Smoking a whole turkey is a simple way to highlight the turkey’s natural flavors while getting the meat to turn out tender and juicy.
Whether you are just learning how to smoke a turkey or have made a dozen, this smoked turkey recipe has all of the basics to get you started, along with tips and techniques to elevate your next bird into a plump, juicy, show-stopping culinary delight.
The reason smoking works so well for whole turkeys is that the smoke infuses a deep, subtle flavor in the turkey as it slowly cooks. Smoking helps turn something that is often bland and dry into something tender and juicy with interesting flavors in every bite.
In this piece
Why You Should Smoke Your Next Turkey
The best reason for cooking your next turkey in a smoker is that smoked turkeys taste better. The flavors from the wood smoke envelope the bird as it cooks, giving the meat a light smokey flavor that we often refer to as the taste of fall. Think days with a crisp chill in the air outside, while inside, there’s a roaring fire as you sit back sipping hot apple cider with a dash of bourbon.
It doesn’t hurt that using a smoker frees up valuable oven space for other dishes, something particularly valuable around Thanksgiving and the holidays.
We understand it can feel daunting to smoke the centerpiece to your holiday meal if you haven’t done it before, which is why we have everything you need to feel confident making your next turkey in a smoker. Also, to be clear, smoking a turkey is a lot easier than it seems.
The key to a delicious tasting turkey that is tender and juicy lies in making sure the bird is well seasoned and that it has enough time to cook to the right temperature.
How to Smoke a Turkey
It all starts with picking out the right bird. In general, we recommend going with a 10 to 14lb turkey. If it’s available, buy a fresh turkey that’s never been frozen. The main reason to buy fresh is that you don’t have to go through the process of defrosting the bird over several days in the fridge.
A good rule of thumb when it comes to the size of the bird is a pound to a pound-and-a-half per person. If we’re not that interested in having a lot of leftovers, we’ll go with a pound per person. If we want a lot of leftovers to send home with people or to turn into pot pies or soups, we’ll go with a pound-and-a-half per person.
There are a couple of reasons we recommend sticking to the 10 to 14lb range. The first is the birds are easier to handle when they’re being prepped and moved around. They’re also a lot easier to fit into a crowded holiday fridge and should easily fit into most smokers and grills.
The second is larger birds take longer to cook, and there is a slight possibility that a very large bird won’t warm up fast enough while it’s smoking. If you’re having a large gathering, you’ll be better off with two smaller birds rather than one gigantic bird.
Prepping a Turkey
The turkey can be prepped several days ahead of time, which we recommend if you have the time. Prepping the bird a day ahead allows the dry rub to infuse itself into the bird, acting as a dry brine. Working ahead also makes it a lot easier to get the bird in the smoker on time.
There’s no need to wet brine a turkey before it’s smoked. The low heat and long cooking time produce tender and juicy meat without the hassle of submerging the turkey in a cooler or giant stockpot for a day before cooking. Wet brining can also dilute the turkey’s flavor by watering it down.
Once the turkey has finished defrosting, remove the neck and other giblets, which can be used to make a flavorful turkey gravy. Give the turkey a good rinse in the sink, making sure to sanitize the area when finished.
Using your fingers, loosen up the skin around the edges of the breast and neck cavities. Loosening up the skin allows space for spreading the dry rub under the skin, helping to develop the turkey’s flavor.
Rubs for Smoking a Turkey
On its own, turkey can be fairly bland – which is why it’s so important to season it before cooking.
Our smoked turkey rub uses a combination of thyme and sage along with smoked paprika and ground cumin to develop layers of flavor. The fresh herbs add brightness and some slight herbaceousness notes, while the smoked paprika and cumin build on the flavors from the smoke.
For a more herb-forward rub that highlights the flavors in rosemary, use the rub from our Grilled Turkey with Fresh Herbs recipe. If you prefer a sweeter turkey with a darker color, use the rub and glaze in our Roast Turkey Breast with Maple Bourbon Glaze.
Make sure to spread the seasoning under the turkey’s skin and inside the cavity so the rub flavors the meat and not just the outside of the skin. Feel free to substitute dried thyme and rubbed sage; the dried version will not have quite as much flavor as fresh herbs but will still taste great.
In addition to the dry rub, we also add a chopped apple and some additional herbs to the bird’s cavity before smoking. Filling the bird with aromatics and an apple help deepen its flavor and add moisture and a slight sweetness.
How Long Does It Take to Smoke a Turkey
One of the most common questions people ask is how long it takes to smoke a turkey. The simple and honest answer is that the turkey is done when the temperature reaches 165℉ in the innermost part of the thigh and thickest part of the breast, and it doesn’t matter whether it takes 4 hours or 8 hours. (FDA Food Safety Tips)
That, of course, isn’t very helpful when you’re making a big holiday meal. A more helpful answer is it usually takes around 30 minutes per pound to smoke a turkey at 250℉. On top of this, we recommend adding in 30 minutes for fully resting the bird before carving and another 30 minutes as a cushion.
For a 12lb turkey, we would plan on 7 hours (6 hours for the 12lb pounds + 30 minutes of resting time + 30 minute cushion).
Every smoker is different, and over time we’ve found that the temperature outside the smoker, especially if it’s windy or cold, can change the time it takes to bring the bird all the way through.
Because there is so much variation between smokers and turkeys, we highly recommend using a digital thermometer with a probe that can be left in the thigh to make it easy to monitor the turkey’s progress.
A tip to help keep the smoker on temp is to place an oven thermometer in the smoker on the same rack as the turkey.
Once the turkey has reached the desired temp, the bird should be loosely covered in aluminum foil and left to rest for 30 minutes before serving.
This smoked turkey recipe works equally well on charcoal or gas smokers. The key is to make sure to use a consistent temperature.
The type of wood used comes down to personal preference. Mesquite and hickory produce a more rustic smoke flavor, pecan adds a slight nuttiness, and apple and cherry give a more fruit-forward flavor. We usually use a combination of hickory and mesquite that gives the turkey a nicely balanced flavor.
Depending on the type of smoker, it can be helpful to place a pan with water in it under the turkey to help keep it moist.
Some people also like to place the turkey in a disposable aluminum pan to catch the drippings. The pros of using the pan are the turkey is easier to move and will catch any juices or drippings. The cons is that skin on the bottom of the turkey won’t crisp up.
Finishing a Turkey
The best way we’ve found to get the skin to crisp up and turn a beautiful golden brown is to brush it with butter a couple of times during the last 30 minutes of cooking time. Brushing the turkey is simple with a long-handled silicone brush that makes it easy to get into all of the nooks and crannies.
When the turkey has finished cooking, take it out of the smoker and cover it loosely with foil for 30 minutes to let it rest before carving. Letting the turkey rest allows the internal temperature to reach at least 165℉, which it needs to do before serving. It also gives the bird a chance to relax and reabsorb all of its juices.
If you’re facing down a hungry table, 15 minutes of resting will work, but you’ll lose some of the juices.
To carve the turkey, start by removing the leg and thigh, using a sharp knife to take the dark meat off the bone so it can be cut into slices.
Remove the breast by making an incision along the bottom of the breast until the knife hits the rib cage. Next, make a downwards cut along the backbone so the entire breast can be removed. Slicing the breast in half-inch segments against the grain is the best way to ensure everyone gets slices of tender, juicy, flavorful turkey.
Smoking a Turkey – Questions Answered
Here are a few of the most common questions people ask about smoking a whole turkey.
The general rule of thumb is 1.5 lbs of turkey per person if you want lots of leftover turkey for sandwiches, soups, etc., and 1 lb per person if you’re just interested in feeding people dinner.
The turkey is done when the temperature reaches 165℉ in the innermost part of the thigh and the thickest part of the breast. Since smokers vary so much from model to model, we recommend using a digital thermometer to take multiple readings from different parts of the turkey to ensure the whole bird is cooked all the way through.
The best way to keep turkey meat moist when it’s cooked in a smoker is to smoke it between 225℉ and 275℉ degrees and place a water pan in the smoker below the turkey. If the smoker doesn’t include a water pan, a large disposable aluminum pan filled with water works well.
The simplest way we’ve found to crisp up turkey skin is to brush the outside of the turkey with butter a couple of times during the last 30 minutes of cooking. This also works for turkeys that have been roasted or grilled.
For a more rustic flavored bird, use a combination of hickory and mesquite. For a slightly sweeter flavor, use apple, pecan, or cherry.
What to Serve with A Smoked Turkey
If you’re smoking a turkey and want to have all of the traditional Thanksgiving fixings, you’ll need to do a few things differently than if the turkey was being roasted in the oven.
The first is do NOT cook stuffing inside a turkey cooked at this low a temperature. The stuffing will not get hot enough to kill off the bad stuff. Instead, serve this Mushroom, Onion, and Sage Stuffing, which is delicious and baked in the oven.
There’s no reason you have to go without gravy when there aren’t any pan drippings. When you’re getting the dry rub ready, remove the turkey giblets and follow this Turkey Gravy Recipe for some of the best gravy you’ve ever had.
And when the last bits of tasty turkey have been turned into sandwiches and midnight snacks take what’s left and make a batch of Homemade Turkey Stock.
- 1 10 to 14 lb turkey, giblets and neck removed
- 1 apple, rough chopped
- 2 sprigs thyme
- 2 sage leaves
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 tbsp butter
Smoked Turkey Rub
- 2 tsp thyme, minced
- 1 tsp sage, minced
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 1 tsp pepper
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- In a small bowl, mix the chopped apple, sprigs of thyme, sage leaves, salt, and bay leaf.1 apple, 2 sprigs thyme, 2 sage leaves, ½ tsp salt, 1 bay leaf
- Prepare the turkey rub by finely mincing the thyme and sage and adding them to the salt, pepper, cumin, and smoked paprika.2 tsp thyme, 1 tsp sage, 2 tsp salt, 1 tsp smoked paprika, 1 tsp pepper, 1/2 tsp cumin
- Using your fingers, loosen up the skin around the cavities to spread the dry rub under the skin. The rub should also be spread all over the inside of the bird and on the outside of the skin.1 10 to 14 lb turkey
- Fill the turkey’s main cavity with the chopped apple mixture.
- Smoke the turkey at 250℉, refill the water pan and add more wood chips as needed.
- The turkey is done when the internal temp of the innermost part of the thigh and the thickest part of the breast reach 165℉.
- When the turkey is getting close to done, brush the outside with butter, making sure to brush the whole bird a couple of times. This crisps up the outside, adds flavor, and helps brown everything. It’s also really fun to give the turkey a butter bath.2 tbsp butter
- When the turkey has finished cooking, remove it from the smoker, cover it loosely in aluminum foil, and let it rest for 30 minutes before carving.