Imagine the perfect Thanksgiving turkey, with crispy brown skin and moist flesh just busting with a smoky flavor. Best of all, it doesn’t have to take a lot to prepare it – you can literally set and forget till it’s time to serve! That is only possible if you know how to smoke a turkey on a pellet grill.
While you can technically smoke your turkey on any grill, a pellet grill is easily the best option. It provides lots of indirect heat with accurate temperature control, it produces a lot of smoke for flavor, and it can cook as slowly or as fast as you wish.
Once you know how to smoke a whole turkey on a pellet grill, you will instantly become the celebrity chef of your family’s holiday turkeys. Preparing a smoked turkey is straightforward, and there are only a few points you need to look out for:
With that in mind, let’s hop right into it.
Preparation is everything when you’re looking to smoke your turkey to perfection. The turkey itself must be the right size, not more than 15 pounds in weight. This is for practical as well as for health reasons since a larger bird will take far longer to cook through and will give bacteria more time to proliferate.
Second, if your turkey is frozen, you will need to give it two to three days to defrost fully in the fridge. Again, this allows it time to thaw without bacteria growing.
You can buy your turkey pre-brined, in which case you can skip directly to smoking. It might save you the hassle, but many sellers inject their birds with the brine instead of soaking them in it. This leads to the possibility of getting a waterlogged bird or one that is simply a salt bomb.
It is always better to brine the turkey yourself so that you can ensure it has the right ingredients and the right amount of moisture. Before brining, remove the neck and giblets from the turkey’s cavity and save them for later. You can use them with the droppings from the smoking to make heavenly turkey gravy.
Brining is simply immersing your turkey into a salty/sugary solution to infuse it with flavor, tenderize it, and add more moisture to it. A simple salt solution can do, but you can also do it with half a cup of salt and half a cup of brown sugar in a gallon of water. Let the bird sit in the solution for 12-14 hours in the solution so that absorb the salt and sugar.
You can also add spices to the brine for extra flavor. Don’t be afraid to experiment, but some of the most common additions include apple cider, peppercorns, bay leaves, garlic, rosemary, lemon/orange peels, among others. In this case, make sure to boil the brine solution first, let it cool completely, then immerse your turkey. Discard the brine after that.
Before you pop your bird into the smoker, there are still a few more preparations to do. First, wash the turkey under running water for a few minutes to remove the excess brine, then pat it dry with a clean cloth or paper towels.
In the meantime, you can preheat your pellet smoker to 225F-250F. When you first turn it on, give it 3-5 minutes for the initial white smoke to clear out until it burns clean, then close the shroud for it to preheat for 15 minutes.
While your pellet grill is preheating, rub some olive oil, melted butter, or vegetable oil onto and under the bird’s skin. The oil helps to crisp the skin and brown it beautifully, and it also helps to hold the seasoning that follows. Be sure to spread the oil or butter uniformly over the whole bird.
Then combine the rest of the ingredients such as garlic, rosemary, thyme, salt, pepper, or turkey rub and rub it over the inside and outside of the turkey. Coat the entire bird and finish by trussing the legs with some butcher twine. Tuck the bird’s wings underneath the bird.
If you prefer injecting marinade, prepare your marinade solution and inject it in five places into the thickest parts of the bird on each side. This helps to keep the bird moist, but it may not give you as much as you might want.
You shouldn’t stuff your turkey full of vegetables and spices. Smoking is cooking by indirect heat, which means it would take too long for anything inside the cavity to cook. By the time the stuffing is done, the bird will be overdone.
What you can do is put some celery, carrots, onion, garlic, rosemary, chicken stock, and other ingredients for flavor, but dispose of them when the turkey is done. Here is a better idea: place the carrots, celery, and whatever else you have on the baking pan and lay the turkey on then. They will cook and absorb the juice drippings, and you will have an even more amazing broth.
Another tip is to keep the smoker’s temperature as consistent as possible. This means not opening the shroud every 30 minutes to check on the bird. If you’re worried about it drying out, use melted butter to baste the turkey instead of oil.
Place your turkey on a roasting pan with the breast side facing upwards. You don’t need the pan for this, but having it will help to catch the drips from the bird.
Put your thermometer or probe inside the meat in the thickest part, such as the breast, but make sure that it doesn’t touch a bone.
Your turkey is cooked once the thickest part reaches an internal temperature of 165F-170F. The time it takes to reach this temperature can vary, but give it anywhere from 3 ½ hours to 7 hours or more.
Depending on the temperature you smoke your turkey at, give it at least 20 minutes per pound to cook properly.
What you should know is that the longer the bird cooks, the more time it has to tenderize and absorb the smoky flavor. However, this also gives bacteria a lot of time within the health and safety danger zone of 40F-140F. So long as your bird is not larger than 15 pounds, you have nothing to worry about.
As you can see, temperature control is everything when deciding how long to smoke a turkey on a pellet grill. This is why having a high-end pellet grill such as a Pit Boss pellet grill is important.
Alternatively, you can swap out your temperature controller for a better one if it is not reliable. It should give you accurate control within 15F, and one of the best options is the Flame Boss 500.
The Flame Boss 500 comes with a mobile app to help you monitor the grill temperature closely and even change its settings remotely. It is the true definition of “set and forget,” especially if you are busy doing other things and need constant monitoring and reminders.
If you are aiming for extra-crusty skin, you can check on your turkey at one-hour intervals and spray it lightly with canola oil (if you had used oil in the first place.) This is also the time to ensure that the bird is still juicy. If you notice that it is getting dry, pour half a cup of water into the roasting pan to keep things moist.
However, keep these sessions to a minimum because opening the grill can drop the temperature by as much as 50F, which will throw off your timing and lose you some flavorful smoke.
Once your internal temperature probe tells you that the bird is done, remove it from the grill and cover it with aluminum foil. Allow it to rest for 15 minutes, during which time it continues to cook inside and reabsorbs some moisture to retain some juiciness.
After that, carve your turkey and serve! Remember to save the drippings on the pan to make a delicious turkey broth – you will love it.
This allows you to brine it just before smoking, which removes the need to keep basting it when cooking. Pre-brined birds may not have as much moisture as you need.
Allow for at least 1 ½ pounds of turkey for every person you will be serving. Thus, a family of 6 should have a 9 or 10-pound bird, keeping in mind that there will be bones and giblets which won’t make it to the final serving. This also gives you some leftovers for sandwiches the next day.
Joe Traeger patented his pellet grill in 1986, but the patent expired in 2005. Since then, a lot of brands out there developed their own versions of the grill and added many improvements. While you can certainly go for a big name brand like Traeger or Pit Boss or Camp Chef, the brand name isn’t so important when it comes to performance.
You might like to read our review of the best pellet grills under 500 or the best Pit Boss grills to help you decide. Whichever brand of pellet grill you have, you don’t have to worry about how to smoke a turkey on a Pit Boss pellet grill or Green Mountain grill or whatever because the process is essentially the same as outlined here.
Cooking a turkey for the family on Thanksgiving is one of the best ways to bring everybody together and enjoy some delicious food. However, electric or gas ovens won’t come close to the masterful flavor of a pellet grill.
When you learn how to smoke a turkey on a pellet grill the right way, you are sure of a meal nobody will soon forget. Just remember that internal temperature, moisture, and turkey preparation are three of the most important factors when you want to smoke the perfect turkey.