We’re finally sharing the secrets to the Ultimate Smoked Turkey for your Thanksgiving Dinner.
This smoked turkey is jam packed with mega flavor, from a bourbon citrus brine, to an herbed butter, to a 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, and tips for the bird, but we’ve never shared an actual recipe for smoked turkey… until now.
It was finally time.
We’ve done it pretty much every way you can. From brining, to not brining. Whole to spatchcock. From pellet smokers, to offset, to our Weber kettle, to even a tiny portable grill — in which we had to cut the bird into 8 pieces because the smoker was too small for a full bird, but we were determined to make it happen, and we did!!! — we’ve experimented with it all (except for fried, but that’s a story for another day).
And we’re ready.
We’ve listened to people over and over talk about their challenges with smoked turkey, especially how to cook on the grill or smoker. One of the biggest frustrations is the lack of crispy flavorful skin. Next is people just generally don’t like turkey and find it pretty bland. Finally it dries out so easily!
We get it! We’ve been there.
What we’ve realized is turkey is it’s own beast. Literally. And it needs a little love in the flavor department. So we’re going BIG with this bad boy. In order to make the Ultimate Smoked Turkey we’re adding flavor in the form of:
- A Bourbon Citrus Brine
- Stuffing the cavity with more flavor
- An Herbed Butter
- The Ultimate Dry Rub
And finally smoking the turkey…. and then ….
Topping it with Smoked Gravy!
Let’s get started!
WHAT SIZE TURKEY? HOW MANY TURKEYS DO I NEED?
We’re HUGE fans of getting 2 smallish birds, vs one large. 12-14 lbs is our preferred size per turkey and generally one turkey of that size will feed 6 – 8 people with all the sides that come with Thanksgiving. We really like the versatility of doing 2 vs 1 as well. 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 also extras of those favorite pieces (ahem like the legs!).
HOW TO BRINE A TURKEY
What is a brine? Simply put it’s a salt and water mixture used to add moisture and flavor to meat. 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 or wet brine. We prefer the wet brine. With bourbon. Because bourbon = flavor.
A wet brine is a combination of water, salt and sugar solution with your own flavor mix (i.e. BOURBON!) that you submerge the bird in overnight, or up to 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 likely full of food for the next day we often use a big bucket 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. But these days we now have an extra fridge, so we submerge the bird in the largest stock pot we have and place it in the fridge.
HOW TO PREP THE TURKEY FOR SMOKING ON THE GRILL
Once you’ve brined the turkey you need to rinse and pat it dry. (You can even brine early, rinse and then leave the turkey overnight in the fridge to dry out. This was a great tip from one of our readers we had to share.)
Next stuff it with some fresh citrus (I like a combination of lemons and oranges, but use what you have), 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.
HOW TO MAKE AN HERBED BUTTER
Now place some herbed butter in between the skin of the breast meat. This is going to add TONS of flavor and moisture to the breasts, which can easily dry out. To make the herbed butter just take room temperature butter and add in some chopped fresh rosemary, thyme, and sage. Combine it together and then slightly separate the skin off the breast, and spread the butter evenly between the breast meat and the skin. This will baste the breast meat as it melts.
COAT TURKEY WITH DRY RUB
Now drizzle some olive oil over the entire bird (remember the bird has to be dry!!). This is going to help the dry rub to adhere to the skin. But what is key, is the bird needs to be dry (did we mention that?), no left over liquid from the brine. Otherwise it all just falls off. We like to add the dry rub for another element of flavor. Big bold flavor.
We use our Ultimate Dry Rub for Pork or Chicken on this. It’s very versatile. But feel free to use your favorite dry rub for poultry.
Next we’ll usually tie the legs and wings together with some cooking string to avoid them drying out and keeping it close to the bird. You can tuck them in too, by keeping them close and tight on the bird, it all cooks as one.
HOW TO SMOKE A TURKEY
This is the fun part!
After experimenting with different cooking temps we’ve landed at 275 as our sweet spot for a whole turkey. We like fruit wood for most of our cooking, and especially poultry. Cherry or apple wood is our choice when smoking turkey. Like your bird a little smokier? Add more intense smoky flavor with mesquite or lower the cooking temperature to 225. Lowering temperature means adding more time to your cook, so plan accordingly. Also longer cook times can dry out your turkey, so be careful!
Place the turkey on the smoker and, if you can, 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 for you 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 fine tune when it is done when the internal temperature of the breast and the dark meat are at 165 degrees (F).
Once it hits the right temperature, remove from heat and wrap in foil, then let it rest about 20 minutes. If you are done early, wrap it and leave in a cooler (with no ice) to keep warm for a few 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 THE SMOKED TURKEY AND ENJOY
We always serve our smoked turkey gravy with our Thanksgiving meal. It’s seriously the icing on the cake!
VIDEO FOR BOURBON BRINED SMOKED TURKEY
- 1 12-14 lb whole turkey (unbrined)
- 8 quarts water
- 1 1/2 cups kosher salt (we use Diamond Crystal kosher salt)
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1 cup bourbon
- 2 oranges, cut into quarters
- 1 lemon, cut into quarters
- 1/3 cup whole peppercorns
- 10 whole cloves
- 2 dried bay leaves
- 1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1/2 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped
- 1/2 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
- 1/2 tablespoon fresh sage, chopped
- 1/2 cup Our Ultimate Dry Rub for Chicken or Pork ,(link in notes)
- 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.
Add herbs to room temperature butter and combine. Be sure when you are using for the turkey, it is still room temperature.
Preheat Smoker to 275 degrees.
Remove turkey from brine and rinse. Pat dry with a towel and let completely dry, can add back to fridge as well for an hour to help. You want a dry bird for the dry rub.
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.
Coat liberally with olive oil and then dry rub. Season the bottom as well. 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 hours with a 12 - 14 pound bird) and cover with foil. Let cool for about 20 minutes. Then slice and serve.
Advice for Smoking a Thanksgiving Turkey?
Check out this post for more information on smoking your first Thanksgiving turkey. We cover everything from how to select your turkey, going deeper into the brining process, troubleshooting, the smoking process, and also tips and advice from pros on how to smoke the best turkey you’ve ever had. Check it out.
How long will it take to smoke turkey?
Generally it is going to take 15 minutes per pound to cook. Our 12 – 14 pound birds are generally done in about 3 hours.
What temperature do I cook my turkey to?
You will see some sites say 180, you will see some say 165. We follow USDA and temp out our turkey in the thickest part (usually breast) to 165, and then pull.
What about a crispy skin?
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. Another alternative is to make a glaze with your favorite BBQ sauce. You simply baste it close to when the turkey is done, and the glaze will thicken and add a flavor and texture. Something as simple as one part BBQ sauce to one part honey. The sugar will caramelize some.
Another option is the reverse sear. To do this you smoke first at low temp, and then grill it over high heat. To best do that you cut the bird up in a style called spatchcock. You remove the backbone of the turkey, press down on the breast bone, and then you cook it flat. This is a great way to speed up smoking and then makes for an easy sear when getting close to done over direct heat. (Spatchcock prior to starting the smoking process)
Should I Use a Water Pan In My Smoker?
This will depend on your cooker. You can add water, or apple juice, or apple cider vinegar (or any liquid). The purpose of a water pan when smoking any protein is to add humidity and thus moisture into the cooking chamber. You will best know your cooker, but if you are new to smoking low and slow, then try it out and see if you like it. It won’t hurt the cook at all.
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.
Want More? Here are a few of our favorite side dishes for Thanksgiving.
Smoked Honey Butter
(for your rolls!)
Have a very Happy and Safe Thanksgiving!
*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!
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