Turkey is obviously the traditional meal of choice around the holidays, whether its Thanksgiving or Christmas Day. If you’re the owner of a pellet grill/smoker, it would be rude not to smoke your Turkey if you have the chance. Below we’ll look at how to smoke a turkey to achieve the best texture, tenderness, and flavor possible. But I also want to discuss how to address the challenge of using a pellet grill/smoker in a cold/winter climate to cook the best turkey possible.
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Table of Contents
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- Cooking Time: Typically 4 hours (18-20 lb turkey)
- Pellet Grill/Smoker Temp: 225 to 350 F
- Direct/Indirect Heat?: Purely an indirect heat cook
- Turkey Internal Temp When Done: 165 F (we’ll discuss this)
- Best Pellets For Turkey: Oak, Pecan, Maple, Apple or Cherry
I’m no BBQ expert. My expertise is how pellet grills/smokers work and the range of makes/models on the market. When it comes to how to cook on a pellet grill/smoker, I’ll be referring to the professionals.
Therefore, first off, with all raw poultry, turkey included, food safety is very important with regards to salmonela/e-coli etc. Therefore, please follow the CDC’s advice on handling/storing turkey meat.
While the video I’ve included below on smoking a turkey is a whole turkey, the general principles/process are the same for when you’re just cooking turkey thighs etc, with the cooking time being shorter.
You also have to decide on the spatchcocked vs whole turkey debate, and I have a separate short article where I discuss the pros and cons of each option.
1. Brining Your Turkey Prior To Smoking
Brining is part of the seasoning process for your turkey. Whether you choose to brine your turkey or not is a personal preference, and it will depend on the time available.
What the brining process does is help to aid the natural flavor of the turkey once cooked and can also add additional flavors if you so choose with your choice of brine ingredients.
However, what the brining process can also do is help to produce a more moist/tender turkey. After all, dry/fluffy turkey meat is something no one really enjoys, and brining can help to avoid that.
Now, there are three brining methods, the wet brine, the dry brine, and the brine injection. Each has its pros and cons, and I’ve included the video below to explain why.
I’ll quickly run through the points that Suzzie makes in the video above with regard to the pros and cons of the different methods to brine either turkey thighs, legs, or a whole turkey.
First, the simplest method is the dry brine which is simply dusting the surface of the turkey with salt and putting it back in the fridge to do its magic.
It will aid moisture retention in the turkey, but it won’t typically be as moist as the wet brine/injection method.
The injection method is the quickest method, as you could inject the turkey and place it straight on the pellet smoker if you so wish.
The problem is that the result tends to be more inconsistent with pockets of overly moist meat and then other drier areas of turkey meat.
The wet brine method is generally acknowledged to produce the best overall end result. The problem is fitting a whole brine bucket with a turkey in back into the fridge will be a challenge for many people.
Also, again please follow proper safety advice when brining turkey or any poultry for that matter. Please check out USDA guidance to do it safely.
2. Smoking A Turkey On A Pellet Grill/Smoker
Currently, I think the best demonstration out there currently on how to smoke a turkey on a pellet grill is the video below by Malcolm Reed of HowToBBQRight.
Malcolm starts with a wet-brined whole turkey (as discussed above), and he smokes the turkey on his Gen 1 Traeger Timberline for around four hours until the turkey hit 165 F.
This is a butter-basted turkey, but Malcolm also puts a stick of butter into the cavity along with some vegetables for additional flavor, and the steaming vegetable inside aid moisture retention as well.
Liquid butter and herbs are then applied to the skin of the turkey, which will not only aid flavor, it will help to crisp up the skin while providing that appealing classic golden brown turkey appearance.
Malcolm adds additional butter around every hour during the cook to aid the color development in the turkey skin, which is how he ends up with the amazing end result you can see below.
Something very important to note in the video above is every hour Malcolm is basting the turkey, he is examining the skin around the wings/legs and foiling as needed to stop them from overcooking/burning.
When dealing with a whole turkey and especially large birds, you have to make sure you don’t burn the thinner areas of the bird before the center of the turkey has reached the all-important 165 F.
So what about the temperature you set on your pellet grill/smoker? Typically, its between 225 to 300 F. However, if you have a smoke setting, you may wish to start the cook using that for more smoke flavor.
Accurate Turkey Internal Temperature Monitoring Is Essential
In the video above, Malcolm doesn’t use the meat probe on his Traeger to monitor the internal temperature of his turkey, though its a tool worth using.
While I would encourage you to use your pellet grills/smokers’ meat probe if you have one, I would also recommend a backup/double-check method such as a Thermoworks thermometer.
Cooking poultry such as turkey to a proper/safe internal temperature (165 F) is essential. You don’t want to bring the family around for Thanksgiving only for them to leave with food poisoning, do you?
3. The Best Pellets For Smoking Turkey
When it comes to smoking a turkey on your pellet grill/smoker, you have obviously got to make a decision on the pellets you’ll use. Choosing the right pellets can be tricky.
I have a dedicated article on the best pellets for specific meats. However, that advice is really just a recommendation based on my own personal preferences.
No matter what anyone says, there are no definitive answers about only using … pellets to cook certain meats. You can choose any pellet flavor preference you so choose.
However, if you have no idea where to start, there are some general recommendations on pellet choice when it comes to turkey and poultry in general.
|Pellet Flavors For Turkey||Smoke Flavor|
The links to the various pellet flavors above go to my articles which I produced on the best value pellets I could find after many hours of research based on a $ per lb assessment.
Don’t feel compelled to only purchase a certain brand of pellets because its the same brand as your pellet grill/smoker, its just not necessary. Any pellet grill/smoker can work with any brand of pellets.
4. Smoking A Turkey In Cold/Winter Weather
While I would encourage you to consider smoking turkey all year round, I know that many people reading this article will be smoking a turkey for Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Hence, you are cooking with your pellet grill/smoker in the colder months of the year (November/December). As such, you need to consider the climate/ambient temperature around the pellet grill/smoker.
I’ve previously written about how you can indeed cook with a pellet grill/smoker in winter. So I’ll just touch on the key points to be aware of here.
If you own a pellet grill/smoker with twin-wall insulated construction, you are already well set up to smoke a turkey with consistent results.
However, if you own a pellet grill/smoker where the cooking chamber is single-wall steel, then I would strongly encourage you to consider an insulated blanket.
Otherwise, when smoking a whole turkey which is taking up a lot of space in the cooking chamber without that additional insulation, you could overcook and undercook different parts of the turkey.
When cooking in winter/cold weather, you should also expect higher pellet usage. But again, with an insulated jack/twin-wall construction, the increase in pellet usage will be reduced.
Final Thoughts On Smoking A Turkey On A Pellet Grill/Smoker…
So first and foremost, when cooking/smoking turkey, you want to check you are properly cooking it through and looking for an internal temperature of at least 165 F in all areas of the turkey.
Whether you choose to brine your turkey is up to you. As the video I’ve included above shows, there are pros and cons to the different methods of brining a turkey.
The same goes for pellet choice, but with poultry, including turkey, milder/lighter smoke flavor profiles from Oak/fruitwood are generally regarded to work best.
If you don’t own a pellet grill/smoker with twin-wall construction when smoking a turkey for Thanksgiving/Christmas, I would strongly encourage an insulated blanket.
That’s it! Thanks for reading. I hope the above information/videos have guided you on your path to smoking an excellent turkey.
As always, please check out my Pellet Grill/Smoker Guide to learn more about all the different makes/models of Pellet BBQs now on the market. 🙂
Research/compare over 240 pellet grills/smokers on sale today