It’s that time of year again friends! Thanksgiving! Or maybe Christmas… or whatever your holiday, you have reached the right place to learn how to smoke a turkey. We will take you step by step through the shopping for a turkey and any equipment upgrades to help you all the way to the carving and plating. Lets make this the best turkey you’ve ever made! So grab a drink and lets walk through this…
I’ve added a clickable Table of Contents to help navigate for reference. This will be extensive, so please read in it’s entirety before attempting to create.
Table of Contents
- What do we need?
- Lets go Shopping!
- Time to Prepare!
- Smoke a Turkey Day is here!
- The Carve
- Accepting Praise
- Smoked Turkey
What do we need?
In order to start this venture to smoke a turkey, we’ll need to make sure we have the right tools and expectations to be successful. Full disclosure: If you end up purchasing any of these items, I get a small commission to keep my website running. The cost is no different to you whether you go through me or not (but I hope you do).
Step 1, before we go shopping, lets first identify how big of a turkey we need! If you are like me and want ample leftovers for various other turkey recipes, I would plan for about 1.5-2 pounds per person, with a 12 pound minimum. My perfect turkey is approximately 14-16 lbs.
The below table is very conservative; if you are like me you end up with unplanned guests (because the turkey is that good…) or want to ensure your stay over holiday guests have ample food for lunches without you having to do more than reheat. It also ensures your turkey isn’t too small; the meat to bone ratio in smaller turkeys is much smaller than larger turkeys. So while a 1.5 lb/person in a small turkey is good, it could become overkill when more people are involved. Besides, I’ve never heard anyone complain they have too much good food.
|Number of People||Turkey Size|
|10||18 lbs (or 2 x 12 lbs)|
|12||18 lbs (or 2 x 12 lbs)|
You may notice I hint at an alternative above 16 lb turkeys. The breasts eventually get so big that by the time the centers are the right temperature, most of the outer breast is dry. I’d rather cook two smaller turkeys to perfection before one so-so big turkey. That’s just my preference though, and really depends on your cooking space.
Tools of the Trade
If you aren’t accustomed to handling large pieces of meat, these tools aren’t absolutely necessary for this recipe, except the shears and thermometer (you need those). You will find though if you had these couple of items that your life will be much easier on turkey day.
Of all the tools on this list, this is absolutely necessary. You can’t spatchcock a turkey without them, and if you try using a knife or cleaver you are likely to end up hurting yourself.
Poultry shears are not scissors! These tools are typically made of heavy steel, are very sharp, the handles are incredibly sturdy, and the blades are curved to allow for more shear force. They are designed to cut through bone, and a good set of shears will allow you to cut through a turkey spine with one hand.
My recommendation are these from OXO. They aren’t overly expensive, and they have lasted me through several turkeys and chickens. You’ll be impressed. I warn you though, don’t skimp… a cheap pair of shears will give you headaches, and a decent pair will give you years of reliable service. Read my small blurb on cheap vs frugal.
If you want a dry cardboard taste in your turkey, use the supplied pop up timer to tell you when the turkey is done. If you want to be a pro with this large animal and all future cooks, get yourself a real digital thermometer with leave in probes, and a spot check thermometer.
Leave in Thermometer
This one from Thermopro is an excellent mid-level leave in thermometer. I’ve been using this one for about 3 years now, and has basically left my other box of various thermometers gathering dust. The range is spectacular, and more importantly, it is reliable. It sold the deal when I left it out in the rain during a long smoke and it didn’t seem to mind. I’m not saying it’s waterproof, but it’s the first one that didn’t crap out from the rain.
These probes will allow you to monitor the temperature of your grill AND the inside of the breast from somewhere else. You can be comfortably inside with the knowledge that your smoker temp and meat temp are constantly monitored and will alert you when either one gets outside of the limits you set.
Spot Check Thermometer
Turkey or not, no kitchen should be without one of these. When you stop following a recipe’s call to cook for “X minutes” and start cooking to the temperature YOU WANT IT to be, your food just got better and safer. You’ll find that recipe times are very conservative, because nobody wants to be liable for getting you sick, and you’ll also find things tend to cook a lot faster than the recipe says it will (your medium is not theirs).
This is a great thermometer to use on the regular. Throw away the old dial types which can be horribly unreliable, and get yourself into the 21rst century.
This pan has gone through countless jerky making, turkey setting, pork butt pulling, and wife cookie making sessions. It is a fantastic ALUMINUM pan, Made in America. The “big sheet” is 15″ x 21″, large enough to put a spatchcocked turkey on for dry brining and transferring from fridge to counter to smoker. It’s thick bottom and sides allow good heat distribution for many other uses, and won’t warp under the heavy load of a turkey on it. In general, I like aluminum over non-stick, and I prefer Made in America.
Okay, so these are the coolest. These are different than the bear claws people use for pulling pork or chicken. These are sharp claws from Cuisinart that go into the meat easily, and allow for handling of the meat… picking up and transferring. When done right on a spatchcocked turkey, you can retain the shape when lifting. These are great for any large meat handling. They do not do well with pulling pork, despite how they might be advertised.
Lets go Shopping!
Hopefully, you are more than a week away before your cook because that is how much time you are going to need to get this bird ready, unless you go the unfrozen route (which is the best really). If you have never gone through a butcher before, I highly recommend it.
The butcher is where it is at. If you have a reputable butcher or meat market nearby, they typically have the connections to the local farms. Given enough notice, you can put in an order to pick up a fresh turkey. Locally raised, freshly prepared, never frozen, no added ingredients. You don’t get much better than that. This is where I would start my search.
You will want to start this effort at least 2-3 months prior to turkey day, because of the popularity of fresh turkey the orders fill up fast. Local farmers don’t keep hundreds of turkeys around their farm, but they do try to keep a couple dozen maybe to supplement their income for the Thanksgiving holiday. It’s worth it to try before going the grocery store route. You’ll want to schedule the pickup to be approximately 3 days before your turkey day.
The grocery store will have a whole section of giant netted frozen birds. You can choose butterballs, ______ farms, or any other brand… but typically they all have one thing in common: SALT. If you read the labels carefully, some of these will have been injected with a basting solution that contains up to ____% salt. And if you read my salt article, you would understand the dilemma of bringing it home and putting more salt on it can be an opportunity to ruin your meat waiting to happen.
These birds with the injection of saline solution (and other unpronounceable ingredients) are already quasi-wet brined. Meaning, if we try to dry brine it as this recipe suggests, we will have a saltier bird than intended. This is not always a problem however. I recognize that is something most of us are not able to avoid, so I’ll show you how to adjust accordingly later.
There are grocery store birds that do not have any added ingredients or solutions! These are the birds you want, and you will typically find these at the higher end grocery stores. If they don’t have any, my recommendation is to talk to the butcher at the grocery store and see if they can order you one. It will be well worth the effort.
Time to Prepare!
Alright, smoke a turkey day is fast approaching and we want to get a jump start on being prepared. First and foremost… defrost!
Defrosting your Turkey (3-6 days prior to the cook)
I’m going to assume we have a frozen turkey and we need to defrost it in the refrigerator. To defrost the turkey in the refrigerator, we will want to place the frozen packaged bird in a high wall pan. This will ensure that we don’t let the water/juices that are mostly guaranteed to leak all over the fridge. That’ll be a fun disinfectant adventure!
You will need to plan at least 24 hours for every 4 pounds of turkey to fully defrost in the refrigerator. Do not listen to those charlatans that tell you it’s 24 pounds for every 5 pounds, I guarantee you it’s 4. The difference between 4 and 5 for a 20 lb turkey is a full day! That’s 20% frozen turkey on turkey day! You can’t afford that.
In the event that you are late to the party and got your frozen turkey the day before turkey day or forgot to take it out in time, I recommend the ice bath method from my article on how to properly defrost meat.
Spatchcocking your Turkey (25 hours prior to the cook)
Spatchcock. Besides being one of the top 10 favorite words in my vocabulary, it is also in my top 10 favorite ways to prepare chickens and smoke a turkey. Spatchcocking, also known as butterflying, is the process of removing the spine from the bird and breaking the breast bone such that the bird lays flat with the breasts up.
Besides being just cooler looking and most people have never heard of it or know how to spatchcock a turkey, spatchcocking has numerous benefits!
The most pronounced benefit of this method is cook speed. If Steinbrenner ruined baseball, then Norman Rockwell ruined Thanksgiving. It’s true, the ideal temperature for breast meat is 160 degrees F and 175 degrees F for dark meat. So how does putting the whole bird in the oven support this temperature differential? It doesn’t, but we can certainly minimize it by ensuring the breasts cook FASTER.
Breast meat is very lean meat; with little collagen and fat to break down, the low and slow method is the best way to dry it out. When we place a whole turkey in the oven, heat is only cooking the breasts from one side, the top side. The cavity of the bird and back are not allowing direct heat. This means the outside of the breasts are done much much much sooner than the inside, all but ensuring dry breast meat.
Spatchocking allows heat to be applied to both sides of the breast, cooking it like a steak. Because it is thicker than the dark meat areas, by the time the internal of the breast hits 160 F, the dark meat will just be around 175 F or a little more. Don’t worry, the dark meat is fattier and can handle the temperature. The breast meat is your primary concern. (It’s like cooking a whole packer brisket… the Flat will tell you when it’s done, not the Point)
A traditional Thanksgiving turkey involves a gravy pan, a raised rack, and then this giant bird on top. This means that the rack is on the lowest of an oven, and the top of the turkey is near the top.
A spatchcocked turkey lays flat, and doesn’t need a gravy pan (although if you have the space, it is well worth it to catch the drippings). This means you can heat up other things in the oven or smoker.
How to Spatchcock
In order to smoke a turkey in spatchcock form, we’ll need to start with some general bird maintenance and clean it out. This will mean first taking that pop-up plastic nonsense and throwing that right in the trash. Your turkey very well could be ~180 degrees F in the breast before that thing pops up, or maybe even grossly under cooked. You would have no idea, that’s why you have a reliable digital thermometer.
Second, remove any of the trussing ties around the legs to begin removing the “stuff” they put inside the bird. There are two ways into this bird, from the top head area, and the bottom butt area. Stuff is packed in both, and since we are going to save the stuff for gravy, here is a pro tip: Roll your gallon bag top back for easy use and to avoid getting the guts in the tracks…
Typically, on the top end you’ll find a parchment paper bag that contains the gizzard, liver, and heart. On the back end you’ll find the neck and maybe something else. With a good set of poultry shears, you’ll want to trim the areas where you have excess skin (I also use a super sharp boning knife like this one), and cut the wingtips from the wings at the joint. You should now have a bird that is empty on the inside, doesn’t have any dangling pieces of skin, and cut off wingtips.
For the next steps, we will cut out the spine with the poultry shears. This will require us to cut along each side of the spine, through the cartilage and ribs. Start by turning the bird breast side down and identify the spine and your cut lines, as shown below. If you find it difficult to cut through the ribs, try two hands squeezing the shears, and move another quarter inch away from the spine. Also, be careful of the cut ribs, they will be sharp.
Once the spine is removed, flip the bird over. Using a little bit of force, spread the rib cage open such that pressing down on the center of the breasts will cause the ribs to splay outward. Then, with your body weight, press firmly on the center of the breast, like CPR. You should hear an audible crack, and the bird will lay flat. Keep pushing as required, this step tends to intimidate the most.
You will notice that the thigh joints have separated from the main carcass. At this point, there is no reason to move the turkey or flip it again.
Congratulations! You just spatchcocked a turkey! Now, if you are following my gravy recipe, you will use all the bits you just took out and can start making the gravy. The gravy keeps well in the fridge, so you can simply warm it up on turkey day.
Season and Dry Brine (24 hours prior to the cook)
First we are going to rub the seasoning UNDER the skin. This step needs to be done now, because in 24 hrs the skin will be so dry and taught that it will be very difficult to do this without damaging the skin. When you smoke a turkey, you want the skin to be as dry as possible.
Mix 2 tablespoons of Ultimate Poultry Rub and 1 tablespoon of water in a small bowl. Starting from the neck area, use your fingers to very carefully separate the breast skin from the breast meat. It will be slightly difficult at first, but once it starts to separate it gets easier. The goal is to evenly distribute the rub along the top of the breast and under the skin.
You will notice we did not mix olive oil with the rub. Salt does not dissolve in oil, so any salt we brine on the outside will NOT make its way to the breast.
Brine, also known as a high concentration of salt in water, is how we add salt to the meat. This is done in two ways, wet brining and dry brining. You can read more about it here. For our turkey, we are going to dry brine.
Start by drying the turkey with a paper towel. Then we are going to sprinkle 1/2 tsp of Kosher salt per pound all over the top of the bird, with more on the breasts than the thighs/drums. A 14 lb bird will require 7 teaspoons of Kosher Salt.
*** If you have a turkey that is already injected with a saline solution, then we “could” cut our salt in half. Some folks will tell you that you shouldn’t dry brine at all for an already injected or pre-basted turkey or else you’ll taste nothing but salt. That is not true, and I have tried it. The recipe as pictured and eaten was delicious, and you can see it was an injected bird, and I used the full 7 teaspoons. What you shouldn’t do is wet brine an injected bird… that’ll be a salt lick. If you are still queasy about it, at a minimum only use a single tablespoon of Kosher salt. The salt serves to help retain moisture and in this case, dry up the skin.
Place the bird on a large pan to collect any residual dripping and then into the refrigerator, uncovered, for a minimum of 24 hours. In 24 hours, the skin will look tough, stretched, and semi translucent. This means the salt did it’s thing. See images of before and after the 24 hour hold below.
Smoke a Turkey Day is here!
Oh yes! It’s like Christmas… well maybe it is, I don’t know. But I do know it’s going to be a great day, because you have a large beautiful hunk o’ meat you are about to turn into a masterpiece. Here are the next steps:
Create the Rub (2 hours prior to the cook)
The rub is easy. Mix 2 tablespoons of Ultimate Poultry Rub and 1 tablespoon of olive oil. It will help every 20-30 minutes or so to use the back end of a spoon and mush the mixture around a bit. The idea is to release as much of the herbal oils into the olive oil as we can. If the mixture appears too dry, add another 1/2 teaspoon of oil.
We will apply the rub just prior to putting the turkey in the smoker. Apply the rub such that it is evenly coated and rubbed all over. Your primary goal is to ensure the skin is evenly coated with oil, this will help crisp the skin.
Smoker Setup (30-45 minutes prior to the cook)
There are many folks out there with charcoal smokers, chimney smokers, stick smokers, pellet smokers, or maybe you just made an oil drum smoker (did it once, I’m quite impressed with how it turned out). Regardless of which one you have, in order to smoke a turkey we need to make sure we have taken into account a few items:
- Indirect Heat: We are going to be setting up our smoker for indirect heat to smoke the turkey. The bird will be 100% indirect cooked. Check out my article on the different types of heat for more information. If you have an offset smoker, or a setup where the heat is coming from one side, we should face the breasts towards the heat, and the thighs away.
- Internal Temperature: Setup the smoker to 350 degrees. You may find that I smoke a turkey at a much higher temperature than everyone else. Most other recipes will recommend a lower temperature of around 225 or 250 degrees F. As explained previously, the breasts are going to be your focus and due to the leanness of them, low and slow only serves to dry them out. You want to be in and out as quickly as possible.
- Water Basin: For this smoke you could use a water basin but it is not necessary due to the shortness of the cook. However, in charcoal smokers, it’s a huge help to regulate temperature. In a porcelain or metal bowl, put at least 2-4 cups of boiling water into a pre-heated smoker. Do NOT put cold water in. If you are struggling to get to temp in a gas/electric smoker, removing the water basin can help.
- Smoke/Wood: I recommend a hickory/fruit wood 80/20 mix. If you don’t have fruit wood, that’s fine, but I think fruit wood really adds a level of sweetness when you smoke a turkey. We don’t want too much wood, and we definitely want to make sure we have that wispy blue smoke. Because we are at high cooking temperatures, sometimes the smoke levels are less than desirable. This is why you want to use a strong wood, like hickory, for this smoke.
- Outside environment: This is the largest variable we will have to contend with for turkey day… For those of you living in Miami, you likely won’t contend with winter temps and chilling winds. But those in Minnesota, you might. If you have an electric smoker or propane smoker, this could be an issue.
- The issue is going to be keeping temperature. We are going to smoke a turkey in the ~350 degree F range and this has been notoriously difficult to keep in November and December in large parts of the country. Some large brand smokers allow you to purchase a thermal blanket especially fit for your model like this one. Those are ideal for winter warriors.
- Prepare for blocking the wind. I have moved my smoker to the other end of the house, I’ve put up a folding table on it’s side, I’ve even purchased a welding blanket from Amazon and cut/sewed it into a thermal blanket to keep temperature. The point is, start thinking about it now.
- If you can’t keep the temp at 350, that’s fine, just don’t let it go below 275. Anything lower will usually result in a drier bird and some soggy skin. Remember, we cook to meat temperature, not time.
- Good news, if you can’t smoke a turkey, your backup plan can be the oven. Typically, I’ve done most of the prep and chop BEFORE the big day for all the meals/sides. So worst case, you cook everything in the morning, put it in Ziploc bags, and then put them in a large warm pot of water to warm everything up when the turkey is ready to come out of the oven. It’s like a poor man sous vide.
With the smoker at temp, setup for indirect heat, your favorite wood making it’s smoke, and rub on the turkey… you are ready to smoke that turkey! Woo! All of the hard work has been done, and now you can relax. Nothing but easy street from here on.
Once the turkey is in the smoker, breasts up directly on the grate, place at least one temperature probe deep into the center of one of the breasts (if you have an option, the one farthest from the heat). Set your alarms for 160 degrees F. Get yourself a drink, and relax. Because you are going to smoke a turkey at 350 degrees F, you have about 2 hours before you have to do anything else. You heard that right, ~ 2 hours. The days of cooking a turkey 3+ hours are over. Thank you spatchcock.
Alright, so it’s about 2 hours later, and your temperature alarms are going off because your breast is reading 160 degrees F. Do a spot check with an instant read temperature probe in multiple places to be sure. Once confirmed it’s 160 degrees, it is time to take the turkey off the smoker and transfer to a large cutting board. I use the wolverine claws as suggested earlier (portion in the thigh, portion in the breast… easy lifting!).
Look at that bird! It’s beautiful, if I do say so myself. Let the turkey sit for a minimum of 25 minutes and do not tent (we want to keep the skin crispy).
Carving a turkey can be a daunting task; It’s a lot of responsibility! I recommend NOT carving at the table. The presentation can be much better and without the pressure to perform at the table. The secret to an excellent carve is patience and a very sharp knife. Do NOT try and rush it. If you are going to go through the effort to smoke a turkey, at least we can ensure it won’t look like someone went at it with a chainsaw by the time it makes it to the table.
Lets take this opportunity to go over the most common rookie mistake: A dull knife. You will be best served by going to Walmart and getting yourself a $12 dollar cheap knife that comes sharp than you will trying to get your semi-sharp/dull drawer knives to work. So either get your knives sharpened prior to turkey day, or get yourself a cheap knife you can throw away later.
If you are not accustomed to carving a turkey, it may take some time. Don’t let it win, you got this. Afterwards, you could set the serving plate in the oven set at 180 degrees F for about 10 minutes to heat up your turkey.
Get the Meat from the Carcass
Okay, so lets start by removing the thighs and drum sticks. Begin by slowly slicing along the skin between the thigh and breast as indicated by the knife below. If you spatchcocked it correctly, there is no bone joint to contend with. If you encounter resistance, slowly and lightly begin pulling the thigh away to expose the joint.
When you expose the joint where the thigh bone makes the connection with the body, place your knife into the joint and push down. You should feel slight resistance, but not much. IF you feel a lot of resistance, your knife is not in the joint. Repeat this process for the other side.
Arrange the turkey such that the breasts are facing you. Slowly cut down along one side of the breast bone, keeping a pressure towards the center of the bird. This will keep the knife along the breast bone.
Once your knife reaches the rib cage, a hard stop, begin to angle your knife blade away from the center breast bone, guiding your knife along the rib cage and lightly lifting the breast up. Go slow, you are carving not hacking! This may require many small strokes to accomplish. You will also have to take your knife along the front end to cut it off the wing joint. Your goal is to remove the breast in one piece. You will want to be very careful not to disturb the skin while removing the breast.
Repeat for the other side.
Similar to removing the thigh, you will notice a large bone going along the length of the remaining carcass that attaches to the wing. Find that joint and slice your knife through it. Repeat for both sides. You should now take the time to whittle any remaining pieces of meat from the carcass. That’s my favorite part, it’s meat that never quite makes it to the table…
So now, here are all the bits we are going to slice up and serve! Congrats on making it this far.
Separate the Thigh & Drumstick
Okay, back to the legs… with the skin side down on the cutting board, you should see the joint between the thigh and drumstick. There is a natural line that leads you to the joint. Go slow and separate the drumstick and thigh by inserting your knife through the joint, as shown. Place the drumsticks on your serving plate.
With the thigh skin side down on the cutting board, begin cutting out the thigh bone. The goal is to be able to do this and still leave a single piece of meat. Once the bone is removed, lay the thigh skin side up. Begin slicing and move to the serving plate.
Cut up the Breasts
To cut the breasts, you will want to slice against the grain as shown, and at an angle. It is your preference, but I like to make the slices about 1/2″ thick. Be very careful not to disturb the skin. One technique is to press on the skin while your knife slices through it to prevent it from “crinkling”. Let your knife do the work; smooth even and light slicing is better than pushing your knife through or sawing. You can lift and transfer the whole sliced breast to the serving plate with a chef’s knife. I like to “scallop” the breast on the serving plate.
Final Serve and Presentation
If you have any additional accouterments to add decoration, maybe a small pumpkin or sprigs of herbs, please do! Get creative! Why not, right? Here is how I served it, right on the cutting board to the table.
Let me know how it went or contact me if you have any questions on how to smoke a turkey. I’ll do my best to help! Now, for the most important part…
Congratulations. You started 6 days ago defrosting, you spatchcocked a giant bird, seasoned and salted, got your smoker just right, you smoked a turkey, and then expertly carved the smoked turkey into a beautiful presentation. People are speechless, they likely haven’t seen this level of commitment before.
After first bites there are audible “wow”s and “Mmm”s going on. You hear “How did you do this?” & “This is the best turkey I’ve ever had”… Now is not the time to get smug or reject the compliments.
Smile. Say “Thank You”, you’ve earned it. Then tell them they can do just as well if they head over to Tuckersbarbeque.com.
- 1 Turkey (12-18 lbs)
- ½ tsp/lb Kosher Salt – Course
- 4 tbsp Ultimate Poultry Rub
- 1 tbsp Olive Oil
- 1 tbsp Water
Preparation – 24 hours before the cook
- Spatchcock the defrosted turkey and cut off the wing tips.
- Mix 2 tbsp of rub and 1 tbsp of water. Separate the breast skin from the breast, and season the breast under the skin.
- Dry the turkey as much as possible with paper towels.
- Salt the turkey all over, a majority of the salt should be on the breasts. 1/2 tsp of Kosher salt per pound.
- Place prepared turkey on a shallow baking dish (to catch water) and leave in the refrigerator uncovered for 24 hours.
Two hours before the cook
- Mix 2 tbsp of rub and 1 tbsp of oil. Let it sit to allow the herbs to blend with the oil.
- Set your smoker up for indirect heating, and bring to 350 degrees F.
- Pat the turkey with paper towels to ensure as much moisture is removed as possible. Get your hands dirty and start patting on the oil herbal rub over the top of the turkey.
- Place the Turkey in the smoker directly on the rack on the indirect side of the smoker, breasts up. Ensure your thermometer probe tip is in the deepest part of the breast.
- Once the internal breast temperature reaches 160 degrees F, take the turkey out and place on a cutting board. Let rest for 20-30 mins. Do not Tent.
- Carve like a boss and serve.