Don't bogart that turkey!
November 18, 2011 11:13 AM   Subscribe

Have you smoked a turkey for Thanksgiving? Want to give me the benefit of your experience?

I recently acquired the Masterbuilt 30" electric smoker, which I fell in love with when I encountered one (and the food it produced) at a meetup in Portland. I have successfully smoked some salmon, and some almonds, and a whole chicken, so I kind of have the hang of it. But I'd love your advice and tips for rubs, temps, and times.

The turkey will be approximately 14 pounds. I will be brining it. My plan is to set the smoker at 250 F, but I don't know exactly how to calculate the time it will take. Thirty minutes per pound? Forty-five? Basically, if we want to eat at about 4 pm, what time do I need to put the turkey in?

And dry rubs. Smoking the turkey will, obviously, bring flavor to it, so a rub isn't absolutely necessary, but if you have a recipe that's made people weep tears of joy when they eat your turkey, please share.
posted by rtha to Food & Drink (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I smoke a turkey every year for Thanksgiving, and it always turns out amazing.

1. You're really going to want to brine that sucker. The salt will flavor the meat and keep it 10 times juicier. I use a simple brine of 1 cup Kosher salt and 1/2 cup sugar for a gallon of water. I make 2 gallons of brine and brine the turkey in a 4 gallon stock pot for at least 48 hours before the event. I also add 3 T curing salt (that I have on hand from making sausage) per gallon of water. This gives the turkey a sort of ham-like flavor that pairs very well with the smoke. You can easily omit that if you don't have it or don't eat nitrites. I usually don't add any other flavorings to the brine, the smoke flavor pretty well overwhelms them.

2. I get up at 7:00am to prep the turkey. I remove it from the brine, rinse it off, and put it on a drying rack. I pat it dry with paper towels, and put a fan in front of it while I'm soaking the wood chips, heating the smoker, etc. Drying the skin beforehand helps you to get a crispy, mahogany skin. I also rub the skin with a few T of olive oil right before going on the smoker, this also helps with the browning. I try to have the turkey on by 8:00.

3. Mesquite wood is the all-time best smoking wood for turkey bar none. It has a unique flavor that just blends perfectly with the meat. Lesser (but still quite good) choices would be apple or hickory.

4. I smoke the turkey for 6 hours, which means 3 or 4 rounds of wood chips. I don't think there's a lot of benefit to smoking longer than this. Meat absorbs smoke best when it's cold, and 6 hours is plenty smokey. The turkey usually isn't quite done in the middle at this point, though. I put it in a roaster and then into a 350 degree oven until it's finished. This can take another hour or two, there are a million variables so it's pretty difficult to predict.
posted by TungstenChef at 11:31 AM on November 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

I smoked a turkey for Christmas one year. Some tips:

Brine with a mixture of sugar and salt, and set the bird to dry in the fridge the night before smoking it. This will help form the pellicule that the smoke will adhere to, and the sugar will help temper the saltiness. Brining is also where I would add additional flavour with onion, bay leaves, etc. But honestly, for a first time smoking a turkey, I wouldn't add anything to the brine.

Unless the final presentation is super-important to you, spatchcock the turkey (i.e: split it down the backbone and lay it out flat) to smoke it. You will get better smoke coverage and it will be done somewhat faster.

Plan on at least 6 and a half hours to smoke, assuming you can regulate the temperature to a "hot smoke" environment. Me, I put mine on the charcoal smoker at 11 am and served it at 6pm. If you're really worried about it being done, plan to smoke it for 5-6 hours, and give yourself an extra hour to pop it in the oven to "finish", if the internal temperature of the meat isn't what you would like it to be.

If you're a frugal person like me, avoid the temptation to make broth or soup from the bones. Smoked turkey broth is nasty.
posted by LN at 11:35 AM on November 18, 2011

Remember to roast a pan of parts separately for gravy drippings.

Make sure you get a fresh turkey, or at least one that hasn't been injected with saline. And not Koshered (though you could skip brining if you get a Kosher bird).

Put herbs and seasonings into your brine! Sage, rosemary, thyme, and a few juniper berries and peppercorns is a nice traditional mix.

Best practices for brining something so big: Use a high-quality ice chest (continuously add ice, this is easiest) or a 5 gallon bucket (use just water, make room in your fridge, take out shelves if possible).
If you're not doing this in the fridge, have a thermometer attached so you know if your brine goes above 40F or so. Use a plate to weight the turkey so it is submerged.

Resting: I like to let a brined bird dry uncovered in the fridge for at least half a day to get the skin surface thoroughly dry. When it has a kind of leathery translucent look, it'll be prime for smoking up into crisp skin.

Plan for 35 mins/per pound at 235F. I would consider 250F to be too hot, and would set it for more like 225 or 235. Plan for the turkey to be done around 3:30, so you can rest it. Baste with butter occasionally (or drape the breast with fatty bacon, if you want super-smokey turkey. It is excellent, though maybe not for Thanksgiving dinner)

Resting is super important. Tent it with foil and let it just sit for half an hour or so to let the juices distribute if you want to keep the meat moist and delicious.

Keep your sides simple - smoked turkey is powerfully smokey, and can fatigue the palette. A mix of simple-bland (mashed potatoes without a bunch of flavorings other than butter and milk) and simple-sharp (lemon- and vinegar-dressed vegetables) helps spread it around. Good luck!
posted by peachfuzz at 11:36 AM on November 18, 2011

Must must must brine. Long slow cooking is bad about drying out poultry (but is magic for pork, etc). It's also not great for crisping up the skin.

Next time I smoke a turkey, it's getting a 24 hour salt/sugar/sage brine, followed by an hour uncovered in the fridge, followed by an hour on the counter. Smoke to doneness* followed by 15 minutes in a high-heat oven to crisp the skin. TC's routine of higher roast-to-smoke ratio is good too, and cuts down on the done-time uncertainty.

* You will want a probe thermometer. You really don't want to go over when you're already cooking for so long anyway.
posted by supercres at 11:37 AM on November 18, 2011

I mostly followed this recipe last Thanksgiving and it was delicious. I rubbed the outside of the turkey with butter and then put it on one of these vertical roasting stands. That sat in a cake pan full of white wine and vegetables. I basted the oustide periodically with whatever was in the cake pan.

Those links are focused on cerimic smokers, but I think everything should still apply to the electric. The part about putting the breasts on ice made the whole bird finish cooking at the same time.

This year I am going to try my regular BBQ spice rub which is 2 parts black pepper, 2 parts kosher salt, and 1 part cayenne pepper.
posted by Uncle Jimmy at 11:37 AM on November 18, 2011

These recipes sound great. My family just orders from Greenberg every year but now I'm tempted to try doing my own.
posted by shoesietart at 11:59 AM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

As per others, plan to finish in the oven; you don't want the smoke flavor to be overpowering or acrid. However, don't worry about trying to crisp the skin. It will be an amazing mahogany color, and you'll be tempted to eat it, but I'm afraid the texture and flavor won't be very appealing. That's the trade off of smoked turkey: delicious meat but nigh-inedible skin.

Another benefit: By not trying to crisp it up under high heat you'll avoid the risk of burning the skin.
posted by jedicus at 12:28 PM on November 18, 2011

Don't know where you are located, but if you are in a place that has cold weather, that electric smoker will probably have trouble getting up to temperature. Buy some reflectix to insulate the smoker. You might not need to insulate the entire smoker, but a strip or two around it might help with the temp.
posted by toddst at 12:32 PM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm amused by how similar everyone's turkey smoking technique is, but puzzled by a couple differences. My smoked turkey stock has never turned out disgusting, it's always on the salty side but it makes a mean pot o' beans or gumbo. Also, my turkey skin has always been delicious, smokey and salty and crunchy. I always have to stop myself from eating it all when I carve the sucker. I wonder what I'm doing differently?
posted by TungstenChef at 12:48 PM on November 18, 2011

Seconding toddst regarding the cold weather. Wind and even reasonably cool temps can make it a bitch to keep the temperature regulated in the 'low and slow' zone. Start earlier than you think you need to so that you're not waiting for the bird to finish while everything else is done. Finishing in the oven will definitely help (as jedicus says).
posted by jquinby at 1:03 PM on November 18, 2011

I agree with just about everything TungstenChef said, except I've found that dry wood chips work better in that smoker. Also, I've run it in 45-50 degree weather with no appreciable difference in results or cooking time - though the thermostat might have cycled on more often to keep things at temp, using a bit more electricity.

You'll definitely want to keep the temperature in the 200-225 range max, depending on how patient you are. 190-200 is even better. Low'n'slow, baby, low'n'slow!

Finally, you can probably find something similar to this probe thermometer in a local store; get the end of the probe as close as possible to the center of the thickest part of the turkey meat, close the smoker door on the cable, and connect it to the thermometer sitting on top of or near the smoker. Set it to trigger the alarm at 160 degrees. When it goes off pull the turkey out and let it "rest"...wrapped in towels in a closed cooler or in a barely-warm oven is best; the residual heat will bring the center temp up to the minimum-recommended 165 degrees for poultry. Or finish it in the oven, as other folks have suggested; in which case you'll probably want to pull the turkey out of the smoker sooner. Either way, you don't need to let it go much over 165 internally.
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:31 PM on November 18, 2011

I did it last year for the first time, and I'm in the midst of trying to remember what I did and how I did it.

The book I'm currently leading through says 11-13 minutes per pound at a medium grill heat (325-350), another says three to four hours. Thigh up to 160-170 internal temp. Don't try to smoke the turkey without a digital thermometer. I have a probe with a long wire that connects to an external readout.

Last year, I used apple (no access to mesquite here, though I'd love to try it) for the smoke, and it was wonderful. I used an apple brine, but I'd rather go with a brine without such a strong flavor this time, like buttermilk perhaps.

Don't stuff a turkey you smoke. The temps aren't high enough to heat the stuffing to safe levels. And enjoy, it'll be fantastic.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:07 AM on November 19, 2011

You all give me such comfort and confidence! Thank you so much (and don't feel like you have to stop with the ideas and the advice).

The smoker seems to hold its temperature well, even here in cool San Francisco - the previous smoker sessions I've done have been in ambient temps of 60 degrees or so, and as Greg_Ace says, it cycles on a little more often, perhaps, but holds the internal temperature well.

I will not be stuffing the turkey. I never stuff my turkeys. From the chicken-smoking experiment, I was pleased to discover that the drippings and such in the water pan were delicious and not overly smokey, and suitable for gravy. However, being the paranoid person I am, I'll be making a backup gravy base Just In Case.

This model of Masterbuilt comes with an probe thermometer that seems to be calibrated accurately enough - again, judging from the chicken I did - that I think I can just go with that (and I've got an instant read meat thermometer to double-check things).

I'll probably go with slightly less low and slightly less slow, because I really don't want to get up at 4am to put the turkey in if I can avoid it. I'll be using apple wood with a little hickory thrown in.
posted by rtha at 8:56 AM on November 19, 2011

One more thing (from me) - if you end up dealing with wind that day, find a protected spot in the lee of the house or building to do your smoking there. Don't do like this guy in my town did yesterday. The plume of smoke stretched for a couple of miles.
posted by jquinby at 9:21 AM on November 19, 2011

The turkey turned out beautifully - it was gorgeous to look at and delicious to eat.

I put it in at 6 am (it was 15 pounds) at 230 degrees, and it was getting to "eat me!" temperatures much faster than I'd anticipated. I cranked to temp lower and pulled it out at 3:30 pm, at about 160 degrees internal, and let it rest for a while. Then I cut it up and we ate it.
posted by rtha at 8:46 AM on November 25, 2011

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