The Food Lab’s Step-by-Step Guide to Smoking a Turkey

Juicy turkey with sweet smoke flavor and a spice rub. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Thanksgiving is far and away my favorite holiday, but this year marks a new twist in the family fun: It’s the first Thanksgiving that my wife, Adri, and I are hosting, and the first Thanksgiving that my family is celebrating away from the East Coast. That’s right: The Alts are coming to California, and we’d better make it extra special for them.

I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what we’re going to do with the turkey this year. With much better access to outdoor space than in my mom’s New York apartment and its 40-square-foot kitchen, I figured something that took advantage of the yard would be in order. Rather than make my traditional spatchcocked roast turkey, this year we’re going to deep-fry at least one and slow-smoke another. Turkey and smoke are a natural pairing, as anyone who’s looked at a deli case can tell you, but there’s a difference between cold-cut smoked turkey, with its ham-like cured texture and questionable smoke flavor, and real barbecued turkey. I’m talking the kind of smoked turkey you want served in thick, glistening slabs that are shiny with juice and fork-tender, with deep smoke flavor.

I already had a basic idea in my head of how I was going to smoke the turkey (low and slow, indirect heat, a dry brine and spice rub to start), but I decided to take a look at our own published technique for pointers. Then I had a frightening realization: In all the years we’ve been writing about Thanksgiving turkey, despite all the recipes for grill-roasted turkeys cooked over relatively high heat, not once have we offered complete instructions for true low-and-slow, barbecue-style smoked turkey.

So I did the only sensible thing: I brought home four turkeys and started testing, modifying our existing grilled spatchcocked turkey technique to work with lower heat, more smoke, and a spice rub to bring out more of those barbecue flavors.

Oftentimes a Food Lab recipe will take dozens of tests and weeks of experiments to really nail, but this one turned out to be pretty straightforward, requiring only two solid days of smoking.* There are actually just five keys to perfect smoked turkey:

  • Butterflying or spatchcocking the bird to help it cook more evenly and develop crisper skin.
  • Dry-brining the bird by rubbing it with salt (or a spice rub that includes salt) and letting it sit in the fridge for a few nights in order to allow the salt to work its way into the meat and loosen up its muscle structure, thus keeping it juicy as it cooks.
  • Adding baking powder to the dry rub, which causes it to form tiny micro-bubbles on the surface of the turkey as it roasts, adding surface area and enhancing the crispness of the skin. It also slightly raises the pH of the surface, enhancing Maillard browning.
  • Slow-cooking over indirect heat, with the legs pointed toward the heat source (legs can handle higher heat than delicate breast meat can), in order to very gently and evenly cook the breast meat and give ample time for the turkey to build up smoky flavor.
  • Carefully monitoring the turkey’s internal temperature to ensure that the breast meat never gets above 150°F. Any higher than that, and it becomes chalky and dry. (Despite government warnings to cook turkey to 165°F, turkey is perfectly safe to eat at 150°F so long as it is properly checked with a thermometer and allowed to rest for at least four minutes before serving.)

Easy, right?

* My wife made me take my clothes off outside so that our bedroom wouldn’t smell like hickory. We’ll see if she gets any food on Thanksgiving.

Check out the FAQs and step-by-step instructions below, or jump straight to the recipe.

Should I brine my bird?

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Dry-brined meat is extra juicy.

You could brine your bird, and it certainly will make your bird juicier, but it won’t do anything in the flavor department. In fact, it’ll dilute the flavor of your turkey. Instead of a traditional wet brine, I recommend dry-brining. It’s easier, nearly as effective at helping maintain juiciness, and far better for flavor. To do it, just rub your turkey with salt and let it sit in the fridge overnight (or up to three days). That’s it. In the case of a smoked turkey, I like to rub it with a spice rub that contains salt, which will work just as effectively while also adding spice flavor. Here’s some more information on the mechanics and science of brining.

What about injecting?

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Unlike brining or dry-brining, in which only salt and water will really work their way into the meat, injecting can actually introduce other aromatic compounds, which makes it a useful way to get your turkey juicy without risk of diluting its flavor. If you want to inject, I suggest using a combination of chicken or turkey stock and melted butter, injected into various points throughout the breast.

Can I smoke my turkey whole, or do I have to butterfly it?

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This is a whole turkey. See how exposed that breast meat is, and how relatively protected the legs are? When you’re roasting a turkey in the oven, that’s a major problem. But what about on the grill?

Butterflying (or spatchcocking, if you want to use the cheekier term), is the best way I know of to roast a turkey more quickly and evenly to guarantee juicy breast meat, fully cooked legs, and crisp skin. On the grill, its benefits are not quite as obvious.

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In a roasting pan in the oven, the legs of the turkey are protected, and you inevitably end up overcooking the breast meat by the time the legs are done. But on a grill, the legs cook quite quickly, as they have more exposure to the heat. The main advantages that butterflying will get you on the grill are faster cooking (it cuts cooking time down by about 30%) and crisper skin (the skin underneath the turkey will end up a little soggy if you don’t butterfly). Those factors alone make butterflying worth it in my book.

I tried to spatchcock my turkey last year, but it was so darn difficult to cut through that bone! Any suggestions?

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Toughen up, young grasshopper. No, seriously. I know it can be hard to get through those thigh bones sometimes. I have a few suggestions: First, ask your butcher to do it for you. They have better equipment than you do and are used to handling raw meat. Barring that, your next best bet is to call in an airstrike: Grab the cleaver and give it a few swift, firm, and precise hacks to get through those bones. (Make sure to aim away from your thumb.)

Do I need to remove the wishbone?

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No, not really. It’s all just a question of convenience. Removing it before cooking the turkey will make carving it easier down the line, especially when you’re trying to carve a hot, juicy turkey. Then again, some people are squeamish about raw poultry and would probably rather not stick their fingers into the cavity that the turkey used to breathe and eat and gobble out of. The choice is really yours, though I typically remove mine.

I’m tempted to try butterflying my bird, but I’m worried about how untraditional it looks. What should I do?

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I get it. A whole spatchcocked turkey looks like it belongs on a pornography set rather than on your Thanksgiving table. But the trade-off in terms of juiciness, even cooking, and crisp skin is worth the odd appearance. Besides, if you want to be civilized about it, you’ll be carving that turkey in the kitchen and serving it on a warmed platter anyway, right? Right?

Should I use natural hardwood instead of briquettes?

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No! Natural hardwood burns quite unpredictably. More often than not, the coal is less dense than briquettes, and, with easier access to oxygen, it burns much faster and hotter. It won’t give you the slow, steady, reliable burn that you need for controlled low-temperature barbecue.

What kind of wood is best?

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I recommend using hickory. It has a milder flavor than, say, mesquite or applewood, which I find can overpower the flavor of the turkey. It’s best to buy whole chunks of wood, which burn more slowly, adding sweet smoke flavor to your food as it slow-cooks. Wood chips will burn quickly, making a more acrid smoke.

What temperature should I aim for on my grill?

When cooking anything, the higher the temperature you cook at, the larger the temperature gradient inside the meat. That is, turkey cooked at 450°F will have a larger band of overcooked meat around its edges than turkey cooked at 250°F. With a spatchcocked bird, you can safely grill-roast or smoke at up to 375°F without burning the turkey, but at that temperature, the turkey cooks through in just over an hour, which doesn’t give it much time to absorb smoke flavor. It also develops a large temperature gradient within. I prefer to use the low and slow approach, aiming for a range of 225 to 275°F on my grill, give or take.

Unlike true barbecue which requires careful monitoring and maintaining of both internal and external temperature to guarantee tender and moist meat, a turkey does not have much connective tissue to break down, thus the only real variable you have to worry about is internal temperature. 50°F up or down on the grill will not negatively affect the quality of the finished bird much one way or the other (though it can affect cooking time. Plan on building a cushion into the afternoon before serving!).

Will my skin get crisp?

Many recipes for low-and-slow smoked turkey end up with dry, leathery skin. Why does this happen? You see, skin is mostly comprised of fat, water, and connective tissue. In order to get crisp, not only does the fat have to render and the water evaporate, but the connective tissue also has to break down; Collagen has to convert into gelatin. This process requires water which means that if your turkey skin dries out too fast, it will never crisp up. The high-convection environment of a smoker is enough to draw out the moisture faster than the skin can crisp. The result is tough, leathery skin.

We do a couple things to combat that effect. First off, the dry brine you apply will actually help the turkey skin retain moisture longer as it smokes. The baking powder also helps trigger browning reactions faster, giving the skin a jumpstart on browning. Finally, a quick rub with oil before applying the spice mixture will help slow down the escape of moisture from the skin. The results is deeply smoky skin that’s extra-crisp to boot.

Do I really need a thermometer? What if my turkey has a pop-up thermometer?

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The only time you should ever use a pop-up thermometer (or “overcooked-turkey indicator,” as I like to call it) is if you are really intent on winning a war against your own taste buds. Get yourself a good instant-read thermometer like the Thermapen, or its less pricey cousin the Thermopop, and you’ll never have to experience overcooked or dry turkey again.

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How to Smoke a Turkey Step-by-Step

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Step 1: Remove the Wishbone

Cutting out a turkey's wishbone

I always recommend using turkeys that are between 10 and 12 pounds, as they have the best flavor and texture. Rather than use a larger turkey for more guests, it’s better to cook multiple smaller birds (using different methods!). Removing the wishbone is not strictly necessary, but it makes carving easier down the line. To remove the wishbone, start by lifting the skin around the turkey’s neck opening to reveal the Y-shaped bone underneath. Use the tip of a sharp paring knife to cut into the flesh above both halves of the Y.

Removing a turkey's wishbone

Cut along the bottom of each side of the Y with your knife.

Removing a turkey's wishbone

Slide your finger behind the bone and start pulling it forward. The top should release pretty easily, though a little help with the tip of the paring knife might be necessary.

Removing a turkey's wishbone

Pull the wishbone out. If it cracks or leaves behind bits of bone, you can grab them with a clean kitchen towel or paper towel and pull them out.

Step 2: Remove the Backbone

Cutting out a turkey's backbone with shears

Butterflying, or spatchcocking, the turkey will help it to cook more evenly, cook faster, and deliver crisper skin. The easiest way to butterfly a turkey is to ask your butcher to do it for you. But to do it yourself, start by cutting along either side of the backbone with a set of heavy-duty poultry shears.

Using a clever to cut through a turkey's thigh joint

If there are any problem spots (the thigh joints in particular can sometimes be quite tough to get through with scissors), use a heavy cleaver or chef’s knife to cut through them. Save the backbone for stock or gravy.

Step 3: Spread ‘Em

Spatchcocking a turkey

Flip the turkey over and splay its legs outward as suggestively as you please.

Step 4: Crack the Breast

Spatchcocking a turkey

Press down firmly on the breastbone until you hear and feel it crack, so that the breasts will sit flat.

Step 5: Make the Spice Rub

Spice rub for a smoked turkey

You can use your favorite barbecue spice rub mixture for the turkey, or use mine: 2 tablespoons kosher salt, 1 tablespoon paprika, 1 teaspoon smoked paprika, 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, 1/2 teaspoon ground yellow mustard seed, 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seed, 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin seed, 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper, 1 teaspoon granulated garlic powder, 1 teaspoon granulated onion powder, 1 teaspoon ground sage, 2 tablespoons light brown sugar, and—here’s the secret ingredient—a tablespoon of baking powder.

Step 6: Rub the Bird

Rubbing spice rub into a turkey

Rub the turkey with a tablespoon of oil on all surfaces, then rub it with the salt and spice mixture. At this point, place the turkey on a tray, cover it loosely with plastic wrap, and let it rest at least overnight and up to 3 days in the refrigerator. This will allow time for the salt in the rub to slowly work its way into the meat, which will not only season it more deeply but also help the turkey retain more juices as it roasts. Read up on how dry-brining works for more details.

Step 7: Arrange the Coals

Pouring lit charcoal onto a grill grate

When you’re ready to cook (that’s about 3 1/2 hours before everyone is ready to eat), ignite half a chimney’s worth of charcoal and dump it out into a kettle grill.

Arranging lit coals on one side of a grill grate for a two-zone fire

Pile the coals along one side of the grill. The goal is to create a cooler zone on the other side so that the turkey slowly cooks via indirect heat.

Step 8: Add the Turkey and Wood

Adding wood to grill to smoke a turkey

Place the cooking grate over the coals, cover the grill, let it preheat for about 10 minutes, then scrub it clean with a grill brush. Place the turkey on top of the cooler side of the grill with the legs facing the coals. As leg meat can safely withstand a higher cooking temperature, the goal here is to keep the breast cooking as gently as possible so that it retains juiciness while gaining smoke flavor.

Step 9: Insert the Probe

Inserting thermometer probe into smoked turkey

If you have a leave-in probe thermometer, insert it into the deepest part of the turkey breast and set the alarm for 145°F. Bear in mind: A leave-in probe is useful only as an early-warning system to let you know when the turkey is close to finished. You’ll want to check it manually as it approaches doneness for complete control over its texture.

Step 10: Close the Grill and Adjust the Vents

Adjusting vents on a Weber grill

Close the grill with the lid vent directly over the turkey. Adjust the vents in the top and the bottom so that they are half open. This will limit oxygen flow so that the coals burn gently, while also trapping in smoke to give the bird better flavor.

Step 11: Monitor Temperatures!

Checking temperatures on a meat thermometer

Keep a lazy eye on the thermometer so that you don’t miss the alarm when it goes off. We’re aiming for a final temperature of 150°F here—that’s 15°F lower than the USDA’s recommended temperature of 165°F, but the turkey you get will be much juicier, and so long as it’s rested for at least 4 minutes, it will be just as safe as a turkey cooked to 165°F—but I like to set my alarm at 145°F, because the last few minutes of cooking require closer monitoring.

Temperature dial on a grill lid

The inside of the grill should hover between 225°F and 275°F for optimally gentle cooking. You can control the temperature by opening and closing the vents (the more closed they are, the less oxygen the coals will get, and the cooler they’ll smolder). Add more wood chunks to the coals every half hour, and, if necessary, add more coals if the original coals start to burn out too far. If you have a secondary air temp thermometer, it will give you a more accurate picture of what’s going on inside the grill than the built-in thermometer on the grill will.

Step 12: Almost Done

Smoked turkey on the smoker

A 10- to 12-pound turkey will take around 3 hours, give or take half an hour in either direction. Once the turkey hits 145°F, continue cooking it, moving the thermometer around and taking its temperature in various locations as it approaches its final temperature of 150°F in the breasts.

Taking the temperature on a smoked turkey's breast and thigh

For optimally juicy breast meat, you’re looking for a maximum temperature of 150°F. Don’t let it get any hotter. For the legs, you’re looking for a minimum temperature of 165°F, and you can safely go higher without drying out the meat because of its ample connective tissue and fat. Because the turkey was butterflied and the legs were placed closer to the coals, the breasts and legs should achieve their final temperatures at the same time.

Step 13: Let It Rest

A smoked turkey resting after cooking

Transfer the turkey to a cutting board and let it rest for 15 minutes. This will allow the internal juices to settle and thicken slightly so that they don’t run around the board as you carve.

Step 14: Remove the Legs

Carving the legs off a smoked turkey

To carve, start by removing the legs. Pull gently at the leg with one hand, and you should be able to easily slip a knife into the joint between the leg and the breast.

Step 15: Split the Legs

Splitting drumstick from thigh of a smoked turkey

Find the joint between the drumstick and the thigh by moving the drumstick back and forth, then slice down in between the ball and socket to split the drumstick from the thigh.

Step 16: Remove the Hip Bone

Remove hipbone from a smoked turkey though

Start removing the thigh bones by locating the large, flattish hip bone stuck to the inside of the thigh. It should come loose with a little prying and a few well-aimed nips with the tip of your knife.

Step 17: Cut Along the Thigh Bone

Removing thigh bone from smoked turkey leg

Use a sharp knife to cut along the side of the thigh bone with the larger pieces of meat on it to completely remove the meat.

Step 18: Remove the Rest of the Thigh Meat

Removing thigh bone from smoked turkey leg

Holding the bone upright, scrape the remaining meat off the thigh bone.

Step 19: Slice the Thigh Meat

Slicing smoked turkey thigh meat

Slice the thigh meat into 1/2-inch slices, with the skin side up.

Step 20: Remove the Wings

Removing smoked turkey wings

Remove the wings from the breasts by positioning the breast upright and holding it by one of the wings. Jiggle the wing back and forth a little to locate the joint, then cut through it with a sharp knife. Repeat with the other wing. You can remove the drumette from the flat/wing tip in the same manner that you separated the drumstick from the thigh.

Step 21: Remove the Breasts

Carving smoked turkey breast

Start removing the breast halves from the breastbone by running your knife down one side of the sternum.

Carving smoked turkey breast

Continue cutting, tracing the contour of the bones with the tip of your knife while applying a little outward pressure with your free hand. The meat should very easily pull away from the bone. Repeat with the other side to remove both breast halves. Reserve all the bones to make a stock.

Step 22: Slice the Breast

Slicing a smoked turkey breast

Slice the breast meat into 1/2-inch serving slices.

Step 23: Plate It Up!

A platter of smoked turkey meat

The secrets to perfectly smoked turkey are: butterflying, dry-brining, adding baking powder to the dry rub, slow-cooking over indirect heat, and careful monitoring of the turkey’s internal temperature. Here’s how to do it, step by step.

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