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How to Smoke a Turkey
There are many great ways to cook a turkey, but my favorite is smoking. The number one thing you are going to need is time. Smoking is a slower cooking process than roasting so make sure to read through the whole process before starting and do the math to get the timing right. Since this might be the only time you prepare a turkey, it is a good idea to have everything mapped out well in advance, but don't worry, the results will be worth it.
The supplies you are going to need:
One Turkey (preferring less than about 18 pounds/8 kg)Continue to 2 of 11 below.
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Preparing the Fire
Smoking a turkey isn't a quick method, but it is amazingly flavorful. It requires a cooking time of about 30 minutes per pound at a cooking temperature around 235 degrees F/115 degrees C to get the bird cooked through. Make sure that you build your fire accordingly. I am smoking a 13 pound/6 kg turkey so I will be running my smoker for about 6 1/2 hours, but I will plan on 7 just to be on the safe side.
However, you can smoke your turkey at 250 degrees F/120 degrees C to reduce the cooking time a little. Plan on 25 minutes per pound at this temperature. This is a better strategy for larger turkeys since it reduces the amount of time that bacteria can potentially grow.
I suggest lightly oiling your cooking grate. As you get the turkey ready, keep an eye on the smoker and make the necessary adjustments to hit the target temperature.
I do not recommend smoking a very large turkey. A turkey over 20 pounds/9 kg will take a long time to cook. During this time, bacteria might get the upper hand and spoil your bird. I would suggest that if the turkey weighs over 15 pounds, that you cook it at 250 degrees F/120 degrees C.Continue to 3 of 11 below.
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Catching the Drippings
If you plan to make gravy and need to catch the drippings from the turkey as it cooks, then place a pan under the bird. I suggest a disposable aluminum pan that is bigger than your turkey. Pour about 4 cups/1 liter of water into the pan to prevent the drippings from drying out and burning during the smoking time. Most of this water will evaporate during the process, so check on it late in the cooking time to make sure there is still water in it. Add more water as needed.
If you are not using a smoker with a water pan, this pan of water will help add moisture to the smoking chamber. For poultry, it is a good idea to smoke in a moist environment.Continue to 4 of 11 below.
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Preparing the Turkey
Prepare the turkey by removing the neck and giblets from the inside. If the turkey is brined (see brining turkey), make sure to rinse it off thoroughly. If not, rinse the turkey anyway to make sure it is good and clean. Inspect the bird for both freshness and loose pieces that need to be trimmed.
The wings of the turkey tend to dangle on the sides. To prevent them from overcooking and drying out, pin them to the body of the bird with a toothpick. It is also a good idea to take the skin from the neck, fold it and pin it down with another toothpick. A tightly packed bird is a good idea, but there isn't much need to worry about the other parts.
I really do not recommend stuffing your turkey for smoking. This increases the cooking time (about 5 minutes a pound) and puts a lot of food in contact with potential bacteria. For smoking, it is best that your turkey is able to cook from the inside as well as the out.Continue to 5 of 11 below.
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Before the turkey goes in the smoker you will want to add some flavor to the bird. This is best done with a spice rub. You can use your favorite ingredients in this rub, from dried spices to fresh herbs to the zest of citrus fruit. What remains important is applying these flavors where they are most beneficial; this means under the skin.
Note: If you want to baste the bird later, set aside a tablespoon or two of the rub.
Starting where the leg connects to the body, slip your hand under the skin and loosen it as much as you can around the breast and body of the turkey. Push your turkey rub into this space and spread it out evenly. Work the rub into as many meaty areas as possible, as well as the body cavity. I typically prepare a lot of the rub and put whatever I can't get under the skin in the body cavity. As the moisture from the bird mixes with the rub it will steam the inside with flavor.
To give the turkey, I nice color once it is cooked, sprinkle the outside of the bird lightly with paprika. This won't provide much flavor, but it helps to give the turkey a rich color.Continue to 6 of 11 below.
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The smoker consistent temperature for the duration of the cooking time is very important. Now this isn't as strict as it would be with more traditional barbecue, but consistency is important. You can smoke your turkey anywhere between 200 and 275 degrees F/95 to 135 degrees C. I recommend staying above 235 degrees F/115 degrees C, to control bacteria and reduce the cooking time. There is no real benefit to cooking at a lower temperature than that. You can cook at a higher temperature, but anything above 275 degrees F/135 degrees C isn't going to give the smoky flavor and tenderness you would want from a smoked turkey.
This is where your smoking experience is going to pay off. Your turkey will cook slower at higher elevations and weather will play a big role in the cooking time. The type of smoker used also changes times and temperatures. Because of this, all I can offer is suggestions of the cooking time. You may need to adjust the cooking temperature up or down to hit upon your dinner time (also plan on an additional 15 minute rest time before you carve).
At 235 degrees F/115 degrees C, your turkey will take 30 to 35 minutes per pound.
At 250 degrees F/120 degrees C, your turkey will take 25 to 30 minutes per pound.
At 275 degrees F/135 degrees C, your turkey will take 20 to 25 minutes per pound.Continue to 7 of 11 below.
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Placing the Turkey
Place the turkey in the smoker where the smoke can flow evenly around all sides. It should be placed squarely over your drip pan so as can catch all the drippings (and help keep your smoker clean). If your smoker is an offset model or otherwise puts out more heat on one side than the other, then you will need to rotate the turkey every two hours to make sure the bird cooks evenly.
I smoke my turkey breast side up for the entire smoking time. You can flip the bird over during the cooking time, but I haven't found an advantage to doing this.
When oven roasting a bird it is a good idea to cover the breasts with foil during part of the cooking time. This is to prevent the skin from burning or drying out. Because smoking takes place at a lower temperature this won't be necessary.
With the turkey on the smoker, now is a good time to clean everything to prevent cross-contamination with anything that has come in contact with the bird.Continue to 8 of 11 below.
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With the smoker hot and the bird on the cooking grate, it is time to build up a good dose of smoke. Meats absorb more smoke early on during the cooking process than it does later, so now is the time to get the smoke going.
Any wood (except maybe mesquite) is a good choice for your smoke. I like a mixture of hickory and cherry. This gives a strong smoke flavor from the hickory and a sweet flavor from the cherry wood. Of course, whatever you like is the way to go.
If using large wood chunks, you don't need to soak the wood. However, if you are using smaller wood chips, I would recommend soaking them first. This slows down the burn rate and gives a longer, more consistent smoke. Make sure you shake off as much water as possible. Wood chips should be damp but not dripping.
Once the wood is placed into the smoker, close it up and watch the temperature. Unless you need to rotate the turkey during the cooking time there isn't any reason to open the smoker for several hours. Keeping the smoker closed holds in the heat and the smoke, so don't waste it by opening the smoker excessively.Continue to 9 of 11 below.
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Basting the Turkey
If you want to baste your smoked turkey, wait until the last hour of the cooking time to begin. Anything added on the skin of the turkey is going to have a hard time getting to the meat so I recommend waiting until nearly the end to baste.
The ingredients for the baste depends on your preferences. I usually set aside a tablespoon or two of the rub and mix it with two tablespoons of melted butter and two tablespoons of olive oil. The butter and oil will give the turkey a shiny appearance and add some moisture to the skin (which probably looks a little dried out at this point). In addition, adding some sweet to the baste gives the surface of the turkey a candied flavor. I dissolve a tablespoon of dark cane sugar into the melted butter. Since our cooking temperature is low the sugar won't burn, but watch to make sure that the temperature doesn't rise far above 265 degrees F/130 degrees C (the burning temperature of sugar).
Apply the baste onto every inch of the surface of the turkey, including the insides. If you want to do a lot of basting, double my recipe and repeat after 30 minutes, giving the first coat time to sink in.Continue to 10 of 11 below.
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Checking the Temperature
As the end of the cooking time nears, you need to check the temperature. A turkey is a complex collection of meat so checking in one place isn't going to do it. You need to check both sides of the bird and in both the white and dark meat.
Look for the center of the breast and push the meat thermometer into it, but avoid getting it on the bone. Bone heats faster than meat and will give you a false reading. Next, check the thigh between the leg and the body. Now do the same thing on the other side. The lowest reading is the one you use. You are looking for an internal temperature between 175 and 180 degrees F/80 to 85 degrees C (this isn't your final temperature). When the lowest temperature on the bird reads this temperature it is time to get the turkey out of the smoker. Make sure to have a large platter or cutting board and some aluminum foil ready.Continue to 11 of 11 below.
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Resting the Turkey
Resting is the secret to juicy, tender, properly cooked meat. Resting allows the heat to even out (bring up the cooler parts and cooling off the hot spots) and, most importantly, lets the meat relax. Under heat, meat contracts and squeezes out the juices. By letting the meat rest before you cut into it, the meat can reabsorb some of the moisture. So let your turkey rest.
For a full sized turkey, the resting period should be about 15 minutes. Make sure to tightly cover the turkey to hold in the heat and moisture while it rests. Put it someplace warm and without a draft so that it can rest adequately. Once the resting period is over you may start carving. If you are running early and need to let the turkey rest longer than 15 minutes, cover it with some kitchen towels for added insulation. The heat of the bird will keep it warm.
When you are ready, remove the covering and start carving. Remember the primary rule: The cook gets the first slice. Now you will know why you smoked this turkey.