The ultimate guide to brining and smoking a perfect turkey. I have made (and eaten) many turkeys in my life, and this is my favorite turkey recipe by far. It takes what can often be boring and bland meat and turns it into something exceptional. Impress your family and guests on Thanksgiving or Christmas with this ultimate smoked turkey recipe. I will take you through the entire simple process, step by step.
Turkey has never impressed me.
And then I got a Traeger and tried smoked turkey for the first time — it was a revelation. Smoked turkey is juicy and tender and intensely flavorful in a way that doesn't need a river of gravy or cranberry sauce to help it along.
(You can use whatever smoker you have by the way.)
This smoked turkey recipe is the result of some years of trial and error and I will take you through the entire process, from dry-brining (much better than a wet brine) to basting and smoking. It's easy.
With the big Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners coming up, this recipe is foolproof.
If you love this recipe check out my smoked grouse recipe and smoked 'nduja sausage pasta. ALSO — the Thanksgiving section on my blog has traditional recipes for an oven-roasted turkey crown, and crispy roasted whole duck, as well as festive desserts like my popular old-fashioned fresh apple cake and pumpkin spice bundt cake.
And if you do the traditional seafood feast on Christmas Eve — my smoked whole trout is a nice addition to the usual lineup.
If you love BBQ as much as I do, I have two recipes for delicious jerky — smoked salmon jerky and spicy beef jerky. Side dishes like smoked tomatoes and smoky caramelized onions are also fantastic. I even make my own smoked salt.
- 1 whole turkey
- kosher salt
- butter, softened
- dark or amber maple syrup
- fresh garlic
- black pepper
- (Optional) pinches of cinnamon, nutmeg, ground coffee/espresso powder
See the recipe card for quantities.
Two vital pieces of equipment:
- a smoker (I have a Traeger)
- meat thermometer
Dry-Brine vs Wet-Brine
I used to be a wet-brine devotee, but after experimenting with both, the dry brining method is superior for poultry like turkey.
Dry-brining results in a more flavourful bird, and with turkey meat being kinda meh on its own, I want to amp up that delicious turkey-ness, not dilute it further with water.
So we will be dry-bring our turkey before smoking it. You can get fancy with herbs and spices and citrus peels, but that does not really do anything.
I just use salt.
Why We Brine
So why brine a turkey at all?
Because it will make for a juicier, more tender, more flavourful bird.
Muscle fibers are loosened by salt, allowing the meat to retain moisture while cooking. Furthermore, a dry brine allows a process called osmosis to take place where the salt dissolves and is absorbed into the flesh of the turkey.
I Don't Have Time/Don't Want To Brine My Turkey, Now What?
Just push on soldier.
You're smoking the turkey anyway, it will still taste amazing.
Just not as great as mine 😉
Hint: The downside to smoking your turkey is the lack of drippings, but that doesn't mean you don't get to enjoy homemade gravy or have to buy the canned stuff if you don't want to. With butter, herbs like rosemary and sage, onion, garlic, a teaspoon of gelatin, and most importantly — a super-concentrated batch of bone broth you can make delicious gravy without drippings.
If your turkey is frozen, you will ideally want to allow it to defrost slowly in your refrigerator.
This step is important for planning your big dinner as you will also need additional time (24-48 hours) for brining!
Defrosting a turkey in your refrigerator results in better, juicier meat versus turkey defrosted in a cold-water bath, so plan accordingly.
In a typical refrigerator, allow 24 hours of defrosting time for every 5 lbs of turkey.
If you must defrost in a cold-water bath, allow about 30 minutes per pound but make sure to refresh the water constantly, about every 45 minutes or even 30 minutes ideally.
Now dry-brine your defrosted turkey. You need 24-48 hours for this step. To avoid over-salting, measure out ½ cup of kosher salt. You may or may not use the entirety depending upon the size of your turkey.
Using your hands, and at a distance from the turkey of about 6 inches, begin to liberally coat the outside of the turkey with the salt. Do not be afraid. You want your turkey completely covered with a nice layer of salt without it being completely encrusted.
Transfer the salted turkey to either a wire rack or plate lined with a clean tea towel (or paper towel) and refrigerate uncovered for 24 hours or loosely covered if dry-brining for 48 hours or up to 72 hours.
The best cover to use is cheesecloth or clean tea towels, but plastic wrap will also work just do not tightly wrap the bird.
This is done to prevent excessive moisture loss that can occur after 24 hours.
Day of cooking: prepare the herbed butter-garlic rub.
Allow your brined and unrinsed turkey to sit at room temperature, uncovered, for about an hour.
Softened butter is mixed with maple syrup, fresh parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, minced garlic, and black pepper.
If your turkey is brined do not add salt.
Nice optional spices are a ½ teaspoon each of coffee grinds or espresso powder, nutmeg, cinnamon, and red pepper flakes.
I make a big batch and halve it and then use this to baste the turkey too.
Rub the turkey inside and out with the herbed butter, getting underneath the skin as much as possible.
You can sprinkle any additional spices you want on the outside too for more flavor.
You can also add some fresh sprigs of rosemary on the outside and stuff the cavity of the turkey with fresh halved lemon or orange.
Preheat your smoker on the Smoke setting with the lid closed for 5 minutes until a fire is established.
Make sure the hopper is appropriately filled with the wood pellets of your choosing.
Smoke your turkey for 3-4 hours, never allowing the temperatures to go up past 225° fahrenheit.
Check on your hopper to ensure there are enough wood pellets.
If the temperature fluctuations are too high, introduce a bowl of ice water in a grill-safe vessel to bring down the temps for more consistent smoking.
Baste the turkey with the herbed butter hourly as well. Do it quickly while smoking and use a silicone pastry brush.
You can use plain butter too if you run out of the herbed stuff.
It is good to check on the turkey hourly — just set an alarm on your phone.
After smoking for the 3-4 hours, it's time to turn the heat up to 325° Fahrenheit and cook the turkey until the internal temperature reaches 165°. For a 10-15 lbs turkey that is usually about 1 ½ - 2 ½ hours post-smoking time.
Remove the turkey from the grill, and let it rest tented in foil for 30 minutes or up to an hour before carving and serving.
What Wood Pellets Should I Use?
Traeger makes a special turkey blend of hardwood pellets, which includes hickory, oak, maple, and rosemary that sounds really good too.
For poultry, they also recommend alder, pecan, apple, cherry, and mesquite.
Use what you like and have on hand.
- 1 15 lbs turkey
- 1 tablespoon Kosher salt (measure out a ½ cup, you probably won't use all of it.)
- 1 cup butter softened
- ½ cup maple syrup or honey
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 6 cloves garlic minced
- 6 leaves sage
- 4 sprigs rosemary
- ½ cup parsley chopped
- ½ teaspoon Optional pinches of cinamon, nutmeg, ground coffee/espresso powder
Dry-Brine Your (Defrosted) Turkey:
- To avoid over-salting, measure out ½ cup of kosher salt. You may or may not use the entirety depending upon the size of your turkey.
- Using your hands, and at a distance from the turkey of about 6 inches, begin to liberally coat the outside of the turkey with the salt. Do not be afraid. You want your turkey completely covered with a nice layer of salt without it being competely encrusted on.
- Transfer the salted turkey to either a wire rack or plate lined with a clean tea towel (or paper towel) and refrigerate uncovered for 24 hours or loosely coveredif dry-brining for 48 hours or up to 72 hours. The best cover to use is cheesecloth or clean tea towels, but plastic wrap will also work just do not tightly wrap the bird. This is done to prevent excessive moisture loss that can occur after 24 hours.
- Aromatics are not necessary as they will not do much or anything.
You do not need to rinse a dry brined turkey afterward!
Make The Herb Butter:
- You can make this herb butter rub ahead of time and let it sit on the counter to soften on the day of Just don't accidentally add any more salt! Adjust the amount of butter, garlic, and maple syrup needed to the size of your turkey. It's better to make too much than too little.
- Combine softened butter with the minced garlic, maple syrup (or honey), chopped parsley, and spices. Take the leaves off from half of your rosemary and add them too.
- (Make a double batch of this if you plan on basting your turkey with herbed butter, otherwise just use plain unsalted melted butter.)
- Sauté the garlic and spices in the butter for a slightly different flavour profile. Stir in the maple syrup or honey at the end with the herbs.
Smoke The Turkey:
- Allow your brined and dry turkey to sit at room temperature, uncovered, for about an hour.
- Preheat your Traeger Grill (or whichever smoker you are using) on the Smoke setting with the lid closed for 5 minutes until a fire is established.
- Meanwhile, rub the turkey inside and out with the herbed butter, getting underneath the skin as much as possible. Add the sage leaves underneath the skin.
- Place the turkey directly on the grill, breast up. Place the remaining sprigs of rosemary directly on top of turkey.
- Smoke your turkey for 3 hours, never allowing the temperatures to go up past 225° farenheit. Baste every hour with the herbed or plain melted butter before also checking on your hopper to ensure there are enough wood pellets. A timer is excellent for this.
- If the temperature fluctuations are too high, introduce a bowl of ice water in a grill-safe vessel to bring down the temps for more consistent smoking.
- After smoking for the 3-4 hours, it's time to turn the heat up to 325° fahrenheit and cook the turkey until the internal temperature reaches 165°. For a 10-15 lbs turkey that is usually about 1 ½ - 2 ½ hours post-smoking time.
- Remove the turkey from the grill, let it rest tented in foil for 30 minutes before carving and serving.
- Enjoy your turkey!