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How to Smoke a Turkey

How to Smoke a Turkey
Smoked Turkey1

There are lots of ways to smoke a turkey. One is to beat them badly in a race. Another involves rolling papers and possible harm to yourself. My favorite way to smoke a turkey is on Thanksgiving Day. For anyone interested in doing something different on our national day of giving thanks, here is how I go about doing it.

First, if you are reading this less than 48 hours before the big meal, you are already late and will have to wait the next big family gathering. That’s because the secret to a moist and juicy bird is not basting it while it cooks, but brining it for a good 24-48 hours before cooking. Brining involves soaking meat in a cold water salt solution where the process of osmosis allows the cells of the meat to absorb the brine water (and flavorings in it) due to the higher concentration of salt. Best to use pickling salt rather than kosher or table salt. Molasses is a good way to infuse some sweetness into the meat (great for Boston Butts and other pork cuts). You can also incorporate spices and herbs as well, if desired. Get a large stock pot or clean (new) 5-gallon hardware store bucket and fill with enough FILTERED water that the bird will be completely covered. Add the pickling salt – I go with a pound (16 oz) and 12oz of molasses, but you can also buy pre-portioned brine mixes at the grocery store. Stir well to mix everything together into a nice suspended solution. Then add the bird, cover, and place in the fridge for 24-48 hours.

Smoking a whole turkey can take anywhere from 8-12 hours at a low and slow 225-250 degrees depending on how big the bird is. That’s more of a commitment than I’m willing to make no matter how many family members are coming over. So I spatchcock the bird which means removing the backbone with a good pair of kitchen shears which allows you to lay the bird flat. This SIGNIFICANTLY reduces the cooking time … like by 50-60% . You can find many videos online that show you how to do it. If you can filet a fish, you can spatchcock a turkey.

Due to the efficient size of my multi-rack smoker, I also remove the breast bone which allows me to place each side of a big turkey on its own rack inside the smoker.

This also allows for the skin and fat to be above the meat as it lays flat on the smoker grate which will self-baste your bird as it slowly cooks to 170-degree internal temperature as monitored with a decent meat thermometer inserted deeply into the thickest part of the thigh. Covering the bird with foil after removing it from the smoker and allowing it to rest before carving for 10-minutes will let the temperature continue to rise up to the 180-degree sweet spot and for the tasty moistness to be reabsorbed into the meat and not drip off the cutting board of an impatient host.

Look for another posting about how to successfully carver your turkey in the next day or so. Promise it will be ahead of the big day so you are well prepared to put a beautiful platter of turkey on the table that does not require mutilating the bird as you are put on the spot in front of family and friends!

Duncan Kennedy

Duncan has 20+ years experience designing and producing digital media, signature events, and destination experiences for clients.