We all know that BBQ is delicious, but smoked food is on another level. The low and slow methods in coaxing it to temperature just bring out the absolute best qualities of the meat. From its locked in natural flavors, to using its fat content to cake it in moisture. It offers something truly unique.
As a rough guide, an eight-pound turkey will take around four hours to smoke if smoking at 235°F/115°C, while a twelve-pound turkey will take around six hours. It's really important to note that both bird size and the smoking temperatures you use will determine this.
In today’s guide I’m going to show you exactly how long to smoke your turkey for, and the crucial steps you need to cook the perfect bird.
I’m not going to lie: Smoking turkey is a challenge. Not only is it quite large, but it’s a meat that is naturally prone to drying. This means that getting your brine and cooking temperature just right is absolutely crucial
Sometimes barbecue is all about the challenge, and if you can get this right, you will have a beautifully smoked bird, loaded in flavor and rich with texture.
And if you follow my guide, then you’ll be on to a winning smoked turkey.
How long does it take to smoke a turkey?
Ultimately this largely depends on two key variables: What temperature you decide to smoke your turkey at, and what size your turkey is
While generally speaking the lower the temperature the more delicious the bird will be, we can’t take it to too much of an extreme. If we go too low the meat will be vulnerable to bacteria growth, so I would never go any lower than 235°F/115°C.
A turkey over 20 pounds (about 9 kg) will take a long time to cook. During this time, bacteria might get the upper hand and spoil your bird. I would suggest that if the turkey weighs over 15 pounds, that you cook it at 250°F/120°C.
Try to refrain from going over 275°F/135°C. Going any higher won’t allow the bird to cook for long enough to get the full benefits of smoking.
How to smoke a turkey
Turkey is one of my favorite meats to cook, especially if it's a whole turkey. If you can match a good rub with a good smoking wood then you're on to a winner. If you've never done it before, then here's my 9 step guide to cooking the perfect bird.
Step 1. Buy the right bird
The size of your turkey will greatly impact the length of time that you cook for. While you can go very big, I would try to stay within the range of 8 to 12 pounds. You can go as large as 20 pounds, but then you start to run the risk of overexposure to bacteria in the smoking chamber.
To get the best possible flavor, try to get something organic and free-range. The ethical reasons for doing so go without saying, but also these turkeys invariably taste far better and will give you greater results.
Step 2. Buy wood chips
Learning to match wood chips with meat is an important skill when it comes to smoking. Luckily, for turkey this is actually quite easy as almost any wood goes well with the meat.
I would say that as long as you don't go for mesquite then you're fine, but my personal preference would be something quite sweet and fruity, like apple.
If you only have small wood chips then I recommend soaking them before the day before using them, before leaving them out to dry. Damp chips will take longer to burn through, meaning that you won't have to change them as regularly as if they were dry. Just make sure that they're damp, and not soaked.
best wood to smoke with turkey
It's important to try to choose lighter tasting woods, as anything strong or intense (such as mesquite) will overpower the flavor of the turkey. My preferences are:
Step 3. Get a good meat thermometer
As much as you can follow guides, your turkey will only really be done once it reaches our target internal temperature of 160°F/71°C. The only way we can accurately measure this is with a good meat thermometer.
Luckily, these are really affordable. If you're not sure where to look, check out my guide to meat thermometers.
Step 4. Prepare the smoker
Also lightly coat your smoker’s cooking grates in oil.
Don’t forget to prepare your smoker’s drip pan. This will help catch all of the juices and oils coming out of your bird as it smokes. Having them fall into one tray will help keep your smoker clean but, more importantly, will help reduce the risk of flare-ups.
Also, if you want to make any gravy then having a pan catch the excess juices will make this a lot easier for you.
The water pan also helps to provide moisture in the smoker chamber, which is especially important for poultry due to its being prone to drying out.
Not all smokers come with a built-in drip pan, but it’s actually really easy to make your own. You can use a simple disposable aluminium pan. Just make sure that the width of the pan is larger than that of your bird.
Prepare your pan by pouring a liter of water into the pan prior to putting it in your smoker. This will help prevent the excess juices drying out and burning. Because of the long smoking time, this water will inevitably dry out and evaporate at some point, so be prepared to refill it a couple of hours in.
Step 5. Prepare the bird
Just as we would with any cooking method, we need to prepare turkey by removing its neck and giblets.
Rinse the bird, and if the bird has come pre-brined then rinse the brine off as thoroughly as possible.Trim any loose pieces either outside or inside the bird.
Pin the wings of the turkey to the body using a toothpick. Wings can be prone to drying out or overcooking, so pinning them to the body will help carry over moisture from the bird. Also do this for the skin found on the neck.
Step 6. Use a good rub
One of my favorite parts of BBQ, and not just smoking, is using a solid meat rub. This is where we get to be creative and impart some flavor on the bird.
What you use here is up to you, but I recommend using something with spice. Spicy flavors tend to be fairly robust during smoking, so will withstand the hours needed for smoking. If you’re struggling for ideas then I like to use this rub recipe courtesy of KQED:
Smoked turkey bbq rub
To apply your rub, spread it generously over the skin of your bird and work it in. Also apply it under the skin of the bird. This will ensure it really works into the flesh.
To do this most effectively, find the point at which the leg meets the body. Use your hands to separate (without fully removing) the skin from the body, and try to work up towards the breast of the turkey.
Apply the rub to these areas, trying to do as evenly as possible.
Finally, apply the rub in the cavity of the bird.
All of this stage can be a bit gruesome, so feel free to use rubber gloves to keep your hands relatively clean.
Step 7. Place the turkey in the smoker
Place your turkey on one of the grates in your smoker. Make sure that where you place it has enough room both underneath and to both sides of it. This will ensure good air flow, and help all sides of the bird cook evenly.
Make sure it lines up with your drip pan, with little risk of any dripping away from it.
If your unit is an offset smoker then you will need to turn the turkey round ever couple of hours or so to ensure that it cooks evenly.
Step 8. Check the turkey temperature
While the target cooking times I listed above are a general rule, you still need to measure the temperature yourself to make sure that you haven’t under or over cooked the bird.
You will need to do this across a few areas of the bird to guarantee that it is cooked throughout.
Use a good meat thermometer for this. If you don’t have one already then they’re very affordable.
You will need to use your thermometer to measure the temperature of the breast, and the thighs on each side. Be careful not to insert the thermometer into the bone, as this will give a very different reading.
Between the three readings, the lowest one will be the one you use as a guide. Aim for an internal temperature of 180°F/82°C. Once the lowest temperature has reached this, remove the turkey from the smoker and place on a large cutting board.
Step 9. Allow the turkey to rest
Allowing the bird to rest is a criminally underappreciated stage to smoking the perfect turkey. This stage allows the heat in the bird to spread throughout the meat, and to allows it soak up the juices and flavors.
Cover the bird in aluminum foil, and allow it to rest for about 15 minutes. After this stage you can carve it.