Perfect Smoked Turkey

I know what you’re thinking. “But Russ, it just turned October, and you’re already posting about Thanksgiving turkey!” While that’s true, there’s a simple explanation: if you want to celebrate Thanksgiving this year with a wholesome, happy, and pastured turkey, you’re going to need to contact a local farmer and pre-order it soon. As in, right away. So this recipe serves as both a reminder to pre-order a turkey soon, and a guide on what to do with the bird when you get it. I’ve been smoking chickens and turkeys for a while, but I’ve been lousy at sharing my results. So this is my definitive guide on how to get a great smoked turkey, using either a gas or charcoal grill. I love smoking turkeys because the flavor is awesome, but also because it frees up valuable oven space on what tends to be a hectic day.

The common turkey we eat today is a domesticated descendant of the wild turkeys originally found in North America. When Europeans first saw turkeys, they incorrectly thought they were a form of guineafowl, which was sometimes called “turkey fowl” because back in the day they were imported into Europe through Turkey. The name “turkey” stuck with this bird afterwards. Interestingly, many European countries (including France, Italy, Ukraine, Poland, and Russia) call the bird a derivative of “India” or “Indies” because of a similar confusion with guineafowl (which was also imported from India), or possibly because the New World was often thought to be part of Asia during the European Renaissance.

1 whole unfrozen turkey, 10-15 lbs, neck and giblets removed and set aside
1 quart water
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup honey
a bunch of ice cubes
1 large handful wood chips, alder, apple, or cherry wood
2-3 wood chunks, alder, apple of cherry wood
rind of 1 lemon or orange
1 small bunch each fresh sage and thyme
1 small onion, quartered
4 cloves garlic
3 tbsp melted ghee
1 tsp each kosher salt and black pepper

First things first, let’s go over my 6 steps to making a perfect smoked turkey.

1. Turkeys should not be roasted or smoked directly in a roasting pan (or even on a rack in the roasting pan), and especially not be roasted while resting in liquid. This will result in a soggy chicken. My solution is to smoke the turkey directly on the grill grates, with a roasting pan filled with 1″ water underneath the grates, about 3-4 inches from the meat. This will keep the cooking environment moist but let the turkey get evenly crisp on the outside.

2. Turkeys should not be trussed. Dark meat tastes best at 175 degrees, and breast is best at 165 degrees; trussing means that the whole bird will reach the same temperature all around, which is not what we want.

3. Turkeys should be minimally stuffed, and only with aromatics, to ensure proper airflow and even heating.

4. Mild smoking woods (alder, apple, or cherry) are best with poultry; a little goes a long way. I use a combination of chunks and chips, which I’ll explain later.

5. Turkeys should be brined overnight, coated with fat only initially, and minimally seasoned. Brining keeps the turkey from drying out during the smoking process. Basting the turkey only results in soggy skin. Overly seasoning the skin just makes inedible skin – let the brine and aromatics add flavor.

6. Turkeys should not be carved from the carcass; the bird should be deconstructed and each piece can be carved individually.

Okay, let’s make the turkey. Pour 1 quart water into your largest stockpot, add the kosher salt and honey. Heat the stockpot on high heat and stir everything together with a wooden spoon until the salt and honey are dissolved. Remove from heat, pour in a bunch of ice and stir everything around until the ice melts and the water turns cold, or at least room temperature. Add the turkey to the stockpot and fill with cold water until the turkey is fully submerged in the brine. Cover the stockpot and put it in the fridge (or a cold basement, between 32-40 degrees) overnight, up to 12 hours.

The next day, remove the turkey from the brine and dry inside and out with paper towels. Place it on a wire rack on a baking sheet to air dry for 30 minutes. If you have room in the fridge for the baking sheet and turkey, great, otherwise you can leave it out at room temperature.

While the turkey dries, prepare your smoking woods. In two small aluminum pans, place one handful of wood chips and a few wood chunks. Fill the pan that has the chips with about 1/2″ of water. This will let the chunks catch fire and smoke first, and by the time the chunks are nearly done smoking, the water will have evaporated out of the wood chips pan and the chips will start smoking. So you’ll get constant smoking without having to add chips. I would either use a combination of alder and a fruit wood, or stick with one fruit wood; mixing fruit woods just seems a little weird to me.

Place the small aluminum pans under the grill grates, on whatever side of the grill you’re going to keep hot (my burners run horizontally, some run vertically; adjust as needed). On the cool side of the grill, place a large aluminum pan under the grill grates and fill with 1″ water. This water will keep the grill moist but also catch the turkey drippings and can be used to make gravy afterwards (more on that later).

If you’re using a charcoal grill, the setup will be similar, with your charcoal on one side, and the turkey and drip pan on the other. You’ll want to use only wood chunks, and add more chunks and charcoal about halfway through cooking (I’ll let you know when).

Prepare your aromatics for stuffing. Lemon or orange rind is better than actual fruit pieces, because you’ll get the aroma without the added liquid inside the bird, which can mess up your cooking times.

Once the turkey has air-dried, stuff it with the aromatics, making sure there is plenty of extra room. If it’s a tight squeeze, don’t use all of the onion.

Brush the turkey all over with melted ghee, starting with the underside of the turkey. It’ll start to harden as you brush it on, which is fine. Get every nook and cranny you can. Season all over with kosher salt and fresh-ground black pepper.

Heat your grill on high heat for 10 minutes, until the wood chunks start to smoke. Turn off all the burners but one, and leave the one on high. Adjust the heat as needed to get to a stable 325 degrees. Once the temperature is stable, put the turkey on the grill and cover each wing tip with tin foil. This helps to prevent the wing tips from overcooking too quickly. Cover and smoke for one hour. As it smokes, take the turkey neck and gizzard (not the liver) and about 10 peppercorns and simmer them in a quart of water on low, which we’ll use to make the gravy later.

After an hour, carefully pick up and rotate the turkey 180 degrees, so that its other side is now facing the hot side of the grill. Tilt the turkey towards its backside and drain out any collected liquid into the pan underneath it. Remove the tin foil from the wing tips. Cover and smoke for another 45 minutes. If you’re using a charcoal grill, this is a good time to add more charcoal or wood chunks if needed.

Open the grill and pour out any of the turkey’s collected liquid into the pan underneath it. Check the breast and thigh temperatures with an instant-read thermometer. You want the breasts to register 160F and the thighs to register 170F (they’ll climb another 5 degrees as the turkey rests). If it’s ready, pull it off the grill. If it’s not there yet, cover and continue to smoke, checking every 10-15 minutes. My 12-pound turkey took almost exactly 2 hours to cook.

Place the turkey on a wire rack over a baking sheet to rest for 20 minutes before carving. Don’t cover it with tin foil, unless you want soggy skin. Once your grill has cooled somewhat, carefully remove the grill grates and take out the drip pan. Pour the liquid into a fat separator, then pour the liquid (minus the fat, naturally) in with the turkey neck/gizzard broth. Fish out the neck, gizzard, and peppercorns and continue to keep warm on low heat.

To carve the turkey, remove each section individually – the breasts, thighs, drumsticks, wings, and drummettes. Then you can chop up the turkey as you see fit. I like to slice the breasts against the grain into 1/2″ slices, and shave the thigh meat from the thigh bone. Here is a video I made a few years ago where I carved a chicken in a similar fashion. Be sure take any extra breast meat scraps you can pull off the carcass and chop it up finely to put in the gravy broth.

To make the gravy, make a roux by melting 2 tbsp of butter in a sauce pan and stirring in 2 1/2 tbsp of rice flour (coconut flour is okay but a little gritty), then toast for a couple minutes until golden brown, stirring frequently. Stir the roux into the gravy broth and season with a pinch of thyme, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer on med/low heat until thickened, about five minutes.

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128 thoughts on “Perfect Smoked Turkey

    1. Spatchcocking the turkey would definitely make it cook faster, but you’d lose the flavor imparted by the aromatics stuffed inside. I think it’s definitely worth a shot. I’ve also seen many turkey smoking purists quarter their birds before smoking, then taking the breasts off the grill when they’re ready and giving the thighs a few more minutes.


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  2. I’ve been wanting to smoke meat using our propane grill for a while now and just didn’t know how to go about doing it. Thanks for a very informative post!


  3. So thankful for this post! I love smoking turkey legs in a very similar fashion, but you’ve given me the tools to make a whole turkey for Thanksgiving this way! THANK YOU! I can’t wait to try this!


    1. I will be smoking 3 birds on Thursday. One will be for leftovers. :o)

      Wings at joint, legs at joint, thighs at joint then breast as a whole. Slicing breast sideways is a great way to serve while it is still quite hot and very juicy. Using old method left first slice of breast cold before you got to last slice of breast, much less the other side.


      1. This will be the fourth year I have smoked the Thanksgiving turkeys. I use a vertical smoker. Wednesday night I put two pork buts on the top shelf and smoke them overnight to let them start to render fat drippings then early Thanksgiving morning I stagger the turkeys underneath the pork so that the pork drippings baste the turkeys while they cook. They always turn out fantastic. With the pork and meat picked off the carcasses, I freeze for a couple weeks and make Brunswick Stew or Carolina Hash during the Christmas holidays for our New Years Eve party.


    2. Toby, there are a few ideas behind it. First of all, cutting the breast against the grain yields a juicer breast, and it needs to be removed to cut it this way. It’s much faster to carve a breast that way as well. Removing the rest (thighs, drummettes) will make it easier to remove the meat as a whole and cut it into the size you want.


  4. I have smoked turkey before in a vertical gas smoker and I have always enjoyed the smoke flavor. I tried the recipe here and it didn’t work very well for me. The turkey did taste very good and was moist but the smoke flavor was not there. I might try it again.


  5. I tried this on Thanksgiving day and I must say it was the best Turkey I (and my family) have ever had! Your instructions were so clear that I was able to do it on the first try and I have never smoked anything before! Thank you…


  6. I think I just went to heaven with the finished product pictures!

    Amazing! I just bought a propane smoker because my electric one, while great for fish and meats, never got the poultry skin crispy enough. This is definitely what I am going to be working on this year!

    Also, Canadian Thanksgiving is in October, so you can always use that as an excuse to bust out the turkeys early :)


    1. I have been smoking Thanksgiving Turkey for over 25 years . Nerve racking at first, but with practice there is nothing better. Would’nt have it any other way. Now it’s all second nature. Also if you don’t have a tempature gage to check if done . . . use the leg method , grab both legs and make him run , they should be loose and feel like they can be ripped right off and the bird will look like plastic ;)


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  8. The hubby & I are trying to find a recipe that we can use to smoke just a whole turkey breast and legs… as this is all we eat and its just the two of us. Can you give me some suggestions on how long to smoke them together. Your recipe here sounds wonderful and the bird looks absolutely beautiful.


    1. Diane, if the breasts as bone-in they’ll take about the same amount of time to cook as the legs. I would follow these same instructions (brine overnight, rub with melted ghee) and check the temperatures after an hour and rotate them so they get equal time in front of the hotter part of the grill. Good luck!


        1. Kris, I’m not very familiar with Traeger grills (are they the wood pellet ones?), but you can always make a set of “pans” using heavy duty tin foil to fit your space needs…hope that helps!


        2. Kris, I followed a similar recipe last year and smoked my turkey on my Traeger. Directly on the grill grate, no pan of water below. The whole family agreed, best turkey ever. Super moist meat & crisp skin. Don’t worry about the pan. Just make sure you brine the bird.


          1. I’m glad you brought this up… I’m smoking mine on a Traeger and had a couple of questions and a comment. I bought a rib-rack @ BBG store that you can also smoke a Turkey in. My plan is to put the bird in the rack, and put the rack in a roaster pan. This will keep the bird elevated a couple of inches and still let me capture the liquid.

            Q: I bought a fresh, unfrozen turkey from a local store, but realized last night that it’s been injected w/ a15% solution. Should I skip the brining? Afraid it’ll be too salty. Assuming I don’t brine it, do I follow the same instructions.

            Q: you said “cover the turkey.” Are you saying to just loosely cover it w/ tin-foil to keep it from browning too quickly? None of your pictures show your turkey covered, so I wanted to clarify.

            Thanks. Great blog BTW!


  9. Hey Russ. I’m hoping that for some reason you are checking your replies this morning instead of preparing your Thanksgiving meal. Question re: the wood chips. Are we to pre-soak them per the bag’s instructions or just put them in the aluminum pans dry? Thanks so much for the detailed recipe and pics. Its my first time!

    Happy Thanksgiving!


    1. Grant, you’ll want two sets of chips or chunks – one dry and one submerged in water. As the dry chips smoke, the water in the other pan will evaporate and start smoking – that way they’ll last for longer.


  10. Thanks for the tips! First time smoking a turkey and it came out freaking amazing. Longtime smoker, just never put a bird in there. The aromatics tip was spot on. Stuffed with Thyme, Lemons, Onions, and Sage – added a tasty kick that was complimented on all night. Super appreciate the blog and thanks again!


  11. Hey Russ,

    I made this turkey last year for thanksgiving and it was absolutely fantastic! I loved it and so did my family. I was wondering if you could use this method for smoking a goose. Im interested in smoking a goose for christmas and im not sure if the same principles apply or not. Any opinions or thoughts?



    1. Alessio, I would do the same process, cooking until the thigh registers 175F. Goose is a little tougher and most chefs agree that cooking it to 175F is best (it’ll raise to 180F while resting, which is expected). Be sure to trim any excess fat or skin from the bird, which you can render separately in a pan for later cooking adventures!


  12. Just so I’m sure I understand, you’re saying to put the drip-catching pan right on top of the heating elements (which are OFF) and put the wood-soaked chip pan and the dry chip pan directly on top of the heating element that is ON? I’ve got a weber gas grill with three horizontal heating elements (or “burners). I’ve never lifted up the grate and put anything right on top of them.

    Thanks much.


      1. Thanks. I hope you mean under the grate, not under the burner — my heat elements are affixed to the bottom of the grill. Thanks again.


  13. So I followed your directions, and the turkey came out great–mostly. The bottom 2″ of the bird was very much undercooked. What did I do wrong? Too much water in the pan, or perhaps the oven wasn’t warm enough?

    I’m one of those crazy winter grillers, so at around 14F my grill’s one burner struggled to get the oven up to 300F. Mostly it hovered around the 250F mark. My 12 lb turkey took a little over 3 hours to get the thigh and breast temperature to what your recipe recommended. Unfortunately the thigh and wing drummette joints to the body along with the bottom 2″ of the body were undercooked. I ended up putting those parts in a roasting pan in the oven after carving the turkey.

    I left the “flavor wave” on the burners, with the wood chip and drip pans on top… maybe I should’ve taken out the flavor wave and put the pans directly on the burners to get more distance from the bottom of the turkey?

    The parts that cooked were perfectly moist and tender with a smoky flavour, so I’m definitely trying this again per my wife’s orders. Looking forward to your response so I can try this again and get it right. :)



    1. Hi Andrew, yep sounds like the bird was too close to the water and there wasn’t good air circulation. Was the drip pan resting on “flavor wave” burner coverings, too? If so, definitely remove them so that you can get more distance between the water and the bird. I don’t think you have to worry about putting the wood chips directly on the burners as long as they were smoking. It may be that your grill is too shallow to allow good circulation, which is fine; if so, next time I would spatchcock the turkey and place the aromatic stuffing ingredients in the drip pan. That way all of the meat is exposed at the top of the grill, and the underside (bones, mostly) won’t undercook.


  14. Hi,
    what is “Brush the turkey all over with melted ghee, starting with the underside of the turkey.” ghee in the middle mean? Melted butter??


    1. Hi Don, the recipe calls for ghee (clarified butter) since it has a higher smoking point than regular (unclarified) butter. You just want to brush the turkey all over (including the underside) with the ghee, but not the inside of the bird. Hope that makes sense!


      1. Hi Russ,
        just a followup response, I made a smoked turkey on a charcoal weber set up with coals on either side of the bird. I did not brine my bird but I followed your method of stuffing herbs in the cavity. I also made the Ghee and brushed it all over before smoking. It took 5 hours at 235 – 250 deg. adding apple wood chunks as needed. The 21# bird came out very dark brown all over. It had me a bit worried. I cut into it and the juice ran out. It turned out beautifully moist and tender. I’d do it again just like this again! Thanks for your guidance and explaining Ghee. I like it when I learn something :)



  15. Hi Russ,
    We’re hosting (Canadian) Thanksgiving for the first time year, and we’re also babysitting my brother’s smoker as he jetsets around the world – so obviously the universe is telling us to smoke the turkey. I remember Stacy Toth raving on her Podcast last year about following this recipe for Thanksgiving, so when my husband started googling smoked turkey, I immediately directed him to your website and look no further. Just a quick question, we’ve never used a smoker before, but your directions look easy to follow (and someone else said it was their first time and it turned out perfectly) so we’re going to jump right in. Do you have any advice for scaling up the timing for a larger bird? We’re getting ours from our meat CSA on Wednesday (Thanksgiving is this weekend in Canada), so I’m not sure the exact weight – thinking it might be closer to 20lbs. Thanks so much in advance!


  16. I’ve seen a few folks ask this, but I didn’t see a response. I have a vertical smoker, which as I’ve used it for various pork cuts, and it rarely gets much above 225 degrees, which is great for ribs. As I try your recipe, do I simply expand my timing to accommodate the slower cooking pace? Do you have a good estimate of the time it would take at 225 degrees? Would any other adjustments be necessary?


    1. Thanx for answering, everyone. Guess I’m not a member of your club. Luckily, there’s 10 inches of fresh snow on the ground, and I’m relieved of the choice of whether to smoke or roast inside.


      1. Mike, I apologize for missing your initial comment; I try to respond to every question but as you can imagine, with over 300 recipes on the blog it’s hard to catch every comment that comes through. I prefer a higher heat grilled/smoked turkey because poultry can often dry out for extended smoking periods – but if you remove it at the right internal temp, and brine beforehand, you should be fine. It’ll take 30-40 mins per pound at 225F, and will have a smoker flavor than my 325F method. Best of luck!


        1. Thanx, Russ. That’s what I was hoping to hear. I have a 15 pound bird, though, and with the 10 fresh inches of snow and the ambient outdoor temperature at 12-13 degrees at 8-9 am tomorrow, I may just try this another time. I did set the bird up in your brine, though.


  17. Russ. I have a charcoal grill. Should the wood chips/chucks be put directly on the coals or should I put the coals around the around the pans? I couldn’t tell from the pictures.


  18. Russ – I’m doing a 15lb bird in my Masterbuilt 2-door gas smoker. Any variations in cooking that I should use for this set-up? In the past I’ve always (always being the 2 times i’ve smoked them on my own) done them at 225-250deg and while they turn out pretty good they do get dried out with the longer smoke time. Those were also slightly smaller birds. It’s pretty easy to stabilize temps on my smoker so planning to hold it around 325deg and expecting it to take 3.5-4.5 hours. Does that sound right?


    1. Pablo, that’s exactly how I’m doing it this year, in a smoker but at a higher heat (325F). I think “low and slow” is excellent for many smoked meats but I like the hybrid approach of roast/smoke in this recipe because it keeps the turkey moist while still getting a lot of flavor. Best of luck!


      1. Lower heats (200-225) are great for melting the collagen in pork butts and ribs and the like, but since there isn’t a lot of connective tissue in a turkey all it does is dry out the bird. I’ve also moved to dry brining since all that gets into the meat is the salt anyways, but that only works if you ahve room in the fridge.

        On another note I was looking for some basic times for smoking a turkey (I can never remember how long it takes) when this page came up in google. I should have known to just check here first.


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