Based on recent search trends, it seems that plenty of people want to know how to smoke a turkey this year. If you’re tired of the same old roast turkey for Thanksgiving but too afraid of fireballs to attempt to deep fry turkey, a smoked turkey may be your happy medium. You can get outside, free up oven space for sides and pies, and enjoy a deliciously different flavor than you’re probably used to.
turkey breast for them, and know that you’ll also need to make gravy from spare turkey parts ahead of time (always a good move anyway)—or use the reserved turkey neck to make a gravy with bourbon, apple, apple cider, and onion (see our smoked turkey recipe below for the gravy how-to).Smoked turkey isn’t for the faint of heart—it does require tending, and it does have a bold flavor that purists may disapprove of. Consider roasting a backup
We also recommend taking some tips from a pitmaster on how to smoke meat in general, especially if you’re new to smoking.
Make sure you have your game plan in place and allow enough time to get the process going. Then you’ll be ready to tackle a turkey. Below, some essential tools, tips, and the recipe—plus what to serve with your mahogany masterpiece.
Step 1: Get Equipped
You’ll also need two sets of tongs, a few different disposable aluminum pans (two will serve as drip pans, the other as a steam pan), a baking sheet, oven mitts, a couple buckets of water, an oven thermometer, and a meat thermometer. More on those later.
You’ll also need wood, of course, and a good source of fuel.
Western Premium Apple Wood BBQ Smoking Chips, $2.94 on Amazon
We like apple wood for smoking turkey since it has a more delicate and fruity flavor compared to hickory or oak.
Jealous Devil All Natural Hardwood Lump Charcoal, $47.95
We also strongly prefer hardwood lump charcoal instead of briquettes. These charred pieces of wood burn hotter and cleaner.
If you must go with briquettes, though, do not buy self-lighting ones, which are laden with chemicals.
Step 2: Brine the Turkey
Brining turkey can be a contentious subject, but we like to do it, especially for a smoked bird that has the potential to dry out. You’ll need to brine it the night before—but make sure the turkey is fully defrosted before brining. And if you wet brine, when it comes out of the saline solution, be sure to pat it dry and let it sit at room temperature for a bit to ensure crisper skin (or up to two hours in the fridge, uncovered).
Related Reading: How to Score a Free Turkey | Whole Foods Turkey Discounts for Amazon Prime Members
Step 3: Soak Your Wood Chips
This will only take about 15 minutes, but every second is precious when you have hangry guests waiting for food—so remember to put your chips in a bucket of water before you start preparing your grill or smoker. (And have Thanksgiving appetizers already available to the crowd.)
Step 4: Bring Your Grill Up to Temperature
This is the easy part; maintaining the temperature will take a bit more finesse. This is why the oven thermometer is called for (the meat thermometer, unsurprisingly, is for telling when the turkey is done)—and the steam pan, which will hold water and help lower the grill temperature, is also a necessity.
Rubbermaid Stainless Steel Oven/Grill Thermometer, $7 on Amazon
This inexpensive piece of equipment is indispensable for taking your grill's temperature.
Propack Disposable Aluminum Pans, 20 for $11.95 on Amazon
These cheap disposable brownie pans are also essential for catching drippings; you can pick them up in the baking aisle at your local grocery store too.
Homarty disposable aluminum loaf pans, 50 for $15.99 on Amazon
These longer-than-average loaf pans are the kind we use for holding water to create steam.
Thermapen Mk4 Digital Thermometer, $99 at ThermoWorks
The turkey will be done when a thermometer registers 165°F in the thickest part of the breast and thigh (but be sure it's not touching bone). This digital model is a favorite of many chefs.
Step 5: Truss Your Turkey
This is another technically optional step, but we like to do it since it makes maneuvering the turkey on the grill a bit easier (we also stuff the cavity with onion and apple, and trussing helps keep them in place). Here’s how to truss the bird:
You can do that while the charcoal is heating up. Once trussed, we rub the outside of the turkey with vegetable oil (don’t worry, we also baste it with butter at multiple points throughout this process), and then start smoking.
How Long Will All This Take?
The whole operation (not counting the overnight brine and one to two hour drying time for the turkey) will take at least four hours, perhaps closer to five, so plan accordingly.
You’ll be feeding the fire, adding more wood chips and adjusting water pan levels throughout the smoking process. Full instructions for preparing the grill and maintaining the temperature are in the recipe below, but if you have a smoker, refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for best results!
Get the full step-by-step instructions by clicking the link below:
What Should You Serve with Smoked Turkey?
Our recipe above includes a bourbon-apple gravy that uses the reserved turkey neck, but even on Thanksgiving, the bird does not stand alone.
All the classic sides still taste great with smoked turkey. It makes sense to choose stronger flavors and dishes with a Southern vibe, so here are a few specific suggestions (but don’t forget classic buttery mashed potatoes too):
The sweetness of apple and cornbread will work well with the smoky turkey, and since it doesn’t cook inside the bird, you can make it ahead of time (and will get way more crusty surface area). Get our Cornbread and Apple Stuffing recipe.
Mini marshmallows have their place (in hot cocoa), but for sweet potato casserole, we prefer to show more restraint. This one is spiked with bourbon—echoing the turkey gravy—and topped with a nutty pecan streusel that has just enough brown sugar to complement the natural sweetness of the veg. Get our Bourbon Sweet Potato Casserole recipe.
Canned cranberry sauce is fine if you’re into it, but we’d pick this chunky fresh cranberry spread for a smoked turkey dinner (or any other, honestly)—it’s nicely balanced between tart and sweet (thanks to maple syrup) and has a kick of heat from red pepper too, plus candied orange peel and allspice for an even more festive vibe. Get our Cranberry Spread recipe.
A fresh green vegetable is a must, so we say skip the green bean casserole for crisp-tender sauteed beans with sweet, soft onions and a bit of spark from red wine vinegar. Get our Simple Sauteed Green Beans recipe.
In keeping with the anti-palate-fatigue idea, try a light and airy pumpkin chiffon pie for a change to end the meal. You can spike the filling and the topping with rum, or use non-alcoholic apple cider if you prefer. Get our Pumpkin Chiffon Pie recipe.
For more tips, tricks, recipes, and a Turkey Day timeline, see our Ultimate Guide to Thanksgiving.