Next week is the week, friends. Thanksgiving! I’ve crowdsourced from pros, hobbyists, friends, and anyone who loves to do Thanksgiving outside for their best advice on smoking your first Thanksgiving Turkey.
Now I didn’t grow up on smoked turkeys. My mom would always cook two, both roasted in the oven. One would go straight into this Green Chili Turkey dish and the other served traditionally. It wasn’t until Sean and I moved to Oregon and bought our first smoker where we started making our own turkeys. And since we had the smallest oven in the world (see pics here), we started cooking ours outside, on the smoker.
I wouldn’t do it any other way!
And while I may not have a specific turkey recipe for you today, I do have some tips and tricks to smoking your first turkey, no matter what kind of grill or smoker you have.
Get 2 Small Turkeys instead of 1 Large One
This is one of our preferred ways to do turkey. We like the versatility of doing 2 vs 1. When you cook on the smoker, you want to avoid drying out your meat. The larger birds can tend to dry out since you have so much longer to cook. Two smaller birds (around 12-14 lbs each) allows you to cook them faster and avoid overcooking while still having plenty of meat. (and you want extra for leftovers of course)
Brine or Not to Brine
Dry brine is just that, salt and other spices on the turkey for up to 24 hours. A wet brine is a water, salt and sugar solution with your own flavor mix that you submerge the bird in for 24 hours. Over brining can cause the cells to break down, so don’t brine for too long. It adds amazing flavor and moisture. Since your fridge will be full of food for the next day we use a big bucket (pic above) with a food safe bag to place our brine mixture in and keep it in a large cooler with ice or even your garage if it’s cold enough in there.
It is done when it reaches the appropriate temperature — 165 degrees throughout. Usually for a 12 – 14 pound bird you can expect 3 – 4 hours. If you are done early? No sweat, store your bird in a cooler (without ice), it will act like a warmer for hours and allow the juices to distribute in the meat.
Use a good digital meat thermometer for this, don’t rely on the pop up thingy inside some birds. You don’t need to go overboard either. These are two of our favorites. The ThermoPop (to the right) is only $29, and the Classic Thermapen is $79. They both do the job great.
You will get opinions across the board. We like fruit woods like cherry and apple for the sweeter flavor and reddish color. Want a more campfire like experience? Go oak or mesquite.
Frozen vs Fresh
It takes a few days for a frozen bird to defrost, so be sure to plan ahead. We like fresh, and buy a couple of days prior to Thanksgiving. When buying, make sure you look to see if it is pre-brined. A pre-brined bird already soaked won’t take on much more brine flavor (think osmosis), so an unbrined fresh bird is our favorite.
Traveling and still want to smoke your turkey?
Last year we were visiting one of my very best friends in Oakland who don’t own a smoker (for shame!). Since we were driving down there we decided to bring along our portable Traeger smoker (PTG) so we wouldn’t miss out on smoked love on our favorite holiday. I’m pretty sure it was one of the very best turkeys we’ve done!
We cut the turkey into sections, knowing the whole thing wouldn’t fit inside the small smoker, and cooked it section by section.
When one was done we kept it warm in the oven. This was actually one of the best we’d done since we were able to closely monitor the temperature of each piece and pull each piece when it was properly cooked to 165 instead of overcooking pieces while waiting for the breasts or thighs to fully cook. It was pretty genius! And while we didn’t get the dramatic presentation of walking to the table with a full bird, the taste was enough to surpass the traditional presentation.
PLAN PLAN AND PLAN
I’m a notorious spreadsheet freak when it comes to planning. That’s because I’m easily distracted and not the best multi-tasker. So when it comes to Thanksgiving, when I’m making several dishes at the same time, I plan, right down to each platter I intend to use for each dish.
Create a timeline starting backwards from when you intend to eat (and give yourself some wiggle room in case your turkey takes longer than you intended!). I literally do all of this on a spreadsheet, listing the full menu with ingredients on a separate column. Then I list out all dishes I intend to use and lay them out days in advance. Next on the list is a timeline for the days leading up to Thansgiving day (which days I’ll go shopping, what can be prepped on Tuesday, Wednesday, etc.). And an hour by hour timeline of game day!
I thought I was the only one who got so nitty gritty into the spreadsheet details until I reached out to others. Turns out I’m not alone! Planning will keep you calm during Thanksgiving and everything running smoothly.
Additional Tips and Tricks from Joes and Pros
- If you have multiple grills or smokers use them as warmers to keep your side dishes warm as everything comes together towards the end.
- If you have a Traeger, this is a very comprehensive resource on tips, cooking times, rubs, brines, and, well, everything else you would want to know doing a turkey on a Traeger. Even if you don’t use a Traeger, it’s a pretty useful article.
- Susie from Hey Grill Hey has her own awesome guide to Turkeys, including several recipes and video tutorials. I really like her recipe for spatchcocked turkey and we’re actually thinking of doing one of our birds this way next week!
- Christie from Girls Can Grill has an awesome recipe for a method cooked on a Weber Grill. We say this all the time, you don’t need an expensive or complicated smoker to smoke great food. Our trusty Weber Kettle Grill can do it all. Christie explains her recipe here. Her apple cider sea salt rub sounds killer!
- AmazingRibs.com also has a pretty comprehensive article about smoking turkey worth checking out, full of tips and tricks for turkey, along with a recipe for smoked turkey and gravy.
More: I reached out to several of my Facebook fans and also folks I’m in groups with, and they had this to say…
“I love to soak mine in a brine of water, brown sugar, a couple oranges and lemons halved, 2-3 bay leaves and kosher salt. I let it soak for 24-48 hours. Then I dry it off. Salt and pepper the inside and outside finally adding fresh rosemary stalks between the skin and the breasts and pouring a stick of melted butter there and over the top of the bird . I then smoke it at 250 until the internal temp is reached. Usually about 3-4 hours depending on the size. I prefer hickory or maple but my sister and my wife’s family prefers using mesquite. I’ve never basted and the skin comes out crispy and the meat super juicy and tender… love crispy skin! I’d imagine if you constantly baste it and only pour the butter between the skin and the breasts it would lessen the crispiness. However it could lengthen the time due to constantly opening and closing the lid to baste. Oh the drippings still make for an excellent gravy.” – Brian Campbell, Facebook user
“I like cooking with breast down, stick of butter in body cavity….1/2 stick in neck cavity. My theory….. juices run down, so I would rather a have moist breast than a moist back.” — Tony Cunningham, Facebook user
“In my thoughts, doing a turkey, is just a bigger chicken, takes a little longer due to size. How do you do your whole chicken? If you like how they turn out, follow that on your turkey. IT should follow suit-175 in leg/thigh, 165 in breast. Wood/smoke flavor should be what you like. Cherry is great with poultry, but I also like mesquite or hickory. Cooking temp should be a little higher for “crispy” skin, around 300 to 375, so they say. I am no pro, and usually do skinless, wild birds, have done a couple “store “ bought birds , too.” – Dennis Wilkins, Facebook user
“I injected the turkey with honey brown (beer) and it came out really moist and tasty!” – John Scully, Facebook user
“I choose to smoke the turkey. My best advice is to create a timeline. It will reduce your stress and make things so much easier. Wet brine, dry brine both work well. So there are no bad options when planned properly. A good drink along the way doesn’t hurt either.” – hooked_on_bbq via Instagram
“I love smoking my bird. I recommend relying on your thermometer to tell you when it’s ready.” – girlscangrill via Instagram
“Write down your plans and figure out how long each item takes to cook so you can be in the same ballpark when it’s all done!” – Rowdyroddypooper via Instgram
“A tip I like to share with folks is to apply rub and butter under the skin, that way it will apply directly to the meat and seep in. I do this with the white meat portions.” — Learningtosmoke via Instagram
“I like to melt a few sticks of butter, then use my injector to liberally inject the melted butter into the cold turkey. The butter quickly cools and solidifies. Then, smoking low and slow, it slowly melts again and makes for a very moist finished bird.”– barnacle_bob56 via Instagram
Finally, make sure to Instagram your pics and tag us. Just kidding!
No really, you should definitely Instagram the heck out of all the hard work you did to create such a magical meal!!!
While I don’t have a new turkey recipe for your this year, I do have some favorite sides!
This stuffing is made on the grill and is our go-to stuffing (or dressing, whatever camp you’re in) is definitely being made next week.
This is how we do smoked gravy when we don’t catch the drippings. You don’t even need to own a smoker to do this gravy!!! Check it out.
These. Are. The. Best. Side. Ever. And the woman who introduced us to these will be our guest of honor this year and I can’t friggin wait.
This is exactly what you need to put on your rolls this year! Your friends will be impressed as hell when you tell them you made your own smoked honey butter.
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What about you?
Do you cook anything outside for Thanksgiving? What are your favorite tips and tricks for newbies???
*This post contains affiliate links for the ThermoWorks Mk4 Digital Thermometer. We only recommend products we use and love! And all of the products mentioned above are those we use regularly.
These wines were provided as samples for review. See my sample policy here.
For more tasty recipes, BBQ tips and tricks, check out the Recipe Index.
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