You Can Do It!

So You Want to Smoke a Turkey This Thanksgiving

We asked some experts (they run smokehouses) how to do it right this Turkey Day.

By Timothy Malcolm November 12, 2020

Look, anything close to this is great.

Thanksgiving is around the corner, but what's your plan? Maybe you're not visiting family this year. Maybe you're worried about going into a restaurant. Maybe ... just maybe ... you want to try something a little different and finally go through with smoking a turkey.

Our suggestion: Do it.

"I always tell anybody, if they want to try it and do it, absolutely," says Brett Jackson, pitmaster and owner of Brett's BBQ Shop in Katy, who's smoking 38 turkeys for customers this Thanksgiving (sorry, the orders are already filled). "You're only gonna get better at smoking any type of meat with practice."

We talked to Jackson and Patrick Feges, pitmaster and co-owner of Feges BBQ at Greenway Plaza (which is smoking turkeys for Brennan's of Houston and turkey breasts for Feges customers) about how to smoke a turkey, and they gave us some tips. Here's what you need to know:

Prepare in Advance

First, a smoker (whatever kind) is the best piece of equipment for smoking a turkey. That should be obvious. If you don't have one, you could pop it on the grill, but you'll have to pay far more attention. More on that in a moment.

Second, be sure that bird is thawed before it goes in a smoker (or else it'll just take longer). The United States Department of Agriculture recommends thawing in the refrigerator, allowing a day for every four to five pounds of weight. That means your 12-pound bird should be in the fridge three days before cook day. A turkey is safe for two days when thawed, so you can (and maybe should, to be sure) refrigerate the bird four to five days before cook day. But don't thaw the turkey in room temperatures or outside. Don't put it in plastic. You can run it under water or microwave it, but you must do that the day you're cooking, just before putting it in the smoker. Really, your best bet is setting the wrapped turkey in a large pan, putting it in the fridge, and not worrying about it for a few days.

Third, brining is always a good idea. "Anybody that's doing it, especially for the first time, I would highly suggest brining," says Jackson. "It keeps moisture in the bird and it gives it more leeway," you know, because if you overcook it, at least that juicy flavor is locked in a bit more. 

An easy brine process:

Simmer one quart of water with a cup of kosher salt, and stir until salt is dissolved. When thawed, unwrap the turkey, remove the giblets, and put the bird in a large pot with aromatics (things like lemon peel, orange peel, rosemary, thyme, allspice, cinnamon, peppercorns, cloves—the world is your oyster). Dump the quart of warm water into the pot, then dump in another three quarts of cold water. Cover and refrigerate for up to a day.

So, to recap: For a 12-pound turkey that you're cooking on Thanksgiving, thaw in refrigerator from Saturday to Tuesday, brine Wednesday morning, and fridge it Wednesday to Thursday morning.

You could also rub the inside of the bird with a special seasoning mix. Jackson likes salt, pepper, and a little granulated garlic.

Oh, and it may behoove you (if you're a first-timer) to smoke a trial turkey the week before Thanksgiving. That way if you make mistakes, you know what to do for the big day. Also, heck, extra turkey!

Next, get your propane, charcoal, and/or wood chips ready. Have enough to last the entire cooking process. Wood preference? "I like to stick with oak or pecan," says Jackson. "But for turkey, I recommend a lighter wood, like apple, peach, or cherry, as opposed to mesquite or hickory. Any kind of white meat will take on that smoky flavor a lot quicker."

How to Cook It

Well, it's easy. Just put the turkey in the smoker.

Okay, get to about 250 degrees F in the smoker, though a little under (225) is fine. A little over (275) is okay, too, but remember that if the temperature is hotter, the cook time is likely to be a little shorter. At 250, your cook time should be between six and nine hours for a 12-pound bird—about 30–45 minutes per pound, though that's never always perfect and should be used more as a guide. 

To that end, Feges cautions against being too scientific about it. He suggests adding an hour or two to your estimated cook time, just to be safe. Remember, no two meats are the same. "Think of it like roasting it in the oven," he says. And if it doesn't seem to be going well, just throw it in the oven to finish. 

Jackson says he likes to cook the legs facing the fire for 70 percent of the cook. Then he flips the bird and finishes the cook with the breast side down. "It helps the darker meat and the light meat all finish at the same time," he says.

Of course, spritz the turkey with a half-and-half combination of apple juice and apple cider vinegar every 30 to 45 minutes. That keeps it hydrated so it can better absorb the smoke.

Keeping the turkey in a pan with roasting vegetables isn't a bad idea at all. Jackson suggests adding the pan closer to the end of the cook (maybe when you flip it over to finish the breast), since a pan in the smoker that entire time will collect a lot of smoke, and you don't want those bitter juices all over the turkey.

Feges likes to take the turkey out when its internal temperature reaches between 145 and 155 degrees F. "We cook to where it's just done," he says. "Remember the smoke turns the meat pink. You don't have to cook a turkey to 180 degrees or 190 degrees."

To Grill?

If you don't have a smoker and want to try your hand at smoking on a grill, be cautious. "Doing it on the grill is possible, but it's gonna be really hard," says Jackson.

First, manage those flames. Keep the turkey over indirect heat, or else you're bound to scorch the bird. "It's not gonna cook even, and you're gonna end up with a lot of burnt skin," he adds.

Better yet, Feges suggests breaking down the brined turkey if smoking in a grill, something he did a few years ago at an employee Thanksgiving party at the late Southern Goods. "We spatchcocked it (a technique of butterflying meat to spread it out) and grilled it some," he says.

"If you do break it down, you don't overcook the breast when you finish the legs," Feges adds. "You can cook 'em all separately and perfectly."

Trust (and Love) the Process

The best part about smoking turkey (or any meat) is that you get to be outside with a beer while fragrant meat cooks slowly. 

"You're not gonna be able to replicate what your favorite barbecue restaurant does ... Okay, you may, sure ... but people take it so seriously," says Feges. "Barbecue is supposed to be fun, and Thanksgiving is about being with friends and family. Everyone is just hanging outside by the smoker, drinking beer and throwing wood on the fire. If the smoked turkey isn't as good as whatever restaurant turkey, it's not a big deal. Your friends and family are gonna like it anyway, or at least lie to you about it."

Jackson adds that it's all about trial and error. Take it from a guy who smokes everything he can at his Katy pit: Fun is the most important thing, even if you screw up.

"Sometimes your errors lead to even better things," says Jackson. "And there's nothing better than accidentally coming to something better." 

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