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Sara Hansen

Expert Tips On How To Smoke Whole Turkey The Right Way

As many will agree, turkey is a delicious meat that should not be reserved only for the holidays. Especially when it’s actually one option of affordable cuts of meat to choose from any time of the year.

But, because it is a delicate meat compared to beef or pork, turkey does take some extra attention to ensure you don’t turn it into a dried-out chunk. Below, we’ve covered some pro tips on how to smoke whole turkey straight from champion pitmasters to help ensure you are smoking a turkey everyone will be wanting seconds of. Let’s take a look:


10 Tips For Smoking A Turkey Whole:

Here are some tips straight from the pitmasters to help you smoke some delicious turkey every time:


Buy Fresh For Better Flavor

To get the best flavor and juiciness, avoid a frozen bird from your big box grocery store and opt for fresh turkey from your local butcher. They can help ensure you get the freshest meat possible, decide on a size, and more. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Plus, with fresh turkey, you won’t have to worry about waiting forever for a frozen turkey to thaw.


Prep the Turkey Properly Before Brining/Seasoning

Before you start thinking about brining and seasoning your bird, you have to ensure it is prepped properly. Make sure to trim off the excess fat deposits and remove the neck and giblets from the body cavity. Then, rinse the bird thoroughly inside and out. 

You also want to carefully separate the skin from the turkey’s breast area. This will allow you to apply seasoning directly to the breast meat and then reposition and secure the skin with toothpicks.


Brine the Turkey to Keep It Tender

Like chicken, turkey is a leaner meat. So, it is important to brine the turkey before smoking it to ensure it stays moist and tender. Because brine is salt-based, it works to tenderize the meat, break down muscle, and increase moisture absorption. The best brines have a 1-to-1 ratio of water to salt.

The minimum amount of time you should brine the bird is 3 hours. Make sure to rinse it thoroughly after it is done brining and dry it well before seasoning. Ensuring it is thoroughly dry will prevent the skin from turning rubbery while cooking the turkey.


brining turkey | smoking a turkey | tips for smoking a turkey
Source: Betty Crocker


Go For a Savory Seasoning (But Not Too Much)

Turkey is a versatile meat that does well with a variety of seasonings. Remember, you want that delicious smoky flavor to still come through so you don’t want to overpower the meat with too much seasoning. You could go with just a simple rub of salt and pepper, make your own homemade savory rub (think the addition of rosemary, garlic, etc), or opt for a delicious premade rub just for turkey. 

Don’t forget to put the rub on the walls of the turkey’s body cavity to help season it from the inside as well.


Don’t Stuff the Turkey

When you’re smoking a whole turkey, don’t try and stuff the bird. Either cook the stuffing separately in your smoker or grill or go for oven-cooked stuffing. It takes longer for heat to make it to the center of the turkey. So, if you try and stuff it, the turkey breast will be over-cooked and dry by the time the stuffing is done.


Be Careful With the Wood

Of course, the wood (whatever shape or size you are using for fuel) that you put in your smoker or grill is what produces the delicious smoke that will help flavor the meat. But, depending on the flavor of wood and how much you use, it is possible to overpower your turkey and ruin the taste.

So, make sure to use a type of wood that has a complementary flavor to the mild protein that turkey is. Most often, fruit woods like Apple or Cherry are going to be the best options because they are milder in flavor. Oak or Hickory are also options, but because they have a stronger flavor you shouldn’t use nearly as much. Even combining a fruitwood with Hickory is a delicious option but make sure to lean more towards the fruitwood in the combo.


Don’t Forget a Drip Pan

One thing you want to make sure you have on hand when smoking a turkey is a drip pan. Placing a drip pan underneath the turkey will catch the drippings and minimize cleanup. Even more importantly, doing this will prevent the juices from burning at the bottom of your cooker and possibly causing a flare-up. The last thing you want is black smoke from burning juices to ruin the taste of your bird. 

Using a pan also means you’ll have some delicious drippings to use for homemade gravy. You can even fill the tray beforehand with chopped herbs, carrots, onions, celery, and stock for some extra-tasty additions to use.


smoking a turkey with a drip pan | how to smoke whole turkey | tips for smoking turkey
Source: Weber Grills


Monitor the Meat Temperature

If you’ve read any of our other articles on cooking specific meats, you may have noticed a common theme. It’s more important to cook by internal meat temperature and not by time. The same goes with smoking turkey. 

As mentioned above, turkey is a delicate meat that can overcook easily if you’re not monitoring it. Make sure you have a good remote digital thermometer to use to constantly monitor the internal temperature of the turkey. If you only have one, place it in the breast, which is the thickest part of the meat. Even better is if you use a dual-probe thermometer with one probe in the breast and the second probe clipped to the grate. This will allow you to monitor the internal meat temperature as well as the internal temperature of your smoker, without having to open the cooker. 

Bonus tip: Avoid constantly opening the cooker to check on your meat. Doing so can cause the internal temperature of your smoker to fluctuate and draw out the cooking process.

According to the USDA, turkey is safe to eat when all parts of the bird reach a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. So, once your turkey has reached 160 degrees, remove it from your cooker. The internal temperature of the meat will still rise another 5 degrees or so, bringing it to safe temperature, without you overcooking it.


Don’t Be Afraid of Some Pink Turkey Meat

If you’ve cooked your turkey to temperature and you discover some of the meat is pink on the inside, don’t panic! As the USDA states, “turkey can remain pink even after cooking to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F. The meat of smoked turkey is always pink.”

So, as long as you use an accurate meat thermometer and the internal temperature of your bird has reached 165 degrees, it is perfectly safe to eat. 


Use a Rotisserie Attachment If Possible

One way to ensure even cooking and smoke flavoring for your whole turkey is to use a rotisserie attachment in your smoker or grill. This will keep the bird turning at a constant rate and allow the smoke to evenly coat all parts of the turkey.

Check out our article on rotisserie cooking for some valuable tips to follow when using a rotisserie attachment.


rotisserie smoking turkey | how to smoke whole turkey | tips for smoking a turkey
Source: Serious Eats


Start Smoking Turkey You Can Be Proud Of Today

Smoking a whole turkey doesn’t have to be intimidating or overly complicated. Just make sure to give yourself plenty of time for proper preparation and cooking. By following the tips above, you’ll be well on your way to smoking a whole turkey that will easily impress your family and friends.

If you are going to be smoking a turkey for your Thanksgiving dinner, make sure to also check out our article on cooking your holiday whole meal on the grill!

Are you planning on smoking a whole turkey soon? Know of any other good tips? Let us know in our comment box below. We want to hear from you!


For a great step-by-step video recipe for smoking turkey, check out our tell-all Championship Backyard BBQ class on Brine Smoked Turkey with Pepper Jelly Glaze!

For even more insider secrets, smoking and grilling techniques, and more, join our Champion Grillmasters and Pitmasters in the one-of-kind online BBQ classes here at BBQ Champs Academy. Master cooking all kinds of meat in your smoker or grill today.

Make sure to also check out our YouTube channel and hit “Subscribe” to get all of the latest BBQ news and insider info straight from the pros!

Sara Hansen

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