Once you’ve mastered the basics—smoked pork ribs, beef brisket, and the like—why not experiment with smoking a whole turkey? Although it’s important to cook the bird to a safe temperature, the process isn’t difficult—and the results are delicious.
Here’s our complete guide to mesquite smoked turkey, including a couple of variations that you might enjoy.
Mesquite Smoked Turkey
Mesquite has a strong, earthy flavor profile that can overpower lean meat. It’s a better fit for turkey legs than the whole bird, but you can use it either way if you enjoy a bolder smoke flavor with your turkey. Try setting the smoker temperature to at least 275 to reduce the total exposure time.
Is It Safe to Smoke a Whole Turkey?
Food safety is always important, but when you’re dealing with poultry—especially whole bone-in birds—you need to be especially careful.
Consuming undercooked poultry can lead to salmonella poisoning. This food-borne illness causes abdominal distress, including cramping, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Severe cases may even require medical attention.
Since poultry flesh is less dense than red meat like beef and pork, the bacteria that cause these infections can penetrate farther below the surface. That’s why poultry needs to cook all the way through in order to be deemed safe for consumption.
As long as you follow the established guidelines for internal cooking temperatures, it’s perfectly safe to smoke a whole turkey. Our advice would be to select a smaller bird (see separate section below) to ensure that the meat cooks through more quickly.
Mesquite is a blanket term for several trees and shrubs that are found chiefly in the southwestern United States. Their branches often form dense thickets, and they produce sweet pods that can be eaten by livestock.
When used in smoking, mesquite wood produces a strong, earthy flavor that’s enticing to many pitmasters. However, its flavor is bold enough to overpower meats that are milder in taste.
Most of the time, we recommend reserving mesquite for hearty cuts of beef like brisket. Even then, it’s often a good idea to mix a small amount of mesquite with a mellower wood like oak or pecan.
It’s not impossible to use mesquite for smoked turkey, as you’ll come to learn. Just in case you have your heart set on trying this technique, we’ve included a recipe to help you make the most of it.
However, be forewarned that the intensity of the smoke flavor may be too much for some people. We would suggest saving the recipe for individuals who appreciate a hearty dose of smoky goodness on their plate.
What Size Turkey Should I Select for the Smoker?
The larger the bird, the longer it will take to cook through. With poultry, this is a particular concern because the meat needs to cook to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit (see below).
Your goal is to ensure that the turkey spends as little time as possible in the “danger zone.” This is the temperature span between 40 and 140 degrees.
In the danger zone, the types of bacteria that cause food poisoning can breed at a rapid pace. If the meat spends more than a couple of hours at those temperatures, the bacteria will leave behind toxins that can’t be eradicated.
Fortunately, your smoker should be set to a high enough temperature to alleviate these concerns. Just to be on the safe side, though, try to select turkeys weighing no more than 12 pounds when you plan to give them the smoker treatment.
Recommended Smoker Temp for Turkey
For most smoked meats, we recommend a smoker temperature of 225 degrees. This gives the meat time to absorb the smoke flavor as it cooks to a safe internal temp.
That said, cuts like pork spare ribs and beef brisket need to cook at low temperatures in order for the fat and connective tissue to break down. Otherwise, the meat would be unpleasantly tough and chewy, even if it was cooked through.
You don’t have to worry about this with turkey. The meat is relatively lean, even the dark meat on the thighs and drumsticks. A smoker temperature of 275 should cook the bird thoroughly in a reasonable amount of time without sacrificing flavor.
Recommended Internal Temp for Smoked Turkey
As we pointed out, turkey should cook to 165 degrees before consumption. The breast meat might dry out if it’s exposed to heat for any longer than this, so we would suggest taking the bird off the smoker as soon as the breasts hit this temperature.
The dark meat, on the other hand, should cook to at least 180. At lower temperatures, the meat might be tough and stringy. When they’re allowed a little more time on the smoker, the legs and thighs will turn succulent and moist.
You can attempt to shield the breasts from the high heat by covering them with tin foil as the bird cooks. Another option might be to smoke the turkey with the breast side facing down, but this is tricky when the heat source is positioned below the grate.
Alternatively, take the bird off the heat when the breasts are finished cooking. Use a carving knife to remove them and set the meat aside to rest. Return the rest of the turkey to the smoker until a thermometer inserted into the thigh reads 180 degrees.
Alternatives to Mesquite
If you’re worried that mesquite’s strong flavor will make the turkey taste bitter, try one of these milder alternatives.
The sweetness of cherry provides a nice counterpoint to the juicy turkey. As a bonus, the cherry wood will impart a lovely ruby-red hue to the turkey’s skin, giving it enormous eye appeal.
This is another sweet option, but it has a hint of nuttiness that lends it more complexity than most fruit woods. If you’re serving the turkey with stuffing that has pecans in the recipe, this will complement it nicely.
Apple is an excellent wood to use for long smoking applications because its mild flavor won’t overpower the meat.
In fact, it may be too subtle for some palates. You don’t want the turkey to dry out while the smoke does its work. If you opt for applewood, try setting the smoker temperature a bit lower—225 or 250 should do the trick.
Mesquite Smoked Turkey Recipe
- 1 whole turkey (10-12 pounds)
- 2-3 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon fresh rosemary
- 1/2 teaspoon fresh sage
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. Remove the giblets and neck from the turkey cavity. Pat the bird dry with paper towels. Season with salt and set aside.
2. In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, herbs, and pepper. Whisk in the olive oil in a slow, steady stream until well combined.
3. Set your smoker to 275 degrees. Use mesquite wood pellets if you have a pellet smoker, or about 3 cups of mesquite wood chips if using a charcoal or electric smoker.
4. When the grill is hot enough, place the turkey in the center of the cooking grate with the breast side facing up. Brush the bird with your prepared marinade.
5. Close the lid of the grill. Let the bird cook for about 1 hour.
6. Brush the turkey with additional marinade and add more wood chips, if necessary. Check the grill temperature to make sure it’s holding steady at 275, and adjust as needed.
7. Depending on the size of the turkey, it may need another 2-1/2 to 4 hours on the grill. Start checking the internal temperature of the breast after another 2 hours of undisturbed cooking.
8. When the breast meat has cooked to 160 degrees, remove the bird from the heat. If the thigh meat hasn’t cooked to 180 yet, remove the breasts and set them aside to rest while you finish cooking the rest of the bird.
9. After taking the turkey off the smoker, let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes before carving.
The Bottom Line
Mesquite might not be our number one choice for smoked turkey, but it does have its share of good qualities. When mesquite smoked turkey is on the menu, opt for mellow sides like potato salad and cole slaw to offset the richness of the smoke.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!