It takes a while to smoke a turkey properly, but that’s true of most large cuts of meat. The question is, what’s the best temp to smoke turkey, and how long can you expect it to take?
Best Temp To Smoke Turkey
When smoking turkey, 275 degrees is our preferred temperature. This gives the smoker plenty of time to do its work while cooking the meat to a safe temperature—and within a reasonable time frame. At this temperature, the bird should cook at a rate of 20 to 25 minutes per pound.
Why It Matters
It’s important to cook meat products to the recommended temperature. Otherwise, you could be putting yourself at risk of food-borne illness.
What does this have to do with the temperature of the smoker? The answer has to do with the nature of the bacteria that cause these illnesses.
When meat is left at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees for longer than 2 hours, these dangerous bacteria can multiply at a rapid pace. As they breed, they leave behind toxins that can’t be destroyed by cooking or refrigerating the food.
This is why you should always store meat products in your refrigerator, which should be set below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Lower temperatures can slow the growth of bacteria, and at temperatures below 0—standard freezer temps—the growth is halted altogether.
Temperatures higher than 140 degrees will eradicate the bacteria. The higher the temp, the faster the bacteria are destroyed. Remember, though, that cooking the meat won’t kill off the toxins if it was left in the “danger zone” for longer than 2 hours.
If your smoker temperature is too low, the turkey might remain in this danger zone for a prolonged period of time. That’s why it’s crucial to select the right smoker temp when you’re attempting to smoke a turkey.
Safe Internal Temp For Smoked Turkey
It’s best to cook poultry products to at least 165 degrees. While lower temperatures might be sufficient to kill off the hazardous bacteria, it can take several minutes for this to happen. At 165 degrees, the bacteria are wiped out in mere seconds.
You might be wondering why it’s okay to cook beef and pork to medium rare, while poultry needs to be well done. It’s because white meat is less dense than red meat, meaning the bacteria can penetrate further beneath the surface. Cooking it thoroughly is the only safe bet.
We recommend cooking the turkey breast to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. When you take it off the heat, the temperature should rise an additional 5 degrees or so, giving you a final serving temp of 165.
Try not to overcook the breast meat. When done correctly, it will be juicy and tender, but it can turn chalky and dry if it’s cooked past 165 degrees.
The dark meat on the legs and thighs, meanwhile, can withstand a slightly higher temperature. We prefer to cook these until they register 180 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. At 180-185 degrees, the meat is tender and extra flavorful.
Average Weight of a Turkey
These days, the average turkey weighs 17 to 30 pounds. Wild turkeys will be smaller than the ones that are bred specifically for consumption, as farmers want their birds to be as large and plump as possible.
It’s possible to find smaller birds for sale in the supermarket. When shopping, remember to plan on about 1-1/4 pound of turkey per person. You can round up or down, depending on the circumstances—and most importantly, whether or not you want leftovers.
Best Size Turkey For Smoker
While it’s theoretically possible to smoke a turkey of any size—assuming that your smoker is large enough to accommodate the bird—we would recommend going small whenever possible.
The larger the turkey is, the longer it will take to cook. If you’re used to smoking whole beef briskets or pork shoulders, you’re used to this. However, poultry doesn’t require the same low-and-slow treatment as those cuts.
You want the bird to stay on the smoker long enough to pick up plenty of flavor while clearing the danger zone in a reasonable amount of time. The best way to achieve this goal is to select turkeys weighing 12 pounds or less.
As a bonus, most small turkeys are that size because they’re younger. This means that the meat will be naturally tender to begin with.
Best Temp To Smoke Turkey: A Guide
When it comes to smoked turkey, you have several methods to choose from.
Some pitmasters opt for the “high to low” technique. This involves starting the smoker at a high temperature, then lowering it to 300 degrees after the first 30 minutes. The high to low method seals in the juices and creates a nice crispy skin.
The “low to high” method allows the turkey to absorb a nice dose of smoky goodness at the outset. You’ll start the smoke at 225, then raise it to 300 when the bird achieves an internal temp of 100-110 degrees.
If you don’t want to mess around with different temps, you can use consistent heat for the duration of the smoke. We’ve found that 275 degrees offers just the right balance between crisp mahogany skin and meat that’s juicy and flavorful.
It’s possible to speed things up by setting the smoker temperature to 325 degrees or higher. Just be careful not to overcook the bird, as it will reach the optimum internal temperature much more quickly at these temps.
You can go as low as 200 degrees if you want to make sure the turkey is suffused with smoke flavor. Try not to set it any lower than that, especially if your smoker runs on the cool side. If you do, the meat might spend too long in the danger zone.
How Long To Smoke Turkey Per Pound
At 275 degrees, the turkey should cook at a rate of about 20 to 25 minutes per pound. If you’ve opted for a smoker temp of 250, it may take up to 30 minutes per pound.
This means that you can expect a 12-pound turkey to be finished cooking in 4 to 5 hours, perhaps a bit longer. When the smoker is set to 250, the same process can take up to 6 hours.
On the other hand, if you decide to smoke the turkey at 325, the bird can be done in less than 3 hours. The cooking process takes 14 to 18 minutes per pound at this temperature. Be forewarned, though, that the turkey may not have the same flavor and tenderness.
Smoked Turkey Recipe
- 1 whole turkey, 10-12 pounds
- 2 apples, halved
- 2 onions, halved
- 2 celery stalks
For The Seasoning Rub:
- 3 tablespoons kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons dried thyme
- 2 teaspoons dried rosemary
- 2 teaspoons rubbed sage
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
1. Make the seasoning rub. Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.
2. Pat turkey dry with paper towels. This is especially important if you opted to brine the bird beforehand.
3. Apply cooking spray to the turkey skin to help the spices adhere. Rub the seasoning mixture all over the bird, inside and out.
5. Set the smoker temperature to 275.
6. When the smoker is hot enough, place the bird on the cooking grate with the breast side facing up. Close the lid.
7. Smoke the turkey for 3-1/2 to 5 hours, depending on weight. If the smoker runs on the cool side, you might have to wait a bit longer for the bird to be done.
Pro Tip: If you notice that the skin of the turkey is getting too dark for your liking, you can tent the bird with aluminum foil to prevent further browning.
8. When the breast meat has reached an internal temperature of 160 degrees, remove the bird from the heat. Carve off the breasts, tent with foil, and set aside.
9. Check the internal temperature of the thigh meat. If it hasn’t reached 180 degrees, put the bird back on the smoker to finish cooking.
10. Let the turkey rest for at least 15 minutes before you begin carving.
The Bottom Line
At temperatures over 300 degrees, turkey cooks through more quickly, but that’s not necessarily what you want when you use the smoker. On the other hand, temperatures lower than 200 will prolong the cooking time—perhaps to a dangerous degree.
As you grow more comfortable with the process, feel free to experiment with various smoker temperatures. You might find that a different method works better for you—or at least for your turkey.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!