Sure, you could always go the traditional route of oven baked turkey for the holidays or Thanksgiving, but nothing beats the charred goodness of smoked turkey. However, smoked turkey recipes are not fool-proof and if you make a mistake in the chosen wood or grill type, it can be a holiday disaster in no time.
One of the best smoked turkey recipes would be pellet grill smoked turkey. In this post, we will walk you through the steps of cooking one along with the specific ingredients and other equipment needed for this recipe.
For the brine:
For dry brining, you will need the following:
- Kosher salt
- A pinch of sugar
- Oregano, rosemary, and other herbs of choice
When you are using a wet brine, here are the ingredients that you need:
- Kosher salt
- Whole peppercorns
- Rosemary, parsley, and bay leaves
- Whole black pepper
For a zesty taste, you can also optionally add the following to the wet brine mixture:
- Onion and garlic
- Star anise, cinnamon sticks, and mustard seeds
- Apple cider or apple juice
How to prepare a turkey for smoking
The first thing to do is to choose the perfect size of turkey for your expected guests. The safest size is always at 14-16lb because it covers a large portion but at the same time, easier to cook than very large ones.
If you are buying a frozen turkey, make sure that it has fully defrosted before moving to the brining stage. On average, it takes three days for the frozen turkey to fully defrost.
The best way to defrost is always in the refrigerator. Never leave the frozen turkey to defrost in your countertop because you are risking it for bacteria contamination. After defrosting the turkey, prepare it for dressing. You must remove the giblets from the cavity. You can save the giblets for later once you prepare your gravy.
The final preparation before smoking the turkey is brining it. In the next section, you will know more about the brining phase including the two types of brining to use, the ingredients needed and how to do it. All you must know in this section is that brining takes 24-28mins to finish.
At this point, you must have also prepared the wood chips that you will use for the pellet grill. The best wood chips or pellets to use for smoked turkey would be apple, cherry, maple, and pecan wood pellets. Combining hickory or oak pellets also enrich the aroma of the smoked turkey without overpowering the sweet and savory effect of applewood.
There are two types of brining and this depends on what turkey you bought. Pre-brined turkey will only need dry brining while those that are not pre-brined should be wet brined.
Dry brining involves mixing the dry ingredients together. After which, rub the mixture to the turkey, wrap it with cling wrap and refrigerate for 8hrs or more. This will allow moisture to penetrate through the skin.
It is a different case when you wet brine your turkey. As a rule of thumb, 12-14lb turkey requires at least a gallon of brine while 16-20lb turkey needs 2 gallons of brine.
The following steps are for the process of wet brining the turkey. This is applicable to a 14-16lb turkey:
- Dissolve 2 cups of salt in 2gL water. Add 2tbsps. of sugar. Mix the solution until the salt and sugar are dissolved entirely.
- Boil 8cups of water and put in the salt and sugar solution along with the other listed ingredients.
- Dress the turkey. Remove all giblets from the turkey’s cavity and make sure that all fine hairs are removed too. Note: Let the boiled brine solution cool for a bit before putting the turkey in to avoid bacteria contamination.
- Prepare the brining bag. It is usually a large zip lock where the turkey will be brined.
- Pour the cool wet brine in the bag.
- Pat dry the turkey. Never rinse it. When it is completely dry, put it in the bag containing the wet brine. Add more herbs before closing the bag.
- Make sure that the brine bag is airtight and sealed properly. Leave it in the refrigerator for 12-24hrs. After this, remove the turkey from the bag, rinse it thoroughly with water, pat dry with paper towels and leave it again in the refrigerator for another 12-24hrs.
Smoked turkey temperature
For smoked turkey cooked in a pellet grill, the temperature should be at 225-250F for the first 3hrs. It will elevate at 300F for the next 4hrs to make sure that it is evenly cooked inside and outside.
The temp is also generally determined by the weight of the turkey. Under circumstances when the turkey’s wings become very dark in color, the need for foiling might be necessary.
How long does it take to smoke a turkey in a pellet grill?
The first round of smoking takes about 3hrs. After this you will have to increase the temperature to 300F and cook for another 4hrs in the pellet grill. Wait for the thickest part of the thigh to reach 165F.
Allow it to rest and cool down for about 20mins before taking it out from the pellet grill. In total, the cooking time for a smoked turkey in a pellet grill is 7hrs.
When is a smoked turkey done?
You would know that a turkey is done if the thickest part of the thigh registers at 165F in the thermometer. Best use a digital thermometer in checking on your smoked turkey for better accuracy.
Basting and stuffing
This is not a popular option for smoked turkey. Basting and stuffing are done for oven baked turkeys. Now, we understand why you would want to do it even for the smoked turkey.
If your issue is moisture, you do not have to worry about the meat being dry if you have brined it properly and refrigerated it for at least 24hrs.
Nonetheless, some home cooks still do it, basting the turkey with oil or coating it with another round of dry rub as well as stuffing it with herbs, lemon, and other spices before cooking it in the smoker. While it is not necessary, it can be an option especially if it works for you or you have done it before.
- Pellet grill
- Wood chips (preferably apple, maple, cherry or pecan wood blended with either hickory or oak)
- Aluminum/drip pan
- Brine bag (for wet brining)
- Boiling pan
- 14-16lb turkey
- Digital thermometer
- Seasonings, herbs and other spices
- Take the turkey out of the refrigerator. If it is frozen, you have to defrost it for a couple of hours (this may also take days) before dressing and brining it.
- Dress the turkey by removing all giblets from the cavity. You may save the giblets for the gravy later.
- Prepare the brine (choose if wet or dry brine). Brine the turkey and leave it in the refrigerator for 24-48hrs.
- Remove the brined turkey from the ref. Pat dry it with paper towels.
- Preheat the smoker to 225/250F. Fill the smoker with wood pellets of apple, cherry, or maple wood. You can also combine hickory or oak wood.
- For smoked turkey, you will not need an aluminum pan. Just place it directly on the pellet grill’s grates. However, you must position a dripping pan beneath the grates and fill it with water. This is another way to ensure moisture while the turkey is on the smoker.
- Tie the legs together.
- Cook the turkey in the smoker for 3hrs.
- After 3hrs, open the smoker and check your turkey. If the skin becomes too dark (especially on the wings), wrap it in foil and continue smoking it at a higher temperature.
- Notch up the temperature to 275-300F and continue smoking the turkey for 4hrs.
- After 4hrs, insert a digital thermometer in the thickest part of the leg. The temperature should be at 165F. This is your indicator that the turkey is already done cooking.
- Take the turkey out of the smoker and leave it to cool for 20mins.
- Transfer to a serving plate and garnish with herbs and lemons.
- You do not need to baste the turkey every 45mins if it was already brined.
- Never leave the brined turkey in the countertop to avoid bacteria contamination.
- Stuffing the turkey with lemons and herbs is not required but optional.
- You can rub the body with either melted butter, olive oil, or BBQ rub just to make sure that it is enriched with more flavor and to retain moisture, but this is also optional.
- Only refill the wood chips if there is a need to do so.
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Nutrition InformationYield 12-15 Serving Size 12-15 people
Amount Per ServingCalories 463-564 kcalTotal Fat 18gSaturated Fat 4gCholesterol 231mgSodium 576mgCarbohydrates 1gProtein 70g
Of course, it does not end with just knowing the ingredients, the cooking process, and the things that you will need. For more knowledge and important pointers in cooking a smoked turkey, here are some FAQs that you should sift through.
Should I wrap my turkey in foil while smoking?
Yes. If you see charring on the wings, you must cover them with foil. This is precisely the reason why the turkey is cooked at two different temperatures. You need to open the smoker after 3-5hrs of smoking (the time depends on the weight of the turkey) and check if the wings are too dark in color.
If the wings are, indeed, dark in color, you must wrap them in foil before notching up the temperature to 275-300F. Not foiling the wings before increasing the temperature will most likely burn it and you would not want that since the wing part is also one of our favorite turkey parts.
How long does it take to smoke a turkey at 225?
The rule of thumb is that it takes 30mins to cook a pound of turkey at 225F. This means that if you are going for the Thanksgiving turkey that is at 15pounds, it will take you 7.5hrs to cook it.
It is also an added rule to add extra 30mins to the total cook time. This is given to the cool down period before slicing so that the juiciness and flavors are retained.
Can you smoke a turkey at 275?
Yes. The ideal temp for turkey cooking is 225F but you can always notch it up to 275-300F after 3-6hrs of cooking. This reduces the cooking time to 15-20mins per pound. You must understand that you cannot start with 275F right away because a temperature that high will reduce the juiciness and natural moisture of the meat.
Culinary experts claim that when the cooking temp is lower, you would expect a more flavorful, more tender, and juicier outcome not just for turkey but for most smoked or grilled meats. This is the reason why most home cooks still stick to the 225F rule of thumb on the first cooking phase.
How long does a 20lb turkey take to smoke?
Following 225F rule of thumb and considering that it will be smoked two times at different temperatures, a 20lb turkey would take 6hrs to cook under 225F and 4hrs to cook in 275-300F. Overall, a 20lb turkey takes 10hrs to smoke plus 20mins of cool down time before slicing.
Can you smoke a turkey at 300 degrees?
Yes. But this is not advisable at first because high temperature easily takes away the moisture of the meat and you would not be satisfied with the result. The meat will become coarse and dry, less juicy, and less rich flavors. 225-250F is a good range for smoking a turkey during the first cooking time.
After 3hrs under a cooking temp of 225-250, you will have to increase the temperature eventually. This is the time when you smoke a turkey at 275-300F for the next 3-4hrs. When you get to this phase, wrapping the turkey wings in foil might be necessary. This is done for it not to be charred while the smoker is on a very high temperature.
How long do you smoke a 21-pound turkey?
Again, following the 225F temperature setting 30mins of cooking time per pound of turkey, a 21lb turkey takes a total of 11hrs to smoke including the 30mins cool down time before slicing.
You can also increase the temp after 3-5hrs of cooking it at 225F. Just be wary of the wings being charred. If you intend to cook it at a higher temperature later, best wrap the turkey’s wings with foil.
Should I brine my turkey before I smoke it?
In the olden times, Thanksgiving turkeys were not brined, only basted. But Robyn Stone from Add A Pinch, in her historical take on turkey recipes that brining the turkey before smoking was discovered to have added an explosion of flavors and kick in more moisture in the turkey while on the smoker or grill. As such, brining is a very important step in preparing the turkey before smoking it.
As we have covered in the previous section, there are two types of brines. But both include the use of salt, pepper, minced garlic, oregano, other herbs and spices and water.
You can always experiment to add more zest like using citrus fruits. Some even brine it by covering it with rock salt and refrigerating it overnight before smoking. The point is, no turkey should be smoked without brining it first.
Can you smoke 2 turkeys at once?
Yes, if the turkeys are relatively the same in weight. The cooking time for turkey or any type of meat for that matter is determined by their weight. Thus, if one turkey is heavier than the other, do not expect that they will come out at the same time. As a matter of fact, you must time them differently.
As such, there is no problem in cooking two turkeys at once if they have the same weight. There are also no modifications or changes when it comes to the amount of wood pellets that you will use. All you must be mindful of is if there is enough space in between for the air to circulate.
Smoked turkey is simple to cook if you know the essentials such as ingredients, ideal cooking time, brining process, ideal temperature to cook it and others.
As we have seen, choosing the right brine and being creative on what goes to that brine solution are key in having a more flavorful turkey and in retaining the moisture of the meat while at the smoker.
The brining process is also what separates smoked turkey recipes apart because it is the part where you could really infuse some flavor modifications.
While basting and stuffing are not necessary for smoked turkeys, some are still considering it for more kick and taste.
The general rule of thumb in temperature is also an important factor. At best, 225F is the ideal temperature but you must remember that you will have to increase the temperature as you go on in the smoking process.
There might also be the need to consider starting at 250F for turkeys that are 15lb and above.