Michael On Everything Else

Smoked Turkey

Freedom From Want, Norman Rockwell, 1943

Smoking a turkey is one of the easiest and tastiest ways to prepare a holiday turkey. It adds rich and deep flavor to the bird and is a nice alternative to the tried-and-true brining and roasting.

Another good thing about smoking the turkey is the process is largely hands-off. Once you get the bird in the smoker, you simply monitor it to make sure the temperature remains stable and that's it!

The smoker I use is my grandfather's old Brinkman Sportsman. It's small and simple and all I need. It's probably as old as I am and as you can see, has been enjoyed for years. I've used it to smoke turkey, duck, and fish.

Here are my tips for a great, smoked turkey:

  • Let the turkey come to room temp before putting it in the smoker. This helps ensure the meat cooks evenly.
  • Pat the turkey dry with paper towels before prepping it. Water is a heat-sink and will slow the cooking process and also possibly lead to uneven cooking.
  • Liberally apply salt and pepper to the entire outside of the bird as well as into the cavity. You don't need to stuff butter under the skin or inject the meat with anything. S&P is all you need!
  • Truss the bird to help achieve a uniform shape and thickness, which helps with even, consistent heating.
  • Season the water to impart subtle flavors to the skin and meat
  • Use freshly-cut, green wood for smoking. It imparts much better flavors than store-bought chips
  • Don't use Matchlight charcoal, as it imparts a "lighter fluid" flavor
  • Cover the meat with foil and let it rest after you've removed it from the smoker.
  • Keep good notes on what you do each year so you know what worked and what didn't.

Here is the full process I used this year:

5 lbs of lump charcoal
14 Pound Turkey
4 chunks of wild cherry wood, about four inches thick and six inches long
1 Pear
1 Onion
1 Cup bourbon
Several large sprigs of thyme

Cook time: ~6 hours until the temperature reaches 165°F


Bring the turkey to room temperature before you begin.

Pat dry the inside and outside with paper towels.

Liberally add salt and pepper to the entire outside and inside of the bird then add your ingredients to the cavity. I've used apples, oranges, pears, whole-bean coffee, onions, garlic, etc. I usually try to use something that will add moisture. Fruit does that nicely, just be sure to quarter it so you expose surface area to the heat.

Now you can prepare the water. The water slowly evaporates and coats the turkey and adds flavor to it, so I like to flavor the water. I've used whisky, white wine, cider, and always fresh herbs like thyme, oregano, marjoram, bay-leaf, etc. As the water evaporates, it will carry the flavors into the skin and meat of the turkey.

I use a charcoal chimney starter to light the charcoal, rather than using lighter fluid. Once all the charcoal in the chimney is lit, I pour it into the smoker and add the rest of the 5-pound bag and place all the wood on top of the charcoal.

About the wood

If you can cut wood from a living tree, you'll get the best flavor from it. You can use cherry wood, hickory wood, apple wood, etc. Hell, you can even mix and match. If you can't get wood from a living tree, soak your wood over night so that it's fully water-logged. Otherwise it will burn too fast and not provide enough smoke for a long enough period of time to fully flavor your meat.

This year I didn't get fresh, green wood and instead used left-over wood from last year that I soaked in water for 24 hours. The smokey flavor was much less pronounced and more subtle, something that may be desireable if you won't want a strong, smokey flavor.

Once you have the smoker set up and the bird in it, just check the smoker temp every hour to make sure you aren't losing heat too fast. Five pounds of lump charcoal will burn for over six hours but watch your temp and know when it peaks, indicating the half-way point of effective heat. Just don't open the smoker unless you're losing too much heat. The last thing you want to do is open the smoker and let all the heat, smoke, and moisture escape.

The end product should have a beautiful color and a deep, rich, smokey aroma. Too bad this isn't a scratch-n-sniff picture:

I've kept good notes most of the times I've smoked a turkey. I started with just a regular hand-written recipe book but I've since graduated to Evernote because I can add pictures and links to past notes.

I take a picture of the temp with my phone each hour and keep that in the Evernote so I can see how the temperature is progressing compared to previous years. This helps me to aniticipate when the bird will be done, based on previous years' experience.

Here is a picture of the first, hand-written notes I kept: