How To Smoke Turkey Low and Slow
"It's just a little dry, it's fine...". In National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation the Griswold Christmas dinner has a famous scene where Chevy Chase cuts into a beautiful turkey and *POOF* nothing's there. Although slightly exaggerated, I guarantee you turkey meat tops the list in “most overcooked meat ever” and if you didn’t know it already, turkey gravy is a conspiracy. How else could mom get you to choke down dry twenty-nine-cent-a-pound turkey breast? For this to change, moms across the world must accept that shoving stuffing up a turkey's cavity ends one of two ways: salmonella bread pudding or dry breast. Turkey low and slow...the only way to go!
Once you smoke a turkey, you'll never want it oven-baked again
The first turkey I smoked was in my Pit Barrel Cooker, Thanksgiving 2015. It turned out excellent and I loved the flavor…mostly because I am not a traditional turkey lover (see above) and this turkey was moist, flavorful...and smoked. Also, the Pit Barrel Cooker is a great little cooker and I could spatchcock the turkey for ease of cooking. It was my first time and it went reasonably well.
We brought the PBC to Omaha where my son Evan was stationed in the Air Force and celebrated Thanksgiving with a couple of families. And even though my wife agreed to a smoked turkey, she is still a traditionalist and we ended up with two turkeys; one traditional and one smoked.
Even today my traditionalist wife still resists my annual pleading, “Can I please smoke the turkey for Thanksgiving?” “Wasn’t the turkey we had in Omaha yummy?”
Well, this year she finally broke down, “Why don’t you smoke a turkey for our annual Christmas Eve dinner.” WOW! My opportunity had come…I better not screw this up.
Why smoke one, when you can smoke six?
Just prior to planning the Christmas Eve’s day turkey smoke my neighbor Kris asked me if I could smoke a turkey for her also. She had been given one at work a couple weeks before and had frozen it. Hers was an organic, cage free, non-brined bird. A quality bird for sure. The one…er, four I purchased, like a majority of store-bought turkeys, were pre-brined (a couple of friends wanted a turkey also, and I always love to fill up Black Betty when firing her up). And then to round it out another friend of mine brought over a turkey so I had a total of 6 to smoke.
How long to defrost a turkey?
Since all the turkeys were frozen I had to start days ahead of time. Fortunately, the weather allowed for thawing in the garage on a table (thanks Michigan winter), although I did have to put ice under each turkey one day as it was warmer than usual. Of the 6 turkeys, the smallest bird was 18 lbs. and the rest were between 20 and 22 lbs. When I checked them after 3 days, there were still a few ice chunks inside most of the birds. I'll explain more below (I've read, turkeys thaw at ~4 lbs. per day in a fridge).
Brining a bird
All of the turkeys except one were pre-brined. The turkey from my neighbor was not brined and I needed to brine it prior to smoking. It was a great opportunity to do two types of birds: pre-brined ones and one I would brine myself. To brine I used a 5-gallon pail with a garbage bag liner (I wasn’t comfortable with the cleanliness of my pail) put the bird and brine in the bag and tied it off. I then put a bag of ice on top of the bird to make sure it would stay at a safe temperature.
- 2 cups kosher salt
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- ½ cup black pepper
- ½ cup Jack’s Blend Poultry Mate (or your favorite poultry seasoning)
- 2 gallons water
Using a pan on the stove, pour the salt and sugar into a half gallon of water. Mix thoroughly and heat the water enough to allow the salt and sugar to dissolve. Let the mixture cool for a bit and then pour it, along with the rest of the ingredients, into 1.5 gallons of cold water and ice (to cool the mixture down). Mix thoroughly.
Place the bird in a clean 5-gallon pail and pour the brine over the bird. I had enough brine to cover the 18 lb. bird in a 5-gallon bucket, but if the brine does not cover the bird completely either add a little more water or make another half batch of brine and add to it. If you have the refrigerator space, place the pail in the fridge for 24 hours. If not, place in a cool area with a bag of ice on top and/or on the sides. Replace the ice as needed to make sure the turkey stays at a food safe temp (under 40 degrees).
After 24 hours, remove the bird from the brine and make sure all the water has drained from the cavity. Pat it dry with paper towels and set it on a rack on a bake sheet to dry (skip Pre-brined turkey directions and then continue reading...).
If the turkey you purchased is pre-brined, do not brine it again. You will end up with an overly salty bird. Pre-brined turkeys will have a statement on the package something like this, "Contains up to 8% of a solution of Water, Salt, Spices, and Natural Flavor." Also, as it has already been spiced, if you want to control the final flavor by using this brine recipe, you’ll need to purchase a fresh turkey.
NOTE: If purchasing a fresh non-brined turkey from your local butcher or market, you won't want to purchase it too far ahead of time because it will go bad...or to prevent that you'll need to freeze it. I recommend contacting your local butcher shop or meat market a month before you need the turkey to find out the lead time on getting one. Many meat markets do not stock turkey outside of the holidays, there's just not enough demand, and they'll recommend you reserve one in advance, lest you risk not being able to get one.
Smoking a Turkey
Before you get your turkey think through your cooking process. Do you want to spatchcock it? What temperature are you going to smoke it at? What time is serving time and how long will it take to cook? The way I do it as listed here is my process, adapt it to your methods for best results.
Spatchcocking a bird is the process of cutting along each side of and removing the backbone. Once that is done, you flatten the bird and cook it with the breast side up. It cooks faster, often more evenly and allows for more smoke and seasoning on the inside of the bird.
How to get that crispy skin
If you been on my website for any time at all, you’ll know that I focus on low and slow with a standard temperature goal of ~225 degrees. One problem with low and slow turkey (or chicken) smoking is it does not crisp the skin. The process I use solves that issue (baking powder in rub, dry skin, let rest in fridge for 24 hours, coat with oil) but you may want to do some more research on how to get the best results in your situation.
How long does it take to smoke a turkey?
If you’ve done any research at all on “How long does it take to smoke a turkey?” you’ve gotten a wide variety of answers. Matter of fact, one of the reasons I screwed up my timing was based on information I gathered from more than one popular and recognizable website (they said 30 minutes per pound at 225 degrees, if true my 22 lb turkey would take 11 hours!). After I share the recipe and process, I’ll share my timing experience (with accurate data) and you can adjust to your process.
What temperature do I want the turkey at when done?
Some people are scared of undercooking anything, especially pork or fowl. It is still common to hear people, websites, magazines and more say, "Cook pork to 165 degrees". Why do they say that? I think they're afraid if someone follows their advice and they say "Cook your pork steaks to 140/145 for perfectly done, slightly pink, incredibly moist pork" someone will get sick and sue them. Either that or they love dry pork. You wanna thrill pork lovers? Coat some family style pork steaks with Jack's Blend Original Rub and grill to 145. Cut it in one inch thick slices and serve. But, I digress...
Most turkeys come with a pop-up thermometer already inserted into its breast meat. Take it out and throw it away… PROMISE ME YOU WILL…Pop-up thermometers are inaccurate, and most of them are set to "pop up" at 180 degrees, at which point your turkey will be overcooked and why even bother with this entire process anyway?
Smoked Turkey Rub:
- 1 cup Jack’s Blend SPG
- 1/3 cup baking powder (helps with crisping skin)
- 2 tbsp Jack's Blend Poultry Seasoning
If you don't have my rubs and seasonings, use your favorite SPG (salt, pepper, garlic blend) and your favorite poultry seasoning. For one turkey, this should be plenty of rub. If you don’t use it all, you can put the rest in an airtight container and use it later.
24 hours prior to smoking
Make sure your turkey is dry inside and out by patting it with paper towel (moisture is the enemy of crispy skin). Place the turkey on a racked bake sheet to allow the air to reach all of the skin and put it in the fridge for 24 hours. You’ll see the results in a dried out, thinner and slightly more reddish skin (you can see it in the picture below right). This is what you want!
One hour before smoking
- Take the turkey out of the fridge.
- While your turkey is coming up to room temperature, prepare your smoker and start it preheating to 225 degrees.
- Back to the turkey - spray the outside of the turkey with cooking spray and massage the rub into the skin. Don’t forget to spray and sprinkle inside the turkey cavity with rub to get that great seasoned flavor on as much meat as possible. Also, the oil is not just to get the rub to stick to the skin, but it aids in crisping the skin and keep the skin from getting too dark during the smoking process. That is also why I prefer spray oil rather than slathering on an oil – the sprayer allows for easier application of more oil to the turkey skin during the smoking process.
- Using cooking twine, truss up the turkey (tie wings and legs close to the body).
Smoking the turkey
Place the turkey on the smoker grate with the legs toward the heat. This will protect the breast from a higher heat. Our target temperature for the turkey is a thigh temperature of 160 and a breast temperature of 150 (the turkey will continue to cook when removed from the smoker for a final target temp of 165 for the thigh and 155 for the breast).
If you have a multi-probe thermometer, insert one probe in a thigh and one in a breast. If not, you’ll want to check temps with your instant read in both those locations. Check your temps regularly while keeping your smoker temp consistent.
As Greg Rempe of BBQ Central Radio says, "Buy the best thermometers and you'll only cry once." I know we all live in the world of budget, so at least get the best thermometer at your price point and the sooner the better. You will thank me, and your family and friends will thank you. I started with a cheapie, then later replaced it with a quality instant-read thermometer, then later a mid-grade remote thermometer with 4 probes and finally a Fireboard 2 with 6 probes (OMG, life changing…here’s a link bit.ly/fireboard2 – more about it below).
Continue cooking for 4 to 5 more hours or until a probe thermometer in breast reaches 150 degrees F and in the thigh reaches 160. Remove from the smoker and let rest 30-60 minutes before you carve.
NOTE: Where should you check the temperature or place the probes? Your thermometer needs to be in the thickest part of the thigh. Insert the thermometer right where the thigh meets the breast and push it in until you feel it slide into the thigh meat. For the breast, stick the probe in the center of the breast till it hits the breast cartilage and pull it back about an inch.
This being my first time, I was off on my time. Serving time wasn’t until late afternoon/evening and I started the turkeys at around 8:30 AM. I’ve been caught with meat not being ready at serving time and I prefer being ready early rather than late (and especially because I was doing 6 large birds). The difference between turkey and say pork butt, is the fat, grease and moisture in a pork butt allows it to stay juicy and actually improve while coolered, whereas turkey doesn’t have that advantage. I was not super happy with what happened after coolering for hours, but others didn’t notice as much as I did.
As you can see in the pictures above, I used 6 probes during the smoking process. Here is a list of the probes and their placement:
- Turkey #1 breast
- Turkey #2 breast (I didn’t have it plugged in correctly during preheat, that is why it shows over 700 degrees for a bit)
- Turkey #4 breast
- Turkey #5 breast
- Turkey #3 thigh
- Smoker cavity
The awesome thing about the Fireboard 2 is it connects to WIFI, has an app for your iPhone, Android and the web, automatically begins to record when turned on, tracks and documents each probes temperature from start to finish, downloads it to your account and keeps record of it. It is accurate, simple and amazing!! And fairly expensive…$189 for the unit with charger, one ambient probe and two food probes. I added the competition probe set with 6 probes to my order for another $85. The competition probes are much thinner than normal probes and I needed more probes anyway.
I’m able to download the entire smoke process in a .CSV file and if I want could share it with you…a little overkill to be sure, but nice. It literally shows the entire smoke process in a matrix style recording with each probe’s temperature recorded 2-3 times a minute. I can also look at it in a graph style and "stretch it out" from the diagram I have here to one that would allow me to see any time period up close.
As you can see, probe #6, the green line above the others, is the graphing of the smoker cavity. I placed the probe in a clip at rack level in between the turkeys. When you see a dip in the temp, that is when I opened the smoker door to either check the turkeys, spray on some more oil, or show them off to a friend who stopper by.
The entire smoke took from 8:30AM to just after 1PM...4.5 hours. The 18 lb. turkey was done sooner and pulled earlier than the rest (probe or “channel” #2). Now, that I have my initial process done, next time will be easier and more predictable. I hope this blog post helps your learning curve be small and your first experience perfect!!
The turkey flavor was amazing!! The compliments I received from the friends who got a turkey were excellent (I kept 2, one for Christmas Eve dinner, one for freezing. The other 4 were for friends.) I know I will do even better next time because I will have the turkey done an hour before serving, not 5 hours.
After we ate all the turkey we could - and gave a bunch away - I vacuum sealed and froze the rest. A few weeks later I gave our town’s Mayor Mark some of the frozen smoked turkey and this is what he texted me a few days later… “OMG your smoked turkey is amazing. I got home and made myself TWO smoked turkey sandwiches. I rarely eat so late.”
Please comment below with any of your improvements or changes or if you like it just the way it is!