With Thanksgiving coming up, 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.
This is the information you need to be a Thanksgiving hero (or shero!) this year!
- Smoked Turkey Advice
- Get 2 Small Turkeys instead of 1 Large One
- Turkey Breast
- Brine or Not to Brine your Turkey?
- Cooking times for Smoked Turkey
- Best Wood Type for Smoking a Turkey
- Frozen vs Fresh Turkey
- Traveling and still want to smoke your turkey?
- PLAN PLAN AND PLAN
- Smoked Turkey Advice from Joes and Pros
- Smoked Turkey Advice From Our Fans
- Additional Recipes for Thanksgiving on the Grill
- Wine Pairing for Thanksgiving
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 we started cooking ours outside, on the smoker.
I wouldn’t do it any other way!
This post not only contains our amazing Bourbon Brined Smoked Turkey Recipe, it also have some tips and tricks to smoking your first turkey, no matter what kind of grill or smoker you have.
Smoked Turkey Advice
Tips for your First Thanksgiving Turkey on the Smoker or Grill
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 pounds each) allows you to cook them faster and avoid overcooking while still having plenty of meat (and you want extra for leftovers of course).
Consider smaller cuts for smaller crowds like a bone in turkey breast. You can still feed 4 – 6 people but still get great flavor like our Cajun turkey breast or our maple glazed turkey breast.
Brine or Not to Brine your Turkey?
- 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. A wet brine adds amazing flavor and moisture. Since your fridge will be full of food for the next day we use a big bucket or pot (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.
- Read this post for our trusted go-to method for How to Brine a Turkey.
Want to have even cooking and a faster kick? Consider spatchcocking, or butterflying the turkey. This technique removes the backbone allowing you to flatten the turkey for cooking. You can see the technique and recipe in our Cajun Smoked Turkey Recipe.
Cooking times for Smoked Turkey
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 at our ideal cooking temperature of 275 F. 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. Or you can use the new and fastest Thermapen One.
Best Wood Type for Smoking a Turkey
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 intense smoke experience? Try oak or mesquite.
Frozen vs Fresh Turkey
It takes a few days for a frozen bird to defrost, so be sure to plan ahead. We like fresh, and buy our turkeys a couple of days prior to Thanksgiving. When buying a fresh turkey, make sure you look to see if it is pre-brined. A pre-brined bird is already soaked and won’t take on much more brine flavor (think osmosis), so an un-brined fresh bird is our favorite and what we recommend.
Be sure you leave at least 3 days to let a frozen turkey thaw in the fridge. The bigger the turkey the more time it takes to fully thaw.
Traveling and still want to smoke your turkey?
A few years ago 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 pellet smoker 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 individual 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 Thanksgiving 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.
Smoked Turkey Advice 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.
- You can check out our cookbook, Fire + Wine, for an exclusive spatchcocked turkey recipe!
- 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.
- Find the detailed recipe for our Bourbon Brined Smoked Turkey here.
- How to Brine a Turkey post here.
- And my favorite side dish here.
Smoked Turkey Advice From Our Fans
“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….½ 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, I’m serious. You should definitely Instagram the heck out of all the hard work you did to create such a magical meal! And I was serious, tag us too!!!
Additional Recipes for Thanksgiving on the Grill
- Smoked Turkey Breast (great for a small family, or party of 2)
- Bourbon Brined Smoked Turkey
- Smoked Turkey and Bourbon Gravy
- Cajun Smoked Spatchcocked Turkey
- Grilled Sausage, Caramelized Onion, Cornbread Stuffing
- Collard Greens
- Grilled and Glazed Carrots
- Smoked Honey Butter
Wine Pairing for Thanksgiving
We’ve got you covered. Check out our full resource guide on pairing wine with Thanksgiving Dinner here.
*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.
the koksman says
turkeys are not brisket. low and slow leads to a rubbery skin. 300-325 action is where you want to be for a crispy skin. baste with butter every hour to keep moist.
We definitely agree a higher temperature does help with crispy skin. We go 275 and make sure that the turkey has dehydrated for four hours in the fridge to help get it dry.
Thanks for the great information.
My dry brined, smoked 13 lb. Turkey was done to proper temp and was really moist and delicious, but the skin was like rubber and very tough.
I smoked it at 250° for 4 hrs and then @ 300° for another hour. All uncovered.
Any ideas why the skin was so tough?
Sean Martin says
First, very happy to hear that the meat tasted great! As for the skin, do you know if it was wet at all (outside of the butter and rub), or perhaps a water pan in the smoker? Would love to trouble shoot. Turkey and poultry in general are sometimes a pain and will be rubbery.
3-4 hours for a 12 pound bird? If you’re smoking pretty hot, yeah — but if you’re at 225 to 250, you’re talking more like 6 hours, minimum.
Christopher, that is a great catch, I just updated to reflect our ideal cooking temperature. We typically go for turkey at 275, versus 225. You are correct, if you go lower it will take more time.
Eva Tweedie says
I’ve never done the smoking myself, but smoked birds have such a great flavor. Also I’m with you on the spreadsheets. Making lists and schedules always help to keep things going as planned!
Erin @ Platings and Pairings says
Perfect timing! I think I’m going to Traeger our turkey this year at our beach house. I’m going to be channeling my inner Mary with these tips 🙂 We’ll
Becky S says
You had me at bourbon gravy.
I had a smoked turkey for the first time last year. Amazing!
Awesome tips and beautiful pics. I love how you finished it off with the smoked honey butter. That is now on my to smoke list.
Marlynn | UrbanBlissLife says
I don’t think I’ve ever had a smoked turkey; we always roast ours. This year we’re going to KC and they make a mean fried turkey. SO good. Love your tip on 2 smaller turkeys instead of one large one. Great tips, as always!