No matter what cut of meat you’re smoking, there will be differing opinions on how to position it on the cooking grate. Whole turkeys are no exception. In this guide, we’ll explore the debate behind smoked turkey breast side up or down to help you decide.
Smoked Turkey Breast Side Up or Down
When you smoke a turkey breast side up, you’re positioning the delicate white meat further away from the heat source. This helps to prevent overcooking. On the other hand, smoking it with the breast side down allows the fat from the legs and thighs to glide down over the white meat, which may keep it from drying out.
How Long Does It Take To Smoke a Turkey?
As always, the length of the smoke depends on the size of the bird and the temperature of your smoker.
In a 250-degree smoker, a turkey should cook at a rate of 30 minutes per pound. Therefore, a 10-pound bird will be ready to come off the heat in about 5 hours.
When you set the temperature to 275—which is our general recommendation—expect the bird to finish cooking a bit sooner. A per-pound rate of 20 to 25 minutes is typical at this temperature. That means the same 10-pound turkey will be done in 3-1/2 to 4-1/2 hours.
Setting the smoker to 325 degrees will cook the turkey faster, but it won’t have a chance to absorb as much smoke flavor. When the smoker is this hot, the process should take 14 to 18 minutes per pound.
What Size Turkey Should I Choose For The Smoker?
In theory, you can smoke a turkey of any size, as long as your cooking chamber is large enough to accommodate the whole bird. Butterflying (or spatchcocking) the turkey will help it lie flat, which can be a lifesaver with larger specimens.
Because we like to smoke the turkey at a relatively low temp, we prefer to choose smaller birds for this purpose. Try to select birds that weigh between 10 to 12 pounds.
If you can find an even smaller bird and you don’t need to feed a ton of people, feel free to buy it. The smaller the turkey is, the sooner you can have dinner ready.
On the other hand, if you have a long guest list, a 12-pound bird might not be sufficient. In these cases, we would recommend buying two small turkeys and smoking them together. That way, you’ll save time while making sure you have enough turkey on hand.
Smoked Turkey Breast Side Up: Pros & Cons
Most of the time, we suggest smoking the turkey with the breast side facing up. That’s the traditional position, and one that chefs often use when roasting the turkey in a regular oven, too.
In a smoker, it makes sense to position the bird breast side up. The breast meat cooks faster than the dark meat on the thighs and legs, and it doesn’t need to cook to as high a temperature. When the breasts face the heat source, they’re in danger of overcooking.
When the breast side is facing up, the skin on this portion of the bird will turn a deep golden brown. This gives it plenty of eye appeal.
On the other hand, some pitmasters complain that the breast meat turns out too dry when they smoke the bird breast side up. That’s one of the issues we’ll address in the next section.
One caveat to be aware of: If the heat source in your smoker is positioned above the cooking area, you’re probably better off smoking the bird with the breast side facing down. That way, the white meat will be shielded from the higher heat coming from the top.
Smoked Turkey Breast Side Down: Pros & Cons
Proponents of the breast-side down method argue that the breast meat will remain moist and juicy when it’s positioned this way. Their reasoning follows the “pork butt should be smoked fat side up” methodology.
The dark meat is fattier than the white meat of the breast. Therefore, when the thighs and legs are facing up, the excess fat will slide down onto the breast meat, thereby “basting” it to keep it moist.
While this may help prevent the breast meat from drying out, science suggests that the meat won’t actually absorb any of the fat. It’s worth a try for curiosity’s sake, but be sure to keep an eye on the internal temperature of the breast meat to avoid overcooking.
There are others who claim that the breast meat stays juicier this way because the natural moisture stays where it is instead of evaporating. Again, science doesn’t support that claim—some moisture will evaporate as the meat cooks, no matter how you position it.
There’s one other aspect to be aware of: Birds that are cooked “upside down” will look slightly odd. When the breasts are pressed against the cooking grate for the duration of the smoke, they’ll develop deep ridges that affect the bird’s camera-ready appearance.
Of course, looks aren’t everything. As long as the meat is cooked properly and tastes great, you shouldn’t worry too much about visuals. Besides, this becomes a moot point once the bird is carved.
Can You Flip The Turkey Halfway Through The Smoke?
You can always attempt to get the best of both worlds by starting the smoke with the breast side facing up, then flipping it over (or vice versa). Although this is a popular method with pork butt, it’s not as easy to pull off with turkey.
In addition to being large, a whole turkey is an unwieldy piece of meat. It can be difficult to handle even when raw. Once it’s been on the smoker for a while, it will be hot as well as heavy. If you attempt to turn the bird, you might end up losing it.
Our advice would be to choose a position and stick with it. If you’re smoking two birds side by side, try smoking one with the breast side facing up and the other facing down to see if you notice a difference.
Should You Rotate The Turkey on the Cooking Grate?
If you’ve ever attempted to defrost a turkey in the microwave—something we don’t recommend—you should have rotated it several times to ensure that it thawed evenly. Do you need to perform the same trick on the bird once it’s on the smoker?
Unless your smoker has obvious hot and cold zones, this practice isn’t necessary. The heat should be evenly distributed throughout the cooking chamber.
In fact, if you do notice that one side of the smoker is always hotter than the other, it could be indicative of a serious problem. Check your user manual to find out if there’s anything you can do to correct this.
If you open the lid of the smoker too often, the unit will have a hard time maintaining the proper temperature. This will prolong the length of the smoke and make it harder for you to predict when the turkey will be ready.
Further, you should attempt to handle the turkey as little as possible while it’s cooking. As we mentioned before, a whole turkey is heavy and awkward to handle, which makes repositioning difficult.
What If The Breasts Are Done Before The Thighs?
Turkey breast meat should cook to an internal temperature of 165 degrees before serving. Since carryover cooking will raise the temperature a bit, you can pull the bird from the heat when the breasts are cooked to 160.
The thigh and leg meat, on the other hand, will be chewy and tough if it’s only cooked to 160. Try to leave the turkey on the smoker until the dark meat has achieved an internal temperature of 180 degrees.
Our advice would be to cook the whole bird until the breasts are done, then take it off the smoker. Using heatproof gloves and a sharp carving knife, remove the breasts and set them aside to rest.
Tent the breasts with foil to keep them warm while you put the rest of the turkey back on the smoker. It shouldn’t take too long for the dark meat to attain the ideal temperature.
When this happens, remove the bird from the heat and let the dark meat rest for 15 minutes before carving. You can carve the breasts in the meantime.
The Bottom Line
There may never be a definitive answer to the “smoked turkey breast side up or down” question.
While we prefer the breast-side up method, it won’t necessarily ruin the turkey to turn it upside down as it cooks. The key is to avoid overcooking the meat. As long as it’s done to perfection, no one will care which way the bird was facing.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!