Smoked Turkey Breast Side Up or Down: A Positioning Situation

November 23, 2022
Written by Kristy J. Norton

You should smoke a turkey breast side up if the heat source is at the bottom, however, smoke breast side down if the smoker has a heat source at the top.

One of the biggest arguments that my family got into at Thanksgiving was whether you should place smoked turkey breast side up or down. Every one had their own reasoning and it wasn’t until I got to culinary school that I learned the scientific reason for positioning a turkey.

To help you avoid your own arguments, I will show you the right way to position your turkey in the smoker. I will also be providing other smoking tips too. Let’s go!

Smoked turkey breast side up or down

Do You Cook a Turkey Right Side Up or Upside Down?

I get this question from people who have been smoking turkey for years – this is because it can be very tricky to know:

What side do you smoke a turkey on?

The thing to keep in mind is that a whole turkey contains both white meat as well as dark meat. On a turkey, the white meat is the turkey breast meat and the dark meat is found in the wings, thighs, and drumsticks.

As the turkey breast meat is thinner and more tender, it cooks faster than dark meat. So, you have to ensure that the turkey breast is as far away from the heat source as possible.

In this case:

How do you place a turkey in a smoker?

When you smoke a turkey, you smoke the turkey breast side up. This, of course, is provided that the heat source on your smoker is at the bottom. Otherwise, you would smoke breast side down.

The other benefit to cooking smoked turkey breast side up is that the dark meat will cook a bit faster than the turkey breast meat. Then, you will be able to take the turkey out when both the turkey breast meat and the dark meat are done to perfection.

Should You Ever Smoke a Turkey Side Down?

As I mentioned, if the heat source is at the top of the smoker, then yes, you should smoke breast side down.

Apart from this scenario, you are better off smoking breast side up.

Now, there are some people who believe that if you smoke a turkey breast side down that the fat from the dark meat can trickle down and add moisture to the delicate white meat.

The thing is, fat isn’t really absorbed by meat during the cooking process. A layer of fat can help to insulate the meat but that is about it.

Therefore, you should always smoke the turkey breast side up as long as your smoker allows it.

Do You Flip a Turkey Breast When Smoking?

This is another question I get rather often. This is because some recipes do instruct you to flip the turkey halfway through the smoking process.

In this case, though, the answer is no – for one thing, most turkeys are pretty heavy and this is not a chance that I would take.

For another thing, if you flip the turkey over so that it is turkey breast side down, you run the risk of drying out the meat.

Just leave the turkey breast side down and track the internal temperature. This is the best way to know how your turkey is getting on.

Smoked Turkey Breast

Butterflying: The Trick to Perfectly Smoked Turkey?

We have already answered the question of whether you should place the smoked turkey breast side up or down.

So, I am going to tackle an adjacent topic – is it worth it to butterfly or spatchcock your turkey before smoking it.

Now, in case you are wondering what this is, it is where you use a pair of kitchen shears to cut along either side of the turkey backbone – from the tail to the neck. This allows you to separate the turkey in the middle.

Flip the turkey over and place two hands on top of the turkey. Press down hard until you hear the bone break. Once you do this, you can rest the turkey flat in the smoker.

I know what you are thinking – all of this sounds pretty brutal so why on earth would you go through all this trouble.

Well, being able to lay the turkey flat means that the heat distribution is more even. So, you are able to smoke a turkey in this position more evenly. In doing so, you don’t have to worry about one part of the smoked turkey drying out before the other portions.

A Guide for Smoking the Perfect Turkey

Here are the guidelines to follow so that your turkey turns out just right each and every time:

Choose Smaller Turkeys

If you are catering to a lot of people, I know that it can be tempting to smoke a larger bird. The problem here, though, is that a big turkey will cook more unevenly.

This is why I prefer to smoke two or more turkeys instead of one large turkey.

Defrost the Turkey Completely

I know this should go without saying but the reality is that a lot of people run out of time and try to smoke a turkey that has only been defrosted partially.

To prevent this from happening, make sure to take the frozen turkey from the freezer and to place it in the refrigerator ahead of time.

On average, each five pounds of turkey will thaw at a rate of 24 hours. To ensure that I don’t cut it too close, I like to estimate that it is going to take a little longer.

If you don’t want to wait that long, use a cold water bath.

Place the frozen turkey in here, still in its packaging. Then, fill the container with icy water. Every 30 minutes, throw out this water and fill with fresh cold water. Do this until the turkey is completely thawed.

Brine the Turkey

This is something that I argue you should be done every single time. The thing about turkey is that it has very little fat in the meat. As such, the meat dries out very easily.

To prevent this from happening, gently blot the turkey with paper towels. Then apply kosher salt over the entire turkey, including under the skin.

Place a roasting rack on a baking tray and place the turkey on top of this. Then, refrigerate, uncovered, for about 24 hours.

Cooking Pot with Turkey Soaked in Flavored Brine

Let the Turkey Sit Out

Take the turkey out of the refrigerator about an hour before smoking it. This allows the turkey to get closer to room temperature so that it will cook more evenly.

Don’t leave the bird out for longer than this, though.

In the meantime, you can rub the turkey down with melted butter and a dry rub.

Use a Low Temperature

Never be in a hurry to smoke the turkey. Go low and slow for the best results. I like to smoke turkey at 225 degrees F but you can take it up to 250 degrees F if you like.

Use Mild Wood

I would suggest using something mild like apple, cherry, or maple wood chips when smoking turkey. Keep in mind that turkey has a rather delicate flavor and you don’t want to overpower it.

Of course, if you are using a pellet grill, then you will need to use pellets. On the other hand, if you are using a gas grill or electric smoker, consider using a smoke box for some added flavor.

Use a Meat Thermometer

Always use a meat thermometer so that you can track the internal temperature of the turkey as it smokes. This is what will help you to take out the turkey at the right time so that it won’t dry out.

Stick the thermometer into the thickest part of the turkey which should be the breast meat – however, make sure that the end of the thermometer is at least an inch away from the bone. This will avoid false readings.

Position the Turkey

Place the turkey in the smoker breast side up. Remember, this does depend on the direction of the heat source, though. If your smoker has a heat source at the top, then you need to keep the turkey breast side down.

There is no need to flip the turkey halfway during the smoking process – just keep the turkey breast side up or down as you did at the start.

Make sure to place a drip pan under the grates so that you can catch any juices.

Smoke the Turkey

Smoke the entire bird until the turkey breast meat internal temperature registers at 150 degrees F. Then, take your turkey out of the smoker and place on a cutting board.

Allow it to rest for about 10 minutes before carving.

Smoked Turkey

Wrapping It Up

There you have it – you now know whether to place smoked turkey breast side up or down! This means that you will never have to suffer from dry turkey again!

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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