Can I Smoke a Turkey the Day Before? A Talk About Time

January 25, 2023
Written by Kristy J. Norton

Yes, you can smoke your turkey a day before it needs to be served. It will then need to be refrigerated and then reheated when you are ready to eat.

This may not be very traditional of me but I always smoke my turkey for Thanksgiving. The problem is, it can take me almost half a day to smoke it. This can be a bit of an issue when I am also trying to smoke other meats for the big meal. This led me to ask myself, can I smoke a turkey the day before? So, I had to put it to the test!

In this post, I will show you how to smoke a turkey, store it properly, and reheat it the next day. Let,s begin!

can i smoke a turkey the day before

Can You Smoke a Turkey the Day Before and Reheat It?

Smoked turkey is a great alternative to the traditional dry, roasted turkey. The only issue, of course, is because this is a low and slow way of cooking that the cook time is a lot longer.

When smoking turkey, expect the bird to cook at a rate of 30 to 40 minutes per pound. This means that a 12lb turkey can take up to 12 hours to cook!

So, here is the question you might have:

Can I smoke a turkey and reheat it the next day?

Technically, yes you can do this. It is possible to smoke the turkey and then refrigerate it. Then, you will need to reheat it in the oven.

There are a couple of things to be mindful of, though:

One, the taste and the texture of the reheated smoked turkey are going to be quite the same as a just cooked turkey.

The other thing is that you are going to have to forego some presentation with a reheated turkey as well. This is because the skin will not look as brown and as appetizing as when the turkey comes out of the smoker.

As long as you are fine with these issues, I am going to show you how to smoke a turkey and then reheat it later on!

Tips for Smoking Turkey

Here are the main guidelines to follow when smoking turkey the first time around:

Choose Smaller Turkeys

I have always found that it is better to smoke two small or mid size turkey birds rather than one large bird. For one thing, the smaller birds cook faster.

They are also less drying out as the meat doesn't cook for as long.

Let the Turkey Defrost Fully

If you are working with a fresh turkey, then this is a tip that you can skip. However, if you are starting off with a frozen turkey, it is important to make sure that it is completely thawed before smoking it.

As you are planning on storing the turkey after cooking it, it is important to follow proper safety protocols here.

First and foremost, only ever defrost your turkey in the refrigerator. This way, the turkey will stay out of the danger zone, significantly reducing the risk of food poisoning.

Raw Thanksgiving Turkey with Veggies

Take the turkey out of the freezer and place it in a container with high sides. This will prevent the juices from contaminating any of the other food in the refrigerator.

Place this container in the bottommost drawer, at the very back. The turkey will defrost at a rate of 4 lbs per day. Therefore, if you want to cook a turkey weighing around 12 lbs, you will need to start defrosting it about 3 days ahead.

To stay on the safe side, I always like to take the bird out an extra day earlier to avoid being disappointed.

Butterfly the Turkey

This is why you should consider butterflying the turkey. This involves removing the backbone and then pressing down the turkey so that it lies flat.

The bird will smoke at a more even rate, preventing any parts of it from overcooking. This is important since you will be heating up the turkey again and putting it at risk of drying out if you aren't careful.

Yes, this does take some of the presentations out of your Thanksgiving feast. However, it does make things easier for the reheating process, though.

Brine the Turkey

The problem with turkey is that it is a pretty dry meat, to begin with. So, when you smoke a turkey, the chances of it drying out even further during the initial cooking process are quite high. To prevent this from happening, brine the turkey ahead of time.

It is pretty simple - simply sprinkle kosher salt over all the meat, including under the skin.

Then, place a wire rack on top of a baking tray. Place the turkey on the wire rack. This will ensure that air will circulate throughout the turkey, resulting in a nice, crispy skin.

Place the turkey in the refrigerator, uncovered. Leave it there for about 24 hours or until the skin is dry to the touch.

Use a Low Temperature

I know you may be trying to speed things up, but choosing a high temperature for your smoker is not the way to go.

As I already mentioned, it is pretty easy to dry out the turkey. This is why I always suggest choosing to let your turkey cook at no more than 225 degrees F. It really will not take that much longer to cook.

I also find that this creates a better smoke flavor too.

Track the Internal Temperature

As you may know, white meat like turkey breast cooks a lot faster than dark meat like the thigh. To add to this, turkey breast meat doesn't have as much fat and is likely to dry out faster too.

This is why it is important to take the turkey out when the turkey breast is 10 degrees away from being done.

See, when cooked meat is taken away from the heat source, it will continue to cook, often going up by as much as 10 degrees.

So, if you don't want your cooked turkey to be overdone, you need to take it out a little earlier.

Take out the turkey when the breast registers at 150 degrees F. The thighs do need to be cooked to a higher temperature but as I said, they will continue to cook.

I like to keep a meat thermometer inside the turkey at all times so that I can monitor the internal temperature more effectively. Make sure to keep the thermometer at least an inch away from the bone to avoid an incorrect reading.

Smoked Whole Turkey

Rest the Turkey

Just because you aren't serving your smoked turkey right away doesn't mean that you shouldn't rest it.

When you let your turkey rest, you are letting the meat reabsorb any juices or liquid that it has lost. You only have to let it rest for about 20 minutes.

Refrigerate Turkey Immediately After

Once you have given the turkey the chance to rest, it is important to refrigerate it. Wait until the turkey is warm but not hot. Never put hot food in the refrigerator as it causes the temperature in the entire cooler to drop.

By refrigerating the turkey as soon as possible, it can't enter the danger zone and you don't have to worry about it spoiling.

A Guide to Reheating Smoked Turkey the Day Of

Now that you smoked the turkey the day before, now it is time to learn how to reheat it:

Step 1: Take the Turkey Out

It is a good idea to take the whole turkey for about 30 minutes before you will put it in the oven. This way, the meat has a little time to warm up. In turn, it will reheat a little faster.

Never keep a cooked turkey out for longer than this, though.

Step 2: Preheat the Oven

Set the oven temperature to 225 F or 250 F and let it preheat.

Step 3: Wrap the Turkey

Take a roasting rack and place it on top of the baking pan. Place the turkey on top of the rack.

Place a thermometer on the breast.

Place a layer of aluminum foil over the baking pan and the turkey. It should be properly tented for the best results.

This way, the moisture gets trapped inside and the turkey doesn't dry out.

Step 4: Reheat the Turkey

Place the turkey in the oven.

Closely monitor the internal temp of the turkey, just like when you smoke a turkey.

Take the bird out when the internal temperature hits 150 F.

Step 5: Rest Turkey

Yes, once again, you need to rest the turkey. Simply remove the aluminum foil and let the turkey sit on the roasting rack.

After 15 to 20 minutes, you can slice and serve the turkey.

How Far in Advance Can I Smoke a Turkey?

Well, if you only want to refrigerate the turkey, then you can smoke the turkey about a day or two ahead.

In case you want to prepare the turkey way before this, though, you will need to freeze the turkey after smoking it.

Thanksgiving Turkey with Apples

Now, if this is something that you want to do, bear in mind that you can't just freeze the turkey. You will need to cut it up into various sections - breasts, thighs, etc. Then, each individual section will need to be frozen separately.

When you want to reheat a frozen smoked turkey, you will need to first defrost it completely. This should be done in the refrigerator.

Then, wrap each section in aluminum foil and reheat it in the oven.

Wrapping It Up

There you go, you now know how to smoke the turkey ahead of time and then reheat it when you need it. This is going to save you a lot of time and effort when it comes to preparing big meals in the future!

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
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