How to Smoke a Turkey in a Pellet Smoker

how to smoke a turkey in a pellet smoker
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Turkey is usually the main event around the table during the holidays. But that doesn’t mean you can’t eat it all year round. Many deli’s love to smoke their turkey in house rather than roast them and you will be able to find turkey in almost any barbeque joint any time of the year. So, it would be easy to say that turkey is loved by many all year long.

However, many people are afraid to smoke turkey because it is very easy to mess it up. Turkey can become dry and overcooked very easily and if you don’t know what you are doing during the smoking process, you may end up with a dry bird.

But do not worry, because we have laid everything out in an easy to read manner for you. The following is an in-depth guide to smoking turkey from start to finish. If you follow these easy steps, then there will be no doubt that you will end up with an incredibly moist and delicious turkey that will blow anyone else’s out of the smoker!

Note: most links in this article are Amazon.com Affiliate links, see Affiliate Disclosure, thank you.

Supplies You Will Need

You are going to want to make sure you have everything you need before you start smoking your turkey. The last thing you want is to run out of something or not have it during the cooking process.

Turkey- try to get a turkey that will fit inside of your smoker. The best rule of thumb is to get one around 12-18 pounds. Turkeys can take three days to defrost in a fridge, so make sure your turkey is fully defrosted.

Smoker- make sure you have a smoker that you are comfortable using to start. Pellet smokers are easy to use and don’t require you to maintain the fire constantly. You will be able to smoke a turkey in any smoker as long as you are applying indirect heat.

Drip Pan- this is the pan that will catch all the juices and drippings from the turkey as it cooks. If you don’t have one, there is a chance the fat will drip onto the heat source and cause flare-ups. This is something you don’t want to happen as it can cause the temperature to rise and sometimes burn the outside of the turkey.

Fuel Source- make sure you have plenty of fuel before starting the smoking process. You don’t want to run out of wood, pellets, charcoal or propane during the smoking process.

Thermometer- the best type of thermometer to use when smoking a turkey is going to be an instant-read thermometer. Do not use those pop-out thermometers that come with the turkey as they will not be accurate enough to gauge the internal temperature of the turkey and frequently result in dry turkey.

Click here to see our article What Is the Best Pellet Smoker.

Dry Rubs, Brines and Injections

No matter what, you are going to want to add flavor to your smoked turkey. To do this, the best ways are either by using a brine, dry rub or injections. You can use all three if you want but it is not necessary. The best way to get more moisture into the bird is by using a brine.

A dry rub will add great flavor to the bird as well as adds some color to the skin. Injections into the bird will help keep it moist and add flavors as well but must be used in moderation.

Simple Brine Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1-gallon water
  • 1 cup kosher salt
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1 large onion, quartered
  • 2 apples, quartered
  • A few sprigs fresh rosemary
  • A few sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1-gallon ice water

Directions

In a large pot, combine all the ingredients except for the ice water and bring it to a rolling boil. Then remove from the heat and allow to cool down to room temperature. Once the liquid has cooled down, transfer to a large 5-gallon bucket and add the ice water.

Place the turkey in the brine and submerge it completely making sure the cavity has filled. Refrigerate the turkey in the brine overnight or at least 1 hour for every pound. When you are ready to smoke the turkey, remove it from the brine and rinse the bird thoroughly before cooking it. Discard the remaining brine after use.

Dry Rub Recipe

Ingredients

  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp. Kosher salt
  • 1 tbsp. Coarse ground black pepper
  • 1 tbsp. Garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp. Onion powder
  • 1 tbsp. Paprika
  • 1 tsp. Cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp. Ground coriander
  • 1 tsp. Ground mustard
  • 1 tsp. Ground cumin

Directions

Mix all ingredients in a bowl until fully incorporated. Make sure the turkey has been dried with a towel and there are no damp surfaces. Rub all the outside surfaces and the inside cavity of the bird generously with the rub until fully covered.

Flavor Injection Recipe

Ingredients

  • ½ cup chicken broth
  • 3 tbsp. Butter
  • Juice and zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 tsp. Black pepper
  • 1 tsp. Garlic powder
  • ½ tsp. Salt

Directions

In a small saucepan, add all ingredients and heat over medium heat until the butter has melted. Stir constantly while cooking, then remove from the heat and allow the mixture to cool down to room temperature. Add the mixture to the flavor injector and inject about 1-2 teaspoons worth into various spots all over the turkey until all the liquid is used up.

Preparing the Turkey

Remove the turkey from the plastic bag and then remove the giblets and neck from the cavity and set them aside. Cut any excess skin from the base and neck of the bird if there is too much. At this point, you can brine the bird if you would like to. Once you have removed the turkey from the brine, make sure to rinse it off completely and then pat it dry with a towel.

The cavity of the bird does not need to be filled, but if you would like, you may loosely fill it with lemons, apples, onions and herbs. Never stuff a turkey with dressing when smoking it; otherwise, it will not cook fully and allow bacteria to grow. Then tie the legs together with kitchen twine and tuck the wings behind the shoulder so everything will cook evenly.

spatchcock turkey
spatchcock turkey

Another option for preparing the bird is called spatchcock. Cut the neck and back out of the turkey with kitchen shears and lay the turkey flat. Preparing your turkey spatchcock will allow the smoke to spread more evenly and reduce cooking time by 20 percent.

If you plan on seasoning the turkey with a dry rub, you may add a little melted butter or olive oil to the skin lightly before covering it with the seasoning. This will add a little color to the skin and crisp it up as well.

What Type Wood to Choose?

Hickory is our favorite wood for smoking a whole turkey, and sugar maple is our top choice for turkey in pieces, like turkey breast. But there are many different types of wood to choose from and each type will add a different flavor profile to your turkey.

Most pellets will be offered in a wide range of different wood flavors or at least the main ones which you can never go wrong with.

Hickory- many people like to think that hickory is the best wood to choose from when smoking a turkey because of its rich flavor and subtle barbeque notes. This wood will not be too overpowering or underwhelming as well.

Fruit (cherry, apple, peach)- these types of wood will, of course, add fruity flavors to your turkey. They will also be very subtle and at times underwhelming which works very well with poultry and fish.

Mesquite- This wood will be the strongest of them all in terms of smoke density and flavor. It can be very easy to overpower your turkey with smoke flavor when using mesquite. In other words, a little bit goes a long way.

Maple- this wood will add a lot of sweetness to the bird without a lot of the smoky flavor you want when smoking a turkey.

Oak- this type of wood is one of the more common woods to use when smoking meats but it doesn’t work too well with poultry as it can be a very thick and dense smoke like mesquite.

Click here to see Smokehouse Products Wood Pellets (4 Pack Assortment) on Amazon.com

The Smoking Process

There are several different ways to choose from when smoking a turkey and there is no one correct way. But in reality, they are all very similar in terms of time, temperature and method.

Time length and temperature

The amount of time the turkey needs to stay in the pellet smoker will depend on how much the turkey weighs before smoking it and the temperature of the smoker that will be maintained throughout the cooking process. You will want to set your pellet smoker at a temperature of no less than 225 degrees and no more than 275 degrees. But to be safe, the optimal cooking temperature is best at 250 degrees to avoid any long cook times where bacteria could start to develop. If the temperature is too high, the bird may not cook evenly and will have a higher risk of drying out in the end. So, if you choose to cook the turkey at 250 degrees, remember that it will need to stay in the smoker for 25 minutes for every 1 pound of turkey. So, if you have a 15-pound turkey and smoke it at 250 degrees, then it will be done in about 6 hours and 15 minutes give or take. No matter the time, you want to make sure that the turkey will have an internal temperature of 165 degrees in the end.

Tip: When the turkey reaches a temperature of 157 degrees, quickly place it in an empty cooler, unused oven, or pan with a tight lid to rest 20 to 30 minutes. The internal temperature will continue to rise for at least 20 minutes resulting in the perfect 165 degree turkey.

Click here to see ThermoPro Dual Probe Digital Thermometer on Amazon.com.

Click here to see on Amazon.com

Drip Pan

The drip pan will play two different roles during the smoking process. In the beginning, it will help to create a moist environment for the turkey to cook in. And towards the end of the cooking process, it will begin to catch all the juices from the bird that either drip off or seep out.

Once the bird has been positioned on the grill grate, place the drip pan directly underneath the bird. Then fill the drip pan with a few cups of water. Over time the water will begin to evaporate and as long as the grill or smoker is closed during the smoking process, the environment should stay fairly damp.

If you wish, you may add more water to the pan as it evaporates when you go to check on the turkey from time to time.

The Final Product

Temperature and Resting

The bottom line is that you want the final internal temperature to be 165 degrees. Try to start checking the temperature of the bird in multiple places with an instant-read thermometer around the breast and legs about an hour before it is supposed to be done. The best place to check the internal temperature is going to be in the middle of the breast meat right next to the breast bone.

Do not slack on the temperature as it has to be 165 degrees for it to be fully cooked, but try not to go over too much otherwise, the bird will dry out. Remember the temperature of your turkey will continue to rise 7 to 10 degrees for 20 minutes after you remove it from your pellet smoker.

Once the turkey has finished cooking, transfer it to a roasting pan and bring it inside the kitchen. Allow the turkey to rest for at least 30 minutes before carving and serving to allow it to either finish carrying overcooking and for it to soak up any juices.

This rule goes for almost all meats across the board when smoking them. If you are worried about the turkey getting cold during this time, you can wrap it with some aluminum foil to keep the heat and moisture locked in or store it in a clean cooler.

Yield

The best way to gauge this is based on the turkey’s weight before it has been cooked. Generally, about 1- 1 ½ pounds of uncooked turkey person will suffice. This does not mean that a single person will eat 1 ½ pounds of turkey in one sitting because there are bones, skin, and other parts that will not be consumed.

Plus, the bird will lose some weight during the cooking process and having leftovers is never a bad thing.

Conclusion

So, there you have it! The simplest way to smoke a turkey. So, try and mix it up and make it your own by messing around with different flavor combinations in your dry rubs, brines, and injections. Try different woods and cooking temperatures to find out what works best for you because all turkeys will cook differently.

Enjoy!

Click here for our 11 Tips for Smoking a Turkey

Bonus recipe!

Best Sweet Stuffing Ever

Everyone I know loves stuffing with their turkey, but when you smoke a turkey, it is just not safe to stuff your bird. So, I am going to share a great recipe that can sit in your pellet smoker right next to your turkey.

Ingredients

  • 12oz of plain bread cubes (stuffing)
  • 4 tbsp. Butter
  • ½ cup chicken broth
  • 1 egg (beaten)
  • 1 cup diced green apple
  • ½ cup small raisins (add more to increase sweetness)
  • 1 tsp. Black pepper
  • 1 tsp. Poultry seasoning (or ground sage)
  • ½ tsp. Salt

Directions

Melt butter in a small saucepan or microwave in a bowl, add chicken broth and set aside. In a large bowl mix bread, apple, and raisins thoroughly. Lightly sprinkle the seasonings on the mixture, avoid dumping them in one spot, and give the mix a light toss. Mix your beaten egg into your cooled butter and broth mixture then add the combined mixture to your large bowl. This is the point to add more chicken broth if you feel the mix is too dry. Spray a baking pan lightly with vegetable oil and fill with the stuffing mix and cover tightly with foil. Bake for 2 hours in your pellet smoker with your turkey. Our sweet stuffing also works well in a slow cooker set on low.

Tips: Use a disposable foil pan to make cleanup a breeze.