Why grill or smoke a whole turkey?
If the picture below is not enough encouragement, consider the convenience of smoking or grilling your turkey. One of the biggest headaches of preparing Thanksgiving has always been lack of adequate oven space for the numerous dishes and desserts. Hosting an Outdoor Thanksgiving should encourage you to use cooking methods other than the oven. Cooking the turkey on the grill or smoker will keep your kitchen from becoming a sauna and free up the oven to be used for other essential Thanksgiving dishes.
Let’s get started!
Selecting a Turkey
FRESH OR FROZEN?
You can use a fresh turkey or a frozen turkey that’s been completely thawed.
“Frozen is fine, but fresh is always better.”
HOW MUCH TURKEY PER PERSON?
You can estimate the size of turkey that you need by planning on one pound of turkey per person. If you want a lot of turkey leftover, plan on 1 1/2 pounds of turkey per person.
SPECIAL CONSIDERATION FOR SMOKING
If you want to follow a “Low and Slow” method of cooking, it’s best to use a smaller turkey in the 10-12 pound range. If you go with a larger turkey, you run into the potential for food safety issues. A turkey must pass through the temperature range from 40-140 degrees F within 4 hours of being in the smoker, otherwise, it could start to spoil before it cooks through.
Preparing Your Turkey
Preparing your turkey for the grill or smoker is very similar to the oven. There are numerous ways to prepare your turkey, each adding a different layer of flavor.
Brining your turkey
Brining your turkey is an optional step, but the technique helps to both tenderize the meat and keep your bird moist.
The night before you’re ready to cook, submerge your bird (breast down) in the brine. The turkey should ideally brine for 1 hour per pound of meat. Afterward, you can dry your turkey and add butter or a rub to the skin if desired.
A simple, flavorful brine recipe you can use is:
- 2-gallons of ice water
- 2-cups kosher salt
- 2-tablespoon crushed rosemary
- 2-tablespoons crushed sage
- 2-tablespoons dried thyme
- 2/4-bay leaves
- 1-tablespoon mustard seed
- Peals from 1 Orange
Butter Basting a Turkey
If you’re a purist, and especially if you’re using a wood smoker, this may be the best choice for you. Some people just want to taste the turkey, no fancy rubs or spices ruining their hard work.
The butter and juices from the turkey will help to add a golden brown skin and keep things moist, but it won’t do much for flavor. Though we recommend you do add a bit of salt and pepper beforehand.
Though we don’t necessarily recommend putting stuffing in your smoked turkey (more on that later), we do recommend sticking aromatics inside the cavity of your bird. Consider a combination of ingredients like onions, lemons, apples, celery, carrots, garlic, and fresh herbs.
Using spices and rubs
These days, there are more spice rubs than stars in the sky. A spice rub will add great flavor as well as texture to the skin. All of that said, many purists believe additional spices and rubs are completely unnecessary. To each their own; we’re not picky when it comes to food at Outdoor Dreams. We judge hardscapes, not food.
A simple spice rub you can use is:
- 1/4-cup vegetable oil
- 2-tablespoons onion powder
- 1-tablespoon paprika
- 1-tablespoon mustard powder
- 2-teaspoons garlic powder
- 2-teaspoons kosher salt
- 2-teaspoons white pepper
- 1-teaspoon powdered ginger
- 1/2-teaspoon powdered sage
Mix all your ingredients and form a paste to cover the outside of the turkey. Don’t be shy here.
Using a Smoker
If you haven’t had smoked turkey, you have been missing out! We’re not sure why very few people take on the process of smoking it themselves because it’s such an easy and forgiving cooking method. You are FAR more likely to render an inedible, dry turkey when roasting it in the oven (think ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’) or using a fryer. The high temperatures of these methods are not very forgiving.
A smoked turkey cooks at a low temperature for a long time, making it easier to watch and providing more room for error/neglect. This method allows the turkey to naturally baste itself, helping to prevent dry meat. Additionally, the smoke delivers incredible flavor making any seasoning beyond salt and pepper unnecessary.
WHAT TYPE OF WOOD IS BEST FOR SMOKING A TURKEY?
Applewood is always a great choice to smoke poultry, as it imparts a mild and sweet flavor. Applewood is readily available in most stores. Other great choices are cherry wood or hickory.
WHAT IS YOUR COOKING TEMPERATURE?
There are various cooking methods that you can choose. The low and slow method provides deep flavor and requires you to keep your smoker between 225 – 250°F. If it dips higher or lower its not a huge deal, but make sure it doesn’t stay that way for too long. This temperature is better for small to medium turkeys.
With larger turkeys, you run into the potential for food safety issues. A turkey must pass through the temperature range from 40-140 degrees F within 4 hours of being in the smoker, otherwise, it could start to spoil before it cooks through. For larger birds, consider raising the temperature to 275°F – 300°F to avoid this spoilage. You can even consider more traditional “oven roasting temperatures” of 325°F – 375°F.
No matter your method, you want to make sure that your wood chips are producing smoke for 30 minutes before putting the turkey in the smoker.
HOW LONG DOES SMOKING A TURKEY TAKE?
Smoking a turkey can be a long process, so be sure to start early enough to ensure the turkey will be done by dinner time. Also, always remember that times are just a guide. You should always cook your turkey until the internal temperature of the thigh registers 165 degrees F.
225-250 degrees 23-27 minutes per pound
275-300 degrees 18-21 minutes per pound
325-375 degrees 11-15 minutes per pound
Adjust by about 3+ minutes per pound if it is cold outside.
Check the temperature of the turkey halfway, three-quarters of the way and then when you think it is done to make sure that you are on the right track. This will help you monitor the turkey and make sure it is not overcooked! Or even better, use a heat-resistant, digital thermometer that can send alerts right to your phone so that you always know the internal temperature of the turkey. These exist and are well worth the investment!
DO YOU NEED TO BASTE A SMOKED TURKEY?
When smoking, basting is open for debate. Some avid smokers believe you should leave the meat alone and touch it as little as possible. Others, like Chef Bobby Flay, recommend basting the turkey every 45 minutes. One thing that almost everyone agrees on is that if you brine your turkey, it will be more forgiving whether you baste or not.
HOW LONG SHOULD IT REST?
This step is important! Let it rest for 20-30% of the total cooking time. You can loosely cover the turkey with a piece of aluminum foil while it is resting or you can just leave it open.
Depending on your cooking method, using a grill for your turkey is not that much different than using a smoker or an oven.
Charcoal Kettle Grill
Open all vents on the grill. Use charcoal dividers to hold the charcoal briquettes. Divide the briquettes evenly, place them in the dividers and place the dividers on either side of the charcoal grate, as close as possible to the outside edges. Ignite the briquettes and, keeping the lid off, let them burn until lightly covered with gray ash, about 25 to 30 minutes. If necessary, use long-handled tongs to rearrange the briquettes so the coals will burn evenly on both sides. Place a foil drip pan on the charcoal grate between the baskets of coals. Put the cooking grate in place, positioning the hinged sides of the grate over the briquettes so that more charcoal can be added easily. Arrange the bird breast side up in the center of the cooking grate. Place lid on the grill, leaving all vents open, and let the grill work its magic. Once every hour, add five to eight briquettes to each bed of charcoal to maintain the temperature.
Propane or Gas Barbecue
Ignite the grill and turn all burners to high. Close the lid and preheat 10 to 15 minutes to bring the grill to 500 to 550 degrees. Turn burners down to medium heat. Place turkey breast side up in a roast holder inside a foil drip pan. Position pan in the center of the cooking grate and place the lid on the grill. For three-burner grills, set front and back burners to medium and turn off the center burner. For two-burner grills, turn the front and back burners to medium. Keep grill covered.
Place a Drip Pan
Put a drip pan on the flavorizer bars with 1 liter of water under where the turkey will go. If you do not plan to use the drippings for gravy, you can use 2-3 liters of water.
Turkey Placement & Protection
Like you would in an oven, arrange turkey breast side up, in center of cooking grate.
Also, to protect against burnt skin, cover the top of the turkey with cheesecloth. You will leave this on for the first 2-3 hours depending on the size of your bird.
Cook Temperature & Time
Much like roasting in the oven, your goal is to keep your grill in the 350-375 degree grange. Your turkey should cook for 11 to 13 minutes per pound or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh not touching bone registers 165 degrees and the juices run clear.
Low & Slow Smoking Method
Using the low and slow method does not require much additional instruction. It only adds one additional step (adding smoke) and simply changes the cook temperature and time. If you are using this method, we recommend reading the above instructions for using a smoker as well.
Cook Temperature & Time
Much like using a smoker, your goal is to keep your grill in the 225-250 degree grange. Your turkey should cook for 23-27 minutes per pound or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh not touching bone registers 165 degrees and the juices run clear.
Adding Smoke to a Gas Grill
When using a gas grill you will want to use wood chips. Soak the wood chips in water or beer before you use them for anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. You can put the wood chips in a built-in or removable smoker box. As outlined above, we recommend applewood, cherry wood or hickory chips.
Use a digital thermometer
This should be common knowledge if you’ve smoked before. Don’t rely on the built-in thermometer on your smoker (it lies to you), or guesswork, just invest in a proper dual probe thermometer so you can measure the internal temp of the bird while ensuring your smoker stays at the ideal temperature. If you’re not already using a proper thermometer this is the best thing you can do to improve as a pitmaster. A proper smoking thermometer will read more quickly and accurately than a traditional “dial” one of those “turkey poppers” your butcher gives you.
Put a drip pan under your bird
This pan will allow you to catch the drippings to use for your gravy. Yes, you can make gravy without drippings from the bird. That said, we all know that the best gravy is made using the fresh drippings, so why would you do it any other way? Especially on Thanksgiving!
Don’t add stuffing to your bird
This is a hard one for many because “Bird Stuffing” vs. “Oven Stuffing” is a debate in many families. We don’t recommend this because it can drastically throw off your cooking time and, when smoking, the meat doesn’t need the extra flavor that stuffing traditionally adds. That said, you can stuff the bird if you really must; just be sure to allow for a longer cook time.
Don’t always check it
We know you’re proud and want to show off, but let the turkey be, or it will never finish cooking. Again, having a dual-probe thermometer setup will help you fight the temptation to keep checking.
Beware of Mother Nature
If it’s cold outside try and put your smoker somewhere with no wind, or you will have a tough time keeping your temperature consistent.
We wish you the absolute best of luck with your turkey this Thanksgiving!