sticking with one that weighs 16 pounds or less. Why? Nearly all the birds you can find that weigh more than 16 pounds are bound to be male turkeys, and male turkeys are not as tender as females. If you cook a large male bird, your meat will be a little bit tougher.

That’s why if you’re cooking for a large holiday crowd, smoking multiple smaller turkeys or adding a bone-in turkey breast to supplement your whole bird is the way forward. It will also take less time to smoke smaller birds.

Our recommendation:

  • 8-10 people: 1 12-14 lb. turkey
  • 12-14 people: 1 16 lb. turkey
  • 16-18 people: 2 12-14 lb. turkeys
  • 20+ people: 2 16 lb. turkeys

In addition to turkey size, you should also be wary of bird quality. When you’re in the meat aisle, do yourself a favor and avoid any labels with words like “enhanced” or “basted.” If you buy a turkey that’s already had its flavor tinkered with, you’ll be signing away control of your flavor profile. You’ll also probably be paying extra for water weight and not getting as much meat as you’re expecting.

Finally, always buy fresh. If you’re cooking for Thanksgiving or Christmas, you’ll need to be on your A-game. A lot of stores don’t stock these birds in great numbers until the week before a holiday, although you can typically place an order for a fresh turkey in advance. Ideally, buy your turkey no more than four or five days before you’re planning to smoke it.

Defrosting Frozen Turkey

Fresh turkey not an option? It’s not a crime to buy frozen. You’re just going to need to commit more time to the cause. It normally takes 24 hours to thaw for every 5 pounds of turkey, so if you have a 16-pound turkey, we could be talking about three days of thaw time.

Smoked Turkey Brine

After choosing the right turkey, you need to get your brine ready. Brine is the foundation of every legendary turkey. It’s what preps your meat to be smoked, and locks all of those zesty, earthy flavors into your turkey meat.

It’s all a matter of salt concentration. The salts in your brine trigger a mouth-watering chemical reaction enabling the liquid to infiltrate the cells of your meat. After your brine liquid has entered the meat cells, the salt prevents it from escaping -- which means whatever flavors you’ve used will be slowly intertwined with the meat inside your bird.

We recommend you brine your bird for 24 hours. If you’re low on time, even an hour or two in a brine bath is better than nothing. You can also inject brine directly into your turkey prior to smoking.

When making your brine, you’ll want three primary ingredients.

First, you need some sort of liquid, and if you’re going for a classic savory flavor, you can’t go wrong with plain water, beer, or stock. If you’re looking for something sweeter, add a few cups of vinegar, juice or wine. Our maple-brined turkey recipe even includes a hearty glug of bourbon. It all depends on your palate.

Next, you need salt. You’ll typically want to add half a cup of salt for every gallon of liquid used.

Finally, you need to add your herbs and spices. A lot of recipes will call for celery, carrots, onions, and other typical bird accompaniments like sage. Add all these ingredients together on medium-high heat until your salt dissolves, and then let cool. Make sure your brine is below 40 degrees Fahrenheit before you add it to the turkey.

If you’d like to skip this step and save time, or just want to take advantage of some tried-and-tested flavor combinations, it’s worth checking out our orange brine and turkey rub kit.

Remove Giblets

Many store-bought turkeys come with giblets — the liver, heart, gizzard, and neck of the animal. Usually, the giblets are in a paper bag in the turkey cavity. You can use the giblets to add flavor and texture to homemade turkey gravy.

If you aren't planning to use the giblets, you still need to remove them. Leaving them in during smoking will increase cooking time and could give an off-smell to the final product.

Supplies needed: None, just your fingers to pull out the bag the giblets come in.

Choose a Rub

After your turkey is done resting, most recipes will call for some sort of rub. A good poultry rub enhances the natural flavor of the meat and introduces an appetizing color to the skin.

Pour your rub mix into a small bowl and sprinkle over the bird before smoking.

Supplies needed: Small bowl

Truss the Turkey

Trussing a turkey means securing the legs close to the body of the bird. Some store-bought turkeys come with a built-in plastic truss. You can also use kitchen twine to tie the ends of the legs together.

The point of trussing is to make the surface of the bird a more regular shape. Sometimes, this can prevent hotspots on certain parts of the bird, which could dry out the meat.

Supplies needed: Kitchen twine, scissors

Choose a Stuffing

Should you smoke a turkey with stuffing inside? Traeger BBQ experts say you can, and this is a popular method. You'll put the stuffing into the cavity of the turkey during the preparation process. As the turkey cooks, the stuffing does too.

Supplies needed: Rub or stuffing mix.

Using Turkey Drippings

As your bird cooks, it sheds delicious bits of fat and flavor to the bottom of the cooking surface. You can incorporate turkey drippings into your turkey gravy. Once the turkey is done cooking, remove the bird and strain the remaining liquid into a container. Add the strained drippings into your gravy.

How to Smoke a Turkey on a Pellet Grill

Now that we’ve walked you through turkey selection and brining, it’s time to get smoking. Ideally, you’re going to want to smoke your turkey on a wood pellet grill. That’s because a pellet grill offers both fool-proof temperature control and also infuses your meats with those mouth-watering hardwood flavors that people are going to drool over.

Select a Smoking Wood

The best wood for smoking turkey depends on the type of flavor you’d like to come out in your bird, but either way, you’ll want to use hardwood pellets.

If you’re cooking for Thanksgiving or Christmas, you’ll want to give your bird a boost of seasonal zing with autumnal wood pellet blends.

  • Apple will give you a light, slightly fruity smoke flavor.
  • Maple pellets will give your final product a mildly sweet tone, while
  • Oak or hickory blends will give you an uber natural, slightly nutty flavor boost.

Want the perfect balance of all the above? Try out our Turkey Blend. It features oak, hickory, maple and has been enhanced with rosemary in order to deliver masterful sweet and smoky notes your guests will love.

Turkey Times and Temperatures

The biggest mistake people make when smoking a turkey? Our experts say it’s not planning enough time to cook. You should plan for an hour a pound but always gauge doneness by internal temperature. For poultry, 165 degrees Fahrenheit is recommended. Internal temp is how you’ll ultimately be able to be sure your turkey is smoking evenly.

Pellet grills are ideal for an even cook because they’re built to circulate hot air throughout. That means all you have to do is check the thickest part of the breast with a temperature probe and ensure the meat is up to 165. When your breast reaches this temperature, the thighs should be around 180 degrees.

How you get there is up to you. Here are four popular methods of cooking Thanksgiving turkey.

High to Low Method

The high to low method of cooking a turkey in your Traeger locks flavor in and helps the skin get crispy. You start the bird on High for 30 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 300 degrees Fahrenheit for the remainder of the cooking process.

Thanksgiving BBQ Recipe

Low to High Method

The low to high method of cooking a turkey in your Traeger lets the bird absorb a good dose of natural smoke. You start at 225 degrees Fahrenheit until the internal temperature reaches 100-110 degrees. Then, to finish the bird and get it on the table, you raise the temperature up to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

Ultimate Smoked Turkey Recipe

Other Method: Roasting - Consistent Medium Temperature

Set your Traeger to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, put your turkey in, and come back 3-4 hours later.

At 325 degrees, your turkey will get to the necessary temperature without drying out.

Herb Roasted Turkey Recipe

Regardless of size, you’re normally looking at 3 to 4 hours total cook time. From there, all you’ve got to do is remove from the grill and rest for 15 minutes before carving. It’s really that simple.

Get inspiration from all of Traeger's tested turkey recipes below.

How to Reheat a Smoked Turkey

It doesn’t matter how much you gorge yourself or how many people you have over for Thanksgiving. It seems like there are always leftovers. Fortunately, our smoked turkey is amazing to eat cold right out of the fridge. But if you’d like to try and emulate the holiday magic of a freshly cooked bird, we’ll quickly explain how to reheat a smoked turkey.

First, you’ll want to carve your leftover bird into slices so the meat heats evenly. Preheat your oven or fire up your grill to 325 degrees Fahrenheit or above, place your turkey in a baking dish with about half an inch of water or stock to keep it moist, and cover with foil.

From there, simply place your leftovers on the grill or in the oven until you hit that golden internal temp of 165 degrees. This normally takes about 20 minutes, but it will depend on how you’re reheating and the amount of leftovers you have on your hands.

And that’s it. You now have all the expert knowledge you need to smoke a turkey that will go down in the history books. So, are you ready to create your own mouth-watering work of art? Check out our smoked turkey recipes for some inspiration and get smoking.