Every large cut of meat cooks at its own pace, and whole turkeys are no different. If your turkey is done cooking hours before you plan to serve it, is there anything you can do to save it? And how can you help to prevent this occurrence in the future?
Turkey Done Too Early
When a turkey is done a few hours before you’d planned to serve it, the best way to keep it warm is in a preheated cooler, also called a “faux Cambro.” You can also use the oven, but this method is more likely to result in dry meat. If you’re looking at a wait of 4 hours or more, consider carving the turkey and reheating it at serving time.
How To Tell When a Turkey is Cooked
How will you know when the bird is done cooking? There are a few telltale signs, but an instant-read meat thermometer is the most reliable method to use.
If you’ve ever compared a piece of cooked turkey to one of its raw counterparts, you’ll know that the flesh turns opaque as it cooks. However, you shouldn’t rely on appearance alone.
For one thing, meat can have an opaque appearance even when it’s still technically undercooked according to USDA guidelines. Also, smoked poultry might still appear pink beneath the skin no matter how long you cook it.
Poultry products are safe to consume when they’ve reached an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point, any harmful bacteria will die off in a matter of seconds, so you shouldn’t have to worry about food poisoning.
It’s okay to remove turkey breasts from the heat once they’ve cooked to 160 degrees. The meat will continue to cook slightly as it rests. In fact, if you wait until the meat hits the 165-degree mark, it might have a dry, chalky texture when it’s time to eat it.
Bear in mind, though, that turkey legs and thighs should cook to at least 180 degrees to attain the ideal texture. If you serve them at 165 degrees, they’ll be safe to eat, but the meat might be chewy and rubbery instead of silky and tender.
Use your thermometer to gauge the temperature in both the thickest part of the breast, and in the spot next to the thigh bone. If the breasts reach 160 degrees before the dark meat is ready, you can remove them and keep them warm while the bird finishes cooking.
Turkey Done Too Early: Possible Causes
Inaccurate Weight Estimate
As a rule, smaller birds will cook through more quickly than large ones. You want to estimate your cooking time based on the weight of the turkey.
When you buy a frozen turkey at the supermarket, the weight is usually listed on the label. However, if you opt to purchase a fresh or frozen specimen from a specialty retailer, the weight listed might be an estimate rather than a specific number.
For example, D’Artagnan offers free-range turkeys for sale through its website, but the weights are presented in ranges: 8 to 10 pounds, 10 to 12 pounds, and so on. That can make it hard for you to estimate the total cooking time, especially at low temperatures.
High Smoker Temperature
We like to set the smoker to 275 degrees when smoking a whole turkey. This is a low enough temperature to enrich the meat with smoky goodness, but high enough to cook it thoroughly within a reasonable period of time.
You can speed the cooking process still further by setting the smoker temperature to 325, 350, or even 375 degrees. The turkey won’t taste as smoky, but it will cook through quickly. Since turkey is naturally lean, it can cook at high temps without ill effect.
Most of the time, you can predict the cooking time with accuracy based on the smoker temperature and the weight of the turkey (see Estimated Cooking Times, below). However, if the smoker runs erratically, your bird can take more or less time to cook.
In our experience, it’s more common for a smoker to run at a lower temperature than the one you selected. Some models, though, might run on the hotter side. If this happens, the turkey will finish cooking sooner than you’d bargained for.
On a similar note, some recipes recommend starting the smoke at a high temperature—375 or higher—then turning down the heat. We don’t feel that this is necessary. The skin gets crisp enough during the cooking process, and cranking the heat can result in overcooking.
Estimated Cooking Times
At 325 degrees, the meat should reach the ideal temp at a rate of 13 minutes per pound. This can make a significant difference in the cooking time, especially if your turkey is on the bigger side.
Turkey Done Too Early: What To Do Next
Even if you’ve done everything according to the books, sometimes the turkey will still be finished cooking too soon. Your next step is to run damage control. Fortunately, you have several options.
The Faux Cambro
When your turkey is cooked to perfection 3 to 4 hours before you planned to serve it, a faux Cambro is the best way to help it maintain its juicy texture.
A Cambro is an insulated container used to keep food warm for hours on end. They’re popular with caterers, who often need to transport hot dishes from their facilities to a second location.
At home, you can recreate this technique with a regular insulated cooler. It’s a good idea to invest in a cooler that’s large enough to hold a whole turkey if you don’t already have one. That way, you’ll always be prepared.
To create a faux Cambro, fill the cooler with hot water. It helps if the water is as close to boiling as you can get it. The hotter the water is, the warmer the unit will stay.
Close the lid of the cooler and wait for about 30 minutes. Next, empty the container and dry the interior with clean towels before closing the lid again.
Your next step is to wrap the cooked turkey in a double layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil. If you take the bird off the heat before creating the faux Cambro, you should tent it loosely with foil while you wait for the cooler to heat up, then wrap it tightly.
At this point, you can either wrap the turkey in a clean towel or use towels to line the inside of the cooler. Either method is fine, but wrapping the turkey itself might help it retain its heat better.
Place the wrapped turkey in the prepared cooler and close the lid. When stored in this manner, the meat’s internal temp should remain above 140 degrees for at least 4 hours.
When you’re ready to serve the turkey, unwrap it and let it rest for an additional 10 to 15 minutes. Carve and serve as desired.
You can keep your turkey warm in a low oven if you don’t have a cooler or don’t want to bother with a faux Cambro. The only drawback to this technique is that the bird might dry out or overcook during its stint in the oven.
Use the lowest setting your oven offers. Some models can be set as low as 150, which would be ideal. If yours only goes as low as 180 or 200, you’ll need to take extra care to avoid overcooking.
Before putting the turkey in the oven, set it in a roasting pan. You might have already taken this step while smoking the turkey, but even if you smoked it directly on the rack, you’ll need to use a pan for this step to catch the juices.
Tent the pan loosely with foil and put it in the oven until you’re almost ready to serve it. We would recommend checking the internal temperature from time to time to make sure that it isn’t rising above the recommended threshold for serving.
There’s no need to wait until the oven is finished preheating before putting the prepared bird inside. Carryover cooking will prevent the turkey from getting too cool while the oven is firing up.
Carve Ahead of Time
If there are more than a few hours to go until your planned serving time, you might be better off cutting your losses—and the turkey as well.
Often, it’s easier to let the turkey rest for about 30 minutes, then carve the meat as planned. At this point, you can transfer the sliced turkey to lidded containers and store it in the fridge until you’re ready to reheat and serve.
To reheat sliced turkey, save as much liquid as you can. You’ll have more on hand if you smoke the turkey in a pan instead of directly on the cooking grate, but there should still be some liquid left over after you rest the bird.
Set the carved turkey pieces in roasting pans (the disposable aluminum ones work well on the grill) and drizzle with the reserved juices. Cover and reheat at 300 degrees for about 10 to 15 minutes, or until the meat is warmed through.
You can reheat turkey on the grill if you have a pellet-fueled or gas-fired unit. If you’ve used a charcoal smoker to cook the turkey, it will likely have gone cold by the time you’re ready to start reheating.
It’s also fine to use the oven for reheating. This is often a safer choice, especially if your smoker tends to run too hot or too cool.
As an alternative, you can serve the turkey cold. Depending on the formality of the occasion, this might not be an option, but it can make life easier at casual gatherings. If you go this route, consider setting out sandwich rolls alongside the breast meat.
Pro Tip: When serving reheated turkey, don’t skimp on the gravy. After it’s chilled and reheated, the meat will lose some of its natural moisture. The best way to combat this is to serve it with plenty of gravy or pan sauce to rehydrate the slices.
The Bottom Line
As a grilling and smoking enthusiast, you’ll need to roll with the punches every now and then. Every cut of meat is different, and it’s impossible to predict exactly when a whole turkey—or even the breast itself—might reach the optimum temperature.
Fortunately, if you follow the guidelines we’ve offered, your turkey should be finished cooking within a reasonable time frame. This is yet another reason why it’s important to invest in a smoker with reliable heat retention.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!