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20 Pitmaster Tips For Smoking A Turkey

20 Pitmaster Tips For Smoking A Turkey

Smoking a turkey can provide a delicious and unique flavor that’s perfect for the holidays or any special occasion. As turkey is a tender and lean cut of meat, it requires a bit of care and attention to prevent it from becoming dry and tasteless.

As pitmasters, we’re well-versed in all-things smoked turkey related and have created a list of 20 tips to help ensure your smoked whole turkey turns out perfectly.

While reading, keep in mind these tips can apply to most smoked turkey recipes, such as smoked turkey breast, and smoked turkey wings.

Before Cooking

There are a few key steps to do before smoking a turkey. Prepping the turkey properly is a key element to making sure what you serve is juicy, moist and flavorful!

Choose the Right Turkey

Select a turkey that’s the appropriate size for your gathering and smoker, keeping in mind 8-12 lbs. is ideal as the entire bird can cook without drying out the white meat. Larger birds need more time on the smoker creating a higher chance for dried out meat.

Fresh turkeys tend to work best for smoking, but if you choose a frozen turkey, ensure it’s completely thawed before smoking. When defrosting, calculate 24 hours for every 4 pounds. So an 8 pound turkey needs 48 hours to defrost.

Close up of an uncooked whole turkey on a rotisserie rod. Butchers twine and seasonings in a white bowl and next to the turkey.

Choose the Right Wood

Different types of wood provide different flavor profiles. Fruit woods like apple or cherry provide a sweet, mild flavor, and don’t over power the meat, but there are other woods to consider. Check out our Best Wood For Smoking Turkey guide to select the best option for you.

Brine the Turkey

Brining helps to keep the turkey moist during the long smoking process. You can wet brine the turkey, using a Smoked Turkey Brine or go with a dry-brine using a Turkey Rub.

We personally use a dry brine as we find the skin stays a bit crispier, and it’s quite a bit easier than using a wet brine.

Raw turkey in a stockpot with fresh herbs.

Dry the Skin

After brining, pat the turkey dry with paper towels and let it sit in the refrigerator for a few hours to allow the skin to dry out. This helps to achieve crispy skin when smoking a turkey.

Spatchcock The Turkey

Spatchcocking a turkey (also known as butterfly) is a culinary technique that involves removing the bird’s backbone and flattening it out for cooking. This method reduces the cooking time thereby maximizes the overall juiciness as prolonged cooking can dry out the meat.

Furthermore, because the turkey cooks more evenly when flattened, the breast and leg meat reach their optimal temperatures at roughly the same time, preventing the breast meat from overcooking while waiting for the legs to finish.

Smoking a turkey on a grill.

Season Well

Apply a rub of your choice generously over the entire turkey. Ensure you get the rub under the skin and inside the cavity for maximum flavor.

Don’t Stuff

Don’t stuff the bird with stuffing. Stuffing the bird with bread will bring down the overall temperature creating a longer cook time. As the stuffing absorbs the raw turkey juice it will also need to reach an internal temperature of 165°F (74°C). You don’t want the bird to overcook while waiting for stuffing. Instead, plan on making your stuffing recipe as a separate dish.

Adding a bit of herbs and citrus slices to the inside won’t cause these issues. Plus the cavity is left open for smoke to permeate from the inside, as well as the outside.

close up of digital face on meat thermometer.

Use a Digital Meat Thermometer

A digital meat thermometer is crucial to ensure your turkey reaches the safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F (74°C). Turkey is extremely unforgiving so relying on the notoriously inconsistent built-in temperature gauges or the pop out (the one that comes inserted in the turkey) is a big mistake.

We highly recommend, and personally use, these two digital thermometer models: Typhur (Read our Typhur Review) and Thermaworks Dot.

Smoking A Turkey

Placement Of Smoker

Review the placement of the smoker before you pre-heat. It’s essential to consider the weather when using any outdoor cooking apparatus. If it’s a cold windy day it will be tougher to reach and maintain the proper temperature than it would a sunny, breeze-free day. Select an area that is protected from strong winds, if possible.

Pre-heat The Smoker

Before placing the turkey in the smoker, ensure it has reached the desired temperature. If you put the turkey on before it hits the smoking temperature, there’s a strong chance the outside of the bird will be drier than the inside of the bird.

aluminum pan in hot smoker.

Drip Pan

Utilizing a drip pan will not only protect the bird from flair ups, creating unevenly cooked turkey, but it also collects the dripping that can use to make turkey gravy. For charcoal grills, the drip pan should be placed under the bird on the in-direct side of the grill.

Maintain a Consistent Temperature

Keep a close eye on the smoker’s temperature and make adjustments as necessary to maintain a consistent temperature. This is also why it’s key to ensure the placement of your smoker is reviewed, prior to pre-heating, to ensure the weather doesn’t affect the ability to keep a consistent temperature.

Don’t Overcrowd the Smoker

Ensure there is enough space around the turkey for the smoke to circulate properly. A common mistake is placing the turkey inside the drip pan. The turkey will be “boiling” in it’s own juices and the temperature will be drastically lower as the heat doesn’t have room to circulate around the entire bird.

Whole smoked turkey for The Best Wood for smoking turkey article.

Inject The Bird

Did you know Butterball turkey got its name because they would inject butter directly into their turkey’s? This practice has since been retired, so it’s something to consider doing at home to increase the chance of a moist and flavorful meal.

Check out our Turkey Injection Recipe for detailed instructions on how to inject a turkey. While easy, there’s specific timing to consider when smoking a turkey!

Baste the Turkey

There are two mindsets when smoking a turkey when it comes to basting: The “pro” group knows it helps keep the moisture in the meat (it does), while the “anti” side knows it will keep the skin from crisping (it will). So consider what kind of skin you’re hoping for.

Pro Basting – Baste the turkey with a marinade or its own juices every hour. Make sure to follow the directions for crisping the skin below to ensure a nice crust.

Anti Basting – Instead, spritz the bird every 45 minutes or so with water or apple cider vinegar to add a bit of moisture to the skin without water-logging it.

Close up of a cooked smoked turkey on a striped cutting board. A knife and large fork are next to the bird.

Crisp the Skin

When the bird hits 145°F internal temperature, touch the skin to see how crispy it is. If it’s not crispy enough for your liking, you’ll want to ensure the bird gets a bit of high temperature heat.

To achieve, crank up the heat to 375-400°F (if using an electric smoker) or use an indoor oven or outdoor grill to achieve the crispy skin you’re looking for. Cook at this temperature until the breast meat hits 160°F (the resting period will increase the temperature to 165°F (74°C).

Thanks to the Maillard reaction and exposure to smoke, you don’t need to worry about browning the turkey. The skin will already have a healthy brown color when ready to pull.

Be Patient

Smoking a turkey takes time – expect it to take at least 30 minutes per pound.

Avoid Opening the Smoker Too Often

Every time you open the smoker, you lose heat and smoke creating an uneven cooking environment. Try to resist the urge to check on the turkey too often. A good rule is to check at the hour mark and then every 30-45 minutes after that (the larger the bird the longer you can go in-between).

Turkey on a rotisserie

Check for Doneness in Multiple Spots

Use the digital meat thermometer to check the internal temperature in several spots to ensure the turkey is fully cooked. You’ll want to check the breast and inside of the wing (the cranny between the edge of the wing and the breast area).

After Cooking

Let it Rest

Once the turkey has reached the proper temperature (the breast should be 160°F), remove it from the smoker and let it rest for at least 10-15 minutes before carving. This resting period will allow the bird to rise 5°F to 165°F. The meat will start losing heat and moisture if it rests longer than this.

Smoking a turkey requires time and patience, but by following these tips, you should end up with a juicy, flavorful smoked turkey that’s perfect for any occasion. Now check out the list of Also check out the list of Best Wine With Turkey and get to smoking!