Juicy smoked whole turkey cooked low and slow over hickory wood. From brines and dry rubs to smoker times and temperatures, discover how to smoke turkey from scratch with this easy barbecue recipe.
Smoked turkey delivers the perfect BBQ centerpiece for your holiday spread. With its blend of tender white meat and crispy skin, this barbecue spin on the Thanksgiving and Christmas classic will instantly become a family favorite.
We won’t sugar-coat it: This dish takes a bit of time. But from brining to slow smoking, every step of the process adds that little bit more juiciness and flavor, making the final dish worth every minute of preparation.
Here’s how to smoke the best whole turkey from scratch. Let’s get smoking!
How to Smoke a Whole Turkey
- Meat Prep: If you are using a frozen turkey, allow sufficient time for it to fully defrost. If your turkey needs brining, do so 24 hours before it needs to be smoked. Check your turkey to make sure the neck and giblets are removed, and remove any moisture from the skin by blotting with a paper towel.
- Season: Apply a thin layer of butter or spritz the turkey with oil and carefully apply the dry rub to cover as much of the bird as possible.
- Fire Up: Preheat your smoker to 225℉ (107℃). Don’t rely on the built-in temperature gauge on your smoker, as they often aren’t very accurate. Instead, use a digital probe thermometer to check that your smoker is at the required temperature before adding your turkey.
- Smoke: Once your smoker is up to temperature, add the turkey to the smoking chamber breast side up (don’t forget to add a tray underneath to catch drippings if you want to make turkey gravy!)
- Gauge the Temperature: Based on your timings (30-40mins per lb when smoked at 225℉), use an instant-read digital thermometer to check the internal temperature in the breast and thigh meat on both sides of the turkey halfway through the cooking time and each hour after. We don’t want to be opening the smoker too much, but we also don’t want to overcook the turkey, so it’s best to keep a close eye on it.
- Pull & Rest: Once the meat has reached an internal temp of 165℉ (74℃), it can be removed from the smoker and left to rest for 20mins before carving.
How to Prepare a Turkey for Smoking
Smoking adds a whole new layer of flavor to turkey, but before it can go on the smoker, we need to ensure it is prepared properly so that it stays moist when cooking.
If you are using a frozen turkey for smoking, you need to allow plenty of time for it to thaw out. Most frozen turkey packaging will provide info on defrost timings, but as a general rule of thumb, you should allow 24 hours of defrost time per 4 lbs of turkey.
Once your frozen turkey has thawed, or if you’ve bought a fresh turkey to smoke, you’ll want to check for and remove the neck and giblets from inside the bird.
You do not need to wash a turkey before cooking it. Rinsing a turkey under running water can pose a greater contamination risk in your kitchen as you can accidentally splash raw turkey juices onto surfaces without realizing it. The only thing you need to clean before and after preparing a turkey is your tools and your hands.
Brining a turkey, no matter how you are planning to cook it, is the easiest way to infuse more flavor into the meat and to keep it moist once cooked.
You can buy pre-brined turkeys (both fresh and frozen). Fresh pre-brined turkeys are more likely to be available around Thanksgiving time, but frozen brined turkeys are available all year round.
Wet brining both fresh and frozen turkey yourself at home is an easy task and a great way to add your personal choice of flavors to the meat. Check out our full smoked turkey brine recipe, but these are the basic steps:
- Make the Brine Solution: In a large pot, combine your ingredients and bring to a boil. Chill the brine – Once the brine has boiled, remove it from the stove and bring it down to a lower temperature by adding ice cubes, water, or your choice of liquid. The brine needs to be fully cooled before we add the turkey.
- Add the Turkey: Place your turkey in the brine solution and into the fridge to sit for a minimum of 8 hours.
- Remove & Season: Once the turkey has finished brining, it can be removed from the brine solution and patted dry with paper towels. The turkey is then ready for seasoning.
A little bit of seasoning can go a long way in making a delicious turkey. Once your turkey is brined, you can add a simple seasoning to the skin to help enhance the flavors from the brine and also complement the taste once smoked. Using a dry rub helps to grab some of the smoke flavors when cooking, and using a rub that includes sugar in the mix will also help give the turkey skin a good color. Here are the ingredients for our simple smoked turkey dry rub:
- 3 tbsp brown sugar
- 3 tbsp smoked paprika
- 2 tbsp ground black pepper
- 1 tbsp mustard powder
- 1 tbsp ground cumin
- 1 tbsp onion powder
- 1 tbsp garlic powder
Mix all ingredients together in a bowl and then spritz the turkey with a bit of oil (or rub over some butter) to help act as a binder for your smoked turkey, helping the dry rub to stick.
If you have not brined your turkey, you can also add 3 tbsp of salt (kosher flakes) to the rub recipe. Brined turkey does not need any extra salt added with its dry rub seasoning.
Times & Temperatures
The length of time it takes to smoke a turkey depends on the size of the bird and the temperature of the smoker.
We suggest smoking at a temperature of 225℉ (107℃) – at that temperature, it should take 30-40 mins per lb to smoke a whole turkey fully. The internal temperature of your smoked turkey needs to reach 165℉ (74℃) in order to be safe to eat.
The best way to test this is by using an instant-read thermometer and checking the temperature in the breast and the thigh on both sides of the turkey. Since you will be taking multiple readings, you must go off the lowest reading as your guide to ensure the meat is safe to eat. Once all readings show 165℉ (74℃) or above, the turkey is ready to remove from the smoker.
Best Wood for Smoking Turkey
When smoking a turkey you want a wood that produces a light and mild flavor. The best smoke flavors for turkey are maple, pecan, cherry, and apple. These fruit hardwoods will infuse a slightly sweeter taste while also giving a good smokiness.
Tray for Drippings
If you want to make a delicious gravy to serve alongside your smoked turkey, you can add a tray to the smoker to catch the drippings as it’s cooking. Having a drip tray in the smoker also helps to keep the environment moist.
A disposable aluminum tray is ideal for this job – position it underneath where the turkey will be smoking and a few cups of water to the tray before preheating the smoker. You want to ensure there are always a few cups of water in the tray throughout the smoking process; you may need to top it up a few times.
Once you’ve finished smoking your turkey, carefully tip it so that any juices that have drained into the cavity pour into the tray and transfer it to a pot on the stove. Reduce the mixture down until it has reached the desired thickness.
If you’re worried about how long it’ll take to smoke a whole turkey, there is an option to help speed up the process – spatchcock turkey!
Spatchcocking is a preparation technique that can be used on any bird. It involves cutting along the spine (poultry shears are the best tool for this) and removing the breastbone so that you can lay the bird flat. This allows the bird to cook more quickly and evenly, meaning that areas of meat such as the breast are less likely to dry out while the rest of the meat reaches temperature.
What size turkey for smoking?
There are two things to consider when deciding what size turkey to get for smoking. Firstly, how many people you are cooking for? The general rule of thumb when serving turkey is to have 1-1.5 lbs of turkey per person. When cooking a whole turkey, you have to account for the weight of the meat plus the wings, bones, and skin – so aiming for 1.5 lbs per person will mean there is enough for everyone, plus some leftovers.
Secondly, how long it’ll take to smoke the turkey. The larger turkey you have, the longer it’ll take to smoke. If you’re smoking your turkey at 225℉ (107℃), it’ll take 30-40mins per lb to cook fully.
If you need to cook for a large group of people, it can be better to opt for two smaller turkeys that can be smoked at the same time rather than a massive turkey that will take hours to finish cooking.
Do you stuff a smoked turkey?
Stuffing a turkey is not recommended when smoking. If you add anything to the inside of the turkey cavity when smoking, it can stop air circulating, which means it takes longer for the internal temperature to rise to where it needs to be. If you want to add extra dishes to serve alongside your turkey, these are best prepared in advance and cooked in an oven to best line up with the timings of your turkey being fully smoked.
How long to rest smoked turkey?
You should let turkey rest for 20-40 minutes after pulling it from the smoker. This will help the meat fibers relax and reabsorb the turkey’s internal juices, giving you juicy meat with better taste and texture.