Who can resist the allure of smoked turkey legs? They have fantastic eye appeal, they taste and smell amazing, and they’re very forgiving in terms of internal temperature. What’s the ideal turkey leg internal temp when smoking or grilling? Let’s find out.
Turkey Leg Internal Temp
Turkey legs are considered dark meat, so they can handle higher temps than the breast meat. It’s best to cook them to an internal temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit. With carryover cooking, they should hit a serving temp of 185, at which point the meat will be succulent and moist.
Why It Matters
When it comes to poultry, you need to take special care not to undercook the meat. This is important with all types of meat, but it’s critical with poultry.
Some meats, like beef and pork, can be cooked medium rare. That’s because the flesh is denser than that of poultry, meaning dangerous bacteria don’t penetrate too far beneath the surface. As long as the outside is seared properly, the meat should be safe to eat.
Consuming undercooked poultry could lead to salmonella poisoning. The best way to avoid this is to cook all poultry products to a minimum of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
At lower temperatures, the salmonella bacteria won’t die off as quickly. It only takes a few seconds to destroy them at temperatures that exceed 165 degrees.
That’s why you should always test poultry—including turkey—with an instant-read thermometer before taking it off the heat.
A Word About Ground Meat
It’s important to note that the above rules don’t apply to ground meat products. When the meat is ground, it should be cooked to 165 degrees. This is true of ground beef and pork as well as poultry.
The reasoning behind this is simple. The bacteria that lead to food-borne illnesses live on the surface of the flesh, as established previously. Therefore, cooking the surface should be enough to wipe out the bacteria.
When the same cuts of meat are ground and mixed together, though, you can’t tell which portions were on the surface and which were in the center. Therefore, cooking the meat to 165 degrees all the way through is the only way to ensure food safety.
Turkey Leg Internal Temp
While 165 degrees is considered a safe internal temperature, it’s not ideal for turkey legs.
The turkey leg, which includes both the thigh and the drumstick, is considered dark meat. It’s possible to overcook dark meat, but its texture is more forgiving than the leaner white meat (see section below).
In our opinion, dark meat is more succulent and tender when it’s cooked to higher temperatures. The meat is fattier, so the extra exposure to the heat will result in a juicier product.
Our advice would be to pull the turkey legs from the smoker when their internal temp crosses the 180-degree mark. They’ll continue to cook a bit as they rest, giving them a final serving temp between 180 and 185 degrees.
Speaking of the resting period, you don’t need to wait long before tearing into your delicious smoked turkey legs. After pulling them from the heat, let them sit at room temperature for about 5 minutes, then serve.
Turkey Breast Internal Temp
Turkey breast, on the other hand, will have an unpleasant chalky quality when it’s overcooked. If it’s allowed to cook past 165 degrees, you might have to drown it in sauce to cover up the dry texture.
Toward the end of the estimated cooking time, keep a close eye on the internal temp of the turkey breast. When it gets to 160, it’s time to pull the breast from the heat. Let it rest, tented loosely with foil, for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.
Best Smoker Temp For Turkey Legs
When smoking turkey legs, opt for a smoker temperature of 250 to 275 degrees. At these temperatures, the skin should get nice and crispy while the meat has plenty of time to absorb the smoke flavor.
Depending on the size of your turkey legs, this process could take 2 to 4 hours. Instead of relying on the clock, trust your instant-read thermometer to let you know when the meat is done.
What If I’m Smoking a Whole Turkey?
It can be tough to smoke a whole bird. You want the thigh meat to cook until it’s rich and tender without drying out the breast meat in the process. Here are a couple of suggestions on how to achieve that.
One possible option would be to spatchcock the turkey before putting it on the smoker. Also known as butterflying, this technique involves removing the backbone of the bird so that it lays flat on the cooking surface, thereby allowing for even cooking.
Spatchcocking offers a couple of other benefits: It allows the turkey to cook more quickly, so you can have your meal on the table sooner. Best of all, it exposes more skin to the heat, resulting in a bird that’s crisp and juicy.
You can ask your butcher to spatchcock the turkey for you, but doing it yourself is also an option. Look for a bird that weighs no more than 12 pounds. This will make your job easier, and it’s preferable not to smoke larger turkeys anyway.
To begin, pat the turkey dry using paper towels. Place it on a clean work surface with the breast side facing down. Make a long incision along one side of the backbone, starting at the tail end. Continue to cut until you’ve cut through all the rib bones.
Spread the turkey open as if you were opening a book. Make another cut along the other side of the backbone until you’ve cut through the rib bones on that side. This should allow you to remove the backbone, though you might need to make a few additional cuts.
Flip the bird over and press down on the breastbone using both hands. After the breastbone makes a couple of cracking sounds, the turkey should rest flat against the work surface.
This is a great idea whether you spatchcock the bird or not. Brining the meat will allow the muscle fibers to retain more moisture, which keeps the meat juicy and tender.
To brine a turkey, make a solution of 4 quarts cold water and 1 cup of kosher salt in a container large enough to hold the turkey. If desired, heat 1 cup of the water first to dissolve the salt, then mix in the remainder of the water.
Add whole peppercorns, bay leaves, or fresh herbs to the mixture, if you’d like. Submerge the turkey in the brine solution. Refrigerate for up to 12 hours.
After removing the bird from the brine, rinse if desired and pat dry with paper towels.
Smoke It Upside Down
Many recipes recommend smoking turkey with the breast side facing up. However, if you smoke it breast side down, the fat from the legs and thighs will roll down and keep the breast meat from drying out.
This is recommended only if you use a low smoker temperature—that is, below 300 degrees—for the turkey. If you set the temperature higher, you don’t want the breasts to be facing the heat source directly.
Remove The Breasts
This method takes time, but it does ensure that the breasts won’t overcook while the smoker is finishing its work.
When the breasts reach their optimum temperature, remove the whole bird from the smoker. Set on a work surface and carve the breasts from the carcass. Tent the breasts with foil and set them aside to rest, then return the rest of the bird to the smoker.
As soon as the leg and thigh meat has hit the sweet spot of 180 degrees, take the rest of the turkey off the heat and let rest for 5 minutes before serving.
The Bottom Line
There’s a reason why smoked turkey legs are so popular at venues like theme parks and Renaissance fairs. With a little advance preparation, you can reap all the same delicious benefits at home—and at a fraction of the cost.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!
Hi there! I’m Darren Wayland, your BBQHost. My love of great barbecue inspired me to curate this site as a resource for all my like-minded fellow pitmasters out there. When I’m not researching and learning all I can about the latest tips and techniques, you can find me at the grill—that is, if you can spot me at all through the clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. And since you asked, yes, that probably is barbecue sauce on my face. Welcome to the party!
Monday 1st of May 2023
Excellent article! Great job mentioning safety precautions regarding poultry and ground meats versus beef and pork. And, your target temps are perfect for white meat and dark meat. Many, if not most, articles quote the 165° number but dark meat at that temp, whether chicken or turkey, doesn’t taste good nor does it have a good texture. Thanks for taking the time to post this article.