How To Smoke A Turkey In A Charcoal Smoker Grill

A regular star to a Thanksgiving feast is the turkey. The North American bird features on many tables for the holidays and over the years has been a way of feeding large groups well. Cooking it, however, is wholly based on the individual’s heritage, traditions, and general preferences.

In this guide, I'll be giving you every morsel of information on how to smoke a turkey in a charcoal smoker grill, so there will be no tears, just a well cooked, succulent feast!

Equipment You Might Need (all available on Amazon):

Turkey Being Cooked In A Charcoal Smoker Grill

Smoking is a great way of cooking your bird. The long hours spent preparing and cooking your turkey pay off in each tasteful and succulent bite. There a few considerations to keep in mind, nonetheless.

Turkey’s lean meat needs to be basted during cooking or an alternative method sought to keep it from drying out. In this how to smoke a turkey in a charcoal smoker guide, we address these considerations and more.

Preparing A Turkey For Smoking

When preparing a turkey for smoking, there are a few measures and tasks that need to be carried out.

Before starting out:

  • Trim off any excess skin. This tends to dry out in a long cook
  • Remove any internal organs in the bird such as the heart and cut neck. Cut off the pygostyle (parson’s nose) as well.
  • If using a pre-brined bird, rinse it properly and pat it dry 

How To Keep A Turkey Moist While Cooking

Preventing your turkey from drying out is a vital, but oft overlooked consideration. Chomping away of dry turkey meat is not a good look so why does it happen?

This usually occurs because the breast cooks much faster than the legs. By the time the thickest part of the thighs gets to 165 degrees F, all the moisture in the breast may be lost. There are a number of methods that keep your bird from drying out. Some of them include:

  • Brining your turkey
  • Injecting your turkey
  • Rubbing your turkey with butter

How To Brine A Turkey For Smoking

Brined turkey is a great way to lock moisture into your bird is to first brine it. Check your turkey packaging for any label that it has been brined. Some store-bought turkey are already brined. If so, you need not brine them a second time.

We recommend brining at home as you not only use for favorite spices, but you also get to dictate exactly what goes into your bird. Brining improves your turkey’s moisture retention by loosening the tight protein molecules. This in effect leaves you cooked meat tender and moist.

How To Make Brine For Turkey

To make your brine add 3 liters of water, 1 cup each of salt and brown sugar, a few cinnamon sticks, 2 tablespoons of cloves, 5 bay leaves, a couple of tablespoons of black peppercorns and herbs (sprigs of thyme and rosemary) into a large stockpot. Bring to a boil and allow it to simmer for about 15 minutes for sugar and salt to dissolve and for the flavor to develop. Remove from heat and allow it to cool completely before use.

Place your turkey in a large food-safe brining bucket and pour in your brine. If bits of your turkey still pop above the brine, add just enough water to cover the entire bird. Allow the turkey 24 hours to sit in the brine before smoking.

How To Inject A Turkey

An alternate method of keeping your turkey moist is to marinade it by using an injected marinade solution. Whisk together a quarter cup each of extra-virgin oil, Marsala wine, melted and slightly cooled butter, a tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce, balsamic vinegar, zest of an orange and a tablespoon of honey.

Heavy Duty Meat Injector 304 Stainless Steel - 2 Oz Seasoning Injector - Marinade Injector Syringe Includes 3 Needles

In a coffee grinder or spice mill, grind a teaspoon each of onion powder, paprika, cayenne pepper, dried herbs, dry rub sage, garlic powder, oregano, and thyme. Also add a tablespoon each of kosher salt, rosemary. Grind until they are in powder form.

Add the dry ingredients to your wet ones and continue to whisk until combined. Dip your turkey marinade syringe into the mixture and slowly pull the plunger back. Once full, inject different sections of the turkey such as the breast, legs, thighs, and wings and release the marinade. Each section should be injected with two ounces of the marinade. Pull back your syringe slowly to prevent too much spillage. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Preserve the remaining marinade and use it to baste your turkey during the cook.

Remove your bird from the refrigerator 45 minutes before you have to cook it. Generously cover your turkey in extra-virgin olive oil and poultry seasoning. Rub it on the skin and in the cavity. Jimmy the skin away from the meat using your fingers and work the seasoning below the skin.

Turkey Butter and Spice Rub Under The Skin

This method lets the flavor of your turkey shine through without being overpowered by other flavors. Since turkey meat is lean, butter is a good way of preventing it from drying out. To prepare your mix, place about a pound of butter into a bowl. A touch of olive oil is essential as it stops your butter from burning during your cook. Zest of a couple of lemons and juice them for a citrusy flavor. Puree [] 3 garlic cloves and a bunch of chopped parsley. Mix all the ingredients well.

Season your bird properly before using your mix. Push your finger under the turkey’s skin to create room for seasoning and adding your mix later on. Season the cavity as well. Lump up balls of your butter mix, about the size of a meatball, and push them below the skin. Push the balls over the skin to spread the butter, especially in the breast area. The remaining butter should be spread evenly on your bird. Be sure to loosen it up a bit so as to get your butter into every nook on the surface.

If for some reason the methods mentioned above are still not applicable to you, go for a self-basting turkey instead. These are birds that have been already marinated in broth and a fat solution, or injected with a brine solution.

Turkey Stuffing Options

More and more pitmasters are going for turkey smoking recipes that do not call for use of filling - especially raw filling that needs to cook. Any filling that needs to cook through increases the amount of time your turkey has to stay in the smoker, increasing chances of drying out. The stuffing too has to cook and reach a temperature of 165 degrees F.

A better alternative is to use stuffing that can be used to flavor your turkey and dumped out after your bird is cooked. This could be as simple as adding two-halved onions, a whole lemon, and a few bay leaves. Some could be more exotic as chunks of oranges and apples. In any event, once the turkey is cooked, these can be taken out and disposed of.

Smoking A Turkey: Preparing The Charcoal Smoker

Whether using an offset or vertical smoker, your first task is to get it going before placing in your turkey.

To start your smoker:

1. Light your charcoal

Begin by packing charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal into a chimney starter. Since the smoke from your hot coals will be used for cooking, avoid using lighter fluids as they are petroleum based. Instead, place the charcoal starter over a few loosely rolled, rolls of paper.

While outdoors, place your charcoal starter on a solid surface (atop your smoker’s charcoal grate would be ideal) and light up the paper rolls. The charcoal is ready for use once all the pieces, including those at the top turn gray.

This should be in about 15-20 minutes. Placing a couple of BBQ lighter cubes just below your charcoal helps cut down on time spent.

2. Heat your smoker

Once your charcoal is hot enough, dump it into your firebox if using an offset smoker, or into a fire bowl for a vertical charcoal smoker. Close all the smoker’s doors but keep the chimney and air vent open to allow airflow. Guided by your smoker’s thermostat or a smoker thermometer [], give the smoker time to get to the appropriate smoking temperature of 225 degrees F.

Once hot, you can now add your smoking wood to the firebox. This gives your bird that smoked flavor and gives it the much sought after, smoke ring. Do not use strong flavors such as oak or hickory. Instead, opt for fruity wood chunks such as apple , cherry, grape or maple. Adler too is great for smoking poultry.

Check out my guide to the best hardwood pellets for smoking HERE.

If using wood chips, soak them for half an hour before adding them to your smoker. Add a few at a time.

3. Cooking the turkey

If the smoke from the chimney is white, heavy and cloudy, leave the air vents open. If this does not change, use a fire poker to move about your charcoal. Once the smoke is thin and clear, it is time to put your bird in.

If you haven't seasoned your bird yet, do so now. Push through your meat digital thermometer’s probe in the thickest part of the bird. Cook your turkey at 225 degrees F for 3 - 3 1/2 hours. If still not done, add some hot charcoal into the firebox. However, add wood chunks (1 or 2 pieces at a time) each cooking hour. Avoid opening the cooking chamber unless basting or brushing your chicken. Opening the door to the cooking chamber lowers its temperature and sets you back about 15 minutes.

Your turkey should be cooked once the thermometer reads the internal temperature of your turkey as 165 degrees F. Carefully remove the turkey from the smoker as it still drips hot juices. Let your turkey rest at least 15 minutes before carving.

Fresh Or Frozen Turkey For Smoking?

Raw turkey comes in two forms, fresh or frozen. Fresh turkey comes highly recommended over the frozen turkey. Not only does it retain moisture better, it also has better texture and flavor when cooked. It, therefore, pays to book your bird early from your local butcher. Where fresh turkey is available, buy your bird no more than two days to Thanksgiving. This will ensure it does not go bad before cooking.

Do not thaw your frozen bird at room temperature. Instead, let it thaw in the coldest part of your refrigerator. Once thawed, it must be cooked in two days or less. A common thawing guide is to allow 1 day for thawing for 4 to 5 pounds of your bird.

A how to smoke a turkey in a charcoal smoker guide would not be complete without mentioning that thawed turkey and fresh turkey have different cooking requirements. Fresh turkey cooks through faster than a frozen one, so keep a close watch over it.

To conclude. Smoking a turkey in a charcoal smoker grill is a wonderful thing to do. Seriously, the moistness of the bird when following these instructions is legendary. Do it right, and you'll be salivating all down your top, perhaps a bib is even a good idea.

I thoroughly recommend learning to use a charcoal smoker. They are super versatile, and outdoor cooking is a wonderfully fulfilling way to cook.

Get yer bird and get smokin' !

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