Could you imagine a Thanksgiving dinner without a plump and juicy turkey? Probably not. This delectable bird has become the traditional main dish, but every year people across the country stress out over cooking the best bird. One of the hardest parts about serving up turkey is cooking it just enough so it stays tender and moist while also being safe to eat. Undercooked or overcooked turkey can ruin the whole meal. That is why you might consider learning how to smoke a turkey this year instead of doing the usual oven roasting.
Smoking a turkey is ideal if you have a grill. It offers an easy way to ensure your turkey cooks to perfection and will taste amazing alongside your mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, and other fixings. Knowing how to smoke a turkey could take your Thanksgiving from bland to grand. Plus, learning this skill makes it less work to cook a turkey, so this treat isn’t just something you relegate to enjoying just on Thanksgiving. Perhaps at your next summer cookout, you can slap a turkey on the grill.
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How to Choose a Turkey
Before you can learn how to smoke a turkey, you have to learn how to choose the right bird. The most important factor when choosing a turkey is to choose one that is big enough to serve all your guests. Eat This, Not That suggests planning on at least six pounds of meat for every four guests. If you want to have leftovers, The Kitchn explains increasing the pound per person calculation to one pound per person.
You may also wonder about the meaning of all the different terms found on turkey packaging. There are many different ways to describe a turkey. Some are just buzzwords that tell you very little about the turkey but may appeal to someone looking for the healthiest option. Since so many shoppers are concerned these days about added hormones and the living conditions of the turkey, companies play into this by using terms that can be confusing.
Fresh and frozen
Fine Cooking defines some key terms you may find on turkey packaging and explains what they mean to clear up any confusion. The first terms to note are referring to how the turkey has been kept since processing, but they are not completely clear. Fresh, for example, does not mean the company recently processed the turkey and brought it directly to the store. It just refers to the fact that the company never held it below 26 degrees. Frozen is more straightforward. It alerts you that the company kept the turkey below zero degrees. If the company chilled the turkey between zero degrees and 26 degrees, the label will say hard-chilled or previously frozen.
Beyond those basic terms, you may also see words like organic, kosher, free-range, and natural. Some of these do have specific meanings while others are more generic. Organic, for example, is a regulated label. A company cannot use this term on a label unless a USDA agency certifies it. In addition, the company must have raised its turkeys on 100 percent organic feed with no hormones or antibiotics and given the turkey access to the outdoors. Kosher is important for those of the Jewish faith. It means a rabbi supervised the processing of the turkey. It also guarantees the turkey is antibiotic free and was allowed to roam free. Finally, kosher turkeys come pre-brined in a salt solution.
Free-range and natural are a little more indirect in their meanings. Free-range only means the turkey had access to the outdoors. It does not mean the company allowed the turkey to roam freely all the time without any caging. Natural just means there was minimal processing using no artificial flavors, dyes, or other ingredients.
One last label is self-basting. It’s becoming more common. It tells you that during processing, the company injected or marinated the turkey with a solution. It may be fat, broth, water, or other flavor enhancers. The idea behind these turkeys is to help you when cooking so you do not need to baste the turkey to keep it from drying out.
How to Smoke a Turkey
Now that you have your turkey picked out, you are ready to learn how to smoke a turkey. There are several steps before you get to the actual smoking. Just as with roasting or any other method of cooking, you need to start with properly preparing the bird.
The most time-consuming part of making a turkey is defrosting. Most people will buy a frozen turkey. If you have one, then you need to plan on defrosting. It takes a while to do this, so make sure you know how long it will need. Taste of Home recommends you allow 24 hours of defrosting time per 4 pounds of turkey. Since your bird will likely be double, triple, or quadruple that size, you need at least a couple days to accomplish this.
You have to ensure the turkey thaws completely before you begin cooking it. Cooking without proper thawing may lead to underdone meat, which can make you and your guests quite sick. Another way to avoid sickness is never to thaw the turkey on the counter. Always thaw in the fridge. If the turkey is not kept at the proper temperature, bacteria may grow. You should keep a thawed or fresh turkey in the fridge for only one to two days to prevent bacteria issues.
The next step in how to smoke a turkey is brining. Brining is when you marinate the turkey in a salty solution. That helps lock in moisture to keep your turkey juicy and tender. Do not skip this step. Like defrosting, it does take time. You should brine for at least 12 hours, but 24 hours is best. Make sure to add this to your pre-smoking prep time.
You can make a simple brining solution by mixing one gallon of water and 1/2 cup of salt. Submerge the turkey completely in the brine. Always brine in the fridge. Again, leaving the turkey at room temperature for too long can lead to bacteria growth. One last note — make sure the turkey you buy is not pre-brined. If it is and you brine it, it will turn out very salty and be inedible. You don’t want to waste all this time learning how to smoke a turkey to have it end up horrible because of double brining.
The last step before you get to how to smoke a turkey is trussing it up. According to Twist’d Q, trussing helps to prevent burning of the legs and wings. To truss, you need butcher’s twine. Tie together the legs and secure the wings by folding them under the bird and wrapping them with the twine.
Now that you have prepped your bird, you can move into learning how to smoke a turkey. You want to prepare your smoker by heating it to about 250 or 275 degrees. Add your wood chips and let them char before you put in the turkey. You want to do a final bit of prep before putting on the turkey. Put it in a roasting pan with the breast up and brush it with oil. You can then add any seasoning you want. Smoke the turkey at a temperature between 250 and 300 degrees. Add more wood chips as needed to keep the temperature within range.
The final step in how to smoke a turkey is to ensure it is at the right temperature. It needs to be around at least 165 degrees. Make sure you stick the thermometer deep into the meat without touching any bone. Remove the bird from the smoker and let it sit. You want to let it sit for at least 15 minutes, but up to 45 minutes is fine. Letting it rest ensures the juices distribute, so when you carve it, they do not run out.
To Stuff or Not to Stuff
You’ve learned how to smoke a turkey, but you may still have one lingering question. Should you stuff it or not? That’s a common question and often debated topic. Alton Brown is firmly against stuffing a turkey. He suggests baking the stuffing outside the bird instead because it is too difficult to get the stuffing to the right temperature without drying out the bird.
Michigan State University explains it takes far less time to cook your turkey unstuffed. If you do stuff, you need to realize that bacteria may get stuck in the stuffing, which is why you must ensure it reaches 165 degrees. However, the meat will cook much faster, leaving you with the option to serve dangerous, uncooked stuffing or a dry bird. Furthermore, experts do not recommend stuffing a turkey when you will smoke it because it is too hard to get the stuffing to a safe temperature.
If you do want to stuff the turkey, do so loosely. Also, do it just before you begin cooking the bird. If you are concerned about flavor in your stuffing, which is the reason why so many people prefer to cook it in the bird, just put the cooked stuffing in the bird when it is resting after cooking. You can also stuff the bird with other things, such as herbs or oranges.
Turkey Cooking Tips
You’ve learned how to smoke a turkey and have made your decision about stuffing the bird. You may be tempted to run right out and get to work to see if what you have learned about how to smoke a turkey results in an amazing bird. Before you get to cooking, here are some helpful tips to consider.
You must be aware of safe handling procedures for raw poultry. Anywhere or anything that touches the raw bird could become contaminated. For this reason, never thaw or set your bird directly in the sink. If you set it on the counter, make sure to wash down the surface completely. You should also avoid washing the turkey as this will just lead to the spread of possible contaminants. Finally, always wash your hands well after handling raw turkey.
When you are preparing the bird, make sure not to forget to remove the giblet pack and neck. You will find them tucked inside the turkey cavity.
During brining, you can use additional additives besides just water and salt to infuse your turkey with flavor. Consider adding in brown sugar, apple cider vinegar, herbs, or wine.
Choose your wood chips careful because they will add flavor to your turkey. Match them to whatever else you have used to season and flavor the turkey. You can find a wide range of chips in different wood types. You might want to do a little research into the flavors they each give off. Before you use them, make sure that you soak them in cold water for at least four hours before you put them in the smoker.
Finally, while you have no doubt been told and had drilled into you that you must baste a turkey, ignore all that advice. When you cook in an oven, the atmosphere is such that you have to baste the turkey or it will dry out. When you learn how to smoke a turkey, you will discover there is no need to baste. The low heat of a smoker does not dry out the bird. In addition, if you baste it, you will lose heat every time you open the lid. That means it will extend the cooking time. So, it is best not to baste when you smoke.
Reasons to Smoke a Turkey
The most popular way to cook a turkey is roasting it in the oven. Roasting is the traditional option, and it does have its perks, such as allowing you to maintain the cooking temperature very easily. However, once you learn how to smoke a turkey, you will discover smoking injects flavor that roasting cannot. In fact, you will season less when smoking because of this.
Smoking also results in a turkey that is moister than roasting. It also keeps the meat more tender. The low convection heat of the smoker locks the juices in whereas roasting is a higher heat that pushes the juices out. That’s why you must baste a turkey when roasting and not when smoking.
Finally, when you learn how to smoke a turkey, you have the chance to free up space in your oven. If you are making the turkey on Thanksgiving, you know how many side dishes you have to make, too. Having your full oven space just for side dishes is very helpful. Plus, depending on the size of your grill, you can cook more than one turkey or a turkey and other meat, such as ham or brisket, at one time. It just makes things more convenient.
Time to Eat
So, you have all the knowledge you need to know how to smoke a turkey. Whether you decide to wait for Thanksgiving or go ahead and smoke a turkey today, you will not be disappointed at the results. Knowing how to smoke a turkey is a valuable skill that will surely help you become the go-to person when it is time to prepare a tender, juicy bird for any party or celebration.