Since it takes a while to smoke a turkey, can you prepare it the day before you’re planning on serving the meat? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of this method.
Can You Smoke a Turkey The Day Before?
Smoking turkey a day in advance won’t do any real harm, but it will affect the texture and presentation. However, it can make things easier, especially if you want to serve the turkey early in the day. Bear in mind that it takes about 3 hours to reheat the meat at 250 degrees Fahrenheit, and you’ll need to rest the bird for about 20 minutes afterward.
Benefits of Smoking Turkey The Day Before
Why would you want to smoke a turkey in advance? For one thing, it will save time the next day.
Smoking a turkey can take 8 to 10 hours, depending on the temperature of the smoker and the size of the bird. While we don’t recommend smoking very large turkeys, it is doable as long as the bird can fit comfortably in your smoker. This prolongs the cooking time.
Let’s say you want to serve your turkey at noon. A 24-pound turkey could take up to 10 hours to finish cooking at 275 degrees. Taking the preparation and resting time into account, you would need to get started at about one o’clock in the morning.
If you smoke the turkey the day before, you can work the chore into your usual schedule. The process is mostly hands-off—you just need to check the smoker temp and the internal temperature of the bird from time to time.
Having cooked meat on hand is more convenient than waiting around for the turkey to reach the optimum temperature, especially if you serve it cold. You can serve it when you’re ready, instead of hovering over the smoker and watching the thermometer like a hawk.
Drawbacks of Smoking Turkey The Day Before
Here’s the most obvious reason not to smoke your turkey the day before: the quality of the presentation.
Meat that’s just been taken off the smoker has a flavor and texture that can’t be replicated later on, no matter how carefully you reheat it. There are ways of doing it that will yield decent results (see below), but the quality will suffer on some level.
The turkey won’t look as impressive if you serve it after reheating, either. While this may be a minor quibble, it matters if you want to wow your guests with the crisp golden-brown skin on your perfectly smoked turkey.
It’s harder to get all the meat off the bones when you allow whole poultry to cool after the initial cooking process. Anyone who’s ever refrigerated a chicken and attempted to pull the meat for soup the next day can attest to this.
Can You Smoke a Turkey The Day Before Thanksgiving?
Since most of us prefer to enjoy our Thanksgiving feast in the early afternoon, it’s natural to be curious about smoking the bird in advance.
You’ll need to get up early in the morning if you want the turkey to be ready on time. As we mentioned before, you might even have to start the process the night before. That’s why it’s often easier to get it done a day early.
There’s another reason you might prefer to smoke the turkey in advance. If you’re traveling to the home of a friend or relative and you’re responsible for the turkey, it’s easier to cook it at your own place and reheat it when you arrive.
So, can you smoke a turkey the day before Thanksgiving? Yes, but you’ll need to follow the basic guidelines for food handling, storage, and reheating. We’ll talk more about those in the sections below.
How To Reheat Smoked Turkey
Take the whole turkey out of the fridge about one hour before you want to reheat it. When the cooked turkey has a chance to warm up slightly, the reheating process will go more smoothly.
If you haven’t already wrapped the turkey in a layer of aluminum foil, do so now. You want to help the meat retain as much moisture as possible as it reheats.
Set the oven or smoker to 250 degrees. Either method is fine, since the turkey already had a chance to take on smoke flavor from the initial cooking process. But reheating on the grill or smoker will save room in the oven.
You want to reheat the turkey to the point where the meat climbs out of the “danger zone.” This term refers to the range between 40 and 140 degrees.
However, if the meat reheats past 150 degrees, it will start to dry out. So you’ll need to keep a close eye on the internal temperature as you go. An internal temperature probe is the best way to achieve this.
It should take about 3 hours to reheat the whole turkey at 250 degrees. Smaller birds—that is, those that weigh under 12 pounds—might get to 140 degrees more quickly, which is another reason why these specimens are best for smoking (see section below).
Don’t forget that you’ll still need to rest the turkey for about 20 minutes after reheating it. The juices will need time to redistribute. Take this extra time into account when you’re making your plans.
Pro Tip: If you’re worried that the turkey might be too dry, add a small amount of liquid to the foil before wrapping the bird.
Best Temperature For Smoking Turkey
When it comes to smoked turkey, you want to set the temperature low enough to allow the meat to absorb a nice hit of smoke, but not so low that it takes a prohibitively long time to cook.
You don’t need to set the smoker temperature as low as you would when smoking ribs or brisket, because turkey is naturally leaner than those cuts. Instead, you want to focus on cooking the breast meat to 160 degrees and the dark meat to 180.
275 degrees is the preferred temperature for smoking turkey. At this temp, the turkey should be finished cooking at a rate of 20 to 25 minutes per pound. The meat should taste savory and rich, with just the right amount of smoky goodness.
If you’d like to save a bit of time, try setting the smoker to 325 degrees. A per-pound rate of 15 minutes should work for this temperature, meaning a 15-pound turkey should be done in roughly 3-3/4 hours.
We’ve found that it’s best not to set the smoker above this temperature, as the turkey will cook too fast to benefit from the wood smoke. Those of you who want to shave even more time off the total would be better off sticking with the oven as a cooking method.
What Size Turkey Should I Get?
It’s natural to look for a turkey that’s big enough to serve all your guests. For bone-in poultry, that usually means at least 1-1/4 pounds for each person on the list—or 1-1/2 pounds per person if you want to make sure there’s plenty of meat left over.
You’ll still want to ensure that you have enough turkey to feed everyone, but the rules shift if you’re hoping to smoke the meat. The bigger the bird, the longer it will take to be ready. This is especially problematic when you set the smoker below 300 degrees.
Try to find turkeys for the smoker that weigh between 10 and 12 pounds. In fact, buy the smallest whole turkeys you can find. If that isn’t enough turkey to suit your needs, it’s better to buy more than one.
When attempting to smoke two turkeys at once, make sure your unit has a cooking grate that’s big enough to hold them both. Some oversized smokers might even be able to accommodate three or four whole turkeys.
Don’t put the turkeys too close together on the grate. If you do, they won’t get sufficient airflow, which could prevent them from cooking evenly.
Depending on the configuration of your smoker, you might need to put one bird on the top grate and the other one below it. In this case, rotate the turkeys halfway through your estimated cooking time. That way, they’re more likely to finish cooking at the same time.
For best results, defrost frozen turkeys in the refrigerator. Plan on 1 day for every 4 pounds of meat. That means you’ll need to take a 12-pound turkey out of the freezer 3 days before you want to start cooking.
Once the meat is thawed, you have 1 to 2 days to cook it before it starts to go downhill in terms of quality. You can refreeze it at any point within this time frame, whether it’s partially defrosted or completely thawed.
Buy fresh turkeys no more than 2 days in advance. If you purchase them directly from a local farmer, you might have more time, but in general, it’s better to buy fresh poultry as soon as possible before you cook it.
Store the turkey in the fridge at temps below 40 degrees. It’s suitable to keep it at room temperature for up to an hour before it goes on the heat. Don’t leave it out for any longer, though, or dangerous bacteria might start to build up on the meat.
Refrigerate any cooked turkey within 2 hours. If you’re hoping to reheat the turkey without carving it, wrap it in a double layer of foil, then put it in the fridge.
Smoking a turkey the day before is a convenient way to save time. Don’t forget, though, that a whole turkey will still need a few hours to reheat. As long as you stick with relatively small turkeys, it might be just as easy to smoke them on the day of the event.