Once you own a pellet grill you look forward to smoking meat year-round and showing off all that juicy and delicious meat candy to all your family and friends–but during the holiday season, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
With everyone counting on you to create a perfectly seasoned and smoked turkey, anxiety can set in (especially for first-timers) and so we created this guide to walk you through it step by step, and answer any lingering questions about the turkey smoking process.
Here is a handy Table Of Contents we created so you can jump around to the different steps in the process…
Table of Contents
- How To Prep The Turkey For The Pellet Grill
- How To Prep The Pellet Grill For Smoking Turkey
- Wood Pellets: What Wood to Use for Smoked Turkey and How Much Is Needed?
- Smoking The Turkey
- How Long To Smoke A Turkey On a Pellet Grill
- Turkey Spray
- How Long To Rest Smoked Turkey
- How To Carve The Turkey
How To Prep The Turkey For The Pellet Grill
Long before we start burning pellets we need to prep our bird, so let’s talk options.
Finding The Right Turkey & Planning Ahead
For this guide, we recommend buying a whole turkey.
Some people have good success with smoking a turkey breast, but we feel that buying the whole bird, even if you buy a smaller one, results in a better smoking experience…crispy skin, giving diners the choice between juicy white and dark meat, and most importantly, a whole bird is more forgiving of mistakes during the cooking process.
You will want to buy a whole turkey, fresh or frozen, and begin defrosting it to go into a brine for 24-36 hours.
A larger frozen turkey (15 pounds and up) can take 3-5 days to fully defrost in a refrigerator. This means depending on if you were able to source a fresh turkey (which I never can) you may be adding almost a week onto your prep time! 3-5 days for defrosting plus 1-2 days for the brine.
That has got to be by far the most time-consuming preparation of any pellet smoker project so plan ahead (at least a week ahead) if fresh turkeys aren’t available in your area.
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I encourage you to defrost the turkey in your refrigerator on a sheet pan (because all 7 turkeys we made in preparation for writing this guide leaked raw poultry juice out of the sealed packaging).
It may be useful to thaw your turkey in a garage refrigerator, if available, to keep things tidy.
How To Brine The Turkey
Before you remove your turkey from the refrigerator you will want to start your wet brine. We use 2 brines here at Urban Cowgirl…
Both brines require you to boil salt, sugar, spices, and water for 5 minutes and then allow the ingredients to steep in this liquid until they are cool. We call this the brew!
An additional 1 gallon of cold liquid (water or apple cider depending on the recipe) is added to the brew to make it a finished brine.
I recommend making and chilling your brew, transferring it into the large brine bucket, then adding the remaining 1 gallon of liquid, before moving forward to Step 2.
So, you should have a large 5-gallon bucket (please see either turkey brine post for full instructions) filled with your turkey brine before moving forward.
When the turkey is fully defrosted, place it in a clean kitchen sink and cut the packaging open. All the juices will run down the sink. In the turkey cavity, there may be a turkey neck and/or a little bag of giblets.
Remove both the neck and giblets and either save for your gravy or discard.
Run clean cold water over the turkey and bring the bucket of brine near the sink. Insert the entire bird into the brine and cover it with a lid.
You can leave the turkey in this brine for up to 36 hours. We think 24 hours works just fine and even overnight provides a lot of extra flavor and juiciness to the finished turkey.
Once you start brining your turkeys, you’ll never go back. the flavor and juiciness are simply unmatched.
When you’re done brining the bird, remove the bird from the brine and place it into a clean kitchen sink. This allows brine to run off the bird and out of the center cavity.
Transfer the bird to a sheet pan and pat dry with paper towels.
Discard the brine down the sink, and wash your bucket and sink with hot soapy water to prevent cross-contamination of raw turkey juices to any of the surfaces in your kitchen.
(Especially if this is a holiday and you have all kinds of pies and side dishes around!)
Now we’re going to season the outside of the turkey and I recommend doing this with our Turkey Paint Recipe, which is a compound butter that leaves the turkey looking like a turkey on a magazine cover!
If you just want to use a simple smoked turkey rub, I have a recipe for my favorite one right here.
Either way, slather on that turkey compound butter or sprinkle heavily with smoked turkey dry rub, on all sides of the turkey…you’ll want the turkey to be placed breast side up on the sheet pan and completely dry of brine before you begin.
If using the smoked turkey rub, you can drizzle the surface of the turkey with olive oil first to help the rub stick to the skin. Don’t forget the little crevices!
The most important thing is to paint the turkey paint on evenly because where you paint it, it will stick throughout the cooking.
Now we will just leave the turkey out on the countertop while we prep the pellet smoker, allowing it to come to room temperature while we set up outside.
How To Prep The Pellet Grill For Smoking Turkey
Every pellet grill is a little bit different but this portion of the guide will remind you of the details we all need to remember when prepping a pellet smoker, electric smoker, or even a gas grill.
First, you will want to make sure the grill grate is sparkling clean. You can do this by heating the grill on high and brushing the grates well of any debris, or taking the grill rates into the house and cleaning them in the sink.
If your wood pellet grill has a flat bed under the grates, I like to line this with aluminum foil for easy clean up, so this is a good time to pull off the old foil and replace it with a sheet of new foil.
If your pellet grill has a grease run off with a little bucket, dispose of the grease, clean the bucket, and put it back for this cook.
Wood Pellets: What Wood to Use for Smoked Turkey and How Much Is Needed?
We know that the pellets burn at about a pound per hour when the smoker is at 225 degrees at comfortable outdoor temperatures. (If it’s cold in the backyard, you’ll be burning at a higher rate.)
Today we’re smoking at 250 degrees, for 30-40 minutes per pound.
For this reason, I recommend a 20 pound bag of pellets, just to be sure. Refill the hopper to the brim with pellets or wood chips.
What woods are best with smoked turkey?
I recommend any fruitwoods such as apple, cherry, and peach. You can also use mild competition blends, usually a blend of pecan, hickory, and oak.
Smoke flavor is subjective but I personally would stay away from really robust woods like mesquite and post oak for smoking turkey, though many people would disagree with me, especially in South Texas.
The best wood for smoked turkey is a mild wood with a smoke aroma that the whole family likes.
Smoking The Turkey
Now we’re ready to smoke. Heat the smoker to 250 degrees f and prepare a water pan (a small pan of water…I use an old bread pan or an aluminum pan) full of water and place it in the chamber.
The water pan adds moisture to the chamber and helps the smoke penetrate and adhere to the turkey. Though pellet grills don’t usually need help maintaining a consistent temperature like stick smokers do, the water pan still provides moisture in the air.
Bring the large turkey out to the pellet grill and place it inside, not touching the water pan. Make sure the turkey is not exposed to any direct heat, only indirect heat (which is how all pellet grills are set up but I know some readers smoke turkeys on a charcoal grill over indirect heat with wood chips.)
Then insert the instant read thermometer probe into the thickest part of the breast, and place the other end into the pellet grill temperature probe inserts.
If your pellet grill doesn’t have a temperature probe for instant readings, you will want to use a basic meat thermometer probe connected to a digital read out, or I recommend the Meater wireless probe which goes into the thickest part of the turkey breast and communicates directly with an app on your phone…the app is pretty cool and will talk to you about your progress as the turkey smoke.
Either way, we will only be smoking to temperature, not to time, so we need a temperature probe that can tell us when the internal temperature of the turkey is approaching 160 degrees.
When the probe is inserted, close the chamber and begin the cook!
How Long To Smoke A Turkey On a Pellet Grill
We will be smoking the turkey at 250 degrees until it reaches 165 degrees. This takes about 25 min per pound.
The cooking time will change from bird to bird depending on how many pounds of turkey you are smoking.
My 15 pound turkey trials consistently came to temp in 5-6 hours on my Rec Teq Bullseye, but depending on your type of smoker I would give yourself a buffer of 2 hours to account for inconsistencies in pellet smokers and outside temperature.
The best way to get juicy turkey is to always smoke to temperature, not to time, which often inadvertently overcooks the turkey meat.
Despite what other blogs say, as a chef and culinary expert with 15 years of experience you do not need to cook poultry beyond 165 degrees internal temperature. This is a Servesafe and FDA endorsed temperature taught in all culinary schools. Please do not overcook your turkey to 180 degrees, it is completely unnecessary and any cooking blog stating this is misinformed.
Pro Tip: Many people remove the turkey at 160 degrees because carry over cooking on a larger bird (like a turkey) will be at least 5 degrees as it rests.
For your first time, the important thing to know is you can speed up the cook time, at any time, by bumping the internal temperature of the pellet grill to 275 degrees to 300 degrees.
A turkey contains no connective tissue that needs to break down over low and slow temperatures, so at any time you can bump the temperature to help it hit 160-165 degrees if you need to get dinner on the table.
Let the turkey smoke for 1 1/2-2 hours so that the turkey paint can set. Then begin spritzing the turkey with a squeeze bottle of pineapple juice.
If you don’t like pineapple juice, apple cider vinegar or apple juice is also nice. For my Thanksgiving turkey, it’s got to be pineapple juice because the whole family thinks it makes the best smoked turkey.
Spritz the turkey every 30-45 minutes, unless it’s disturbing the compound butter. The compound butter should be fairly well set by now, but every cook is different and I wouldn’t prioritize spritzing the turkey over keeping that gorgeous herb butter intact.
As the turkey cooks, just give it a light spritzing to encourage a golden brown sheen on the skin of the turkey.
I recommend these glass bottles for spritzing barbecue after every plastic spray bottle I have purchased has broken within 1-2 cooks. I like that these glass bottles can go in the dishwasher and have lasted years for me.
How Long To Rest Smoked Turkey
When the turkey has hit 165 degrees, remove the turkey from the smoker and place it on a sheet pan or in a roasting pan. Do not remove the digital thermometer probe just yet.
Just bring it all inside the house for a nice long rest. Depending on the size of the bird the turkey will release some juices as it sits, and any juices are perfect for stirring into your turkey gravy.
After 30 min to 1 hour (a larger turkey will need longer than smaller turkeys) you may remove the probe thermometer from the breast and prepare to carve this perfect turkey!
How To Carve The Turkey
You’ll need a few tools to carve your turkey…
- a large cutting board, preferably with a moat for collecting juices
- an electric knife (you can use a sharp carving knife but the electric version is inexpensive and so worth it)
- paper towels or a clean kitchen towel
- kitchen gloves (I guess for some people this could be considered optional but it makes the whole process much more pleasant)
Start with the turkey breast side up on the cutting board and feel down the middle for the breast bone. There is one breast along the right and another along the left side of this bone. Use the knife to slice down on either side separating the breast from the bone.
The meat dips slightly out towards the right or left in a soft curve. Remove both breasts by following along these natural curves. When each breast is removed, slice it into thin slices.
Now you will want to remove the legs and thighs by cutting along the ball where the leg meat meets the bird. The bone that connects them does not need to be cut through.
Simply sit down your electric knife and wiggle the leg and thigh free. Repeat for the other side. If the wings come off with them they can be wiggled off as well and passed to a wing lover in the family.
Finally, (and this is the part you really want gloves for) pull any excess meat off the bird in bunches, there will be a lot on the other side of the bird. This is most pleasant when wearing kitchen gloves.
Place this meat on a large kitchen platter and get ready to serve the rest of Thanksgiving dinner!
Have questions? Need help? Have an addition or a suggestion to a recipe? Drop me a comment below!
If you make this recipe, I would LOVE to see it!
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Your first smoked turkey should be a juicy and gorgeous triumph. With this step-by-step guide, we'll ensure your first turkey smoke is flawless and stress free!
- 1 whole turkey
- 1 brine recipe
- 1 recipe for Turkey Paint (Compound Butter) or turkey dry rub of choice
- 1 c pineapple juice (in a spray bottle)
- Wood pellets or chips for your smoker
- Thoroughly defrost your whole turkey. If defrosting in the refrigerator this can take several days so start 3-5 days before you plan to smoke. Remove the turkey from the plastic and drain the juices into the sink. Remove the neck and giblets from the cavity. (Wash sink well!)
- Place the turkey into the brine (we include our two favorite brines in the post... our smoked turkey brine and our cajun turkey brine.) Place the turkey breast side down in the brine, pop on the lid, and refrigerate or keep in a cold place for 24-36 hours. Even overnight is good if that is all the time you have.
- Remove the turkey from the brine and place it on a sheet pan. Drain off the brine. Dry well with paper towels. Apply the compound butter (our turkey paint!) with a silicone basting brush. Place on the countertop to come to room temperature while you prep your pellet smoker.
- Clean the pellet smoker as shown in the blog post, scrub the grates, reline with foil if preferred, and dump and clean the bucket. Refill the hopper with fresh pellets. Preheat to 250 degrees F.
- Insert the probe thermometer into the thickest part of the turkey breast. Take the turkey out to the smoker and place it breast up. Insert a small water pan to encourage smoke penetration and moisture in the air. Plug the probe thermometer into the pellet grill computer, or the thermometer read-out device. Close the chamber and smoke 2 hours.
- Spritz with pineapple juice (alternatives are given in the blog post) several times during smoking. Smoke the turkey until it hits 165 degrees, about 30-40 min per pound. Always smoke to temperature, not time. Time is listed to help you plan your day. Give yourself a safety of 1-2 hours for differences in outdoor climate and differences in pellet grills.
- Remove the turkey and rest uncovered for 1 hour. Carve with an electric knife or sharp knife and serve.
At any time if your turkey is taking longer than the time allotted and you need to get dinner on the table, it is perfectly fine to up the smoking temperature to 275-300 degrees.
Usually, the turkey won't be as smoky, but it will still be flavorful and juicy, and feeding the family is above all our priority. This won't happen to experienced pitmasters but because many people smoke their first turkey on Thanksgiving, we give this simple tip to alleviate any anxiety you may have if the turkey is smoking slower than the time window you gave yourself to finish in.
Occasionally, slow smoking is due to "too much spritzing". It's fun to spritz! Spritzing creates a stall where the turkey dips in temperature for 8-14 minutes so if your constantly spritzing you risk adding on time to hit temp, as well as washing off that beautiful turkey butter. Spritz a few times during cooking, but not constantly.
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 50Total Fat: 2gSaturated Fat: 0gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 1gCholesterol: 15mgSodium: 27mgCarbohydrates: 4gFiber: 0gSugar: 2gProtein: 4g
This nutritional information is provided as a courtesy as an estimate only. Consult with a dietician for precise estimates. This website makes no claims that the nutritional values listed are accurate.