My husband has been smoking our Thanksgiving Turkey for the last few years, and it’s so deeelicious! Not only did everyone enjoy it on Thanksgiving day, but the leftovers were SO much better than a traditional oven-roasted turkey. It’s perfect for soups, such as gumbo or turkey noodle, or just by itself—not a piece of it will go to waste. Here’s what he’s learned from his experience and how you can smoke your own Thanksgiving Turkey this year.
by Jason Leake
I am a sucker for smoked meat, but recreating the delicious flavors I’ve experienced at restaurants and BBQ joints didn’t seem easy at first.
After much experimenting, I found what I feel is the best (as in most convenient and repeatable) smoker to use and developed what I feel is a great recipe to please both traditionalist and smoke lovers alike on Thanksgiving day. I really appreciate the flexibility of only needing 3.5 hours total cook time (for a 12-pound turkey). Jump to the recipe down below or read on to learn about smokers.
Choosing A Smoker for Making Smoked Turkey
There are many types of smokers on the market, but I’m going to stick with discussing the three I have direct experience with.
Cheap Electric Smoker
This was our first purchase, and while these smokers are capable of producing tasty smoked meat, I found it difficult to know how long it would take to cook. This can make for a stressful situation when entertaining family and friends!
I remember one Thanksgiving I actually had to cut the turkey into parts to speed up the process. While it tasted fabulous, Lisa was a bit disappointed she could not present a whole turkey to the family (as we traditionally do), and even so, we still ate later than planned. :(
Pros: Inexpensive, lightweight, no charcoal or wood fuel required (you still need wood chips to create smoke, but the heat comes from the electric heating element).
Cons: Low-heat only and no insulation can result in unpredictable/long cooking times, especially when it’s cold out.
Good for: Budget-conscious, occasional use.
Kamado Smoker Grill (egg style)
“Egg” ceramic smoker/grills have a cult-like following, so we recently bought one off of Craigslist to see what we were missing. They can definitely produce great results with a wide variety of cooking styles, but are a bit fussy for someone as busy as me.
Pros: Efficient (not much charcoal is required), very versatile (smoke, grill, sear, cook pizzas, etc.)
Cons: Expensive, requires a fair amount of monitoring/adjusting, charcoal is messy, takes a while to get up to temperature, there is a learning curve
Good for: Someone who loves the process of grilling and wants one grill that does it all
Pellet Smoker Grill
Ah, grilling nirvana. We bought this Camp Chef pellet grill for our tiny house in the mountains, and I LOVE to use it because it is so easy.
You add your wood pellets of choice into the hopper (you can use it many times before having to add more pellets), set the dial to “Startup,” and 10 minutes later you are ready to go. Set it to low smoke, high smoke, or your grilling temperature of choice (up to 400 degrees), and then easily monitor the actual temperature of the grill or the meat (via the included probe) on the digital readout.
Typically I’ll low smoke first to inject great flavor, and then from there, I can easily adjust the temperature to increase or decrease cooking time as needed to make sure everything is ready at the same time for dinner.
Pros: Efficient and clean wood pellets, versatile (smoke, grill up to about 400 degrees), super easy to use
Cons: Not cheap, but still only about half the price of a new Kamado. Does a lot, but not good for very high-temperature grilling (like pizzas).
Good for: Busy people (like me!)
I am so in love with this grill that I want you to watch this video if you are considering buying one (we ordered our SmokePro Grill on Amazon).
Smoked Turkey Recipe
I developed this smoked turkey recipe to hopefully please everyone at your Thanksgiving gathering. What I mean by that is I tried to keep a mostly traditional flavor profile to please the more conservative crew while kicking it up a notch with the smoke for the more adventurous set. Everyone loved it at our house! And as Lisa mentioned, the leftovers are awesome.
I used our pellet smoker for this recipe, but you could use whatever type of smoker you own (see recipe notes). Step one is called dry brining, and I prefer it over wet brining. Here’s why.
For turkey and other poultry here are my thoughts on the types of wood/woodchips…
- Mild fruit woods like cherry or apple are safe bets that won’t overpower the flavor of the meat.
- I may experiment with hickory this year, which I’ve read will impart a stronger bacon-like flavor.
- Avoid mesquite as it is too strong and bitter for turkey.
If you give this recipe a try, I’d love to hear from you in the comments about how it was received.
24 thoughts on “How to Smoke Your Thanksgiving Turkey”
Can you do this with a turkey breast?
Certainly, however your cooking time will be much less. You can get away with low smoking for 30 minutes and then bake/grill at 175 degrees F until the breast reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees F.
I’m gonna try this one last time this Holiday and hope I’ll get it right this time. Otherwise, it’ll be roast chicken again.
Used this recipe to smoke our 1st turkey
(13.5 lbs, fresh and brined) for Thanksgiving using our Traeger smoker. We use our Traeger 3-4 times per week for beef, fish and salmon but this was first Turkey. It turned out totally amazing and was so easy. We will be smoking our Turkeys with this recipe from now on. No more oven! I used my own four pellet blend of 3.parts Applewood and 1 part Traeger pre-blend (hickory, maple and cherry wood). Also, I did 1 hour at “smoke” setting and then increased temp to 375 for 2 hours, then let it rest 30 mins.
Hey Jim – I’m so glad the recipe worked out for you; thanks for taking the time to share your experience. I used our ceramic smoker this year and it turned out great, but I prefer the ease of the pellet smoker. – Jason
The dry brining sounds like a lot of salt, do you rinse the salt off before spicing it up for smoking?
Hi Nancy – Good question. No, you don’t rinse it off, but some falls off and a fair amount doesn’t actually get eaten. There is no additional salt in the rub. Trust me, it shouldn’t come out too salty (our palates changed when we cut out processed food so I am pretty sensitive to salt and sweet flavors), but you could always reduce the salt if you are concerned. – Jason
Looks like I’ve found a kindred spirit!! Smoking meat is in my veins.
And your turkey recipe is going to work out just well for the Thanksgiving!!
Thank you very much and happy holidays to you and your family!!
Thanks Gerry! Hope you like the recipe and have a great Thanksgiving. – Jason
This is our first year to smoke a turkey! I’m excited to try your recipe! Thanks for the tips!
Been smoking w my xl Kamando joe .. recently did a turkey. The brine overnight is the way to go, along with a pan with brine, onions, apples and herbs while smoking. After three hours flip the bird and cover in foil to prevent drying out
Thanks Joe, sounds delicious! – Jason
Dry brine or soaking brine?
If you don’t mind a little odd looking turkey, you should spatchcock it. It allows the whole bird to more evenly cook and speed up the cook time as well. But dry brining is the way to go for sure. I’ve been doing that the last several years on my Egg and it works beautifully.
Thanks Anthony. Yeah I don’t mind the spatchcock look…I’ll have to see if I can convince Lisa :) – Jason
Look forward to trying the recipe.
I loves smoked turkey! I’ve been spatch-cocking turkey to smoke it for quite awhile now. Makes for a very even smoke and contrary to what you’d think, it’s even more moist that way. Just watch out brining turkey. A lot of turkeys are brined already, so be sure to get one that’s not if you’re gonna brine it.
Thanks for the tips DJ. We buy our turkeys from a local farmer and they are not pre-brined. – Jason
We are so excited about trying this recipe. We have a small and a large Traeger pellet smoker. We use them all the time. My husband has perfected a pizza dough and makes homemade pizzas once a week for us. We will let you know how the turkey comes out, though I have no doubt that it will be delicious. We are having a great time cooking thru your last 2 cook books.
I’d love it if you’d post your perfected pizza dough recipe! Sounds amazing….we also have a Traeger which we use all the time. Thanks in advance Charmagne Tucker :)
BBQ turkey vs smoked is hands down the best. Mesquite charcoal, add coals about every hour to maintain about 400 F and in a couple of hours you’ll have the most moist, delicious turkey that you’ve ever had.
What turkey do you recommend to buy? And where?
If you have the ability to purchase from a local organic farm then I would highly recommend doing so, as it’ll taste so much better than store bought. Otherwise, try to find one that is organic :) – Nicole
Nicole is right…we buy our turkeys fresh from a local organic farmer. They taste better and the leftovers don’t develop that funky leftover flavor. – Jason