A whole turkey is simply one of the best meats to smoke. And while most of us might think of it as a meat best served at Thanksgiving and Christmas, the truth is that a beautifully smoked bird can be served all year round.
The key to getting that big cut of bird just right is by matching it with the perfect type of wood chips.
But with flavors ranging from apple to pecan, and hickory to maple, where do you even begin to decide which should be used to match with your prize smoked turkey?
In today’s guide I’m going to show you the best wood for smoking turkey, as well as some helpful tips and recommended brands.
Cherry wood provides a nice touch of sweetness to your bird, while not overpowering it. When cooked over cherry for several hours, a nice deep color will develop on your turkey, making your bird stick out in the crowd!
If you want to add a little bit of complexity to your smoke flavor, then consider adding a touch (and I mean just a touch) of hickory too. This will help add a little bit extra smoke to it, and compliments the cherry well.
Recommended cherry wood: Traeger Cherry Wood Chips
These cherry infused chips provide clean burning wood infused with a beautifully rich cherry flavor.
Made from 100% natural hardwood, without any artificial additives or binding agents. This stuff is the real deal.
Just like cherry, pecan is a sweet-tasting wood. But unlike cherry, pecan is far richer in flavor and adds a slight nut-like layer of flavor to your turkey.
I find that it’s a bit more powerful than cherry, so if cherry isn’t sweet or sharp enough for you then pecan is a great alternative.
Be warned: You might find that pecan is a little too sweet for your tastes, so best to test first and see how the turkey meat reacts to pecan wood.
Also, unlike cherry wood, I wouldn’t mix pecan with oak or hickory for added nuanced flavor. Pecan is rich enough as it is, and any extra ‘earthy’ woods like hickory or oak risk overpowering the meat.
Recommended pecan wood: Weber Wood Pecan Chips
These pecan wood chips do exactly what we want with pecan: They add a beautifully sweet and smokey flavor without overpowering the natural flavors of your turkey meat.
Ok, sure, this is another wood that sits at the sweeter end of the scale but hear me out.
Despite what you might think, maple hardwood is far more subtle than its other sweet wood counterparts.
It adds a light, delicate layer of flavor to turkey, and is a great choice should you only want a touch of flavor, and still want to stay faithful to the natural flavors of turkey meat.
Maple wood is always my go-to for ribs (and for any pork cut for that matter), but is an underrated hero when it comes to poultry too.
If cherry or pecan sound too rich or sweet for your tastes then maple is a great alternative for a far slighter flavor profile.
Recommended maple wood: Camerons Smoking Maple Wood Chips
Just liek Weber and Traeger, Camerons are a wood chip brand that consistently produce excellent quality wood, with no added chemicals or additives. This is just pure, natural hardwood, and it does the job superbly.
This stuff is easy to light, and burns at an even pace to give you a steady, smoky flavor.
Apple wood is another sweet and fruity wood, but has a much more mellow flavor when compared to cherry or pecan.
While a lot of people might put apple as their number one choice for smoked turkey woods, I find that the flavors in apple smoke are so subtle that it can actually take a long time to permeate the turkey meat and infuse it with flavor.
The problem with this is that turkey is so prone to drying out, that finding the perfect balance between a richly flavored bird and one that hasn’t dried out, is a really difficult one to strike when it comes to applewood turkey.
This isn’t to say that it can’t be done – smoking at a lower temperature often does the trick – but if you’re new to smoking then I’d lean towards the other woods on this list to start with.
Recommended applewood: Weber Wood Apple Chips
Anything by Weber is always worth trying, and these apple wood chunks don’t disappoint.
Subtle and sweet like any good applewood should be, this big bag should last you the best part of half a year.
What to avoid
Not every type of flavor goes with every type of meat, and this is particularly true with turkey. Like a lot of white meat, it’s quite delicate and can be easily overpowered by more robust types of hardwood.
So here’s a list of the hardwood that I would try to avoid when it comes to smoking turkey.
Mesquite is a beautiful wood that’s been used for traditional BBQ smoking for decades. The thing is, it’s long been used with tough red meats.
And it’s not hard to see why.
Mesquite is one of the strongest flavors of wood out there. It’s extremely robust in flavor, and when being used with meat like brisket, it needs to be.
But with turkey it’s just too deep a flavor, and will overwhelm the flavors of your turkey.
Some people use a little bit of mesquite and match it with a fruitwood for balance, but I would just avoid it altogether.
Another deep ‘earthy’ wood, hickory is often used as a base layer for a lot of different types of meat.
While hickory is indisputably a classic wood, it just too much of a distinct, heavy flavor for poultry.
Oak is another classic smoking wood with a deep flavor, although in comparison to mesquite and hickory it’s a bit lighter.
It’s not often associated with poultry, and it’s not difficult to see why.
However, because it’s relatively softer than hickory and mesquite, it can be used when combined with cherry to create a more nuanced flavor.
How many wood chips should I use?
Although there is no hard and fast rule here, I tend to abide by the amount that could fit in a smoker box. This is usually about 5 ounces of chips.
It’s important to keep in mind though that things like temperature, smoker size, and cooking time will all be variables that can impact the rate at which your chips burn.
Start with 5 ounces, and if you find that you are having to replenish them too often (and disrupt the internal temperature of your chamber), or if they’re not imparting enough flavor on your turkey, then add more.
How long should I smoke turkey for?
Aim for 30 minutes per pound of meat, at 225°F/107°C. Your turkey will be ready when the internal temperature of the meat reaches 165°F/73°C.
Always aim for internal temperature, not time.
Check out my full guide on how long to smoke a turkey.
Should I soak my wood chips before smoking turkey?
There is plenty of debate around soaking wood chips for smoking, with as many people advocating for it as there are opposing it.
Personally, I don’t do it. While the thinking is that it helps your chips to last longer, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that water can’t penetrate the surface of wood as easily as we might think. Meanwhile, the steam that will emit from the water is likely to interfere with your coals and smoke.