by Smokin' Okie
WARNING: DO NOT plan on smoking your very first turkey on Thanksgiving Day. Practice at least once before you do this to impress your family and friends.
Introduction ... General Smokin' Okie Stuff
Thanks to everyone for their help and assistance in producing the “Turkey 101” edition of my 101 series. It’s a very popular subject and certainly too long in coming. The amount of information I have on turkey is just too much, so I’ll make this first attempt and consider this a work in progress. Please email me with any improvements, suggestions, comments, corrections, but don’t send complaints.
Turkey is a holiday favorite for everyone; roasted, fried, baked, broiled, or grilled, and once you've done it for your family, especially smoked. Every year around the holidays, we seem to get an ever increasing number of requests for how to do a smoked turkey, so here I am to help.
For now, we’ll deal with just the smoked variety. For other methods, check in the references portion for places to look. I can’t answer every conceivable turkey question. It won’t answer everything you want to know, but it will give you enough information for get you started so you can make your own improvements.
Key to the success of these 101’s is your feedback, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know if you need more information, have suggestions or comments. I always try to add that information when I do updates.
History Behind the Turkeyt
For a little Turkey history, be sure and visit the official turkey website.
- In 2004, 264 million turkeys were raised. Of those, 46 million are eaten on Thanksgiving
- Ben Franklin wanted the turkey, not the bald eagle for the national bird
- Did you ever wonder why the breast and wings of chickens and turkeys have white meat while the legs and thighs are dark? The dark coloration is not due to the amount of blood in muscles but rather to a specific muscle type and it's ability to store oxygen.
In one short paragraph, "how do I smoke a turkey?" Don’t question, just try this.
- Buy a medium sized bird, fresh, about 10 to 12 pounds. Follow the directions below for brining
- Brine for 48 hours (keep it in the fridge to keep it cold)
- Take it out, put your favorite rub underneath the skin, inject if you want, rub the skin with butter (or oil)
- Place in a hot smoker, at least 250ºF
- About 2 hours into the smoke, rub more butter (or oil) on skin
- Smoke until a temperature probe inserted in the breast registers 160ºF and the thigh registers 175ºF. It will be done in as little as 3 hours, or up to 5
Too many times, Food Safety isn’t addressed, but in these 101’s I’ll always try to give you some important points:
Preparation ... the Before Smoking "Stuff"
- To defrost a turkey properly, it should be done in the refrigerator. Depending on the size of the bird and temperature of your refrigerator, it could take anywhere between three to five days to thaw. After it is thawed, the bird will keep several days in the refrigerator before spoiling.
- Whole turkeys that weigh 12 POUNDS OR LESS are the recommended size for safe smoking. A larger turkey remains in the "Danger Zone" - between 40° F and 140° F - too long. Doesn't mean don't do them, just consider food safety when you do.
- Do not stuff the turkey. Because smoking is at a low temperature, it can take too long for the temperature of the stuffing to reach the required temperature of 165° F. Also, smoked stuffing has an undesirable flavor.
- Is Pink Turkey Meat Safe? All Poultry cooked in a smoker will have some tinge of pink, as part of the natural conversion of nitrate to nitrite, the process that creates the pink smoke ring. According to the National Food Safety and Information Service, the color of cooked meat and poultry is not always a sure sign of its degree of doneness. Only by using a food thermometer can one accurately determine that a meat has reached a safe temperature. Turkey, fresh pork, ground beef or veal can remain pink even after cooking to temperatures of 160°F and higher. The meat of smoked turkey is always pink.
Once the bird is thawed you have several choices:
- Do nothing
- Simple rub
- Brine the bird
- Inject the bird
- Marinate the bird
- Combination of the above
Each of these methods has advantages and disadvantages so I’ll try to give some details.
Whether you brine or inject, one of the simplest methods to improve your turkey is to add a rub. There are 1000’s of rubs out there, I’ll try to add some in this 101 for you to try.
A KEY to rubbing your turkey is to place some of the rub under the skin. If you haven’t heard about this or haven’t tried it, please do. A lot of the flavor of the rub won’t penetrate the tough skin, so placing the rub under the skin puts it in direct contact with the meat of the bird. To do this, gently put your fingers under the skin and meat and separate them. Be gentle as you can tear the skin. With a little practice you can get all the way back. Once it’s separated, you can use a spoon to place some rub under the skin. And don’t forget to distribute it evenly or else someone might be a big mouthful of rub.
TIP: To keep the skin from pulling back after separating, just stretch the skin and tuck it under holding it in place with a toothpick
TIP: If you want to improve a commercial rub, add some sage to it. Poultry takes well to sage, but be careful, you can overpower it with too much
For those of you who follow my 101’s and see me in the forum, know I’m a fan of Brining. In fact, see BRINING 101 for more details.
Smokin’ Okie’s Holiday Turkey Brine:
- 1 gallon water
- 1 cup coarse kosher salt
- 3/4 cup soy sauce
- 1/2 cup white sugar
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 cup honey
- 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
- 4 tablespoons black pepper
- 3 - 4 tablespoons chopped garlic
- 1 teaspoon allspice
Optional: 1 oz. (or 2 tablespoons) Morton’s Tenderquick (Note: In older brines, this is there to help with Food Safety, I just omit)
Tip: Try beer in place of some of the water, or substitute apple juice. Try a variety of spices
There is a wealth of information over at BRINING 101, so please go there for more details.
Main points to remember, you will almost ALWAYS have excellent results if your poultry or pork is "Under Brined" (too little salt or too little time) but it MAY be almost uneatable if:
- The brine solution includes too much salt
- The brine solution does not contain enough sugar
- The meat is left in the brine solution too long
TIP: Feel free to add different herbs & spices.
TIP: Salt. Some people say they don't "taste" much flavor in the brine. Most brines are there to add moisture, you can always add more salt to taste if you want.
TIP: One easy note on injecting is to take 8-10 ounces of Smokin' Okies Honey Brine, cut the salt in half, go very low salt rub and let set overnight.
Basic bird, ready to be brined:
Bird in a turkey bag (make sure to get all the air out):
Store the bird in a cold place (below 40ºF)
Okay, let’s face it, turkey tastes like turkey. Smoking will help, brining will help and rubbing will help, but another technique is to inject. There is a company out there that has made a whole business out of commercial injections. Hey, buy one of those or try one of these.
To inject, get you a food quality injector. Also, keep in mind, big clumps of stuff in the solution will clog the injector. Fill the injector and put the needle into the meat and inject. The more locations the better. Once you inject, it’s good to let this sit for a while, I prefer overnight if possible (but not likely, huh?). Allows the solution to permeate well.
Injection 1: Use strained Italian dressing. Strain the chunks out and use the liquid.
Injection 2: Simple solution of 1/3 cup butter, honey and white wine and a little bit of garlic salt or powder.
Injection 3: Scottie's Creole Butter (posted on bbqsearch.com on 11/17/02 @ 17:50:00, thanks Scot)
- 1/2 can of beer
- 1/2 pound butter
- 1 teaspoon Bonesmokers Big Time BBQ Rub (any mild BBQ rub will do)
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 1 1/2 teaspoons white pepper
- 1 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon Coleman's mustard
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon Tabasco
Warm mixture on stove until ingredients mix well. Let mixture cool a bit then inject.
Marinating is another method to add flavor. The main difference between brining and marinating is simple. Brines are salty solutions and marinades are acidic solutions. The acid in the marinade help tenderize the meat; so be careful and don't marinate too long.
If you’re going to marinate a bird, I highly recommend removing the skin, otherwise the marinade doesn’t penetrate. Marinate for at approximately 12 hours.
If you’d rather leave the skin on, then follow directions for injecting.
There are many marinades out there, one I’ve used with success:
Mix ingredients, simmer and then cool. Inject before butter sets up. Let marinate for 12, preferable 24 hours
- 1 can of beer
- 2 sticks of butter
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 3 tablespoons of Worcestershire
- 3 tablespoons of Soy Sauce
- 1 teaspoon Garlic Powder
- 1 teaspoon Onion Powder
- Option: Add Tabasco or Habanero sauce to mixture for heat.
Smoking ... How To
Okay, I’m sure you thought I’d never get to this part. HAHA. Or you skipped that other stuff and came directly here.
Once you’ve brined, marinated, injected or otherwise pre-prepared your bird, let’s get down to some serious smoking. You’ve rubbed it down, you’re ready to go.
Whoa, one thought.
Stuff in Cavity. Don’t put stuffing in the turkey. Smoke temps of around 250ºF to 300ºF just don’t get hot enough for food safety issues about stuffing.
Go ahead however, and add aromatics inside the bird. You can throw some rub in there. Also throw some chunks of onion, or celery or even an orange inside. They’ll work great.
And of course you DID remove the wrapper, neck, gizzard and that stuff. Didn’t you? Don’t forget to look in the neck portion, it might have something stuffed in there too.
Remove plastic pop-up thermometer.
Regardless of prep, don’t forget to separate the skin from the meat, even if you’re not going to put rub underneath. Why? Well according to those experts over at Cooks Illustrated, if you separate the two, you’ll get a crisper skin. Bet you hadn’t heard that before. See why you need these 101s!
Prepare your smoker. I’m not going to discuss the specifics of your particular smoker. The variations are endless. Two things to keep in mind, temp and wood.
For poultry I like a simple smoke not an overpowering one. Fruit woods (apple and cherry are nice) but good ‘ole hickory smoke with a little pecan thrown in works for me. For Cookshacks, I wouldn’t use more than about 3 ounces. Mesquite is too harsh.
About temp & time:
The number one reason I suggest doing a practice run is to get the timing down for YOUR smoker and YOUR technique.
Lower temps will allow more smoke penetration. Higher temps will allow for a crisper skin.
TIP: What about that "Rubbery Skin"? This is a function of temperatures 225ºF to 250ºF usually won't cut it. I highly recommend at least 250ºF. If you’re smoker will go higher, you can do 275ºF to 325ºF. If you keep it in the lower range of 250ºF, however, you’ll have more smoke in the bird as the cooking period will be longer. Cooking at 250ºF? You might want to finish the bird in an oven to crisp the skin or even a little time on your grill.
Time? It depends. I know that's not the answer you’re looking for, but the birds themselves have a BIG impact on this. Two 12 pound birds may not come out at the same time.
A “general” rule of thumb:
- 250ºF: 12lb brined bird in 4:00 hours (about 20 min a pound)
- 325ºF: 12lb brined bird in 3:00 hours (about 15 min a pound)
- NOTE: Hey, this isn't baking a cake! It's just approximate. Take its temp. 160ºF in the breast and 175ºF in the thigh.
- TIP: A un-brined bird will finish longer (the brined bird has more water and cooks faster) approximately 10% to 15%
In this photo, you’ll see the bird, placed inside the smoker, covered in cheesecloth that has been soaked (drenched) in butter. As explained, the purpose of this is to both keep the bird moist, to reduce the amount of discoloration from excessive smoke, and to also add something to help crisp up the skin. Keep the cheesecloth on until the last 30 min of smoking.
Here is the finished product, smoked as I recommended. You’ll see it comes out with a perfect color. This is the prime benefit of the cheesecloth. Works for me, I’m sure it will work for you.
Serving What to do After Smoking
After your bird is finished, with an internal temp of 160ºF for breast and 175ºF for dark meat, take it out of the smoker and let it sit for 30 minutes, covered. This allows the juices to settle throughout the turkey.
If you need help on carving a turkey, check out some of the reference sites for good graphics. In a future update I’ll add some graphics to help. Hints & Tips
For Thanksgiving, do two. One full turkey for presentation, and one turkey breast. If you brine it and follow my directions, you’ll have people wanting more white meat next time they return.
Instead of brining, I saw a post by Kit Anderson about koshering his bird. Using the directions from the Morton’s Kosher Salt box. I haven’t tried it, but let me know if any of you have.
If your turkey comes with a metal prong that holds the cavity closed, remove and set it aside.
More about turkey breast. For a simple trick, marinate it overnight in a good Italian Dressing, skin off. Take it out, sprinkle it with rub, any good poultry style rub. Add some heat to it, such as paprika. Smoke it at 250ºF until 155ºF. Take it out and let it sit. It will rise to 160º within about 30 min.
Smoke your turkey like your chicken. In individual pieces. Or cut it in half. Or butterfly it and lay it out in the smoker that way.
Still more turkey breast. De-bone the entire breast. Brine and smoke.
Had good luck with coating the bird with a good grade of honey, then putting on a good coating of whatever seasonings you prefer. I stuff the inside with a cut up apple and onion. Season internals liberally. I put the meat thermometer in the breast and cook to 170ºF, no more, no less. The honey cooks to a golden brown and seals the turkey. The last one I cooked, the wing fell off and the turkey was easily de-boned and I sliced it as normal. The 170ºF is the magic number.
Pretty common and the main reason I brine mine. Because the turkey has both white and dark meats, it’s very hard to get one done without affecting the other. Dark is done at 175ºF, white is done at 160º. See the issue? Brining helps the white meat from being over dry, while smoking until the dark meat hits 175º. This is also a good reason for keeping the thighs down and the breast up.
Drying occurs because the two kinds of meat, white and dark are actually done at different times. They also contain different levels of moisture and fat. White meat will be done at 160ºF and dark will be done at 175ºF. An added bonus is leftovers; because of brining they won’t be as dry as your normal turkey leftovers.
You can also cover your breast to prevent a little overcooking in the breast (the cheesecloth soaked in butter is perfect for this).
Frequently add moisture if this is a problem (and you're NOT brining). Basting does wonders for keeping the breast moist and it will help the color of the bird.
Not crispy skin
Main cause is too low a temp. You can solve this a couple of ways.
Remove the skin. Don’t have to have it.
Spray the skin with olive oil, butter or some other liquid.
Cheese cloth. I soak a cheese cloth in butter and put it on from the very beginning. The cloth allows the smoke to penetrate and helps with problem #1, dry bird by keeping moisture on the bird.
Separate the skin from the meat (run your hand underneath, but don't remove it), this separation helps the skin crisp up much better.
Is your smoker too humid (don't put water in the water pan, but DO open the door to let moisture out). Too high humidity will keep the skin too moist. Skin too dark:
Main cause of this is too much smoke. Make sure you’re not using too much wood. In a Cookshack, cut the amount in half. You’ll still get the smoke flavor you desire.
Another benefit of the cheese cloth is to prevent this problem. Smoke will still penetrate the cloth and flavor the food, but it won't let so much through that it blackens it.
Some suggest putting your bird in a paper bag, but I don’t recommend this. Smoke won’t penetrate the bag and who knows what chemicals are inside the paper?
Throw it away. Why are you eating it anyway? Questions About Turkey Smoking
Question: I see so many different times, what can I do if I've never smoked a turkey?
Answer: Go with the suggested times and temps here in Turkey 101 (250ºF for 20 minutes a pound or 325ºF for 15 minutes a pound) as a STARTING point. Don't wait until the big day, you'll only put too much pressure to perform. Practice, practice, practice.
Question: It took 3 gallons of water to cover the turkey, what do I do about the brine, do I need to add more ingredients?
Answer: Yes, for each gallon, the percentages should stay the same. If you need 3 gallons, you'll need to Triple the batch
Question: I'm just brining a Turkey Breast, how long?
Answer: Depending on the size, I'd do at least 24 hours for the larger ones, but at least a minimum of 12 hours
Question: I've seen comments about Rinsing the bird after brining, do I have to do this?
Answer: A lot of sites recommend this step. For me I think it's a wasted step. A simple rinse will just wash off the outside, it won't change anything. There won't be more salt on the outside either. Unless you're brine is "chunky" and you want to wash off before putting the rub on, you can. For me, I don't
Question: Can I brine a frozen bird.
Answer: Well know if it's still a solid chunk of it, you'll need to thaw it fully.
Question: How ahead can I make the brine?
Answer: Unless you're using something weird, you can make it up as far ahead as you want, just keep it cold in the fridge.
Question: How do I do Turkey Legs?
Answer: Smoke them at 200 - 225 for about 2 to 3 hours (to an internal temp of 175). If you cut through the skin and the tendons before cooking, the meat will pull back from the tendons when done. You can use needle nose pliers and the tendons will pull right out. For crisper skins, finish on a grill.
Question: How do I get MORE smoke flavor?
Answer: According to Bill Peeples, "I split it down the back." Cut down the backbone, on one side, with kitchen scissors or large knife. Pull the sides to crack the breastbone. Then lay it flat, breast side down, in the smoker. This gets more smoke flavor to what would have been the inside.
There are 1000’s of recipes out there and I could fill up and entire book in just turkey ideas. Check out some of the references I’ve made or look at this for some ideas. J Appledog’s Award winning turkey
Following is the brine recipe that I think is the very best. I have won 2 local turkey competitions using the following recipe. Instead of pepper flakes I add chipotles that I smoke myself each fall. I also substitute pimento (allspice) leaves for half of the bay leaves. And, for good measure, I always add 1/4 cup of Mrs. Dog's Jamaican Jerk Marinade.
- 1 turkey, 12-18 pounds, rinsed thoroughly, giblets, tail, and neck removed
- 2 cups brown sugar
- 1 cup maple syrup
- 3/4 cup Kosher salt
- 3 whole heads garlic, cloves separated, but not peeled, and bruised
- 6 large bay leaves
- 1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped unpeeled fresh ginger
- 2 teaspoons dried chile flakes
- 1 1/2 cups soy sauce
- 3 quarts water
- Handful of fresh thyme sprigs
Combine all the brine ingredients in an enamel or stainless steel pot. Bring to a boil, remove from heat and let cool completely. Rinse the turkey well, and put it in a large enamel, stainless steel or food-grade plastic pot or bucket. Cover with the cold brine and add more water if the brine doesn't cover the turkey. Put a plate on top of the turkey to hold it under the brine.
Refrigerate for 2-4 days, turning the bird twice a day. (When you turn the turkey be sure to empty the brine out of the body cavity before you turn it or it splashes everywhere.)
Before I cooked the bird I seasoned the cavity with lots of salt & the rub that I used on the outside of the bird. I then "stuffed" it with a tangerine into which I had poked 4 holes with a toothpick, some onion pieces & fresh sage, thyme & rosemary. After trussing I brushed the bird with melted butter & vegetable oil mixed with more of the rub.
I grilled the bird, indirect, maintaining the Big Green Egg's temperature between 325°F & 350°F using Canadian maple lump charcoal with chunks of apple wood for smoke. When the bird reached an internal temperature of 159°F I basted it with a cranberry based "glaze" to make it a pretty mahogany color as the bird was judged on appearance as well as taste. I then pulled it off the grill when it reached a temperature of 163° in the breast. I wrapped it in foil and then in a towel and placed it in an empty cooler to keep warm until the turn-in time. (Even after an hour it was still steamy hot). I hope this helps
Gary's Hawaiian Turkey2 Brine:
- 2 quarts cold water
- 1 1/2 cups soy sauce
- 1 cup lemon juice
- 2 cups brown sugar
- 1 large onion, sliced
- 1 large piece fresh ginger, crushed
- 6 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 tablespoon allspice
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
Submerge turkey in brine mixture; soak 8 to 12 hours.
Smoke in covered grill on low (180ºF degrees) 2-1/2 hours or more, until bird is dark brown. Aim for a smoldering fire made with a small amount of charcoal topped with wet wood chips; use tongs to add charcoal, a few pieces at a time. Inexperienced cooks should use a thermometer to measure cooker's interior temperature.
Then, cook on high (300ºF degrees) 2 more hours; add a lot of charcoal and open air vents. Meat thermometer should read 180ºF degrees. Makes 18 7- to 8-ounce servings.
Ray's Tipsy Chicken2
This suggests chicken, but it works well for turkey also
- 3 1/2 pound chicken fryer
- 3 tablespoons hot sauce
- 2 tablespoons Cajun seasoning mix
- 1/2 of 12-ounce can beer
- 1/2 cup barbecue sauce
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- 1 teaspoon onion juice
- 1 teaspoon garlic juice
- 1/2 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1/2 tablespoon Worcestershire
- 1/2 tablespoon liquid smoke
Rub chicken all over with 2 tablespoons EACH hot sauce and seasoning mix. Combine tipsy-mixture ingredients with remaining tablespoon hot sauce; pour into half-filled beer can and swirl to combine.
Place chicken, cavity side down, over beer can; place in center of covered grill, and close lid. Cook 2 hours (heat will reduce to 250 degrees) or until juices run clear in thickest parts of breast and thigh.
In saucepan, warm barbecue sauce and oil 3 to 4 minutes on stove or grill top; brush sauce generously on chicken. Remove bird from grill, pour remaining beer can mixture over meat. Cut meat in pieces and serve immediately. Makes six 6-ounce servings.
Smoked "Super Buzzard " Turkey! Posted by Geoff Maw on November 23, 1997 at 12:28:40
- 1 fresh turkey (completely thawed )
- 1 unpeeled orange
- 1 apple
Combine the Following:
- Chopped garlic
- 2 onions
- 1/4 package of bacon (optional)
- 1/4 cup sherry
Put the above in a food processor/blender and reduce till it is of a paste texture.
Clean Turkey and then with fingers gently separate skin from meat at the breast, sides and leg area's. With fingers place above past up under the skin evenly. Then cut orange and apple into quarters and place them into cavity.
More recipes: http://www.bowhunting.net/susieq/turkey.htm
EatTurkey.com Cooking tips, what to do with those leftovers (over 700 recipes)
BBQSearch.com Also known as the infamous BBQ Search Turkey Link. A number of the links are no longer working, but there are a couple here that are good
Turkey Tips and Tricks! Chapter 5
Thanksgiving Timeline from 1541 to 2001
Breeds of Turkey
1. Food Safety and Information Services, October 2001 bulletin; “Is Pink Turkey Meat Safe?”
2. Old website: By Catherine Kekoa Enomoto (do a search for “turkey in a Kamado)
http://www.bbqsearch.com/ (BBQ Search)
http://www.virtualweberbullet.com/turkey3.html Virtual Weber Turkey, basic brine
http://www.virtualweberbullet.com/turkeyselect.html VWeber Turkey selection
http://www.virtualweberbullet.com/turkey2.html VWeber Honey Brined
http://www.virtualweberbullet.com/turkey1.html VWeber Turkey Breast
Disclaimer: Every attempt has been made to credit the original author of any material used and if possible contacted for permission. Anyone with corrections or addition should contact the author.
Turkey 101 and the 101 series are copyrights as property of Smokin Okie. All of the 101 series are also registered trademarks of Smokin Okie. Reuse of this on the internet is not permitted without the permission of the author. Reference links to this page are permitted.