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How to smoke a turkey like a pro

Try something different this Thanksgiving.

how-to-smoke-a-turkey
Chowhound
This story is part of Holiday Survival Guide 2019, featuring tips on the best ways to manage the holiday season.

Based on recent search trends, it seems that plenty of people want to know how to smoke a turkey this year. If you're tired of the same old roast turkey for Thanksgiving, but too afraid of fireballs to attempt to deep fry turkey, a smoked turkey may be your happy medium. You can get outside, free up oven space for sides and pies and enjoy a deliciously different flavor than you're probably used to.

Smoked turkey isn't for the faint of heart -- it does require tending, and it does have a bold flavor that purists may disapprove of. Consider roasting a backup turkey breast for them, and know that for a classic gravy, you'll need to make a batch from spare turkey parts ahead of time (always a good move anyway). Alternatively, use the reserved turkey neck to make a gravy with bourbon, apple, apple cider and onion; that recipe is included in Chowhound's smoked turkey recipe.

According to Chowhound community members in the know, you may want to smoke a practice bird, or even just smoke the turkey breast for an easier time of it (though who among us can resist Disney-style smoked drumsticks?).

We also recommend taking some tips from a pit master on how to smoke meat in general, especially if you're new to smoking.

Make sure you have your game plan in place and allow enough time to get the process going. Then you'll be ready to tackle a turkey. Below, some essential tools, tips and ideas for what to serve alongside your mahogany masterpiece.

Get equipped

If you have a smoker, great! If you don't, you can do as we did and use a charcoal grill for smoking turkey.

Read more: Traeger's wood pellet grill is so good it hurts

You'll also need two sets of tongs, a few different disposable aluminum pans (two will serve as drip pans, the other a steam pan), a baking sheet, oven mitts, a couple buckets of water, an oven thermometer and a meat thermometer. More on those later.

Read more: The most popular grilling tools on Amazon

Last but certainly not least, you'll need wood and a good fuel source.

Amazon

We like apple wood for smoking turkey since it has a more delicate and fruity flavor compared to hickory or oak.

Amzon

We also strongly prefer hardwood lump charcoal instead of briquettes. These charred pieces of wood burn hotter and cleaner than briquettes, but if you must go that route, at least avoid the self-lighting ones, which are laden with chemicals.

Brine the turkey

Brining turkey can be a contentious subject, but we like to do it, especially for a smoked bird that has the potential to dry out. You'll need to brine the night before -- but make sure the turkey is fully defrosted first. And if you wet brine, when it comes out of the salt solution, be sure to pat it dry and let it sit at room temperature for a bit to ensure crisper skin (or two hours in the fridge, uncovered).

Read more: This Whole Foods turkey discount is too good to miss

Soak your wood chips


This will only take about 15 minutes, but every second is precious when you have hangry guests waiting for food -- so remember to put your chips in a bucket of water before you start preparing your grill or smoker. (And have Thanksgiving appetizers already available to the crowd.)

Bring your grill or smoker up to temperature

This is the easy part; maintaining the temperature will take a bit more finesse. This is why the oven thermometer is called for (the meat thermometer, unsurprisingly, is for telling when the turkey is done) -- and the steam pan, which will hold water and help lower the grill temperature, is also a necessity.

Amazon

This inexpensive piece of equipment is indispensable for taking your grill's temperature.

Amazon

These cheap disposable brownie pans are also essential (for catching drippings). You get 20 here, so they'll last a while -- or just pick up a few at your local grocery store in the baking aisle.

Amazon

These longer-than-average loaf pans are the kind we use for holding water to create steam. These come 50 to a pack so you might still have some left next summer.

Chowhound

The turkey will be done when a thermometer registers 165 degrees F in the thickest part of the breast and thigh (but be sure it's not touching bone). This digital model is a favorite of many chefs.

Truss your turkey

This is another technically optional step, but we like to do it since it makes maneuvering the turkey on the grill a bit easier (we also stuff the cavity with onion and apple, and trussing helps keep them in place). Plus, it makes you look even more impressive. Here's how to truss the bird:

You can do that while the charcoal is heating up. Once trussed, we rub the outside of the turkey with vegetable oil (but don't worry, it also gets basted with butter several times during cooking) -- and then start smoking.

Just how long will all this take?

The whole operation (not counting the overnight brine and one- to two-hour drying time for the turkey) will take at least four hours, perhaps closer to five, so plan accordingly.

You'll be feeding the fire, adding more wood chips and adjusting water pan levels throughout the smoking process. Full instructions for preparing the grill and maintaining the temperature are in the recipe below, but if you have a smoker, refer to the manufacturer's instructions for best results.

Get Chowhound's smoked turkey recipe for the step-by-step specifics.

What should you serve with smoked turkey?

The Chowhound recipe above includes instructions for a bourbon-apple gravy that uses the reserved turkey neck, but even on Thanksgiving, the bird does not stand alone.

For a smoked turkey, all the classic sides still taste great, though it makes sense to choose stronger flavors and dishes with a Southern vibe. Here are a few suggestions (but don't forget classic buttery mashed potatoes too).

Cornbread and apple stuffing

apple-cornbread-stuffing-recipe-chowhound
Chowhound

The sweetness of apple and cornbread will work well with the smoky turkey, and since it doesn't cook inside the bird, you can make it ahead of time (and will get way more crusty surface area). Get Chowhound's cornbread and apple stuffing recipe.

Bourbon sweet potato casserole

bourbon-sweet-potato-casseroler-recipe-chowhound
Chowhound

Mini marshmallows have their place (in hot cocoa), but for sweet potato casserole, we prefer something a little more grown-up. This one is spiked with bourbon -- echoing the turkey gravy -- and topped with a nutty pecan streusel that has just enough brown sugar to complement the natural sweetness of the veg. Get Chowhound's bourbon sweet potato casserole recipe.

Cranberry spread

maple-cranberry-sauce-recipe-chowhound
Chowhound

Canned cranberry sauce is fine if you're into it, but we'd pick this chunky fresh cranberry spread for a smoked turkey dinner (or any other, honestly) -- it's nicely balanced between tart and sweet (thanks to maple syrup) and has a kick of heat from red pepper too, plus candied orange peel and allspice for an even more festive vibe. Get Chowhound's cranberry spread recipe.

Simple sauteed green beans

sauteed-green-bean-recipe-chowhound
Chowhound

A fresh green vegetable is a must, so we say skip the green bean casserole for crisp-tender sauteed beans with sweet, soft onions and a bit of spark from red wine vinegar. Get Chowhound's simple sauteed green beans recipe.

Pumpkin chiffon pie

pumpkin-chiffon-pie-recipe-chowhound
Chowhound

In keeping with the anti-palate-fatigue idea, try a light and airy pumpkin chiffon pie for a change to end the meal. You can spike the filling and the topping with rum, or use nonalcoholic apple cider if you prefer. Get Chowhound's pumpkin chiffon pie recipe.

Maple pecan pie

melissa-clark-pecan-pie-recipe-chowhound
Chowhound

But if you're team pecan pie, try this version with an anise-infused maple syrup filling and tangy whipped creme fraiche for contrast. Get Melissa Clark's maple pecan pie recipe.

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