Smoked and Dry-Brined Turkey Makes a Tender, Flavorful Showstopper

published Sep 24, 2022
Smoked Turkey Recipe

Smoking your turkey gives the mild-flavored meat a boost of flavor, the low cooking temperature helps retain the juices, and smoking frees up your oven for other dishes.

Serves8 to 10

Prep1 minute

Cook5 seconds to 6 seconds

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A photo of a whole smoked turkey with the breasts cut into slices, on a bed of apple slices and herbs, with vegetables on plates in the background
Credit: Meghan Splawn

When we needed more oven space last holiday season, I decided to give smoking our family’s turkey a try — and I’ll never look back. There are many, many reasons to smoke your whole turkey this holiday season: Smoking gives mild turkey a boost of flavor, the low cooking temperature keeps breast meat juicy, and smoking frees up your oven up for other dishes.

Smoked turkey doesn’t require any special prep, as you can dry-brine it just as you would a traditional roast turkey and you don’t need to baste or babysit a smoked turkey to get tons of flavor and moist, tender meat. However, you will need a smoker (or the tools to turn your grill into a smoker) and hardwood chips or pellets for smoking. 

Much like roasting, smoked turkey’s success starts with seasoning the bird in advance. A dry brine of kosher salt will help keep the turkey moist during cooking. Sprinkling the salt on the turkey helps pull out the juices, which turn into a salty liquid that’s then absorbed back into the turkey, helping it stay moist as it cooks.

After the dry brine, a spice rub is added for additional flavor. I like a combination of brown sugar, garlic and onion powder, paprika, dried ground mustard, and a little chili powder, but you could use your favorite no-salt-added spice rub or a combination of your favorite dried herbs and spices. The turkey should be seasoned at least 12 hours before smoking, but it can be prepped up to three days ahead. 

What’s the Best Temperature to Smoke a Turkey?

When you’re ready to smoke your turkey, aim to keep the smoker between 225°F and 275ºF. The ideal temperature for smoking a turkey is low and slow at 250ºF, but even the best smokers will have temperature fluctuations in the five- to six-hour cooking time.

Credit: Meghan Splawn

What Are the Best Wood Chips for Smoking a Turkey?

For the wood chips or smoker pellets, hickory or applewood are best for turkey. Pecan and cherry are also good choices. Generally speaking, a light- to medium-flavored smoke is best for turkey because you don’t want to overwhelm the mildly flavored meat.

How Long Does It Take to Smoke a Whole Turkey?

Plan to smoke your turkey for 30 minutes per pound of the whole turkey. This means a 10- to 12-pound turkey will take five to six hours to reach temperature — and don’t forget to rest your turkey for about 30 minutes before carving. Your turkey is ready to come off the smoker when the the skin is amber and the thigh registers 165°F. 

How Do You Smoke a Turkey and Keep It Moist?

Dry-brining and a low-and-slow cooking method will keep your turkey moist. Another tip? Rotate the turkey a quarter turn every hour to prevent one side of the turkey from drying out near the heat source or burner. Some smoker enthusiasts swear by basting the turkey, but I’ve found that, even with the butter baste, repeated opening and closing of the smoker can dry out the breast meat. Plus, the basting slows down the slow rendering of the turkey skin and makes the skin rubbery. 

Smoked Turkey Recipe

Smoking your turkey gives the mild-flavored meat a boost of flavor, the low cooking temperature helps retain the juices, and smoking frees up your oven for other dishes.

Prep time 1 minute

Cook time 5 seconds to 6 seconds

Serves 8 to 10

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 1

    (10- to 12-pound) whole turkey, thawed if frozen

  • 2 tablespoons

    packed light or dark brown sugar

  • 1 tablespoon

    garlic powder

  • 1 tablespoon

    onion powder

  • 2 teaspoons

    dried ground mustard

  • 1 teaspoon

    dried rubbed sage

  • 1 teaspoon

    smoked paprika

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    cayenne pepper or chipotle chili powder

  • 2 tablespoons

    canola oil

  • 2 tablespoons

    kosher salt

  • 1

    large apple, such as Gala

  • 1

    small yellow onion or white onion

  • 4 sprigs

    fresh thyme

  • 4 sprigs

    fresh sage

  • 5 ounces

    hickory or applewood smoking chips or pellets (2 cups)

Instructions

  1. If your 10 to 12 pound turkey is frozen, thaw it for several days in the refrigerator, or use a cold water bath to thaw the turkey more quickly. Here’s a guide to safely thawing a turkey.

  2. At least 12 hours or up to 24 hours before you plan to smoke your turkey, dry brine and rub the turkey: Place 2 tablespoons packed brown sugar, 1 tablespoon garlic powder, 1 tablespoon onion powder, 2 teaspoons dried ground mustard, 1 teaspoon dried rubbed sage, 1 teaspoon smoked paprika, and 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper or chipotle chili powder in a small bowl and stir to combine.

  3. Unwrap the turkey and remove the neck bones and giblets from the neck and body cavity. Drain off any liquid in the cavity, then pat the turkey dry with paper towels. Place the turkey on a baking sheet or disposable roasting pan.

  4. Season the turkey inside and out with 2 tablespoons kosher salt, making sure to season between the legs and breast. Coat the outside of the turkey with 2 tablespoon of canola oil. Season the turkey all over, including the cavity, with the spice rub. Loosely cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 12 or up to 24 hours.

  5. Uncover the turkey and let sit at room temperature for 1 hour before you smoke it. Meanwhile, cut 1 apple in half and peel and halve 1 small yellow or white onion. Place both, along with 4 fresh thyme sprigs and 4 fresh sage sprigs, inside the turkey’s cavity. Soak 5 ounces hickory or apple wood chips (2 cups) in water.

  6. Drain the wood chips. If your gas grill does not have a smoker box, place the chips in small aluminum foil tray. Cover the tray tightly with aluminum foil, then poke 8 holes in the foil with a knife to allow smoke to escape. Remove the cooking grate on one side of the grill, and place the tray directly on the heat plate (the triangular pieces). Replace the cooking grate. Light all of the burners, close the lid, and heat over medium heat until the wood chips are fragrant start to smoke, 10 to 15 minutes. Open the lid, reduce the outside burners to low, and turn off the center burner(s). Place the turkey over the unlit burners. Adjust the heat as needed to maintain a temperature of 225 to 275°F.

  7. Close the grill and smoke the turkey for 5 to 6 hours. Every hour, check that the smoker temperature is around 250°F and rotate the turkey a quarter turn, if possible, to ensure the turkey is smoked evenly. The turkey is ready when the skin is amber and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh (not touching the bone) registers at least 165°F.

  8. Remove the turkey from the smoker and rest for 15 minutes before carving. For full carving instructions, visit this helpful step-by-step guide.

Recipe Notes

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days.