Turkey doesn’t just have to be made for Thanksgiving, and can be cooked year-round. Just like chicken though is that it’s actually quite a versatile meat. You don’t just have to roast it, and in fact it can be smoked in your smoker or grill. Here’s how to cook a turkey in an offset smoker.
Given the choice between roasted and smoked turkey, I would always recommend going for smoked. Smoked turkey tends to be fair juicier, while also remaining crispy and is infused with a beautiful BBQ and charcoal taste.
Another benefit to smoking it is if you are juggling a lot of different cooked foods at once, smoking the turkey vacates the oven for you to cook other meats or vegetables in.
Not got an offset smoker? Here’s how to smoke turkey in an electric smoker
Because smoking involves exposing meat to heat over a long period of time, it can be easy to get it wrong and allow the meat to dry out. Whether that’s by cooking it at too low a temperature, or going the other way and searing it too high.
In my guide today I’m going to walk you through exactly how to smoke it in an offset smoker, and how to prevent it going dry.
What do you need to smoke a turkey?
Without stating the obvious, you’ll need a smoker that’s big enough to accommodate an entire bird. The best offset smokers do tend to be large enough to cook large turkeys, but it’s always important to check your maximum grate size against the size of your bird.
You will also need to ensure that there is space around the bird to allow airflow, and that you have a large enough drip tray to catch any run-off from your bird.
If this is your first time smoking a turkey, then I recommend choosing one that’s slightly smaller (e.g. no larger than 12-13 pounds).
Another key thing you’ll need is a good instant read thermometer. The key to good smoking is maintaining a steady and consistent temperature across the time it takes to cook your temperature, as well as make sure that the internal temperature of your meat has reached the level where it’s safe to eat.
The best way to ensure all of the above is to use an instant read thermometer. The best models of these have two probes, with one placed to read the ambient temperature of your smoker, and the other placed inside the meat. Read my full guide on how to use an instant read thermometer here.
If your smoker has an inbuilt thermometer then I’d still recommend getting an instant read. Built-in analog thermometers tend to be unreliable and wildly inaccurate, so try to get something well reviewed and digital.
Finally, you need a good source of fuel. It can be tempting to get briquettes as they’re cheap, but they tend to be made with a lot of junk, making them bad for the environment and even worse for your food. Always go for lump charcoal. They tend to burn longer and cleaner, and can impart a beautiful BBQ flavor on your meat.
I also recommend getting a chimney starter. Charcoal is notoriously tricky to light and maintain a flame with, but chimney starters are a great tool to help get the coals going. They’re a chimney-shaped tool that you put your coals in first to light. The enclosed environment of the starter makes it easier to light the coals before you then transfer them to your smoker.
How to prepare turkey for smoking
Just like you would if you were roasting it, you need to clean the bird thoroughly inside and out.
Below I’ve listed some brine and rub recipes that you might want to try. If neither take your fancy, then injecting turkey with marinade is a great way round them.
How to brine turkey for smoking
Brining is a preparation method that I tend to use with a lot of my cuts of meat. Brining can help make meat tender, and help it retain its moisture when smoked (source). It does involve soaking your bird in brine for several hours, or overnight, so be sure to plan ahead in advance if you decide that you do want to brine your turkey.
You will need to brine it for one hour per pound of meat.
Brine recipes tend to differ, but generally I tend to just follow a very simple recipe like below:
- 2 cups of salt
- 2 gallons cold water
- 2 tbsp rosemary
- 2 tbsp dried thyme
- 2 tbsp crushed sage
- 1 tbsp dried savory
- 1 tbsp mustard seed
Combine all of the ingredients above in a large container before then transferring your bird to it. Submerge your turkey as best as possible, and then transfer the container to your refrigerator. Leave overnight, or for however many hours you need.
Once you have brined it, remove the turkey from the container and place it on a drying rack. Pat down with kitchen paper to remove any excess brine.
How to apply BBQ rubs to your turkey
Now that we have brined the meat, it’s now time to think about flavors.
You can go two routes here, one is with a marinade, the other with a rub. Marinades help to give a deeper infusion of flavor, however because we have already brined our meat I don’t want to overdo it with adding moisture. So I recommend going for a simple BBQ rub.
Everyone has their go-to with rubs, and I’m no different. This is actually my BBQ rub for chicken, but it goes perfectly with turkey as well.
The ingredients are:
- 2 tbsp paprika
- 1 tbsp thyme
- 2 tbsp chili powder
- 2 tbsp cayenne pepper
- 1 tbsp garlic powder
- 1 tbsp onion powder
- 1 tbsp kosher/table salt
- 2 tbsp black pepper
Simply mix together all the ingredients in a small bowl, before then applying generously to the skin of your bird. Also be sure to get under the skin, and work in the flavors of the rub.
How long to smoke turkey?
This will entirely depend on the size of your bird, but a good rule is to cook for 30 minutes per pound of bird, at 230°F (110°C). Smoke until the meat’s internal temperature reaches 165°F (73°C).
Those are the rules I try to stick to. The reality can be however that sometimes smoking a whole turkey takes a little longer, or a little less time. This is why it’s so important to use a thermometer to monitor the internal temperature of your bird. Once it hits that 165°F mark then you’re good to go, and the turkey is safe to eat.
What’s the best wood to smoke turkey with?
Much of this can come down to personal taste, but my preference is to use cherry mixed with a little bit of either hickory or mesquite. They both create a smokey and traditional BBQ taste that should match really well with your chosen BBQ rub.
Some people like a sightly sweeter wood, in which case apple or maple might make a good choice.
Read more: Best wood for smoking turkey
How to smoke a turkey in an offset smoker
Start by soaking your wood chips in cold water for about 4-6 hours.
When the chips are nearly done, remove the turkey and brine container from the refrigerator. Carefully remove the turkey from the container and set the bird on a drying rack. Pat down with kitchen towel to soak up any run-off. Let the turkey sit for 30 minutes so that any further excess brine can drip out. Remove the wood chips from the water and leave to dry.
While the turkey and wood chops rest, start by heating up your smoker. Use a chimney starter to get the coals going. Once the coals are lit, transfer them to your offset smoker. Close your smoker’s door, but leave both dampers as wide open as possible in order to maximize airflow through your smoker chamber.
Use your instant thermometer to gauge the internal temperature of your smoker. We want the smoker’s ambient temperature to reach 230°F.
Add the wood chips to your smoker. I like to use a smoker box to accommodate the chips.
Transfer the turkey to the smoker and carefully place on your smoker’s cooking grates or racks.
Cook for 30 minutes per pound of bird, or until the turkey’s internal temperature reaches 165°F.
Remove the turkey from the smoker and transfer to a cutting board. Leave to rest for 20-30 minutes. Serve up and enjoy.
Here are some quick tips to help you get the most out of cooking your turkey
Use a drip pan
An integral part of your smoker is a drip pan. This is a small pan that is placed beneath your meat, placed to catch any juices or fat that drip off your bird as it cooks. This helps keep your smoker neat, and also stops any fat caking on to your smoker’s surfaces, building up over time and disrupting the flavor of anything you cook in future.
Unfortunately, not all smokers come with one included, so you might have to buy one separately. They’re fairly inexpensive though. For example, these packs on Amazon are fairly cheap but extremely reliable.
Don’t disrupt the smoker
It can be tempting to constantly check in on your turkey, but if you open up the smoker chamber then you will disrupt the airflow in the smoker, which will cause the temperature to fluctuate wildly.
Learn to trust your thermometer, and go by the reading it gives you for you meat’s temperature.
Likewise, if weather conditions are poor then there’s a good chance that changes in wind can disrupt your smoker’s airflow and temperature levels. Try to place your smoker in a sheltered area, or shielded behind a wall.