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When To Inject Turkey, And Tips on Doing it Properly

Have you ever experimented with injecting your meat before smoking? If not, it might be worth a try, especially with lean cuts. Whole turkeys, for example, are prime candidates for injection.

Here’s our ultimate guide on when to inject turkey—along with a few recipes to help you get started.

When To Inject Turkey

The best time to inject a whole turkey is 12 hours before you put it on the smoker. If you do it immediately beforehand, the seasonings won’t have a chance to penetrate the meat. Try not to inject more than 36 hours in advance, either—the turkey won’t stay fresh for much longer than that.

About Injection

When you inject a cut of meat, you’re infusing it with a measure of flavored liquid. This helps the meat stay moist as it cooks, in addition to providing flavor. In other words, injection is a more aggressive form of marinade.

You can experiment with different ingredients to flavor your injection. Turkey or chicken stock makes an excellent base, especially with melted butter. Other suggestions include apple juice or cider, beer, hot sauce, and carbonated beverages like cola.

As for spices, you have many options. We prefer to use herb blends to season our turkey, but be aware that fresh herbs might get stuck in the injection needle. Instead, opt for dried herbs, or try adding a bit of smoked paprika or garlic powder.

Should You Inject Turkey?

Is it a good idea to inject turkey to begin with? After all, smoking the meat will imbue it with plenty of flavor on its own. And if you smoke it at the right temperature without overcooking it, the meat should be nice and juicy.

Because it’s a hands-on preparation technique, a lot of pitmasters don’t bother with injection. In addition, some cuts, like beef brisket, have so much fat and connective tissue that the process isn’t really necessary.

In short, while injection doesn’t do any harm, it isn’t necessary. You should be able to smoke your bird without dealing with this messy and time-consuming stage of preparation.

Injection Pros and Cons

First and foremost, injecting is superior to brining if you want to ensure that the moisture penetrates deep into the muscle fibers of the turkey. Brining (see below) doesn’t offer the same advantage.

What’s more, over-brining can be disastrous, especially if you don’t get the salt-to-water ratio right. In fact, you might end up making the meat tougher, which is the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve. Injection is more forgiving.

As a bonus, injecting the turkey beneath the skin gives the outside of the bird a lovely crisp texture and an appealing mahogany color. That’s something that’s hard to get if you brine the turkey instead.

On the other hand, when you choose injection, you’re limiting yourself when it comes to ingredients. Whole or coarsely ground spices and herbs will get caught in the injection needle, so it’s better to stick with liquids whenever possible.

Also, this technique distributes the mixture somewhat unevenly. No matter how careful you are with the needle, some portions of the turkey will be more saturated than others.

Finally, on an aesthetic level, the needle will leave tracks in the turkey’s skin. This is a minor quibble, but one that’s worth mentioning, especially if you like to photograph your handiwork before digging in.

Alternatives to Injection

As we pointed out, smoking the turkey at the proper temperature will go a long way toward helping it retain moisture. A smoker temperature of 275 is recommended. Any higher, and the meat won’t taste smoky enough; any lower, and it might turn rubbery.

Brining offers many of the same benefits. Exposing the raw turkey to a saltwater solution will plump up the muscle fibers while imparting a great deal of moisture on its own. Best of all, once you’ve made the brine, the process is largely hands-off.

If you don’t have room in your fridge to hold a brining bucket, consider dry brining the turkey instead. All you need to do is rub the exterior of the turkey with a measure of kosher salt—and other herbs, if desired—then scrape off the salt before cooking.

Can You Inject Turkey Night Before Smoking?

Yes. It’s permissible to inject turkey up to 36 hours in advance.

In theory, you might be able to do it earlier than that, but it’s best to cook whole turkeys within 48 hours of thawing. Since you’ll need to wait until the turkey is fully defrosted before injecting it, that shortens the window.

Also, injecting the turkey more than 36 hours in advance might cause the muscle fibers to break down. This is true especially if your injection contains acidic ingredients, like citrus juice or vinegar.

Excess exposure to salt solutions can also result in spongy turkey. We’ve noticed this after leaving a turkey in a saltwater brine for too long.

Fortunately, you shouldn’t have to worry about this if you inject the turkey the night before you plan to smoke it. Injecting it 12 to 24 hours in advance won’t do it any harm.

Should You Inject Turkey the Night Before?

We think injecting the turkey the night before is a good idea. It will give the injection time to do its work—and as a bonus, you’ll have more time to spare on the day of the smoke.

It’s best to inject turkey about 12 hours in advance. This provides the meat with just the right amount of moisture and savory flavor without overdoing it.

Of course, you should use your judgment when making your plans. Let’s say you want to put your turkey on the smoker at 10 in the morning. It’s fine to inject the bird between 6 and 8 p.m. the night before if that works better for your schedule.

How To Inject Turkey: A Step-by-Step Guide

1. Using a non-reactive container, mix the injection according to your chosen recipe. If you’re having trouble deciding, we’ve included a few of our favorites in the section below.

2. Take apart your meat injector for inspection. Look at it closely to make sure that it’s not clogged with any particles or residue from the last time you used it. As a precaution, wash all the parts thoroughly before you begin.

3. Grease the o-ring with a neutral oil, such as grapeseed or canola. This will make it easier to push and extract the plunger.

4. Select the right needle for the job. Depending on which ingredients you’ve chosen for your injection, you might need a needle with thicker openings. Injections that are made solely from liquid, meanwhile, should use needles with holes up the entire shaft.

5. Reassemble the injector and push on the plunger a few times to make sure it’s clear.

6. Fill the needle by inserting it into the injection mixture and pulling up on the plunger. If you’re using a needle with holes through the shaft, it might be necessary to tilt the container to avoid excess air bubbles.

7. Set the turkey breast side up on a clean rimmed baking sheet. You want to prevent any excess injection liquid from spilling out onto the floor.

8. Beginning on one side of the breast, push the needle into the flesh and slowly press down on the plunger. Draw the needle back, but don’t pull it out completely. Adjust the angle, push the needle down, and continue to inject. Repeat until syringe is empty.

9. Refill the syringe as needed. Continue to insert the injector into different portions of the turkey breast, each time repositioning the needle to distribute flavor from various angles. Repeat the process on the opposite side of the breastbone.

10. Apply the same treatment to the legs, drumsticks, and thighs, turning the bird over if necessary. Be careful—as the meat takes on the liquid, some of it might squirt back out. If this happens, move on to a different section.

11. When the turkey has taken on enough of the liquid, put it back in the refrigerator for 12 hours, or until you’re ready to cook.

Turkey Injection Recipes

Pro Tip: A turkey weighing 10 to 12 pounds should require about 2 cups of injection liquid.

Basic Butter

  • 1-1/2 cups turkey stock or broth
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1 garlic clove, mashed to a paste or very finely minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Butter and Beer

  • 1-1/2 cups premium beer or ale
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • Pinch cayenne pepper

Pro Tip: For injections containing butter, make sure to keep them warm as you work so that the mixture doesn’t solidify.

Savory Herb

  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 4 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 4 teaspoons onion powder
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons dried thyme
  • 2 teaspoons dried rosemary
  • 2 teaspoons dried sage

Italian Flair

  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup red wine (such as Chianti)
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon dried parsley
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Ragin’ Cajun

  • 1 cup lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup liquid crab boil seasoning (such as Zatarain’s)
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup butter, melted
  • 2 tablespoons garlic powder
  • 2 tablespoons onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
  • 2 teaspoons dried thyme
  • 2 teaspoons Tabasco sauce
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Pro Tip: This injection works especially well if you’re deep-frying your turkey instead of smoking it.

Can You Inject Turkey Without an Injection Needle?

If you plan to inject turkey on a regular basis, we would strongly suggest that you invest in an injection kit. It will make the job much easier—and you’ll look like a true professional.

However, if you don’t have one on hand, you can still experiment with this technique. Once the turkey has thawed, use a sturdy fork to poke holes all over the flesh. Pay close attention to the breasts, but don’t neglect the thighs and drumsticks either.

Make the injection according to your recipe, then pour the mixture into a food-safe zip-top bag that’s large enough to hold the turkey. Add the turkey to the bag, seal it tightly, then put the bag in the refrigerator.

After 12 hours or so, remove the bird from the “injection” marinade and prepare as desired.

The Bottom Line

Since you can easily inject turkey the day before you smoke it, the process is well worth the effort. We don’t always recommend it for rich, fatty cuts, but the turkey should benefit from the extra flavor and moisture.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!