The ultimate guide to brining and smoking a perfect turkey on your Traeger Grill (or a similar pellet smoker). I have made (and eaten) many turkeys in my life, and this is my favourite turkey recipe by far. Impress your family and guests on Thanksgiving or Christmas with this ultimate smoked turkey recipe.
I have a confession to make: turkey bores me to tears. It doesn't matter if it's a pastured, heritage raised bird, or one of the bland, watery ones (I'm not naming names) you get at the typical grocery store — I'm just not crazy about turkey meat.
But a big bird is expected at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, so I set out to make the best damn turkey possible.
You know that disappointment you feel upon biting into turkey only to find that weirdly crumbly, dry texture? Along with a flavour that is best described as a chalky after-taste? That would then be masked by a river of gravy?
Yeah, so I hate that.
I wanted something tender and juicy but intensely flavourful — and substantial too. Something more akin to that wild grouse I made which had a beautifully savoury, smoky taste more akin to a poultry-pork hybrid than dry grocery store chicken.
This smoked turkey recipe is the result of some years of trial and error and I'm sure you and yours will love it too this Thanksgiving.
I will take you through the entire process, from dry-brining (much better than a wet-brine) to basting and smoking. This recipe is fool-proof.
Choose Your Turkey
I always choose locally raised, pastured, heritage breed turkey.
Right off the bat with a turkey like that, you are getting a better tasting form of turkey meat.
But if you do not have access to that type of turkey, or can't afford it — then try and get a bird that is at least not pre-injected with a salt solution.
Brining yourself is preferred, so carefully read the label or ask the store manager. If you are stuck with a salt-injected turkey, SKIP the brining step of this guide completely!
Defrost Your Turkey Properly
If your turkey is frozen, you will 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.
Dry-Brine Versus Wet-Brine: Which Is Better?
I used to be a wet-brine devotee, but then Kenji changed my mind. Bless him.
Now I dry-brine my poultry. In fact, I regret wet-brining that grouse I smoked— a stupid fear of nonexistent "gaminess" made me think a wet-brine would be superior.
(There was no gaminess — SO much nonsense can be found online, but whatever, this is about 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, or you can just use plain old kosher salt.
I just use salt.
Why Should You Brine Turkey?
So why brine a turkey at all?
Because it will make for a juicier, more tender, more flavourful bird.
Muscle fibres are loosened by salt, allowing the meat to retain moisture while cooking. Furthermore, a dry-brine allows a process called osmosis to take place (not true with wet-brining, that's a myth btw) where the salt dissolves and is absorbed into the flesh of the turkey.
I Don't Have Time To Brine My Turkey, Now What?
Just push on soldier.
You're smoking the turkey anyway, it will still taste great.
Just not as great as mine 😉
How To Smoke A Turkey On The Traeger
The smoking part will take a few hours on low, so the biggest challenge is to make sure your hopper stays full of wood pellets!
Have you ever neglected that part and come to find a cold grill? Yeah same, and it's not great.
The best thing to do is to set a timer to check on the smoking turkey and when you baste it every hour, on the hour, make sure the hopper is full of wood pellets.
In the last part of this recipe, the heat gets turned up on high to really crisp that skin up.
Prepare The Herbed Butter-Garlic Turkey Rub
Butter and garlic are a must, anything else is a bonus or to your personal taste.
Use softened butter at room temperature. I like to add maple syrup (or honey), lots of freshly cracked black pepper, sage, rosemary, and lovage — an underrated and underappreciated herb.
You can also use melted butter if you wish to sauté the above ingredients for a slightly different flavour. Stir the maple syrup or honey in at the end.
And of course, you can add other spices if you want too. A pinch of coffee, cinnamon, and nutmeg, for example, are lovely additions.
Just do not add any more salt to an already brined turkey!
And make sure you get underneath the skin of the turkey with the butter before putting it on the grill.
We will be basting the turkey every hour as it smokes.
Which Flavour Wood Pellets Should I Use?
I used hickory to smoke my turkey.
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 hickory, alder, pecan, apple, cherry, and mesquite.
Use what you like.
How Can I Make Turkey Gravy Without Drippings?
With butter, herbs like rosemary and sage, onion, garlic, a teaspoon of gelatin, and most importantly — a super-concentrated batch of bone broth.
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.
You can make delicious gravy without drippings.
If you have the turkey neck, and/or spatchcocked your bird, you can roast those pieces in the oven for drippings too for even more flavour.
My gravy is completely grain and gluten-free as I use the concentrated bone broth and gelatin to thicken the gravy, but you can use a couple of tablespoons of flour if you prefer it that way.
I'll post that recipe tomorrow.
So here we go, my complete guide to dry-brining your turkey and smoking it on a Traeger Grill.
Stay tuned for more Thanksgiving classic recipes! And as always, let me know what you think in the comments.
Dry-Brined + Smoked Turkey On The Traeger
The best brined and smoked turkey recipe for your holiday dinner. This is a step-by-step guide for your most flavourful and tender bird ever.
My recipe references the Traeger Grill, which is what I have and recommend, but any pellet smoker will obviously do.
Allow your turkey to become fully defrosted before brining, allow it to rest at room temperature for an hour before smoking, and then again allow it to rest — covered with tented foil or similar — after it is done smoking. Plan all this time in when making your turkey.
Having a number of make-ahead sides that reheat beautifully makes the day-of dinner party less stressful and frenzied.
- Prep Time: 10 minutes
- Cook Time: 5 hours
- Total Time: 5 hours 10 minutes
- Category: Dinner
- Method: Smoking
- Cuisine: North America
- 1 whole turkey
- Kosher salt
- 1/2 - 1 cup butter, softened
- 1/2 cup dark or amber maple syrup, or honey
- Black pepper
- 1/2 - 1 head of garlic, minced
- (Optional) pinches of cinamon, nutmeg, ground coffee/espresso powder
Dry-Brine Your (Defrosted) Turkey:
- To avoid over-salting, measure out 1/2 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 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.
- 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), spices, and herbs you will be using. All of the ones in my suggestions work together or in various combinations. As long as you have the butter and garlic, this rub will be delicious. I also highly recommend maple syrup or honey!
- Mash with fork. you're done.
- Sauté the garlic, spices, and herbs in the butter for a slightly different flavour profile. Stir in the maple syrup or honey at the end.
Smoke The Turkey:
- Allow your brined and unrinsed turkey to sit at room temperature, uncovered, for about an hour.
- Preheat your Traeger Grill 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.
- Meanwhile, using a pastry brush (I love silicone pastry brushes so much for this) or just your hands, rub the turkey inside and out with the herbed butter, getting underneath the skin as well if possible.
- Place the turkey directly on the grill, breast up.
- Smoke your turkey for 3-4 hours, never allowing the temperatures to go up past 225° farenheit, and basting every hour with the herbed 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 1/2 - 2 1/2 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!