This Smoked Turkey Brine Recipe is jam packed with incredible flavor, from a bourbon citrus brine, to an herbed butter, to a flavorful turkey dry rub, This is the juiciest and most flavorful turkey that will have your guests going back for seconds… and maybe even thirds.
We’ve posted a lot about Thanksgiving, including tips for the bird from the pros, and it’s finally time we shared our tried and true recipe for smoked turkey.
We’ve cooked turkey pretty much every way you can. From brining, to not brining, whole to spatchcock, to smoked turkey breast. Cooking on everything from pellet smokers, to offset, to our Weber kettle, to even a tiny portable grill. We’ve experimented with it all (except for fried, but that’s a story for another day) and this is our favorite way to make it.
- Brine the turkey for flavor
- Season the turkey both in and on the skin
- Smoke at the right temperature for good skin texture
- Carve and serve
If electing to brine, it is important to purchase turkeys that have not been previously brined in a saltwater solution. Overdoing the brine in your turkey will lead to a very salty flavor in the smoked turkey. Look for fresh turkeys without a label that says “previously brined”, or “brined in a 4% saltwater solution” (or another percentage).
Another thing to consider when smoking turkey, is to avoid drying out the meat. The meat cooks from the outer edge to the inner parts of the bird. Instead of one large turkeys, we prefer two 12 – 14 pound turkeys. This will also allow you to smoke them faster than one large 20 pounder. It also provides more of the legs and thighs that people tend to love.
If frozen, be sure to remove from freezer 3 days prior to smoking the turkey in order to let it defrost properly.
How Much Turkey Per Person
Plan on 1.25 pounds per person. When planning on portions, it’s important to consider the bones adding weight to the turkey as well as leftovers (because, let’s be honest, we all love the leftovers).
This is the rough estimate we use and trust. In other words, a 10 pound turkey will serve 8 hungry people on average; a 12 pound turkey will serve roughly 10, and so on. Holiday season means a bountiful table of other foods too, and there is always planning for leftovers. As you approach needing more than 14 pounds of turkey, consider two birds as mentioned.
Smoked Turkey Brine
What is a brine? Simply put it’s a salt and water mixture used to add moisture and flavor to meat. Smoking slowly take a toll on moisture and this offsets that.
How? The salt follows its way into the meat through the process of osmosis, which is why adding more flavor in addition to your salt mixture allows for the flavor to get into the meat.
You can go with a dry brine (salt based rub) or wet brine. We prefer the wet brine, with bourbon (because bourbon = flavor, in addition to adding that extra moisture into the meat). You can check out our article for more information on a basic turkey brine.
If you over brine your smoked turkey, then it can cause the cells to break down. So avoid brining more than 24 – 30 hours.
Brine in a large stockpot. Or, if you have more than one turkey, consider food-safe brining bags that will hold the liquid and the meat. Carefully seal them and store in a cooler with ice (this saves room in the fridge with all the other food you will likely be preparing for the holiday meal).
Once you’ve brined the turkey you need to prepare for the smoker.
- Rinse off the brine and pat the turkey dry.
- At this point season the turkey liberally. Then leave the dried and salted/seasoned bird uncovered in the refrigerator for four hours. This will flavor the turkey and help minimize rubbery skin when smoking.
- After four hours, remove from the fridge and stuff the cavity with some fresh citrus (a combination of lemons and oranges), onions, garlic, and lots of fresh herbs. This is going to help the cavity of the bird stay juicy and tender. As the stuffing heats up, the aromatics and liquid are forced out and into the bird from the inside out.
- Slightly lift the skin and add an herbed butter. The herbed butter is room temperature butter with seasonings added for a compound butter.
- Tie the legs and wings close to the body of the turkey so it cooks evenly. If they are flapping around, they will overcook.
Dry Rub for Turkey
How to Smoke a Turkey
- Prepare smoker to 275 degrees. After experimenting with different cooking temps we’ve landed at 275 as our sweet spot for a whole turkey to minimize rubbery skin. We like fruit wood for most of our cooking, and especially poultry. Cherry or apple wood is our choice when smoking turkey.
- Place the turkey on the smoker and insert a digital blue tooth thermometer like the Thermoworks Signals. Signals, like the Smoke unit, will monitor the ambient cooking chamber temperature, as well as up to three zones. So in this case, we put a probe in the breast meat, and in the dark meat. The blue tooth capabilities makes it easy to monitor temperatures on your phone, so you don’t have to keep lifting the lid on your smoker letting any heat out.
- Then we remove the turkey when the internal temperature throughout the meat is 165 degrees (F). The thigh and legs may be higher, that is fine as they can take a higher heat and stay tender.
- Once the meat hits the right temperature, remove from heat and wrap in foil, and then let it rest 20 minutes. If you are done early, wrap it and leave in a cooler (with no ice) to keep warm for up to four hours. Resting allows the cells to cool down and retain that moisture. Cut too early, while it may be juicy, you’ll find it will dry out quickly.
- Carve with a sharp and high quality carving knife and enjoy.
Side Dishes for Thanksgiving Dinner
- Smoked Turkey and Bourbon Gravy
- Smoked Sausage and Cornbread Stuffing (Dressing)
- Turkey Collard Greens
- Grilled Beet Salad with Rosé Infused Cranberries
- Smoked Honey Butter (for your dinner rolls)
Best Wines for Thanksgiving Dinner
We’ve got you covered there too! In this post we’ve covered everything you need for selecting the best wines in all budgets for your holiday dinner.
Common Smoked Turkey Q&A
How long will it take to smoke turkey?
Plan on 15 minutes per pound. Our 12 pound turkeys tend to be done in 3 hours when loosely stuffed with the citrus and herbs.
What temperature do I cook turkey to?
160 degrees Fahrenheit (F) when measured at the breast, the turkey is done and safe. Carry over cooking will continue to take the internal temperature of the turkey to 165 degrees F. (USDA minimum temperature recommendation). While the legs and thigh can handle 180 degrees F, that will overcook the breast and it will be dry. So target 160 degrees F in the thickest part of the breast. The leg and thigh should be temping at 175 to 180 degrees at the same time.
How to get crispy skin on smoked turkey?
When smoking, even at 275, the challenge for any turkey will be crispy skin. If you want a crispy skin, a modification to the recipe is to wait until the bird gets to 145 degrees and then crank up the heat to 375. You run the risk of still drying out the bird, so we don’t push for a crispy skin when smoking. With our technique the skin should still be moderately crispy from drying in the fridge.
Should I use a water pan?
This will depend on your grill. On a Big Green Egg, we do not as it is very efficient and sealed. On offsets or our MAK Two-Star General we do use a water pan to help add moisture to the chamber.
*This recipe was originally written in November of 2018 and updated in October 2020 with more recipe details.
Bourbon Brined Smoked Turkey Recipe
- 1 12-14 lb whole turkey (unbrined)
For the Brine
- 8 quarts water
- 1 ½ cups kosher salt (we use Diamond Crystal kosher salt)
- ⅓ cup brown sugar
- 1 cup bourbon
- 2 oranges, cut into quarters
- 1 lemon, cut into quarters
- ⅓ cup whole peppercorns
- 10 whole cloves
- 2 dried bay leaves
For the Herbed Butter
- 1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
- ½ tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped
- ½ tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
- ½ tablespoon fresh sage, chopped
- ½ cup Ultimate Dry Rub
- 2 oranges quartered, we use navel
- 1 lemon, quartered
- 6 garlic cloves
- 1 red or yellow onion, quartered
- 10 sprigs thyme
- 2 large sprigs of rosemary
- Prepare turkey for brine by fully defrosting, and removing giblets, neck, and trimming off excess fat.
- In a large stock pot over medium-high heat, combine water, salt, sugar, and bourbon. Bring heat up and dissolve the salt and sugar into the liquid, then turn off heat.
- Let cool and then add remaining brine ingredients. Add turkey to brine and cover. Brine for 24 hours, avoid going beyond 30 hours. At a minimum brine for four.
For Herb Butter
- Add herbs to room temperature butter and combine. Be sure when you are using for the turkey, it is still room temperature.
- Remove turkey from brine and rinse. Pat dry with a towel, especially the cavity. Season liberally with dry rub and place into the refrigerator for four hours.
- After four hours, preheat Smoker to 275 degrees using fruit wood.
- Stuff cavity of the bird with thyme, rosemary, oranges, lemons, and garlic. Then stuff butter between the skin and breasts, spreading it out with your hands all along the breast.
- Tie up legs and wings with kitchen string, or tuck them to keep tight against the turkey.
- Place turkey on the smoker, and insert your digital meat probe into the breast and thigh or leg. Smoke until the internal temperature of both reads 165 degrees (F). Use an instant read to check temp in various part of the turkey, even if the digital probes read 165 to confirm all parts of the turkey are cooked through.
- Remove from smoker (will likely take 3 – 4 hours with a 12 – 14 pound bird) and cover with foil. Let cool for about 20 minutes. Then slice and serve.
*This post contains affiliate links. We only recommend and promote products we use and love and contribute to great barbecued and grilled foods, like a good digital thermometer!
If you like these recipes we’d truly appreciate it if you would give this recipe a star review! And if you share any of your pics on Instagram use the hashtag #vindulge. We LOVE to see it when you cook our recipes.