Smoking Basics: How to Smoke a Turkey
Thanksgiving Turkey at its Finest
It’s turkey time again, and this year why not smoke your turkey? Smoking a turkey is not as difficult as it appears, in fact - in many ways, it’s much simpler to smoke your turkey than the traditional oven-roasted bird.
There are several ways to enhance your turkey, from brining to basting (and I’d highly recommend brining your bird), but today let’s look at the easiest way to smoke a turkey: a simple spatchcocked turkey.
- Turkey (size of your choice, this was a 20 lb. turkey)
- BBQ Rub (again, use your favorite - I made my own combining Cajun spices and other BBQ flavors)
30 minutes active
2.5-3.5 hours cook time
3-3.5 hours total
1. Spatchcock (Flatten) Your Turkey
Begin with the butchering of the bird - spatchcocking is a term used to describe the process of removing the spine of a chicken or bird. The benefit in doing so is it will promote a quicker and more even cooking process. And for me, personally, I believe it's easier to carve when all said and done.
Start by removing the spine - I used a cleaver to break it out, however, some heavy-duty poultry shears are your best bet for this process.
Cut down both sides of the spine in order to remove it, then flip the bird spine-side down and *crack* the breast bone in order to flatten the bird completely.
2. Season the Turkey
Choose your favorite BBQ rub for your turkey - I used a combination of Cajun seasoning with a popular BBQ rub. When it comes to seasoning, you almost can’t overdo it - season it very liberally in order to get plenty of salty skin on the outside to contrast the rather plain taste of turkey.
3. Smoke the Turkey @ 275° for about 3 hours
My favorite smoker, The Marshall, is easy to use - but if you don’t have an offset smoker, set up charcoal on one side of your grill and place your turkey on the opposite side so it’s not directly over the heat. I used a combination of hardwood lump charcoal, with some cherry wood chunks. Lump charcoal will serve as your fuel, while the hardwood chunks add the delicious smokey flavor - it's important to note, you shouldn’t overdo it on the wood chunks. If you were to smoke using all hardwood, your food would taste like a campfire (e.g. not good). The flavor of wood you choose is up to you, I love fruitwoods (apple, cherry, pecan) but if you use oak, hickory, or something else it will still be great. The time it takes to smoke, unfortunately, is hard to predict. Use the table below as a guide/reference but not as a hard rule - instead, be sure to get a good thermometer and know the bird is done when the deepest part of the breast is at 160°, and the thigh at 170°.
How Long to Smoke a Turkey
|Whole Turkey (@ 275°)||Spatchcocked Turkey (@ 275°)|
|12 to 14 lbs.||2.5 to 3 hours||2 to 2.5 hours|
|14 to 18 lbs.||3 to 3.5 hours||2.5 to 3 hours|
|18 to 20 lbs.||3.5 to 4 hours||3 to 3.5 hours|
|20 to 24 lbs.||4 to 4.5 hours||3.5 to 4 hours|
4. Allow Turkey to Rest and Prepare to Carve
The final product should look something like the turkey below - the deep brown in mine is reflective of the Cajun seasoning used. When you pull the turkey off the smoker, allow it to rest for about 10-15 minutes to let it cool before carving. As you prepare to carve the turkey, I think it helps to imagine the bird in its individual sections. See the image below to get an idea of the cuts we’ll make.
5. How to Carve a Turkey
- Start with the wings - they are connected to a “shoulder” joint near each breast, so you’ll want to carve just below the bottom of the breast and go inwards to find that joint/socket to make an easy cut through to remove each wing.
- Remove the thigh & drumstick from the body by finding the crease/crevice between the thigh & breast. Cut through that crease and at the bottom you will again run into another “shoulder” joint - the easiest way to cut through it is to find the socket and cut through it. With the thigh & drumstick removed, you can separate the two by once again finding their joint.
- Finally, remove the two turkey breasts by finding the breast bone in the center of the bird. On each side, you’ll want to carve straight down the breast bone until you reach the rib cage. At that point, angle your knife (roughly 45°) and follow the rib cage to the edge. You should get the whole breast removed at once, but if there’s a little meat left behind you can certainly carve it off.
Your final turkey “sections” should be as follows: (2) thighs, (2) drumsticks, (2) breasts, & (2) wings.
From here, you have a much more manageable job in carving the turkey. You can cut the turkey breast into smaller slices (don't slice the long way - slice them across the grain.) The thighs, wings, and drumsticks are all dark meat - usually, I just pull this meat off the bone and chop the skin into smaller pieces in order to mix it all in. But I would also highly recommend eating the drumstick like you would a chicken wing.