Smoking a turkey for Thanksgiving is a long-standing tradition in my family! And, it’s easier and quicker than you would think!
What’s Thanksgiving without a turkey? Cooking a turkey for Thanksgiving is an American tradition. When I married into my husband’s family, I was surprised that they made turkey for other occasions, too! Football games, or any cold weather gathering were enough to fire up the smoker and throw on a whole turkey! The common thread here was that the turkey they make is a total treat because it was cooked on the smoker. Smoked turkey takes on so much delicious flavor. My husband smoked his first turkey solo when we were in college, and all our friends gathered around the bird and picked the perfectly cooked meat off with our fingers! We’ve since found our utensils, thankfully, but one thing remains. This quick smoked turkey recipe has been a favorite of ours for over 15 years now, and I am quite convinced that you will feel the same once you give it a try!
Choosing the Right Turkey
When choosing a whole bird, you first need to identify whether you’d like to buy a frozen or fresh bird. And that choice largely depends on when you need it! Fresh birds have limited availability, typically just the two weeks prior to Thanksgiving. Frozen turkeys are available year round, but do have the added consideration of de-thawing, which takes several days. A side note, if you can’t find a turkey, ask the meat counter to order one for you!
I chose a 17 pound frozen Honeysuckle White turkey. These turkeys have a salt and sugar brine injected into them already, which will save you quite a bit of time! We’ll talk about brining a bit more below. I love Honeysuckle White’s turkey because they have opted to never use growth-promotants when raising their turkeys. This means it takes a little longer to raise them to the right weights. Honeysuckle White also uses independent family farms to raise their turkeys, meaning that purchasing one of their turkeys helps return your hard earned dollars back to a family farmers right here in the United States.
Preparing the Turkey: Dry Brine vs. Wet Brine
We have experimented with both dry and wet brines for our smoked turkey recipes. The conclusion we’ve come to is that dry brining the bird is best. A few reasons for this; first, there are some questionable safety issues related to soaking a big bird in a water bath for a long period of time. Second, a wet brine adds about a day to what can already be a fairly long process of de-frosting and preparation. And finally, when you take just a few easier steps to ensure juiciness (see below), your bird will not dry out, which is what a wet brine aims to prevent.
We do two extra things to ensure a juicy and flavorful bird. First, and most important, we rub softened butter under the breast skin before cooking it. In addition, we also dry brine the turkey for a short amount of time, typically an hour. This helps to keep the skin nice and crispy, and very tasty.
Preparing your Smoker for the Turkey
I’ll be the first to admit I’m not super comfortable with a smoker. But, my husband is, and he’s been smoking meat for a good long while! Setting up your smoker for the first time will largely depend on what kind you have. We have a Weber Smokey Mountain, and he swears by it. If you also have this smoker, here’s a tutorial on getting it set up for the first time.
How Long to Smoke a Whole Turkey
The rule of thumb is to smoke the turkey at 300 degrees, 15 minutes for each pound. We used a 17 pound Honeysuckle White turkey for this recipe, and smoked it at 275-300 degrees for just under 4 hours. The turkey is safe to take off the smoker when it’s reached 165 degrees.
Remember, this is a faster smoke than you will see on some recipes. I sometimes see upwards of 8 or 9 hours recommended. If you want to smoke the turkey all day, you’ll need to lower the temperature to 225 degrees and follow a rule of about 30 minutes for every pound.
How Long to Smoke a Turkey Breast
Any other white meat lovers out there? I’m the lone one in my family, so if I was doing this smoked turkey recipe just for myself, I would just throw on a turkey breast. If you are smoking a turkey breast, you will want to follow the rule of 225 degrees for about 30 minutes per pound. If you choose a fairly typical 4-lb turkey breast, you’d be looking at about a 2 hour cook time.
Make sure to follow all of the steps for dry brining and rubbing butter under the skin if you smoke a turkey breast. The low fat content of the breast makes it extra important to add fat to the cooking process to help it stay nice and juicy.
Choosing the Right Wood to Smoke a Turkey
Here’s where personal preference rules. I don’t have a definitive answer for you, except to let you know that our favorite is pecan. Use whatever you’re accustomed to; hickory, oak, cherry, apple, mesquite. I truly don’t think you can go wrong here! I prefer lighter, sweeter woods like pecan, cherry and apple.
What to Serve with Smoked Turkey
Here are a few of my favorite side dishes!
- 1 17 lb. Fresh Whole Turkey, neck and giblets removed
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 TB ground black pepper
- 1 TB garlic powder
- 1/2 TB paprika
- 1/4 cup butter, softened
- 1/3 cup kosher salt
- 1 TB cracked black pepper
- 1 TB brown sugar
- Rinse turkey under cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Place on a baking sheet.
- Combine dry brine ingredients in a small bowl and rub on exterior and internal cavity of the turkey. Place turkey in refrigerator for two hours.
- Preheat smoker to 300°F.
- Loosen the skin around the turkey breast by inserting your hand. Use your hand to rub the softened butter under the skin. Then, use a paper towel to wipe most of the dry brine from the turkey skin. Brush on olive oil. Lightly sprinkle on black pepper, garlic powder and paprika.
- Smoke at 275-300°F for about 4 hours or until internal temperature reaches 165°F when measured in the thickest part of the breast. Baste the bird every hour with juices from the drip pan.
- This bird has a golden brown appearance from taking on the smoke. If you'd like to limit the dark color, you can tent the bird with aluminum foil. This will cut down on the amount of smoke that reaches the skin.
Thank you to Honeysuckle White for sponsoring this recipe. And, thank you for supporting the brands that make this blog possible!