There’s something inherently satisfying about smoking a whole turkey. Since poultry is leaner than cuts like pork butt and beef brisket, it can be challenging to cook it for a long time at low temps without drying out the meat.
The length of the smoke depends on the size of the turkey, so what size turkey is best for the smoker? Our guide will provide you with the answers to these questions—and several more.
What Size Turkey For Smoking?
10 to 12 pounds is the ideal weight range for a smoked turkey. The important thing to remember is that it will need to fit on your cooking grate while the lid of the smoker is closed. If a bird this size isn’t large enough to suit your needs, you might be better off buying two or more turkeys and smoking them together.
Average Weight of a Whole Turkey
Turkeys are available in a broad range of sizes. Although wild turkeys typically weigh in between 8 and 18 pounds, the ones that are bred for sale can weigh a great deal more than that.
On average, when you buy a frozen turkey in the supermarket, you’ll choose one that weighs between 10 and 30 pounds. There might be a few smaller or even larger ones available, but most of them will fall within this range.
Best Size Turkey for Smoking
Because we prefer to smoke turkey at a slightly lower temperature than we would use for traditional roasting, we try to select birds that fall on the lighter end of the spectrum.
Look for a turkey that weighs between 10 and 12 pounds when you’re planning to put it on the smoker. If you can find a smaller specimen—8 or 9 pounds—that might work even better.
Of course, we understand that a turkey this small might not accommodate your needs when cooking for larger crowds. In this case, consider buying two smaller birds and smoking them at the same time. Just be sure your smoker is big enough to accommodate them both.
If you can’t find a turkey that weighs 12 pounds or less, you can speed the cooking process by spatchcocking the bird before putting it on the smoker. For more information on how to do this, see the separate section below.
How Long to Smoke Turkey Per Pound
275 degrees is the ideal temperature to use for smoked turkey. Your goal is to cook the meat long enough to imbue it with smoke flavor and bring it to a safe temperature within a reasonable time frame.
At 275 degrees, the turkey should finish cooking at a rate of 20 to 25 minutes per pound. That means if you followed our advice and purchased a 10-pounder for the smoker, you’re looking at a 3-1/2 to 4 hour smoke.
Remember to take the resting period into account. A turkey that size should rest for at least 20 minutes and up to 45 minutes. If you need to keep the turkey warm for longer than that, consider using a faux Cambro or putting it in a low oven until serving time.
Also, bear in mind that smoking two turkeys side by side shouldn’t prolong the cooking time. These are two separate cuts of meat that will cook at the same rate that they would if you’d put them in the smoker at different times.
How Much Turkey To Serve Per Person
When it comes to bone-in poultry, you want to estimate higher than you normally might. Since whole turkeys yield less edible meat than, say, briskets of the same size, you can’t use the same formula when deciding how much to buy.
Plan on buying at least 1-1/4 pound of turkey for each person on your list. If you’re hoping there will be a lot of meat left over, or if your guests are big eaters, round up to 1-1/2 pounds per person.
That might sound like a lot of turkey, but remember that the meat will shrink down as it cooks. Also bear in mind that some guests will take whole drumsticks (see Smoking Turkey Legs, below), and these can weigh 1-1/2 to 2 pounds apiece.
Spatchcocking, or butterflying, means removing the backbone from whole poultry and pressing down on the breastbone until the bird lies flat. This can reduce the cooking time by as much as 50 percent and result in a higher proportion of crispy skin.
To spatchcock a turkey, cut along either side of the backbone using a pair of kitchen shears. After you’ve taken out the backbone, turn the bird breast side up on the prep station and apply weight to the breastbone until you hear it crack.
At this point, the turkey should lie relatively flat on the work surface. You can brine the bird, if desired, or season and cook it immediately.
As an alternative, you can ask your butcher to spatchcock the turkey for you. This will save time, especially if you want to brine or marinate the bird before you smoke it.
Smoking Turkey Breast
Another way to save time is to buy a turkey breast and put that on the smoker instead of a whole bird.
It’s possible to find turkey breasts that weigh as much as a smaller whole bird, but they usually weigh around 5 to 7 pounds. They’ll also cook at about the same rate as a whole turkey, so a 5-pound turkey breast can be done in less than 2 hours.
Turkey breast is done when it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees. It’s best to take it off the heat at 160 degrees and let it rest, loosely tented with foil, for 10-15 minutes. This will allow it to reach the optimum temperature without overcooking.
It’s important not to overcook the breast meat. If you do, it will have an unpleasant chalky texture. Brining the meat will help it retain moisture, but even that won’t help you if you allow the breasts to cook to 170 degrees or higher.
Some chefs prefer to remove the breasts from the smoker when they’ve cooked to 150 degrees. At this temperature, the types of bacteria that cause food poisoning will still die off—it will just take a few minutes as opposed to seconds.
If you have a reliable instant-read thermometer and are willing to stand guard to make sure the breasts remain at 150 for at least 4 minutes, then it’s permissible to cook them to this temp. However, we think this approach is more trouble than it’s worth.
Smoking Turkey Legs
Smoked turkey legs are a staple at theme parks and Renaissance fairs. They have superb eye appeal and plenty of rich flavor—the ideal combination.
Best of all, turkey legs consist of dark meat, which can cook to a higher temperature without drying out. In fact, we think the leg and thigh meat is even more succulent when it cooks to 185 degrees.
Shop for turkey legs through specialty online retailers, or ask your butcher if it’s possible to buy them in bulk. The ones that are sold independently of the whole bird are usually on the larger side—1-1/2 to 2 pounds apiece.
Smoke the turkey legs until they’ve reached an internal temp of 180 degrees. This should take around 3 hours when you set the smoker to 275. If the smoker runs on the cooler side, it might take up to 4 hours.
When testing the temperature, be careful not to let the probe touch the bone. This will give you an inaccurate readout, and you want to ensure that the meat has reached the proper temperature without overcooking.
Let the turkey legs rest for about 15 minutes before serving. The meat should be tender enough to come away from the bone easily.
The Bottom Line
Because smaller turkeys take less time to cook and are easier to fit on the smoker, we try to seek these out when smoked turkey is on the menu. However, you can smoke a larger bird as long as your unit is big enough to accommodate it.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!