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How To Smoke a Turkey

Posted by Dave On November - 29 - 2009

Thanksgiving is done, Black Friday is in the books and we are already hearing Christmas music on the radio. Although I may be a tad bit late for this year’s Thanksgiving, I wanted to share my experience with smoking a turkey. With more and more college and pro football teams choosing to play on Thanksgiving, that means more and more of you tailgaters have a chance to prepare a turkey outdoors. Even though I was not tailgating this past Thanksgiving I chose to do a smoked turkey this year. (In years past we have used one of those Turkey Fryers to cook our turkey.)

Since we got a Bubba Keg Grill this year I decided a smoked turkey might be a nice change of pace and also would make me feel like I was tailgating even though I was only going into my backyard. So without further delay, here are the steps you’ll need to follow to smoke a Thanksgiving turkey. (Click images for larger view)

Bird Selection
You need to have a turkey before you can smoke it, right? Although most informational resources I found suggested a 14 pound bird is about the top end size you’ll want to get I went ahead and got a 20 pound turkey. The main reason why all the “experts” suggest 14 pounds is the maximum weight is because of the time investment in order to get the internal temperature up to 170 degrees. (The USDA recommends whole bird poultry be cooked to 165 degrees internal temperature in order to avoid foodborne illnesses.)

Smoking is a slow and low cooking process. It is slow because it takes a while to smoke meat thoroughly and it is low because you are using a lower heat. In order to smoke a turkey you need to maintain a temperature of 230 to 240 degrees. I also recommend you budget 30 minutes per pound your bird weighs. Since I got a 20 pound bird, simple math states that once my smoker has reached and maintains 230 degrees, I will be taking it off in 10 hours. Now that I had my bird picked out, I needed to prep it for the full day inside the smoker.

Brine Time
Although some people swear by brining a turkey, I had never really known about this technique until I started researching how to smoke a turkey. Everywhere I read swore up and down you needed to brine a turkey before smoking it. They all claimed if you failed to brine you would get a dried out turkey. Not one to buck the trend (especially on my first time doing this) I sought out a good brine for turkey.

Actually brines are quite simple and not complex at all. It is a basic water and salt mixture that helps infuse moisture into meats. You can get quite fancy with your brine but I chose to follow a simple recipe from the most recent cookbook I received, Cheater BBQ. All you need to do is fully submerge the turkey in the brine and let it sit overnight. Think of brining as marinating your bird with a salt water mixture.

Because my bird was 20 pounds I couldn’t just put it in a stock pot and sit overnight. I needed to use a cooler and just so happened to have one of those cylinder type coolers you see football players dumping on the coach after a big win. I took my thawed turkey still in the plastic wrapper and placed it in the cooler. (Make sure your cooler is washed thoroughly.) I then filled it full of water so that the entire turkey was covered about 3 inches above the top portion of the bird. Remember: When you start to brine the turkey it will be unwrapped and the internal cavity will be open. You need to have enough brine mixture to fill that cavity and also still cover the entire bird. I then removed the turkey to see how much water I will need to make the brine.

The general rule of thumb for brines is 2 tablespoons of salt to every cup of water. I used kosher salt as recommended by the authors of Cheater BBQ. Many brines also call for some sort of sweetening agent, most commonly sugar. Some people use apple cider or lemonade or even sweet tea. Just comes down to your personal preference. I went with sugar and used 1 tablespoon of sugar per cup of water. I also used a little liquid smoke to enhance the smoking process.

After mixing the brine using hot water to facilitate the sugar and salt dissolving completely, I let the brine mixture sit to get to room temperature. At about 12 hours before I was planning on putting the turkey on the smoker, I placed the bird in the brine and filled the rest of the cooler with ice. I then set the cooler outside to stay a bit colder and filled the Bubba Keg with a pretty good amount of lump charcoal.

Smoke ’em If you Got ’em
The wife informed me that we were planning on serving Thanksgiving dinner at around 4 pm so the turkey needed to be off the smoker by then. You always need to let a turkey rest after cooking no matter if it is roasting in an oven, deep fried or smoked. So based on my 30 minutes per pound at 230 degrees guideline, that meant I need to have the bird on the smoker by 6 am at the latest.

I set the alarm for 5 am and headed downstairs and lit the Bubba Keg. Because the Bubba Keg with lump charcoal heats up quickly I wanted to make sure it did not get too hot. I let the Bubba Keg get to about 300 degrees and then I clamped down the top and bottom dampers to bring the heat under control. By about 5:30 am I was able to maintain a nice 230 to 240 degree range. I went inside and took the cooler with the turkey with me.

I took the bird out of the brine and washed it completely under cold running water. I also had heard that if you do not wash off the brine and just place it on the smoker you will have a very salty turkey. After washing it off I then placed it on a vertical poultry rack that came from the turkey fryer we used last year. It also comes with a hook so you can lift it out of the boiling oil and I figured this apparatus would come in handy to place and remove the turkey from the smoker. I then placed the turkey in one of those foil roasting pans to catch the drippings and to avoid flame flare ups had I placed the turkey on the grill grate. I pat dried the turkey with a few paper towels and then brushed the skin with olive oil. Some may suggest a nice poultry rub but I chose to forgo that. (We have two little ones in the house and we didn’t want the turkey to be too spicy and then the kids refuse to eat it.) I then placed the bird in the Bubba Keg at about 5:45 am.

Placing a cold turkey in the smoker did bring the temperature down so I needed to adjust the dampers a bit to bring the temperature up to 230. I made sure that once the temperature reached about 240 I then clamped down the dampers so as to not let it get too hot. After that I just continued to check on the smoker every 30 minutes to make sure the air flow was properly maintaining between 230 and 240 degrees. I made sure to set up my tailgating TV and hooked it up to my VuQube so I could watch the Thanksgiving football games while monitoring the Bubba Keg. Every now and then I would baste the turkey using the drippings collecting in the foil pan but for the most part all I did was let the smoker do the work.

At about 3 pm I broke out the meat thermometer just to see if we were getting close to the proper internal temperature. If not I needed to open up the dampers and bring up the heat in order to meet my 4 pm serving deadline. An hour away from when we planned on taking it off, the internal temperature read 165 degrees. Right on track for a 4 pm serving time. At 3:45 the internal temperature was 175 and we decided to take it off the smoker and let it rest for 15 minutes.

I started carving it at 4 pm and the turkey was on the table by 4:10 pm before the mashed potatoes and green bean casserole was ready. As I was carving it I did notice a nice thick smoke ring was visible. That visible smoke ring is the badge of honor for any outdoor chef.

The real test came from those eating it. Both my wife and mother-in-law are not big fans of turkey. They eat turkey on Thanksgiving because it is a tradition on the holiday but they are not the biggest fan of turkey. Both of them went back for seconds and commented a number of times on how moist and juicy the turkey was and how good the smokey flavor was to them.

So there you have it tailgaters… that’s how to smoke a turkey. Of course since this process is so time intensive many of you will not be able to smoke a turkey while out tailgating. Normally there just is not that much time to invest to do it properly. But just in case you can pull it off or just want to have smoked turkey at home, here are the Cliff’s Notes.

  1. Brine the turkey for 12 hours or more.
  2. Plan for 30 minutes cooking time per pound.
  3. Maintain smoker temperature between 230 and 240.
  4. When the internal temperature of the turkey reaches 165 or higher it is done.
  5. Let rest for 10 to 15 minutes.
  6. Enjoy!

Let’s hope my experience was helpful and you too can enjoy smoked turkey on Thanksgiving or while out tailgating.

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