Making a Whole Smoked Turkey is easier than you think. From the brine, to the wood chips, to the best instant read thermometers and instructions for a smoker as well as a gas grill, and a crazy good cider gravy we’ll cover it here.
Why Brine A Turkey?
We’ve all experienced a bone-dry turkey, right? And we don’t want that happening ON OUR WATCH! The key to a moist, flavorful bird, whether your roasting it in the oven, deep frying, grilling or smoking — is the brine. It’s the essential first step. A brine at it’s most basic level is salt dissolved in water. When you soak a turkey (or any other protein) in a brining solution the brine permeates the turkey through osmosis, plumping the cells of the meat and tenderizing the flesh, resulting in a juicy, tender, delicious bird. Think of it as a fail safe — and do it no matter how you’re cooking your turkey.
There are tons of different turkey brines, but all will of them will include a combination of salt and water — those are the two necessary ingredients for turkey brines. The other ingredients enhance the flavors, but the essential function is to tenderize the meat and keep it moist.
Ingredients for Turkey Brines:
- Brown Sugar
- Maple Syrup
- Kosher Salt
- Bay Leaves
- Unsweetened Apple Juice
How To Brine A Turkey For Smoking:
There are TWO MUSTS for brining your turkey:
- A receptacle for the brine & turkey
- Giving the brine time to cool.
Make sure you have a container large enough for the bird AND the brine. Brining bags are the simplest method — but you still need a receptacle to hold the bird, because the brine will naturally fill out the contours of the bag and spread — making it unlikely that you’ll actually COVER the turkey with the brine. You want something that’s just slightly larger and taller than your bird. If you have a large enough stock pot, use it. I actually bought a restaurant-grade storage container specifically for this purpose. (It also happens to be fabulous for brining my St. Patrick’s Day corned beef.)
COOLING OFF PERIOD:
You want the brine to be cool before adding it to the turkey, otherwise, you’re poaching the bird. In this brine I add ice to speed up the process, but if you’re living in a cooler climate (than South Florida), you could just put it outside for half an hour or so.
Tips For Smoking A Turkey:
- Choose a light wood chip for smoking. We prefer fruit wood chips, like apple, cherry or pecan. This type of chip will infuse the turkey with subtle smoke flavor without overpowering it.
- Soak your wood chips for a minimum of 4 hours or overnight. You want the chips to smolder and smoke. If they haven’t been submerged for long enough, you run the risk of them burning instead of smoking.
If you have a charcoal smoker, light the fire and let the charcoal cook to hot embers. Then drain the wood chips and add them directly to the coals. This will start the smoking process. You want a steady temperature between 225°-275° to slow-smoke the turkey.
Gas Grill Method
If you’re using your gas grill, set up the grill for indirect cooking (one side of the grill is on and the other isn’t). Fill your smoker boxes with wood chips or if you don’t have a smoker box, create smoker pouches: Tear off a piece of aluminum foil and fill it with a few handfuls of drained wood chips. Seal up the pouch and poke holes all over the foil. Place the smoker box or pouch directly over the fire (not the grill grates) to start the smoking. Try to maintain the temperature between 225° and 275° throughout the cooking process.
Note: smoke should be white — not black. Black indicates fire. And if you have small children who want to “help” — please tell them not to touch the grill in any way (that’s another long story that I’ll share another time.)
Let the turkey smoke, unimpeded for about 1 1/2 hours, then start to baste every half hour. My basting solution is a simple blend of chicken broth, apple juice, bourbon, cider vinegar and maple syrup. I don’t use a lot of maple syrup because the more sugars you add to the brine, the darker the turkey will be — sugar caramelizes, after all — and I was looking for a beautiful golden color.
Gravy is every bit as important as the turkey to my family and this cider gravy is over-the-moon-good. You can absolutely taste the apple cider in the cider gravy, but it’s not overly sweet and the herbs really round out the flavors.
Ingredients For Cider Gravy:
- Contents of the Turkey Pouch
- Bay Leaves
- Apple Cider
- Gravy Master (for brown color – optional)
How To Make Cider Gravy
- Make a quick stock with the contents of the turkey pouch (heart, gizzards, liver, neck) water, bay leaves and peppercorns. Or you can use low sodium chicken broth instead of simmering your own stock.
- Add apple cider to the stock and reduce down. This intensifies the flavors.
- Mix the herbs together with the butter salt and pepper and add them to a saucepan over medium high heat.
- Sprinkle the flour over the herb butter mixture and whisk to form a paste.
- Add the hot reduction of broth and cider, stirring constantly and bring to a boil, cooking until the sauce has thickened, about 1-2 minutes.
- Stir in the cream and Gravy Master.
- You can also pick the meat off the neck and add it to the gravy.
Cooking is a sensory experience and we should always use ours when we’re cooking. If it smells burnt, it probably is… If it doesn’t look done, it probably isn’t. If you’re adept at the “touch test” you’ll know the difference between raw and well done.
Most proteins have a range of cooking times and temperatures that will keep you pretty close to the mark on when your meat will be done the way you like it. For my money, though, the best way to check for doneness of any meat is with an instant read thermometer.
Best Instant Read Thermometer
The Thermapen Mk 4.There I said it — and I’m giving you an affiliate link to it!
We have gone through several instant reads in our house — both analog and digital. The kinds with the wiry probe that dings when you’ve hit the right temperature and the ones with the red dial that slowly creeps up to show what the internal temperature is. This one is our favorite though because it’s so intuitive and easy. This is the Thermapen Mk 4.
- It’s well calibrated
- It’s a comfortable design with large easy-to-read numbers
- It has a built in light feature so if you’re cooking after dark, it senses it and lights the screen for you.
- It gives you accurate readings within a few seconds.
- To turn it on you un-fold the probe from the body of the Thermapen.
- To turn it off, you fold the probe into the body of the Thermapen.
- The fold-up design is genius — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stabbed myself while trying to fish out a probe thermometer from our kitchen drawer.
- This isn’t a cheap item, but it’s worth every dime — and I would have paid more if I’d had to.
- Want one for yourself? Click this affiliate link to take advantage of special deals!
Smoking a turkey requires a lower heat than roasting it in your oven, so count on about 30 minutes per pound of cooking time. Start checking the temperature at about the 2 1/2 hour point. When the turkey breast registers about 155° (get out your instant read) it’s done. Let it rest for about 20 minutes before carving. This allows the juices to redistribute throughout the meat.
So what do you think? This Whole Smoked Turkey with Cider Gravy is a thing of beauty, right? This lightly smoked flesh is so good, you’re gonna want to make it in the summer, just for a change of pace. Scott is already asking me to buy another one and Emily is insisting on it! Regarding the cider gravy — just trust me. You WANT this.
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Brined Smoked Turkey
FOR THE BRINE:
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 cup kosher salt
- 1/3 cup maple syrup
- 10 whole cloves
- 20 whole black peppercorns
- 1 bunch fresh thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 8 cups unsweetened apple juice preferably organic, unfiltered)
- 1/2 cup bourbon
- 6 cups cold water
- 8 cups ice
FOR SMOKING THE TURKEY:
- 1 10-12 pound turkey
FOR THE BASTING LIQUID:
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 1/2 cup apple juice
- 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons bourbon
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup
FOR THE CIDER GRAVY:
- contents of the turkey "pouch" neck, gizzard, liver & heart
- 5 cups water
- 2 bay leaves
- 10 whole peppercorns
- 2 cups apple cider
- 4 tablespoons butter at room temperature
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- 1 tablespoon chopped rosemary
- 1 tablespoon chopped sage
- 1 tablespoon chopped thyme
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 teaspoons gravy master or browning sauce optional
- 1/2 cup whipping cream
MAKE THE BRINE:
- In a large stock pot, combine the brown sugar, kosher salt, maple syrup, cloves, peppercorn, bay leaves and thyme. Add the apple juice and simmer over medium heat until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Stir in the bourbon, cold water and ice until the ice is melted.
- Check temperature of the brine before brining the turkey -- it should be at room temperature or cooler <70°.
- Find a receptacle large enough to hold the turkey and the brine -- could be a cooler, or I go to the restaurant supply store to get one of their large plastic food storage containers or brining bags.
- Place the turkey in the receptacle and pour in the cool brine. The brine should cover the bird, but if it doesn't quite, add a few more cups of water and/or apple juice. Alternately, if your container just isn't big enough for more liquid. Let the turkey brine for half the time, then flip it over to brine with the other half fully submerged. Brine the bird for 12-24 hours.
- Several hours or the night before smoking, add 3-4 cups of wood chips to a large bowl and cover with water.
FOR SMOKING THE TURKEY
- Remove the turkey from the brine and transfer to a baking pan. Pat completely dry with paper towels and discard the brine. Place the turkey on a rack set over a baking pan (to catch drippings and prevent flares). Use kitchen twine to tie the drumsticks together. Tuck the wing tips behind the bird -- this will prevent them from getting dried out -- it also gives a nicer presentation.
- Drain the wood chips.
- Use a chimney starter to light the charcoal for the smoker. Pour the embers into the center of the smoker and spread out slightly. Toss with several handfuls of the wood chips to start the smoking.
- Place the grate over the charcoal embers.
- Try to maintain a constant low smoke and the temperature (which won't be precise) should hover between 225°-275°. Baste the turkey every 20-30 minutes with the basting solution. Start checking the turkey with an instant read thermometer at about the 1 1/2 to 2-hour mark. You want to achieve a breast temperature around 155° for perfect doneness -- the turkey will continue to cook after you take if off the heat. Depending on the size of your turkey, this could take anywhere from 4-5 hours.
GAS GRILL INSTRUCTIONS:
- Set up the gas grill for indirect heat. (The heating elements are on for one half of the grill while the turkey sits on the opposite side.) Heat that side to about 350°.
- Fill 2-3 smoking boxes with the drained wood chips (or set up smoking pouches by filling aluminum foil with wood chips, sealing the pouches up by crimping the edges together and poking holes all over the pouch. Place the smoking boxes or pouches directly over the grill grates and heat until they start smoking.
- Reduce the heat so that you just maintain a steady smoke with the grill temperature hovering between 225°-275°.
- Place the turkey on the opposite side of the grill and close the lid. After 1 1/2 to 2 hours, begin basting the turkey every 20-30 minutes with the basting solution.
- Start checking the turkey with an instant read thermometer at about the 2-hour mark. You want to achieve a breast temperature around 155°-160° for perfect doneness -- the turkey will continue to cook after you take if off the heat. Depending on the size of your turkey, this could take anywhere from 4-5 hours.
FOR THE GRAVY:
- In a medium skillet cover the turkey giblets, neck, heart and liver with the water. Add the bay leaves and peppercorns and heat to boiling. Reduce heat to a low simmer and cover with the lid slightly askew so the steam can escape. Simmer for 20-30 minutes or until the the broth reduces to about 4 cups.
- Remove the neck and set aside. Place a strainer over a large mixing bowl (one that has a spout is convenient) and pour the broth through the strainer. Discard the solids. Add the stock back to the pan and add the apple cider. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer without the lid for 20 minutes or until you have about 4 to 4 1/2 cups of liquid. Pour the liquid back into the bowl.
- While the stock is simmering, add the butter to a small bowl and stir in the parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme (are you hearing Simon and Garfunkel?) along with the salt and pepper until it's well combined. Set aside.
- Place the butter herb mixture into a large saucepan over medium high heat. When the butter has melted, sprinkle on the flour and whisk to form a thick paste. Cook for one minute until bubbly. Add the hot cider mixture a steady stream, whisking constantly. Bring to a boil and cook for one minute until the gravy thickens slightly. Stir in the whipping cream and gravy master. Taste for seasonings -- and prepare to be wowed!
- When the turkey has achieved 155° in the breast, remove it from the heat and let it rest for 20 minutes before carving. Serve with the gravy on the side.