The best temp to smoke a turkey is 325°F. This will give you tender, juicy meat without compromising the flavor. At this temperature, your turkey will be cooking at roughly 20 minutes per pound.
As a seasoned pit master for eleven years and counting, I have smoked more than my fair of large cuts of meat. I have to say, it is not as hard to smoke a turkey as it's made out to be. Last year, I smoked a turkey for my brother's graduation and it definitely carried the day.
This article is the ultimate guideline for smoking a turkey. Find out why the temperature you choose matters and how to tell if it is done. I have also discussed the size of turkey you should go for and left you a terrific recipe that will not disappoint. Let's get into it.
With poultry, staying at a safe temperature is critical, unlike other types of meat including beef, pork, and mutton because poultry is less dense. This means that bacteria like salmonella can easily burrow deep into the skin and thrive.
If you serve meat that is not fully cooked, you risk contracting foodborne illnesses from these bacteria and experiencing unpleasant symptoms.
To prevent this, keep your fridge temperature below 40°F to slow down the growth of these bacteria, or freeze at a constant temperature of 0°F to stop it altogether.
Temperatures above 140°F will kill the bacteria.
Your smoker temperature, therefore, needs to be set high enough to eradicate these bacteria but without drying out your turkey. Remember, poultry has less connective tissue than other large meat cuts familiar to the smoker.
The total time largely depends on the turkey size and the smoker temperature and sometimes the age of the bird.
You can smoke your turkey in the oven, gas grill, or an electric smoker.
You can either smoke your turkey using the low-to-high method, the high-to-low method or keep the temperature constant till you finish cooking.
When smoking a turkey, always leave room for carryover cooking by reducing the target temperature of 165°F by about 5 degrees. This is your pull temp.
Let's see what each of these methods entails.
Start your smoker at lower temperatures and then crank it up to a higher temperature.
Although this means more time on the smoker, this method allows the bird to absorb a lot of smoke so, if smoke kissed is the turkey you prefer, you will be better served by this method.
Start your smoker at 225°F till an internal temperature of around 105°F then raise the temp to 325°F until it gets to an internal temperature of 165°F
This involves, setting your smoker temp at a high temperature and then lowering it. This method will seal in the bird's natural juices and ensures you get a delicious crispy skin.
Set your smoker at 325°F-350°F for the first half hour then lower it to 3oo until done. This method requires less time.
If you prefer to maintain a constant smoker temp throughout the cooking process, I find that a temperature of 275°F will yield a nice blend of moderate wood flavor, juice, and crisp on the skin without taking too much time.
At 275°F, the turkey will take around 20 minutes per pound to cook. For a 12-pound bird, allocate around 4 hours of cooking time.
With a lower smoker temp of 250°F, the turkey will take longer to cook taking you around 6 hours to get done.
At a smoker temperature of 325°F, your 12-pound bird could be done in 3 hours considering a cooking time of around 15 minutes a pound. All these possibilities will be different in taste, appearance, and tenderness.
Smoking the turkey whole clears up oven space allowing it to be used for other foods like muffins.
Smoking outdoors tends to compel your guests to get comfortable outside and let loose compared to being stuck in a house with dozens of guests and limited space.
Outdoor cooking will also save you from having to persevere the punishing heat of an oven that will be on for hours.
Your turkey will be safe to consume when the internal temperature hits 165°F.
Grab your instant-read thermometer or meat probe and confirm the temperature in the innermost section of the thigh, deep in the wing, and in the core of the stuffing.
Bigger does not always mean better when it comes to turkey. Unfortunately, a bigger turkey often means an older turkey. These often have tougher meat and yield less juicy results compared to their younger counterparts.
Most smokers on the market have at least 9 inches of cooking space that is enough to fit a large whole turkey. However, for the best outcome, I recommend sticking to a turkey that weighs 15 pounds or less.
The aim is to smoke a turkey long enough for it to pick up a lot of the flavor and clear the danger zone in a reasonable amount of time. Unlike other large cuts of meat like pork shoulder and beef briskets, the turkey should not smoke too long.
The best way to get a tender smoke-kissed turkey is to go for a smaller turkey weighing 12 pounds and below.
If this is not enough, I recommend smoking two smaller turkeys side by side.
Smoking a turkey while stuffed is more challenging because the turkey will reach the recommended temperature before the stuffing is cooked.
Often, people complain that they ended up with a dry turkey because they had to let it smoke a lot longer or they ended up with undercooked stuffing when they took the meat off the smoker at 165°F.
It is best to cook the stuffing separately for optimum safety and even doneness.
If you want to smoke a turkey that is stuffed, these guidelines will give you the best results.
Do not stuff the ingredients raw into the bird.
Prepare the wet ingredients before time but do not mix them with the dry ingredients until right before you spoon the mixture into the bird's cavity.
If you prepare the stuffing prior, refrigerate it as soon as possible.
Do not be extra with the stuffing. Allow room for free heat circulation within the cavity. Approximately 3/4 cup of stuffing for every pound should be sufficient.
The stuffing should be moist, not dry. Heat will destroy bacteria faster in a wetter environment than in a dry environment.
Place your turkey on the preheated smoker as soon as it is stuffed and let it cook undisturbed.
At an internal temp of 165°F, take your turkey off the smoker and let it rest for around 30 minutes before taking out the stuffing or carving.
Wrap the turkey in aluminum foil and refrigerate the turkey no more than two hours after cooking to reduce the growth of bacteria. Leftovers should be stored in Tupperware and consumed in three to four days.
Reheat leftovers to 165°F.
The drippings will be packed with flavor. It would be a shame to lose it not to mention the clean-up job that would be waiting for you after you eat that yummy turkey.
Instead of letting it drip prepare a tray of your favorite vegetables. Include some chopped onion, celery, diced carrots, your favorite herbs, and a little stock.
Mix this up and lay it evenly on a drip pan where you will place the turkey rack.
The turkey dripping will shower all its goodness on your veggie tray giving you a nice gravy that is tough to resist.
I prefer this method to stuffing the turkey.
You should allocate about one pound of turkey per person. This is more than enough for the main meal and should leave you enough leftovers for breakfast sandwiches.
Leaving leftovers at temps of between 40°F-140°F for over two hours allows the bacteria to thrive at a rapid pace. This can not be undone by refrigerating or cooking. Stick to the two-hour rule.
Brining is the difference between "that turkey was okay" and "that was an awesome turkey".
If you prefer cooking at a slightly higher temperature on the smoker, brining will ensure you end up with soft meat.
Make my quick go-to brine by mixing salt, sugar, lemon juice, and a mix of fresh herbs. The exact amounts should be to your preference.
If you want extra sweet meat, add some more brown sugar and for a spicy brine, add in cayenne. If you like some citrus notes, lemons or oranges will do the trick and if you are feeling festive, some cranberries or rosemary will give an inviting aroma.
Here are a few more turkey tips for that extra kick of flavor:
The best way to baste turkey is to slide slices of butter beneath the skin before placing your bird on the smoker. Basting ensures the meat remains soft instead of getting dried out by the heat.
When smoking turkey, the thickest part, the turkey breast often ends up with a bland taste completely devoid of flavor.
To make sure flavor from your rub and brine gets into the breast meat, I recommend slicing the thick sections of the bird like the breast and thighs before you smoke the turkey.
This will also allow the smoky flavor to penetrate the breast meat and thighs.
Now that you know how to make a great brine and dry spice rub, let's smoke the turkey.
It depends on whether you want maximum crisp or a wood-kissed turkey. A smoking temp of 325°F guarantees a nice crispy skin while a temp of 225°F will ensure the bird is infused with smoke flavor.
Between these two temps, I recommend smoking at 325°F. Smoking at 350°F might be too high and might char the skin sooner than the deeper parts of the bird are finished cooking.
Be careful not to end up with rubbery meat and burnt skin with a high smoking temperature that will dry out most of the moisture.
Each time you smoke or grill you learn something new about it. Experiment with different temps and flavors till you are comfortable with the results. Above all, don't get lost in the details. Grab a cold beer and be sure to relish the day with your family.