Shake it up and try a smoked turkey this year for Thanksgiving

By Suzanne Corbett, Food / Travel Editor

2020 has reshaped the holidays. Traditions are experiencing a change-up and needless to say, it’s not going to be your usual Thanksgiving. But that’s OK. Now may be the perfect time to get give that holiday turkey a makeover. Instead of stuffing and roasting the bird try smoking the turkey.

“Smoking turkeys has gotten huge,” said Frank Schmer, founder of the St. Louis BBQ Society and owner of St Louis Home Fires.  “ Each Thanksgiving we see an increased demand for aromatic woods simply because people are smoking more turkeys.”

Smoking turkey does call for a little more finessing, which is easy, especially when smoking with a pellet smoker/grill. The trick to smoking a Thanksgiving turkey is to smoke it with a wood that will impart a milder flavor. A flavor that won’t overpower grandma’s dressing or the green bean casserole.  Of course, robust flavored woods such as hickory or mesquite can be used, but barbecue champions prefer fruitwood.  Schmer recommends apple wood or pecan.

“ Pecan wood is used more in the south but it’s becoming more popular up here. It’s a versatile wood that can be used with a lot different meats. But no matter what you use you have to remember when you’re smoking anything it’s only going to take on smoke about the first third of the cooking process. After that the pores of the meat seals shut.”

Schmer smokes his turkeys at 325 degrees while other home cooks will set their smokers as low as 225 degrees. However, the National Turkey Federation suggests smoking whole turkey no lower than 250 degrees and cooking it until it reaches 165 degrees in the thickest part of the bird.  Turkeys can be brined before smoking and rubbed with spices. It all depends on what you like. I like placing a compound butter under  the turkey’s skin, then I season it with cracked black pepper and coarse flaked salt.

While there’s many different ways to smoke a bird the barbecue faithful all agree that the best thing about smoking turkeys on Thanksgiving is how it brings family and guests together. And while this year’s gathering may be smaller, go ahead and make a big turkey. After all, the best thing about Thanksgiving is the leftover turkey.

Smoked Turkey Basics

1: Select a turkey. Choose a size that fits your smoker.  I aim for a 12 pound bird. Check the label to see if the turkey is a “natural” turkey, not one that says it has been “enhanced”, or “self-basted”. A self-basted or enhanced bird doesn’t require any brining since its already been injected or soaked in a salty substance.

2: Prep the bird and smoker. Once the turkey has been thawed make sure to take out the neck and giblets and reserve them for making stock or gravy, if desired.  Arrange to have enough charcoal and wood chucks/chips or pellets for 4 –6 hours of smoking, which will depend on the turkey’s size.

3: Use a drip pan. This is important to help prevent flare-ups and can provide drippings for gravy.

4: Begin heating smoker to desired cooking temperature – smokers often choose between 250 –325 degrees. Smoking time depends on many factors: turkey size, the distance from the heat, temperature of the coals and the outside air temperature. Generally, plan on smoking turkeys 30 minutes per pound at about 250 degrees; hotter temps will cook quicker. And don’t forget to oil the grill grate to prevent the bird from sticking. Be sure the smoker is up to temperature before adding the turkey.

5: To help promote a crisp skin, baste turkey with a little butter during the last half of smoking.

6: National Turkey Federation recommends smoking whole turkey until inner thigh reaches 180 degrees and the breast170 degrees. Use and instant read thermometer to check temperature. A tip from seasoned BBQ smokers: The turkey’s temperature will rise after it’s removed from the smoker by 5 – 10 degrees. Once the bird has finished smoking remove from the smoker, cover with foil and allow the bird to rest 30 minutes before carving.


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