Learning the Ins and Outs of Smoking a 20 Lb Turkey

March 27, 2023
Written by Kristy J. Norton

Sure, roasted turkey may be your go-to method for preparing your bird, but you should certainly give smoked turkeys a try – the smoke flavor is unbeatable.

Now, smoking a 20 lb turkey is not a joke but with my help and tips, you can do it.

The following post will show you how to roast a whole turkey of this size and get it right. Let’s begin!

Smoking a 20 Lb Turkey

Is It Safe to Smoke a 20-pound Turkey?

Let’s first talk about safety – can you safely smoke a 20 pound turkey?

Well, this is a bit of a tricky issue. According to the USDA, you should only smoke a turkey that is between 8 and 12lbs.

This is due to the danger zone – a range of temperatures between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the perfect range for bacteria to flourish.

hot bbq whole turkey

Now, the issue with smoking a turkey is that you are following a low and slow cooking process. This means that the meat will be cooking at a lower temperature for a longer period of time. This can potentially increase the risk of food poisoning.

So, should you smoke a whole turkey of this size?

Well, that is entirely up to you! You can give it a try, but be aware of the consequences.

What is the Best Weight for Smoked Turkey?

I would say that smoking a big bird is a major commitment and most pitmasters would agree. The ideal weight for smoked meat would be around 12lbs, no larger.

As mentioned, you absolutely can smoke a 20 pound turkey, but it is going to require effort on your part.

A Note About Smoking Large Turkeys for the First Time

As I have heard so many disaster stories, I feel honor bound to advise you against trying out smoked turkey recipes for the first time just before a major event like Thanksgiving or Christmas.

When smoking a bird of this magnitude, there is a lot of room for error. Therefore, I would suggest giving it a try beforehand or at least trying to smoke a turkey that is close in size to what you are hoping to prepare.

When is a Turkey Done?

Contrary to popular belief, when smoking turkey, it isn’t just about keeping track of the clock. Rather, you need to pay attention to the internal temperature of the turkey. It needs to register at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit to be considered safe to heat.

Now, you can technically cook the turkey past this point as dark meat can still taste good at 180 degrees Fahrenheit. That being said, it is a good idea to take the turkey out of the smoker out at 165 degrees. This is because the turkey breast meat and other white meat cooks faster than the rest of the bird. Leave it in too long and you will end up with dry meat.

If you’re curious about how to check the internal temperature of a turkey, the answer is to use a meat thermometer. An instant read thermometer can also work just as well. However, you have to take the turkey out of the smoker to use it.

Understanding the Smoking Rate

Now, lets talk about at what temperature you should smoke a 20 pound turkey and for how long you will need to do this.

How Long Does It Take to Smoke a 20 lb Turkey at 225 Degrees?

At 225 degrees, a turkey of this size will cook at a rate of 30 to 40 minutes per pound. This means that the overall cooking process can take anywhere from 10 to a little over 13 hours.

smoked turkey on a table

How Long Does It Take to Smoke a 20-pound Turkey at 250 Degrees?

When you go up to 250 degrees, then you naturally cut down on the overall cooking time. At this point, the turkey will cook at a rate of about 20 to 30 minutes a pound. Thus, it may take anywhere from 6.5 to 10 hours until the smoked turkey is done.

How Long Does It Take to Smoke a 20-pound Turkey at 275 Degrees?

If you are smoking a turkey of this size at 275 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, then it can cook in as little as 15 to 20 minutes per pound. As such, it can take anywhere from 3 to 7 hours long to smoke the bird.

What Should the Smoker Temperature Be?

The above cooking times show you the rate at which you can smoke turkey, but what temperature should you set your smoker to?

Well, I would aim for around 250 or 275 degrees. While, 300 degrees will get the job done faster, it is important to remember that turkey is a lean meat and does not have much fat. This means that there is less protection against higher temperatures, increasing the risk of dry meat.

When Should You Check the Turkey?

This is another question that I get quite often. So, you know at what temperature you need to smoke the bird and how long to smoke it for as well. However, when do you know when the smoked turkey is actually done?

As tempting as it can be to keep checking on the turkey in your electric smoker, don’t do this! Every time you lift the lid, you release heat and cause cool air to rush into the smoker. This causes the smoker temperature to drop, resulting in a turkey that takes even longer to smoke!

From the above values, you have a rough idea of when your 20 pound turkey should finish cooking. About an hour or so before, check the temperature of the turkey. Depending on how close it is to being smoked, check the temperature every half hour or 15 minutes until it has reached the desired value.

A Guide to the Perfect Smoked Turkey

Here are the top tips to follow to ensure a delicious smoky flavor and perfect texture with your smoked turkey:

Defrost the Turkey Completely

Considering how long it can take to thaw a 20 pound turkey, it can be tempting to try and prep or cook the bird straight out of the freezer. I wouldn’t advise this at all, though.

For one thing, smoking a frozen turkey can take a lot longer to cook all the way through. It can add several hours to the cooking process. You also have to remember that the meat may remain in the danger zone for a longer period of time as well, increasing the risk of food poisoning.

One of the main reasons that you should always use a thawed turkey is that a frozen bird will cook unevenly. This means that certain spots may be done while other spots are undercooked or overdone.

On average, the turkey will need 24 hours of defrosting time per 5 pounds of meat. This means that you will have to let the bird defrost several days in your refrigerator. Never leave the turkey out on the counter for more than an hour at a time.

Brine the Turkey

As mentioned, the likelihood of your turkey getting dry in the smoker is high. Due to this, I would recommend brining the turkey around 24 hours beforehand. This will add some much-needed moisture to the bird and prevent it from drying out.

Now, some people will suggest a brine solution, but when dealing with a 20 pound turkey, this isn’t possible. Not only do you need to find a container or bucket large enough for the bird, you will also have to find a refrigerated space to fit this container.

It is also great for getting tasty, crispy skin.

turkey on a bbq grill

Dry brining a turkey is quite easy. Use a tablespoon of kosher salt for every 5 pounds of meat. Pat turkey dry and sprinkle the salt evenly over the turkey. Gently rub the salt into the meat. Refrigerate for up to 24 hours before the smoking process.

Don’t wash or dust off the salt before seasoning or smoking the turkey.

Don’t Stuff the Turkey

I know, I know you’re probably outraged at this point – after all, what is a Thanksgiving turkey without stuffing? However, when smoking a whole turkey, you have to leave the turkey cavity bare. There are two reasons for this.

First, as you will have noticed, it takes a while to get a fully cooked turkey in a smoker. Due to the low temperature, the middle of the turkey isn’t going to get hot enough to cook the stuffing. The second reason is that smoked stuffing doesn’t taste great at all.

Dont worry, though, your turkey can still have lots of delicious flavor. This is all due to the rub that will be discussed below…

Use a Rub

For a well seasoned turkey, pick any herbs and spices that you desire. My personal favorites are garlic powder, cayenne pepper, onion powder, paprika, and cumin powder. Of course, you can feel free to add lemon pepper, black pepper, and anything else that sounds good to you.

You can apply the rub after the brining process or along with the brine. It works great either way.

When using the rub, make sure to work it under the skin as well as in the turkey. Use the leftover to pat over the skin.

Use the Right Wood Chips

The wood chips don’t just add a wonderful smoke flavor, they can also flavor the turkey in other ways. This is why you should add wood chips with a flavor that you like best.

I would suggest that fruit woods like apple are your best bet. Not only is the flavor delightful, but these burn at a lower temperature. Thus, there is less of a chance of drying out your 20 pound turkey.

turkey served for dinner

Keep a Pan of Water in Smoker

Maintaining keeping the smoker moist – or at least the surrounding environment, you can help to keep the turkey meat moist as well.

Simply fill a roasting pan with cold water and place it beneath the grill grates. You can choose to replenish the water as it evaporates.

How to Smoke a Turkey?

Here is a step-by-step guide on how to smoke a 20 pound turkey:

Step 1: Brine the Turkey

Pat dry turkey with paper towels. Sprinkle kosher salt over the bird and gently rub it into the turkey. Make sure that every inch is covered. You can also apply the rub now or later. Place in the refrigerator for around 24 hours.

Step 2: Prepare the Smoker

When you are ready to smoke the turkey, use a chimney starter to light the charcoal. Once they are lit, scatter the wood chips across.

Set the temperature to 250 and 275 degrees. Make sure that the smoker temperature is maintained throughout.

Before placing the turkey in the smoker, fill a roasting pan with cold water and place it under the grill grates.

Step 3: Season and Arrange the Turkey in Smoker

Remove the turkey from the refrigerator and apply the rub if you already haven’t.

Place turkey breast side up on the grates. If using a probe thermometer, instead now. Place it into the breast and make sure it is an inch away of any bones.

Close the smoker lid.

When the whole turkey is cooked halfway through, flip it onto its back. Close the lid and cook until done.

Step 4: Let the Turkey Rest

Remove the turkey from the foil and place it on a large strip of foil. Gently wrap the turkey and let it sit for up to 20 minutes. This allows the juices and flavors to permeate throughout the turkey.

Here is everything that you need to know to smoke a 20 pound turkey – from how long to smoke the bird to how to get the perfect flavor and texture. Sure, this can be a daunting affair but follow these guidelines and your job should be a little easier.

Well, good luck to you and have fun tackling this monster of a bird!

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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