How to Properly Smoke a Turkey
When you decide that you want to cook a turkey for the holidays you will need to do a few things before you start the cooking process. Select your turkey based on your needs and preferences. The size of the bird will vary. I am usually cooking for a lot of people so I usually get a 20lb turkey or larger. Remember cooking times will vary please do not go off the “30 minutes per lb” saying because this is not the case, but we’ll cover that in the cooking section. You will want to get some non powdered latex gloves, a new cutting board (eliminate cross contamination), all fresh spices or seasonings. Make sure you have a roll of paper towels handy. You don’t want to mess up any of your wife’s hand towels. You will need to get some aluminum serving pans and aluminum foil, the heavy duty kind.
I always use and wear gloves for everything I am about to cover. It’s easier to throw away gloves than it is to wash your hands every 10 minutes. You obviously don’t have to do this but I do recommend it.
Three days before you intend to cook your turkey you need to take it out of the freezer, keeping in mind that the larger the bird the longer it will take to thaw. Do not soak your bird in warm water as this will begin the cooking process. I usually place mine in the refrigerator for the first 24 hours. Then I place the turkey in the sink until it is completely thawed and I can move the wings and legs.
Next you will need to trim all the excess skin away from where the neck used to be. Make sure to pull all of the excess guts and stuff out of the turkey and remove the little pop up timer that they put in them as you wont use it.
The night before you cook your turkey you will want to brine it (DO NOT BRINE THE TURKEY IF YOU ARE GOING TO FRY IT). This will make the turkey very tender and very juicy. I use a cooler full it with water (just enough to cover the bird) then I add Sea or Kosher salt, pepper, poultry seasoning, dill, thyme, and rosemary. You may use whatever you want. Once you have enough water in the cooler and your seasonings place the bird in the water and then pour some ice in it. No you will not refreeze the bird. You want to leave it in the water for a minimum of 12 hours.
Now it’s time to take the turkey out of the brine. Most people will say to rinse the turkey off. I don’t because I still want the flavor from the seasonings on the skin. Make sure the turkey is completely dry by patting it to soak up any excess water.
Cooking your turkey is up to you. I like to smoke my turkey so that is what I am going to address. Most people inject their turkey. I’m not a fan of injecting it but you can if you like. I like to make a mixture of butter (not melted), salt (sea salt), pepper, and poultry seasoning. This time I am not adding the dill, or rosemary. Mix all of that into the butter. It should make a paste. Now from the bottom of the turkey breast by the large opening slide your fingers between the skin and the meat. It will separate quite easily. Take the paste you just made and start pushing it between the skin and the meat. Make sure to get it all over the breast. I don’t usually put it under the skin on the legs, wings, and thighs. Now take the remainder of the paste and rub it all over the outside of the turkey.
Smoking the Turkey
When you smoke anything you want to make sure that if you are using lighter fluid you need to make sure that it is completely burned off before you put your wood or food on the smoker. The easiest way to tell is if the charcoal is white and glowing the fluid is all burned off. Should take about 15 to 20 minutes. You want to make sure that the cooking area should have a temperature somewhere between 225 F to 250 F.
Place your turkey on your smoker breast side up away from the fire. You will need to know where your hot spots are on your grill. Place a thermometer in different areas of your cooking surface so you will know where the right spot it. Once you do this place your wood on your coals. I am not going to tell you what wood to use. Some people like fruit woods. I prefer mesquite. Again it’s your choice. Once you close the lid/door don’t open it again for one hour.
Now you need to start melting four sticks of butter. You can do this on a low heat as you don’t want to scorch the butter. You are not going to add any seasonings to the butter. You are going to use it to baste the bird with.
Every hour on the hour you are going to add wood to your fire box and you are going to baste the bird with the butter we melted. You are going to do this for four hours.
Now it’s time to preheat your oven to 250 F. Take the bird off the smoker, and place it in an aluminum serving pan and baste it with butter and cover the turkey with the foil. Make sure to get a good seal around the turkey you don’t want to let that smoke escape.
After two hours take the turkey out and check the temperature, you want it to be 185 F. If it’s not baste the turkey again, cover it and place it back in the oven. Keep doing this until the internal temp reaches 185 F. This process should have taken between 6 – 8 hours total cooking time. Remember to check the temp in three different locations and do not touch the bone while doing it.
Now that the internal temp is correct baste the turkey one last time and then let it rest for 15 minutes before you carve it. See my other article on how to properly carve a turkey here.
About the author:
Bert (TheHighCountrySmoker) is the owner and operator of High Country Smokers, an Austin Texas based BBQ competition team and caterer. With over 10 years experience of cooking for large gatherings, friends, family, and competition he brings a wealth of knowledge to the Institute of Man.