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
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
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 ours 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.
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.
For the rub
- 1 onion cut in half
- wood pellets like apple, cherry, or hickory (stronger)
Dry brining (overnight)
- Mix the salt and black pepper. Rub it all over the turkey and inside the cavity. Place in a refrigerator uncovered overnight.
- Mix all the spices for the rub in a small bowl. Rub the butter all over the turkey and then sprinkle it with the spice mixture, including under the breast skin. You may have to press the rub with your fingers to hold it in place in some spots. Cut an onion in half and place it inside the turkey.
- Make sure you have enough wood pellets in the hopper and start your smoker.
- Once the startup process is complete, place the turkey on the grill rack, breast side up. "High smoke” (220 degrees) for 45 mins.
- Adjust temperature to 375 degrees and cook until the probe in the turkey reads 165 degrees. This took about 2.5 hours for our 12 lb turkey.
- Remove from heat and let rest for 10 mins, carve, and serve.
- Soak wood chips in water for 20 mins to an hour then place in a metal smoker box on top of the heating element (or follow your grill directions).
- Plug in and then smoke your turkey at approximately 220 degrees for 45 minutes.
- Finish in the oven at 375 degrees until the turkey is fully cooked (165 degree internal temperature as read with a probe thermometer).
- Start your charcoal fire and warm up your grill according to the manufacturer's directions.
- Add wood chips and then smoke your turkey at approximately 220 degrees for 45 minutes.
- Adjust grill vents to maintain a 375 degree temperature and then grill until the turkey is fully cooked (165 degree internal temperature as read with a probe thermometer).