Smoked Turkey Legs: Dynamite Recipe and How-to Guide

November 24, 2023
Written by John Smits

Hey there, pilgrim! The key to incredible turkey legs is placing them in a wet brine for 6 hours or overnight, then smoking them for around 2 1/2 to 3 hours until the internal temperature hits 175 degrees F (or higher).

I'll never forget visiting Disneyland as a kid and eating the Disney smoked turkey legs. The massive theme park turkey legs inspired me, and as an adult, I've tried to recreate the magic in my own backyard. Using all my BBQ knowledge and every trick up my sleeve, I tinkered. Eventually, I came up with an amazing smoked turkey legs recipe that is better than any theme park.

Ready to smoke turkey legs that put that sad, dry, chalky Thanksgiving bird to shame? I'm dropping all the best tips and tricks for smoked turkey legs that are insanely juicy, incredibly tender and kissed with smoke.

smoked turkey legs

Smoked Turkey Legs Recipe

Turkey drumsticks infused with a smoky flavor are a show-stopper. If you've got guests coming over for the holiday season, make this recipe, and they might never leave! Here's a Thanksgiving host hack: the key to getting your friends and family out the door is to put on a Lions football game. (I say that as a Lions fan!)

Don't let the wet brine intimidate you. The fridge, spices, and time do all the hard work, infusing the meat with juicy goodness. Trust me. These legs are easier to cook than a whole turkey. They're faster than making a whole turkey, too.

Psst. C'mere. Can I trust you with a secret? The dark meat of a turkey leg puts white meat like turkey breast to shame. Dark meat is juicier. It's more tender meat. These giant turkey legs even have a built-in handle! Smoke turkey drumsticks just once for Thanksgiving, and I promise you'll start making them all year round. Grab some napkins and a wet nap or two. Let's get to cooking!

Serves: 8

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 2.5 to 3 hours

Recommended wood chips or wood chunks: Hickory, oak, pecan, applewood, or cherry wood. I prefer wood chunks to wood chips. I think the wood chunks burn longer and produce superior smoke.

Ingredients

  • 8 turkey legs (You can usually find them fresh during the holidays in the poultry section. Otherwise, grab some frozen turkey legs and let them thaw fully before smoking them. I'll drop complete thawing instructions in a bit.)
  • 2 quarts of cold water for the brine
  • 1/2 cup of brown sugar (Both dark brown sugar and light brown sugar work great.)
  • 1/2 teaspoon of Kosher salt per pound of meat. (I use Diamond Crystal Kosher salt.) Kosher salt is essential in the brining process. It locks in moisture and gives the smoked turkey legs flavor.
  • 1 tablespoon of garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon of onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon of smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black peppercorns. (Yes, freshly cracked black peppercorns are best). Avoid the pre-cracked stuff
  • Optional: 2 bay leaves
  • 1 cup vinegar-based BBQ sauce or your favorite poultry sauce, for basting or for serving
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 cup of your favorite dry rub
Raw Whole Turkey with Spices

Note: If you don't want to make your own seasoning mixture for the simple brine, more power to you! Instead, use 1/4 cup of your favorite BBQ rub to brine. I like the red Hardcore Carnivore seasoning blend. Make sure the rub has salt in it. Otherwise, add 1/2 teaspoon of Kosher salt to the party per pound of turkey. Add 1/2 cup of the dry rub to the turkey legs after you remove the turkey legs from the brine.

Recipe Instructions

  1. Make the wet brine solution. In a large bowl, combine the cold water, brown sugar, salt, garlic powder, onion powder, smoked paprika, black peppercorns, and bay leaves, if using. I think the bay leaves add a nice touch, but as always with cooking, choose your own adventure. You'll need a lid for the bowl - you want an airtight container. Place the turkey legs in the bowl and put the lid on it. The legs should be fully submerged. Stick the bowl in the refrigerator overnight or at least 6 hours.
  2. Get your smoker temperature set. Set up for cooking over indirect heat at 275 degrees F. Add some wood chips or chunks if you're using a gas or charcoal grill. (Wrap the chips in foil for gas.) Toss some wood chips on the coals if you're using a barrel, bullet, or kamado. Add the heat deflector to your kamado. If you're using a pellet grill, the pellets are the source of heat and smoke. A pellet smoker will not require adding wood chips.
  3. Prepare the turkey legs. Remove the turkey legs from the brine ingredients, and place the turkey legs in a disposable aluminum pan. Pat dry the legs with paper towels. You want your turkey legs nice and dry for crispy skin. Use as many paper towels as necessary until they aren't moist. Brush the turkey legs with olive oil, and apply the 1/2 cup of dry rub. Place the turkey legs back in the fridge until the grill is ready. The idea that you should let any meat come to room temperature before cooking is a myth. Cold meat attracts more smoke than warm meat. If you want your turkey legs to taste perfectly smokey, don't let them come to room temperature!
  4. Smoke turkey legs. Toss your turkey leg on the grill grates. Close the lid. Smoke the turkey legs for around 2 to 2 1/2 hours until the internal temperature hits 155 to 160 degrees F.
  5. Glaze the turkey legs, if desired. Apply 1/2 cup BBQ sauce or poultry sauce if you'd like. Let the turkey legs smoke for another 30 minutes or so. Reserve the remaining 1/2 cup of sauce for serving. Skip this step if you're not saucing. Close the lid. I prefer not to glaze the legs and offer dipping sauces at the table. I like the taste of the turkey legs without the sauce. You do you!
  6. Remove the turkey legs from the heat. The USDA recommends cooking turkey to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F. I like to take my turkey leg to an internal temperature of 170 degrees F. Take the temperature reading in the thickest part of the turkey leg. Check the temperature of each leg. Your cooker likely has hot and cool zones, so some legs might cook more quickly. Store cooked legs on a warming rack or in your oven at 175 degrees F. There are some in the BBQ community who let their turkey legs (and all dark poultry meat) reach an even higher internal temperature, closer to 200 degrees. Try the recipe a few times to find your ideal temperature!
  7. Serve the smoked turkey legs. Get your side dishes on the table and serve those smoked turkey legs! They don't really need to rest, but if you bite into a smoked turkey leg now, it'll be screaming hot. Let it sit for 5 minutes before diving in. Grab your nicest platter and put the legs on there. People eat with their eyes - make sure it's arranged nicely. Enjoy the flavorful meat of a turkey dinner!
Smoked Turkey Legs on the Grill

How to Set Up Your Grill For Smoking a Turkey Leg?

If you're not familiar with using your grill as a smoker, fear not! Here's a quick crash course on how to set it up. I promise a pain-free smoking process if you follow my helpful tips.

  • Electric smoker. Add some wood to the chip tray and set the dial to your desired temperature.
  • Pellet smoker. Fill the pellet hopper with your smoking wood of choice. Set the dial to the temp you want to smoke at.
  • Charcoal grill. Make a fire using a chimney starter full of charcoal briquettes. Once the coals are glowing, dump them on one side of the grill in the fire chamber. Add wood to the coals. Put the cooking grate on, then place the turkey legs on the side with no coals. Close the vents slightly to lower the temperature. Open them slightly to raise the cooker temp.
  • Gas grill. Only turn on one burner, and place a tinfoil pouch full of wood chips on the burner. Poke some holes in the foil with a skewer. Add the turkey legs to the grill, placing them over the burners that aren't on.
  • Bullet and drum smokers. Build a fire in a chimney, and dump the hot coals in the firebox. Add wood chunks to the fire. Suspend the legs from meat hooks, or place them on the cooking grate.

Use an Instant-Read Thermometer

I'm a broken record on this, but I'll say it again: a good instant-read thermometer is your best friend as a home chef. There are cheapies that work, but invest in a good one, and you'll never look back. If you buy a cheap one, confirm it works by boiling some water in a large pot. It should read 212 degrees F unless you're at a really high altitude.

The Thermapen is considered the gold standard thermometer in the BBQ community. Again, take the temperature of the smoked turkey legs where the meat is thickest for best results.

An old-fashioned meat thermometer will also do the trick, but c'mon. It's the 21st century. Grab an instant-read thermometer already! Also, meat thermometers aren't great for temping multiple pieces of meat. It takes too long to get a reading.

What to Serve With My Smoked Turkey Leg Recipe?

The sky is the limit when you're cooking additional fixings. Traditional holiday fare, like cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes with turkey gravy, green bean casserole, and of course, pumpkin pie, are all slam-dunks. No Thanksgiving would be complete without a sweet potato casserole topped with brown sugar. According to my wife. (The brown sugar makes this dish too sweet for me!)

Macaroni and cheese, coleslaw, and baked beans are some other options.

How to Store Leftover Turkey Drumsticks?

In the unlikely event that your friends and family didn't scarf up all the smoked turkey legs, you can store leftovers in a container in the fridge. They'll be good for 3 to 4 days. If you can't eat it within that time, stick the leftovers in the freezer. They'll stay good indefinitely, but food that's been freezer-burned tastes nasty. Eat the turkey within 2 to 6 months and avoid the burn!

Roasted Turkey Legs with Tomatoes, Cherry and Olives on Cooking Pan

How to Thaw Frozen Turkey Legs?

Don't ruin your holidays by waiting to thaw those turkey legs until the last minute! "How do I thaw my turkey?" is a question that comes up every November. Here's how to do it:

In the Fridge

This is generally viewed as the best thawing method, as the refrigerator thaws food very evenly. Stick the turkey legs in the fridge in their original packaging. The legs should thaw in 24 hours. Make sure the packaging is well sealed. If it isn't, stick a disposable aluminum pan under the legs, or you'll have turkey juice all over your refrigerator. That's a food safety no-no.

In the Sink

Place the stopper in your sink. Fill the sink with cold water. Place the wrapped turkey legs in the water. Add ice cubes every 30 minutes - the goal is to keep the water temperature below 40 degrees F. Under 40 keeps you away from the "danger zone," temperatures at which bacteria multiply rapidly. Monitor the temp.

This method is faster, and your legs should thaw in 2 hours, depending on their size. Stick the legs in the refrigerator when they're done thawing until you're ready to cook them.

In the Microwave

I do not advise defrosting turkey legs in the microwave. The heating is wonky, and you'll have some areas that start cooking while others remain frozen. Sorry, gang. The technology just isn't there yet.

FAQs

1. Is Smoked Turkey Leg Good?

Yes, smoked turkey legs are absolutely magical. There's a reason everyone at a Renaissance festival is walking around with one. (Okay, they look cool too. But trust me. They're incredibly tasty.)

Seriously moist dark meat that's insanely tender? Smokey flavor from the apple wood (or whatever wood you use)? Crispy, crackling skin? Yes, please!

2. Are Pre-Smoked Turkey Legs Fully Cooked

Indeed, pre-smoked turkey legs are fully cooked and ready to eat. Your best bet is to warm them up on a grill before eating. You can also warm them in the oven. But you know me - I'm a grill guy. My above recipe is for fresh, uncooked turkey legs. Not the pre-smoked turkey legs.

If the pre-smoked turkey legs are frozen, let them thaw before you reheat them for the best results. They don't need to be cooked to a specific internal temperature. Just warm them until they're a temperature you'd like to eat!

3. Why Are My Smoked Turkey Legs Tough?

There are a few reasons why your turkey drumsticks are tough. They could be undercooked. If the legs taste rubbery, they're probably undercooked. Throw them back on the grill. Again, use a thermometer to know when they're actually done.

The turkey legs could be overcooked, too. If they're very dry and tough, the legs are likely overcooked. You can't uncook them. Try adding some gravy, pesto, mayo, or another fatty liquid that's packed with flavor. It'll help those legs go down easier.

Perhaps you skipped the brine. Dry brining and wet brining help meats retain more moisture. That means they taste juicier. You should dry brine or wet brine all your meats for the best flavor and taste.

Smoked Turkey Leg with Orange Slices

Wrapping It Up

Okay, gang, there it is! Everything you needed to know about cooking some smoked turkey legs that rival any theme park. The key is a wet brine, then getting the legs on your smoker or charcoal grill and letting the smoke roll over the meat for 2 1/2 to 3 hours.

You can't rush perfection. Let the turkey legs cook fully before removing them from the pit. Remember, these legs cook faster than a whole bird, so if you're looking for a relatively quick solution for an incredible Thanksgiving dinner, look no further! Happy grilling.

By John Smits
John bought his first home in 2012 and bought his first grill shortly afterward: the ubiquitous Weber kettle grill. He’s been hooked since the first time he fired up some coals. Now, after over a decade spent making countless delicious meals, John is a passionate advocate for live-fire cooking.
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