When you’re prepping a whole bird for the smoker, do you have to tie turkey legs together or not? And what’s the purpose of this exercise, anyway? Read on to find out whether it’s worth it to take this extra step.
Do You Have to Tie Turkey Legs Together?
It’s not necessary to tie turkey legs together for the oven or smoker. Doing so will give the bird a more uniform shape and help prevent any stuffing from falling out of the cavity. On the other hand, it might also prevent the legs from reaching the optimum internal temp before the breast meat starts to overcook.
Why Tie the Legs Together?
Tying a turkey’s legs together is one of a few steps in the trussing process. When you truss a turkey, you’re giving it a more compact shape that increases the eye appeal of the bird once it’s finished cooking.
Proponents of this method claim that it helps prevent the white meat from overcooking, since the legs are pressed tightly against the breast. If you opt to stuff the turkey, it can also keep the stuffing from falling out of the cavity during the cooking process.
Aside from these benefits—and the first one is debatable—the main reason to tie the turkey legs together is an aesthetic one. Most people agree that a trussed turkey looks better on the plate, providing a nice photo opportunity.
Do You Have to Tie Turkey Legs Together or Not?
First of all, no, you don’t have to tie the legs together. Whether you truss or not is entirely up to you.
When the legs are untied, the warm air from the oven or smoker is allowed to circulate properly around the drumsticks and thighs. This results in a higher proportion of golden, crispy skin.
Also, the legs already take a long time to cook. If they’re pressed snugly against the breast like that, they’ll take even longer to reach the desired temp, by which time the breast meat may have dried out.
There’s no question that the technique helps to hold in the stuffing. However, we don’t recommend putting the stuffing in the cavity for smoked turkey anyway. That’s another reason why it’s not necessary to truss a turkey that’s headed for the smoker.
Even when you intend to roast the bird, it can be problematic to tie the legs together. Blocking the cavity may prevent the stuffing from cooking through properly. It needs to achieve an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit before it’s safe to eat.
Finally, tying the legs together will add another step to your prep list. Since it takes a long time to smoke a turkey anyway, why make it harder on yourself?
How To Truss a Turkey
If you do decide to truss the bird, here’s the best way to go about it.
First of all, turn the turkey breast side down on your work surface. If you’d like to fill the neck cavity with aromatic vegetables, citrus fruits, or stuffing, now is the time to do it.
Pull the skin of the neck over the filling and secure this skin flap to the underside of the bird using a wooden skewer. If you’ve opted not to fill the neck cavity, you can still close the neck flap this way, but the filling will make the turkey look better.
The next step is to tuck the turkey wings beneath the shoulders. This will prevent the tips of the wings from burning during the long cooking process. As a bonus, it creates a flat platform of sorts, so the turkey will be more stable when it’s time to carve.
Once you’ve tucked the wings, turn the bird so that the open chest cavity faces you. Add the filling of your choice to the cavity, if desired.
Cross the ends of the drumsticks so that one is positioned above the other. Wrap kitchen twine around the ends, forming an overhand knot to secure the legs in place. Once you’ve tightened the knot, you can trim away any excess twine.
Does Size Matter?
Is it preferable to tie the legs together when the bird is larger, or does it matter either way?
In essence, if you want to truss the turkey, you can do it no matter how much the turkey weighs. The finished product will have more eye appeal whether it weighs 8 pounds or 22 pounds.
We will point out, though, that larger birds can be unwieldy and difficult to handle, especially if you’re smoking them directly on the cooking grate. Trussing the turkey can give it a more streamlined shape, which could make your job that much simpler.
Again, it’s not necessary to take this step. You can use a disposable aluminum pan when moving the turkey from place to place. In fact, we recommend doing this anyway, even if the legs aren’t tied together. But doing so may make the turkey easier to transport.
How To Tie Turkey Legs Together Without Twine
If you don’t have any kitchen twine on hand, what can you use to tie turkey legs together?
First, we should point out that kitchen twine is by far the best choice. It’s a good idea to invest in some at your first opportunity. In addition to being useful across a wide range of cooking applications, it won’t put too much of a dent in your wallet.
In a pinch, you can use unwaxed dental floss to get the job done. Don’t use the waxed variety—the wax will melt when it’s exposed to the heat, thereby ruining the turkey.
There are a couple of issues with this replacement. For one thing, dental floss is so thin, it might cut through the meat—or at least the skin. This same quality also makes it difficult to locate and remove the twine once the turkey is cooked.
Cotton kite string is another decent alternative. If you happen to have some of that lying around, feel free to use it instead of kitchen twine.
Do I Need To Take the Clamp Off Turkey Legs Before Cooking?
When you buy a frozen turkey, you’ll probably find a small plastic or metal clamp holding the legs together. This is called a “hock lock,” and it should be made of heat-resistant material, so it won’t harm the turkey if you leave it in place.
It’s up to you whether or not to leave the hock lock on the legs when cooking the turkey. That said, if you’re trussing the bird anyway, your job might be much simpler if you leave the clamp where it is.
At What Temperature Will the Turkey Be Done?
We’ve talked a lot about whether the breast meat will overcook, or whether the leg and thigh meat will cook enough. But what does that mean?
Poultry products are considered safe to eat when they’ve achieved an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. You can remove large cuts like whole chickens and turkeys from the heat at 160 degrees—the meat will continue to cook a bit while it rests.
When you stuff the bird, the stuffing mixture comes into contact with the raw poultry. That’s why you need to make sure the stuffing cooks to a safe internal temperature as well.
The breast meat is leaner than the dark meat on the thighs and drumsticks. As such, it will turn dry or chalky if you allow it to cook too far past 165 degrees.
This discrepancy is one reason why some chefs prefer to tie the legs against the breasts, believing that the legs will shield the white meat from the direct heat. As we’ve pointed out, though, it doesn’t always work out that way.
Should you opt to forego the trussing process, you can help prevent the breasts from overcooking by tenting them with aluminum foil partway through the smoke. Make sure the skin has had a chance to crisp up first, though.
In the event that the breasts are finished but the dark meat still has a way to go, carve off the breasts and set them aside. Tent the breast meat with foil and put the rest of the turkey back on the smoker to finish cooking.
The foil will help to keep the breast meat warm, but it may still have cooled off noticeably by the time the dark meat has had a chance to rest. While this isn’t an ideal situation, it’s preferable to letting the white meat overcook.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to smoking meat, there are a number of topics that are widely debated. The question of whether or not to tie turkey legs together is one of those.
If you want the turkey to have a camera-ready appearance, you can tie the legs together as an experiment. Just be sure to keep an eye on the internal temperature of the breast and thigh meat to prevent overcooking.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!