Instructions and Tips for Smoking Turkey
Learning all about turkey smoking for a holiday meal can, if you've never done it, seem a little like a daunting task. It requires special equipment, fancy wood, and lots of long hours.
But it's definitely, definitely worth it. A smoked turkey has an amazing texture, a deep and wonderful flavor, and a glossy, gorgeous color. For a holiday dinner like Christmas or Thanksgiving, it's truly impressive. And absolutely scrumptious.
Turkey Smoking 101
Fortunately, even though it can seem a little intimidating at the outset, turkey smoking really isn't that hard. As long as you have the right equipment (check this page to learn about choosing a smoker for turkey
) and can follow the directions, there's no reason why you can't make a perfect and wonderful smoked turkey in your own back yard.
This page is will give you pretty in-depth instructions for turkey smoking. But you can click here for a quicker overview on how to smoke a turkey, including choosing a smoker and the right flavor of wood for turkey.
Preparing the Turkey
Of course, if you want to smoke turkey, you've got to have... a turkey. Before getting ready to smoke your turkey, be sure your bird is fully thawed (check here for the best ways to thaw a turkey
) and the neck and giblets have been removed. If your turkey comes with a little pop-up timer, pull it out. You won't need it for this.
Note: The rest of these directions for preparing turkey for a smoker assume that you're going to smoke the turkey plain. If you're interested in flavoring the turkey with a brine before you cook it, read on-- I'll give directions for that, too, below.
Rinse the turkey inside and out with cold water and pat dry (or let air dry). Apply a thick coating of oil or butter to the turkey (I like to rub softened butter seasoned with salt, pepper, and poultry seasoning into and under the skin). Place the turkey on a foil-covered pan and cook at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes. This kills off bacteria, and is an important part of turkey smoking safety (check this page for more details on smoking a turkey safely).
The truth is, you don't really need to do much for turkey smoking to season the bird. The smoke flavor is the star here-- and that and a little salt is really all you need. Go here to learn about how different varieties of hardwood will flavor your turkey differently.
That said, there's nothing wrong with flavors a little more complex than just a bit of smokiness. If you want other flavors in your turkey besides the smoky flavor you've chosen, you'll need to add them through a brine, an injection, or a rub.
Brining the Turkey. This optional step to turkey smoking will add at least a day to your prep time. Using any turkey brine recipe you like, brine the turkey for 24 to 48 hours (or however long your recipe instructs) before following the directions above and placing the turkey in the smoker.
Check out my Ultimate Turkey Cooking Guide for some great recipes you can use. Or you can check this page for brine recipes specially formulated for smoked turkeys.
Injecting the Turkey. Injecting a turkey with a marinade is a technique that, in the past, has mostly been reserved for deep fried turkeys. But it's also a great technique for smoked turkey. Using any flavor combinations you like, you inject the bird with a combination of flavoring liquids, butter, herbs, and spices.
Check here for some great recipes for turkey marinade injections.
Rubbing the Turkey. You can also use a BBQ spice rub for turkey smoking. Many spice rubs are Cajun or BBQ flavored, but you can use any rub you like. What's so great about smoked turkey is how flexible the flavors are.
Add Extra Ingredients. You can also add extra flavor in an indirect way when turkey smoking. Add a quartered onion, whole springs of fresh herbs, some garlic cloves, carrots or celery, a halved apple, or any combination into the cavity of your turkey. Or place a delicious liquid (you'll read more about this below) in the water pan of your smoker. Or soak your wood chips in wine, cider, or anything else you like (you can read more about that process here.)
Preparing the Smoker
When it comes to lighting your smoker for some turkey smoking, there aren't too many tips I can give you. Depending on whether your smoker is charcoal, electric, or gas-powered, how you light your smoker and maintain the heat will depend on how it's made. So be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions for lighting your smoker and maintaining the heat.
Check here to learn a bit more about the different kinds of smokers.
When you do have a fire going, you want that fire to cook at about 230 degrees or so. My suggestion? Light it a little hot and let the temp come down a bit after you put the turkey in.
Add Wood Chips
Once you have your fire going (or your charcoals are burned white on the outside if you have a charcoal smoker) it's time to add your wood chips. After soaking your chips (check here to learn how to soak chips, and what to soak them in
) drain them well and toss them on the coals (or the area designated for wood in your smoker-- this varies from smoker to smoker).
Most backyard smokers are water smokers, which is great-- water smoked turkey comes out wonderful. To the water pan in your smoker, add water or any liquid or liquid combined with herbs you like. Apple cider and sage. White wine and lemon. Whatever you put in your water pan will infuse the smoke, and in turn infuse the turkey with flavor.
Bring Up the Heat
Put the lid back on your smoker (or close the door-- again this depends on your type of smoker) and wait until it reaches a safe temperature for turkey smoking-- about 220-240 degrees F (shoot for 230).
Smoking the Turkey
Now that your smoker's all ready for a little turkey smoking, it's time to get started.
Toss in the Turkey
Place your turkey on the rack in your smoker (I'd suggest oiling the rack first or lining it with foil), breast-side-up. Return the lid to your smoker and let it come to a temperature of about 230 degrees
once again. Once your smoker has reached its optimal cooking temperature for turkey smoking, you can start timing your turkey.
Smoked Turkey Cooking Times
Smoked turkey cooking times vary widely depending on the temperature outside, the kind of smoker you use, how well it's sealed, etc. But in general, it takes anywhere from 25-40 minutes per pound for a turkey to smoke through.
My suggestion? Calculate the absolute minimum time a turkey will need to cook in your smoker in order to be done. At that time (say, after 6 1/4 hours for a 15 pound turkey) check the temperature in the deepest part of the thigh to see how close it is to the food-safe temperature of 165 degrees F. Chances are it won't be ready. Keep checking every 30 to 45 minutes after that until it's ready to come out of the smoker.
Even better, get an
electronic meat thermometer like this one so you don't have to keep sticking a thermometer into the bird.
As the Bird Cooks:
Maintaining the Smoker
Now that you've got your turkey smoking, you can mostly leave it alone. However, you will need to check it periodically to make sure everything's in order.
Adding Wood and Liquid
Every hour and a half or two hours, check to make sure your smoker doesn't need more charcoal, more wood, or more liquid added to the water pan. When you check it, give the bird a baste with some oil or drippings, and turn the rack a quarter turn to make sure it's cooking evenly.
You'll need to open it sometimes for maintenance, of course, but try not to open the door to your smoker too often if possible. The more heat escapes, the slower, less even, and less intense the cooking will be. Be quick while maintaining your smoker, and don't peek any more often than you have to!
The Finished Smoked Turkey
When your turkey reaches a safe temperature of 165-175 degrees F in the thickest part of the thigh and breast, it's ready to come out. Transfer your beautiful smoked turkey to a platter and let it rest for about 30 minutes before carving.
And be prepared for it to look a little different!
In most smokers, turkey smoking will pretty dramatically change the appearance of the bird. After a short time in the smoker, the skin will darken. And in some smokers, the bird will be almost black by the time it's ready to come out. Don't worry... this is perfectly normal!
The inside may look different, too. Smoked turkeys have a tendency to look a little pink when you cut into them, and the texture might look a little different, too. Don't stress-- if the temperature reading is 165 or higher, your turkey is fully cooked-- and that pink color is a good thing. As long as you tested the bird's interior temperature it's safe to eat.
And utterly delicious. Enjoy!
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