Are you tired of drowning your sad, lifeless Turkey under that blanket of bland gravy and canned cranberry sauce? Well, if you are, you have come to the right place. Uncle Bird will show you his method for making a delicious show-stopping Smoked Turkey for your family and friends. I use an offset smoker to smoke my Turkey. Use any grill, charcoal grill, pellet grill, electric smokers, and even a gas grill. Whatever grill or smoker you decide to use, you must be able to create indirect heat with a consistent temperature and bathe Turkey in the righteous smoke of hardwood. This article covers a lot of detail and gives you everything needed to make you the neighborhood Smoked Turkey Champion.
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Supplies that you will need for your Smoked Turkey.
Picking the right Turkey to smoke.
Do not buy a BIG Turkey to smoke.
To ensure a successful smoked Turkey, you must start with the correct size bird. Purchase a Turkey no bigger than 16 pounds. The best size for a smoked Turkey, in my opinion, is 12 pounds. A 12-pound Turkey is large enough to feed about eight ordinary people and four fat ones. When smoking a Turkey larger than 16lbs, it will take longer to cook and remain in the danger zone (41-139 degrees) longer. If you need 24 pounds of meat, do not buy a 24 pound Turkey. Buy two 12 pounders.
Fresh vs. Frozen Turkeys
There are two options for purchasing a Turkey to smoke, Fresh or Frozen. If you are buying a frozen Turkey to smoke, make sure you account for the time required to defrost the Turkey. Frozen Turkeys are usually the cheapest option. Frozen Turkeys will hold for up to 1 year in your freezer without a decline in quality. By purchasing a Fresh Turkey, the store defrosts your Turkey for you. Please keep in mind that a Fresh Turkey will cost you more since you pay for the store to defrost your Turkey.
How to prepare your Smoked Turkey for the grill.
Defrosting your Turkey for smoking.
To start the clean and trim process, we will need to defrost your frozen Turkey. If you purchased a Fresh Turkey, skip to the next step. There are three safe options for defrosting your Turkey before the smoke. They are Refrigerator Thawing, Cold Water Thawing, and Cooler Thawing. Don’t be that guy that thaws Turkey on the counter. Remember any frozen meat left on the counter for more than 2 hours is not at a safe temperature. Nothing says Happy Holidays like Salmonella and Campylobacter! Anyway, on to the food safe defrosting methods that don’t kill people.
You will need to make sure you allow approximately 24 hours for each 4-5 pounds of Turkey in a refrigerator set at 40 degrees or below. Keep your Turkey in the original wrapper. Place your Turkey in a container to prevent the juices from dripping on other foods. I place it at the lowest level in the refrigerator. Your thawed Turkey can remain in your refrigerator for 1 or 2 days before you smoke it. Keeping your Turkey in your refrigerator will give you plenty of time to brine your Turkey.
Refrigerator Thawing Times
4 - 12 pounds
1 to 3 days
12 - 16 pounds
3 to 4 days
16 - 20 pounds
4 to 5 days
20 - 24 pounds
5 to 7 days
Cold Water Thawing
Cold Water Thawing is the quickest but also most labor-intensive and least fun method of defrosting your Turkey. Ensure that Turkey is completely submerged in water with the Breast side down, in its original wrapper. (Honestly, who can take the wrapper off a frozen Turkey?) Change the water every 30 minutes. If your sink isn’t large enough to completely submerge your Turkey, then you will have to rotate every 30 minutes to keep it chilled. If you use this method, you will need to cook the Turkey right away. Seriously right away.
Cooler Thawing is my go-to method when I need to defrost more than one bird. This method requires a cooler, thermometer, and ice. For the coolers, you can use a Styrofoam or 20-quart big orange drink cooler for a single Turkey. Use a refrigerator thermometer inside the cooler to keep tabs on the temperature. It must remain at 40 degrees or lower. If you want to be fancy, you can get a wireless thermometer that will alert you to temperature spikes. If the temperature rises, use small frozen water bottles or ice packs to get the temperature back down. As the water melts in the cooler, prop up on the sink and drain the excess using the cooler’s spout.
Pro-Tip: Butterball has a great calculator that will help you determine how much time either method will take based on the size of your Turkey. Just scroll to the bottom of the page I have linked https://www.butterball.com/how-to/thaw-a-turkey. Please use the refrigerator defrost times for the Cooler Thawing method.
Cleaning and Trimming your Turkey for Smoking.
Step 1. Remove your Turkey from the packaging and place it in the sink. I cut at the bottom near the legs and run my knife along the Turkey's back to keep from cutting into the Breast on accident. Remove the pop-up thermometer if one is present. Ensure you allow the blood to drain completely away from the packaging before putting it in the trash.
Step 2. There are two ways most turkeys will have the legs held together. The legs are tucked in the skin at the base of the turkey’s tail on some Turkeys. Others are held together with a “hock lock” made of metal or heat resistant plastic. I always remove it, and if the hock lock is plastic, to prevent any small plastic bits from being left behind, I pull it out instead of cutting it. Use your middle finger to create a hook and pull with even intense pressure in the middle on the hock lock. Do not jerk it, or you will make a mess. Make sure you free the legs completely; this will promote even cooking of the dark meat.
Step 3. Remove the neck bones and giblets/gravy packet from the cavity of the bird. Some processors will place the giblets/gravy under the skin of the Turkey’s Breast. Make sure you get these out. You can use them to make gravy or catfish bait. You can smoke the necks for seasoning meat.
Step 4. Now you can start trimming your Turkey out. I use a 6-inch Dexter Russell Sani-Safe Boning knife. The Boning knife works better than a Chef’s knife for trimming your Turkey because it is smaller. Start by trimming the excess fat away from the thigh area. After trimming the thigh area, cut the excess skin from the neck and double-check to ensure you have trimmed away the spinal column cleanly. If the excess skin is still attached to the back of the neck only, cut it out since it will not protect the breast meat. Do not trim too much skin or fat from the Turkey breast because the skin will help protect the Breast during the smoking process.
Step 5. Make sure to separate the skin from the meat. Because this will allow us to get seasoning under the skin and direct contact with the meat to create a flavor explosion for your Smoked Turkey.
Step 6. To separate the skin from the leg quarter, insert your finger under the joint’s skin where the drumstick meets the thigh. You want to work your finger in along the joint, and you will be able to wiggle your finger back and forth to start separating the skin. After the Turkey skin is separated, add a second finger. Use a rolling motion to work both fingers from the leg and thigh joint to the thigh’s backbone area without completely removing the skin.
Do not worry if you tear it. Just use extra rub in that area to act as a protective skin. While your Turkey is upside down, take the time to cut through or pull away the silver skin between the bottom of the Breast and your Turkey’s inner thigh. Now the seasoning will be able to reach the meat.
Step 7. To separate the skin from the Breast you use your finger to start working under the skin, loosening it on the side and front of the Breast. Do not separate the skin more than halfway down the Breast. If you do, the skin will shrink too much. Move to the next step after loosening the skin.
Tenderize your Smoked Turkey with a Jaccard.
We use the Jaccard Meat Tenderizer to tenderize the meat by making the brine more effective by creating small channels in the meat. The Jaccard severs the muscle fibers to keep them from contracting when the heat is applied and squeezing out the water in the individual fibers, drying out the meat. I Jaccard each Breast 4 times and each leg quarter three times on a Turkey up to 16 pounds. I Jaccard one or two more times in each area on Turkeys larger than 16 pounds. Now drop the Turkeys into the cooler that we will be using for brining.
Time to make the Smoked Turkey Brine.
- 1Pour in one cup of cold water into the 4 Cup glass measuring cup.
- 2Use any type of plain salt and pour into the water until the water level reaches 1 ½ cups.
- 3Pour the saltwater slurry into the 1-gallon container, fill to the 1-gallon mark, and stir until it the salt has dissolved.
The brine is ready to be poured over your Turkey until it is completely submerged. Depending upon your Turkey and cooler size, you may need additional brine and can make one-gallon batches as required. I use a 5-gallon bucket to make bigger batches of the brine, especially if I do more than one smoked Turkey. The Turkeys need to be covered with ice or ice packs to keep them cold. Turkeys will need to be in the brine for 24 hours, and then they will be ready for seasoning. Check out our in-depth article on brining.
Seasoning your Turkey for smoking.
Remove the Turkey from the brine and rinse.
The Turkeys have been in the Turkey brine for 24 hours. They need to be removed and rinsed. We rinse the Turkeys to remove the excess salt and nasty bits from the surface. After removing your Turkey from the brine, it is much cleaner. The salt has pulled the extra blood from the Turkey meat.
What seasonings do I use for my smoked Turkey?
Any SALT-FREE seasoning like Mrs. Dash will work. Make sure no matter what you use. Make sure it DOES NOT HAVE SALT AS AN INGREDIENT. I used my Uncle Bird's Henpeck Seasoning and Raw Cane Sugar. The Uncle Bird's Henpeck Seasoning is savory with a little spicy kick at the end, which is completed by the sweetness of the Raw Cane Sugar and the Brine's saltiness. If you want to inject your Turkey, do it now. Remember to make sure the injection is salt-free as well. I like injecting straight Lemon Juice and using Mrs. Dash Lemon Pepper for the rub.
How do I apply the seasonings?
Season the bird aggressively using both the Raw Cane Sugar and your SALT-FREE rub of choice. Don't worry about patting it dry. I never do it, and it works fine. Save your paper towels. I apply the Raw Cane Sugar and Salt-Free Rub separately. I have tried blending it all, but it never has the same taste, so I will continue to do it this way until I can figure out a way to combine them and taste the same.
I put the rub and into a pepper shaker. Apply the rub in the Breast area underneath the skin using the pockets we created when we separated the skin from the meat. I use two fingers to separate the skin from the meat and pour rub and raw cane sugar between those two fingers.
Do this on the leg quarters using the same technique of pouring the rub and Raw Cane sugar in between your two fingers, separating the skin from the meat.
Cover the inside cavity in the leg quarter area generously with Rub and Raw Cane sugar. The final step is to add a light dusting of Rub and Raw Cane sugar on the outside. Honestly, you do not need to cover your Turkey's outside in a heavy coating of rub because nobody eats the skin, and it will already be seasoned on the inside anyway.
Using the Jaccard on your Turkey puts holes in the skin that will allow the excess fat to render from the skin during the smoking process. No flabby skin. Yay! I DO NOT recommend under any circumstances stuffing your Turkey. Because we want the smoke to flow through the bird and not making anybody sick is always a major plus.
Smoking the Turkey.
Should I smoke the Turkey with Indirect or Direct heat?
I have smoked both ways. I will be using indirect heat to smoke this Turkey. Indirect heat will allow us to smoke the Turkey without burning since the flame will not directly contact the meat. We want the heat and smoke to flow over the Turkey. If you don’t have an offset stick burner, whatever type of grill you use, make sure you set up two zones by keeping the charcoal and wood to one side or only using the burners on one side of your gas grill.
If you are using gas and hope you are not, you will need a smoke box to create smoke for flavor. I will be smoking the Turkeys using my offset stick burner using Hickory and Oak. I use strong wood because Turkeys do not take very long to smoke, and we need to get as much smoke in there while we can. I use a spray bottle to spritz the Smoked Turkeys every 30 minutes.
How long do I smoke my Turkey?
I like to smoke my Turkeys at between 275-300 degrees. I use an offset stick burner, so it is not like a pellet or gas grill where you can essentially set it and forget it like an oven. Do not get too uptight about maintaining an exact temperature since there will be temperature swings of up to 50 degrees when adding wood and checking temps. Relax, smoking meat is supposed to be fun.
Smoking Time and Temperature Chart
30 - 40 minutes per pound
25 - 30 minutes per pound
20 - 25 minutes per pound
15 minutes per pound
How do I know when the Smoked Turkey is done?
You will need an instant-read thermometer to get an accurate temperature. Check both the Breast and the Thigh. The Breast must be 165 degrees, and the thigh must be 175 degrees in the area near the backbone. I pull the Turkeys off the Smoker when the breasts are 162 degrees and the thighs are 172 degrees. Since I rest in a pre-heated cooler, the carryover cooking will get them to their final temperatures.
Resting your smoked Turkey.
After the turkeys come off the Smoker, you will need to put them in plastic Ziploc or oven bags to keep the juice from spilling. I only oven bags now since the plastic is food safe and can be used to reheat Smoked Turkey. Rest your Turkey in a pre-heated cooler for 30-45 minutes to reach the final temperature. Make sure you use a different cooler than the cooler you brined your Turkey in so you do not have to worry about cross-contamination. You can also clean the cooler thoroughly with bleach and dry it out, but that is up to you.
Pre-Heating your Cooler.
To pre-heat the cooler, fill it halfway with hot water 30 minutes before the Turkeys come off the Smoker so that it is hot when you put your Turkey in it. Drain the water and dry out your cooler. If you do not have another cooler, just put your Smoked Turkey in an oven that has been pre-heated to 165 degrees and rest with the oven door closed for about 30-45 minutes. The resting time will also allow the juices and heat to redistribute throughout the meat, which relaxes the muscle fibers creating an incredible eating experience.
Carving your Smoked Turkey.
I usually use a 6-inch Dexter Russell boning knife to carve the Smoked Turkey. If you have a Chef’s knife, you can use that as well. You do not need to have a carving knife for this. You need to make sure your knife is sharp. I use my Rada knife sharpener to touch up my blade because who wants to use a dull knife?
Smoked Turkey Carving Instructions
- Set up your cutting board.
- Start by cutting the flat from the Turkey wing.
- Use your knife to separate the legs from both thighs.
- Cut the thighs away from the backbone by cutting through the joint where the thigh meets the spine.
- Separate the Breast from the backbone by cutting through the joint where the wing attaches to the spine.
- Remove both wing drums from the Breast by cutting into the joint. After that, use your hand to break the wings away from the backbone so that you can remove them. Cut out any remaining bits with your knife.
- Slice the Breasts in a way that allows the muscle fibers to be cut short. Long muscle fibers are chewy, yuck. To do this, we need to cut a slit across the top of the Breast where the wishbone is to remove the entire Breast. Then you will need to run your knife along the breastbone so that you can peel the Breast away from the carcass on both sides. You may need to use the point of your knife to help release the breast filet. Make sure that you cut the Turkey breast crosswise into slices about 1/4 inch thick. Congratulations, your Turkey is now ready to enjoy, no gravy needed. You are the star of the show.
How to reheat your Smoked Turkey.
If you do not eat your smoked turkey right away, you can freeze it. You can also smoke your Turkey ahead of time to save time and cooking space. Use the following directions to reheat your Smoked Turkey.
Smoked Turkey Reheating Instructions
Step 1. Preheat your oven to 300 degrees. Place your Turkey Breast side up in a shallow roasting pan 2 to 2 ½ inches deep. If you have a Turkey Size oven bag, place your smoked Turkey in the oven bag with a cup of water. If you prefer, place your Turkey in a shallow roasting pan with one cup of water and wrap tightly with aluminum foil.
Step 2. Heat for approximately 1 hour. Begin checking the Turkey for doneness after 30 minutes to keep it moist. Your smoked turkey is ready to eat when the internal temperature in the thigh reaches 145 degrees. Please give your Turkey a 30-minute rest before you carve it for the heat and juices to redistribute.
Give yourself a hand you did it, you Smoked a wonderful Turkey!