This Year, Smoke Your Thanksgiving Turkey Using This Easy Method

The hands-off cooking method enhances flavor and tradition.

Everybody seems to view Thanksgiving sides as the main event, but turkey can hang with any cornbread, mashed potatoes, or stuffing—if you take the right approach. This year, consider a new method: tapping into the flavor of a smoker.

Why smoke turkey? A bird cooked in woodsmoke takes on a more interesting character. Meat gains the complex, dusky, mellow-campfire notes of barbecue without sauce. These flavors pair nicely with cool weather and Thanksgiving sides. Smoking at higher heat can even crisp skin while retaining juiciness.

And with the right smoker, the work isn't much different from roasting.

What You Need to Smoke a Turkey

New to smoking meat? Begin with a plug-in pellet smoker. Why? This style of smoker gives you full control with little effort.

Instead of having to feed wood at regular intervals into a firebox, you fill a hopper with pellets, set your smoker to your desired temperature, and let it puff away. The smoker will be able to stay within a tight range of that temperature. Some plug-in pellet smokers are very expensive, while others cost $100 or less. Additionally, you'll need a meat thermometer.

How to Prep Your Turkey for Smoking

To begin, let your bird thaw (if frozen) or temper (if refrigerated). Smoking a cold bird will take longer and lead to uneven cooking.

There are two ways to smoke a whole turkey: as is and spatchcocked. Spatchcocking a turkey results in a faster, more even cook. Spatchcocking refers to using shears to remove the backbone and flattening the bird so that its two halves spread. Again, this method lets the turkey cook evenly.

After you've spatchcocked your turkey, now it's time to add the rub.

Restraint is the key. You're going to smoke at higher heat, meaning the smoke will have less time to flavor the bird, resulting in lighter smokiness (fitting for turkey's milder flavor). Keep the rub simple or you might overwhelm the more delicate flavor.

Before adding the rub, pat the turkey's surface dry, then massage on a very thin coat of olive oil or melted butter. Next, pat on a blend of salt, pepper, and maybe even rosemary and garlic powder if you want, laying the rub thickly over the entire surface.

The Easiest Way to Smoke Turkey

High and fast is the way to go. Set your smoker to 325 to 350 degrees. Put the bird right on the grates at the center—no need for a sheet pan.

Many veteran smokers start a turkey cooler, closer to 200 degrees, then turn up the heat and blast it for the second phase. This approach works well, but it adds to cook time and introduces a new variable. On Thanksgiving, it's important to be able to predict when your bird will be ready. This is harder to do when starting at low heat and then moving to high.

At 325 to 350 degrees, a spatchcocked turkey will take 10 to 12 minutes a pound to smoke. For most turkeys, that means at least an hour and potentially several. So go outside. Watch the puffs rise from the smokestack and meld into the sky. Pause and enjoy the day.

How will you know when your turkey is done smoking? When the thickest part of its thigh reaches 165 degrees, it's ready.

Note: You might hear about injecting turkeys pre-smoke or basting them with butter during smoking. If you're using a spatchcocked turkey, it will smoke fast enough that these methods aren't needed.

The Last Key Step: Resting

Finally, it's time to rest your smoked bird. Leave it on a resting rack, cutting board, or serving platter for at least 30 minutes. This locks in juices and enhances the flavor. Don't cover the turkey while it rests. If you do, you'll lose the crispy beauty of its smoky skin.

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