Best Pellets for Turkey: Which Flavors Fly Highest?

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Smoked Turkey on Table

Which pellets should you choose when you’re planning to smoke turkey? Whether you’ve purchased drumsticks or a whole bird, it’s an important question to ask.

It’s true that turkey has a richer taste than chicken and can therefore stand up to bolder flavors, but it’s still crucial not to overpower the meat. That’s why I decided to put together this guide.

Best Pellets for Turkey

When smoking turkey, I like to stick with mild woods, preferably the ones from fruit trees like cherry and apple. Alder is another mellow type that plays well with a range of seasonings and sauces. Try maple if you like a sweeter flavor profile, or oak for a smoky taste that’s a shade more pronounced. You can also blend two or more types together.

What’s the Best Time of Year to Smoke Turkey?

Some folks consider turkey to be a holiday-only meal. They might eat it at Thanksgiving and again at Christmas, but during the warmer months, turkey is pretty much off the menu—unless you’re talking about deli meat or smoked turkey legs, which are a fairground staple.

For barbecue enthusiasts, it’s a different story. You can put a whole turkey on the smoker any time you’re in the mood for that succulent, mouthwatering flavor. Smoked chicken has its good points, but it’s no match for the bolder, richer taste of turkey.

Feel free to fire up the smoker for the holidays if you’d like, assuming that the weather won’t interfere with your plans. But once you’ve smoked a turkey at the first hint of spring or in the heat of the summer, you might find yourself keeping whole birds in the freezer year-round.

Wood Pellets vs Wood Chips

Why are we talking about the best pellets for turkey? Are pellets better than wood chips for smoking turkey? That depends.

Wood chips are small scraps of hardwood and shavings. You can add them to gas and electric smokers or put them on top of burning charcoal. There’s nothing wrong with wood chips, but they combust quickly, meaning you’ll need to replenish them every so often.

Pile Of Wooden Chips

By contrast, pellets are made from compressed hardwood sawdust. They can be used as fuel for the fire as well as a flavor enhancement. If you have a pellet smoker, they’re the only fuel source available. You can add handfuls of pellets to a charcoal fire, but they won’t contribute as much flavor that way.

In point of fact, wood pellets give off a mellower smoke flavor to begin with. Even when you use a pellet smoker, the flavors might be milder than you’re used to. That’s why many pitmasters stick with units that allow them to use wood chips, chunks, or even logs.

Best Pellets for Turkey: Top Picks

Cherry

In addition to its subtly sweet flavor, cherry offers a side benefit: It will give the smoked turkey a pleasing ruby-red hue. Appearance might play a minor role in great barbecue, but in this case, your guests will be wowed before they’ve tasted a single bite.

If you’re worried that the pink color will make it hard for you to tell when the meat is cooked, know that this smoke ring doesn’t penetrate too far beneath the surface. Besides, you’ll want to test the turkey for doneness using a thermometer anyway, just to be safe.

Alder

Alder wood doesn’t get much press as a smoking wood, but it’s an interesting choice that pairs well with turkey. The smoke flavor is very light, allowing your seasoning ingredients to shine.

I would recommend using alder if you’re trying out a new homemade rub recipe, or if you’ve brined or marinated the turkey beforehand. The smoke will accentuate the other flavors without overpowering them.

Maple

This is another favorite because it contributes color as well as flavor. Maple-smoked turkey is a rich golden brown color, which makes it an irresistible centerpiece at a holiday table.

Though the smoke flavor is mild, it carries floral notes with unmistakable sweetness. You can balance out the sweet notes by basting the turkey with herb butter toward the end of the cooking process.

Maple Leaf

Apple

I like to use apple wood for smoked poultry because the flavors go together naturally. Indeed, many sausage recipes include grated apple on the list of ingredients. And stuffing made with apples is a popular side dish, especially at Thanksgiving.

Apple is an excellent choice if you’ve never smoked a turkey before and want to start with a mild-tasting wood. It also pairs well with other, bolder flavors.

Oak

When asked which is the best all-purpose wood for smoked meats, I always come back to oak. The smoke it produces is medium in intensity, with a rich, clean taste that enhances everything from swordfish to filet mignon.

For turkey, you might want to try blending the wood with one that has a sweeter flavor profile. Adding a small amount of oak to maple, for example, will prevent the meat from tasting too much like pancake syrup.

Woods to Avoid

Are there any types of wood that you should stay away from when turkey is on the menu? As a matter of fact, yes. Here’s the short list.

Mesquite

I don’t like to use mesquite for anything except the heartiest cuts of beef, and occasionally pork. Even then, I usually mix it with oak to tone down its intensity. The smoke flavor can be very overwhelming, especially when used on poultry.

Hickory

The intense bacon-like flavor of hickory smoke is wonderful with ribs and brisket, but it doesn’t do much for turkey. The long cooking time required for whole birds translates into prolonged exposure to the smoke, which has a bitter tinge when you overdo it.

Walnut

Walnut wood produces a rich smoke that gives mesquite a run for its money on the intensity scale. For this reason, some pitmasters prefer not to use it at all. I think it would be fine for beef ribs or chuck, but I’d steer clear of it when smoking turkey. 

Creating the Perfect Pellet Blend

You can use any of the favored woods on their own, but blending two or more will add nuance to the smoke flavor. The trick is to find the right balance of sweet and savory to complement the natural flavor of the turkey.

For example, a 75-25 blend of cherry and oak will bolster the smoke taste while allowing the sweetness of the cherry wood to shine through. Blending cherry and alder 50-50 will tone down the sweetness and bring the seasonings forward.

Burning Smoked Wooden Logs

You don’t have to stick with the woods we’ve listed when creating a blend, either. Try mixing a bit of peach wood in with maple, or combining pecan and oak for a more intense, nutty flavor. 

It’s fine to mix three different types to create a more complex flavor profile, but I wouldn’t blend more than that. If you were to do so, none of the flavors would have a chance to stand out.

Tips on Smoking Turkey with Pellets

  • Store your wood pellets in a cool, dry place. If the pellets get wet, they won’t burn effectively and might even disintegrate. Check out this video tutorial for more tips. 
  • Should you spot any fungus or mold on the pellets, discard them. 
  •  Set the smoker to 325 degrees. Turkey is leaner than brisket and pork butt and requires a higher temperature to crisp up the skin.  
  • Remove the smoked turkey from the heat when the breast meat has cooked to 160 degrees. During the resting period, the temp should rise to 165, which is the ideal serving temperature. 
  • Let the turkey rest for at least 30 minutes before carving. 

The Bottom Line

While cherry is my number one pick, you can experiment with various wood pellets for smoked turkey. Just be sure to stay away from the super intense ones like mesquite and walnut. The lean poultry doesn’t have the right qualities to match up with these bold smoke flavors.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!

Darren Wayland Avatar

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