My wife, son, and I are heading out of town to spend Thanksgiving with her side of the family later this week and without a doubt, there will be no shortage of delicious food to enjoy.
Having purchased a Kamado Joe grill earlier in the year though, I was chomping at the bit to try my hand at a smoked turkey, so I spent the last week or so scouring the internet for tips and tricks on how to smoke the perfect Thanksgiving turkey.
As you can probably tell from the photo above, it turned out absolutely perfect, despite being concerned about all the potential variables that could throw a wrench into my plans to serve a beautiful golden bird for a mini, “pre-Thanksgiving” dinner.
That being said however, I did learn a thing or two during the process of smoking this turkey, so I wanted to take a few minutes to share some of the lessons learned:
1. Don’t underestimate the size of the turkey you should purchase
We cooked an 11lb turkey for four adults and it was enough for us, with enough meat left over for a decent-sized pot of turkey soup. I’ve seen a lot of information out there recommending about 1.25lbs per person, but I honestly don’t feel that’s enough – especially if you want to plan on having any left over, like I always do. I suppose it you want to spend time picking the bones clean, the 1.25lb / person guideline might work, but I’d rather serve big, beautiful slices of white breast meat than the smaller, unattractive pieces from the bottom of the bird. I save that meat for soups and chilis.
2. Look high and low for the “gut bag”
I’ve smoked my fair share of whole chickens before so I thought I had a handle on locating the giblets, but as it turns out, I didn’t have a clue. I searched the body cavity high and low for the giblet bag, but it was nowhere to found. I finally just assumed that it had been discarded before packaging, but to my complete surprise, as I was carving the turkey, I sliced right through the giblet bag! It had been stuffed under the skin, in the neck cavity of the turkey! Whoops!
3. When brining your turkey, rotate it after 12 hours
I totally recommend you brine your turkey for 24 hours before smoking it because as the meat takes on the water and salt during the brining process, it retains more moisture than it otherwise would have which means LESS moisture is lost during the cooking process. The end result is juicer and more flavorful meat.
The part where I went wrong, however, is the fact that I didn’t bother to flip the turkey in the brine. Because it was fully covered in brine, I didn’t think that would matter, but there was a noticeable difference in the meat on the bottom of the bird – it was quite a bit saltier than the rest of the turkey. I’m assuming that some of the salt within the brine didn’t fully dissolve, collected on the bottom of the bucket, and then overpowered the meat that it was in contact with.
4. Speaking of brine, don’t worry about getting all elaborate with it
If you’re going to roast your turkey in the oven, then by all means, feel free to get fancy with your brine, but as I found out, there’s simply no need to waste money on anything other than salt if you’re smoking your Turkey on a Kamado. The smoke easily overpowers any trace of the lighter flavors imparted by a brine.
5. Get that sucker dry before putting it on the Kamado
After removing the turkey from the brine, make sure to pat it completely dry. It’s easy to look past this step in the cooking process, but don’t! Getting your turkey completely dry before cooking will help to ensure the skin crisps to the point that you can bite through it easily. If the bird is left wet, the skin won’t crisp and it will take on a rubber-like consistency that you have to tear off the meat.
6. Achieve that picture-perfect golden brown turkey with clarified butter
You might be tempted to slather your turkey in yellow mustard and BBQ rub…and there isn’t a thing wrong with that, but know that if presentation is important to you, you’re going to get a better, more traditional result by simply using clarified butter and fresh herbs, i.e. golden brown. The mustard and BBQ rub route will result in a darker and some might argue, less appealing, skin.
7. Don’t feel pressured into spatchcocking your turkey
It seems that spatchcocking your turkey is all the rage these days. To spatchcock your turkey, you simply use a pair of kitchen shears to cut the backbone out so the turkey lays flat on the Kamado. Many folks will tell you that this method will result in a better and more evenly cooked bird, but as long as you keep an eye on your temperatures, spatchcocking is completely unnecessary. Also, if a traditional presentation is important to you, this method is definitely out.
8. Keep a close eye on your dome temperature
The weather tends to get a little nasty in late November in many parts of the country and that wind can really whip up at times. In fact, because it was so blustery at our house while I was preparing to smoke our turkey, the Kamado’s temperature absolutely flew up much quicker than I expected due to a constant stream of air being directed into the bottom vent. Definitely keep an eye on those vent settings if the wind is kicking up or you’ll run the risk of overcooking your bird.
I would go as far as saying that a wireless food thermometer is a necessity when smoking a whole turkey. I recommend the Ivation Long Range Wireless Food Thermometer.
9. Like crispy skin? Ramp that temperature up at the end of the cook
I know I do, so to help crisp the skin, consider dialing your temperature up to 350F or so when your turkey hits about 155F and let it go those last ten degrees. The increased temperature will crisp the skin nicely, but won’t overcook your meat since you’re only letting it sit that high for a small portion of the overall cook.
10. Let the turkey rest before slicing
If you’re like me, there’s nothing you want to do more than slice right into that turkey when it comes off the grill, but you’d be doing your turkey a huge injustice by doing so. Instead, let the cooked turkey rest for 45 minutes before carving. This will give the cooked juices plenty of time to work their way through the meat instead of spilling out all over your cutting board where they’ll never get to be enjoyed.
11. Save the carcass for turkey broth
Planning on making turkey soup with your leftovers? If so, consider throwing the carcass in a stock pot with a few onions, carrots, and some celery and after about an hour or so of boiling, you’re going to have some of the best turkey stock this side of the Mississippi. Just pour the stock through a strainer to sift out any small bones and other undesirables.
Any additional turkey cooking tips?
Surely you guys have your own tips for cooking the perfect Thanksgiving turkey. Let’s hear them in the comments section below!