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How Long To Smoke a 20 Pound Turkey, And Other Tips

Smoked turkey makes a delicious centerpiece to a holiday feast. It also has a myriad of other uses, from a sandwich filling to the base for a savory stew. The larger the bird, the more meat you’ll get, but is it a good idea to use the smoker? Let’s go over how long to smoke a 20-pound turkey–and whether you should.

How Long To Smoke a 20 Pound Turkey

At 225 degrees, a 20-pound turkey should cook at a rate of 30 to 40 minutes per pound. If you increase the temperature to 250, it will take 25 to 30 minutes per pound. It’s best to keep the smoker temperature above 225 when smoking a bird this large. Otherwise, it could stay for too long in the “danger zone” between 40 and 140 degrees.

How Big is The Average Turkey?

The answer to this one has changed a great deal over the years. Nearly 100 years ago, the average turkey weighed in at just over 13 pounds. As of 2014, that number had more than doubled, climbing to a jaw-dropping 29.8 pounds.

Why the change? Turkeys are bred under different conditions today than in the 1930s. The farmers who breed them want to raise as many large birds as possible in order to turn a higher profit. As a result, the turkeys are bred for an increased growth rate and larger sizes overall.

If you’ve ever shopped for a Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey, you’ll know that more modest-sized ones are indeed available. It’s possible to buy a 12- to 14-pound bird if you’re serving a smaller crowd. However, there’s no denying that the big ones have an impressive appearance.

How Long To Smoke a 20 Pound Turkey: The Breakdown

If you set the smoker to 225 degrees, the turkey should cook for 30 to 40 minutes per pound. That means the process will take at least 10 hours, so it’s important to plan ahead.

At the 10-hour mark, start testing the internal temperature of the bird by inserting an instant-read thermometer into the thickest portion of the thigh. When it registers at least 165 degrees, it’s time to pull the turkey off the smoker and let it rest before serving.

If you boost the smoker temperature to 250, the meat should cook at a rate of 25 to 30 minutes per pound. Increase the heat to 275 degrees, and the bird will be done even sooner–perhaps as soon as 6-1/2 hours later.

A Word Of Caution

Is it safe to smoke a turkey that weighs 20 pounds? As long as you set the smoker temperature high enough, it can be done.

All raw meat products, including turkey, should be kept at temperatures below 40 degrees or above 140 degrees Fahrenheit. When they’re left in the “danger zone” between 40 and 140 degrees for longer than 4 hours, they can become breeding grounds for the types of bacteria that cause grave food-borne illnesses.

If the smoker is set below 225 degrees, a 20-pound turkey could remain in the danger zone for too long, meaning that it may not be safe to consume. That’s why we suggest treating the smoker more like an oven in this case, using the method as a means to imbue the meat with smoke flavor.

Can You Smoke a Turkey Overnight?

Setting the temperature to 225 or 250 degrees ensures that you’ll have plenty of time before the turkey is ready to be taken off the heat. Since opening the smoker will cause the temperature to drop, it’s a good idea to let it do its work undisturbed. Smoking the turkey overnight is an excellent way to do this.

To take advantage of this method, put the turkey in the smoker before you retire for the evening. Make note of the time, then set an alarm for no more than 10 hours later. You can check it after 8 or 9 hours if you’d like, but make sure not to wait any longer than 10 hours, or you’ll risk overcooking the turkey.

Should You Wrap The Turkey Before Smoking?

We don’t recommend taking this step, as it will prevent that savory smoke flavor from permeating the meat. That said, if you find that the wings are turning darker than you’d like and the meat still hasn’t reached a safe temperature, it’s permissible to wrap them in foil for the remainder of the smoke.

How Much Turkey To Serve Per Person

When it comes to bone-in meat like whole turkey, the basic rule of thumb is 1-1/4 pounds per person. In this case, we like to aim a bit higher than that, for a few reasons.

First of all, you should allow for the fact that some people may be heavier eaters than you’d expect. Turkey is largely considered a celebratory meal, and guests tend to consume more during celebrations. It’s better to have too much than too little, especially since it’s not as though you can just throw another turkey in the smoker during the party.

Second, we like to have plenty of leftovers on hand. When you underestimate the per-person amount, you might not have enough left over to make a turkey sandwich the following day. If you want to make turkey soup or pot pie as well, you’ll need an even greater quantity of meat.

Expect to purchase about 1-1/2 pounds of turkey per person. If you’re serving 12 guests, a 20-pound bird should be more than sufficient. To speed the cooking process when hosting larger groups, consider buying two 12- to 14-pound turkeys instead of a single huge one.

The Preparation Factor

We should also point out that the turkey will weigh slightly less than the amount listed on the package by the time you’re ready to cook. This is because the listed weight includes the neck and the giblets, which you’ll need to remove before you prepare the bird for the smoker.

A turkey that’s advertised as a 20-pounder will probably weigh closer to 18 pounds when you’ve taken out the extra bits. Fortunately, you can use the giblets for gravy, and smoked turkey necks are an underappreciated delicacy.

The Bottom Line

Smoking a 20-pound turkey takes time, but the good news is that the process is hands-off for the majority of that time. If you have a finicky smoker, you’ll want to keep a close eye on the temperature in the early stages to ensure that it doesn’t dip too low. Otherwise, you should be able to walk away and let the smoker do its work.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!