Smoking Turkey: Beginners Perspective

My first experience smoking a turkey.
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I'm not one for preparing huge feasts, but I always like to try something different. I've never smoked anything before and I've only roasted a turkey for Thanksgiving once. However, since I have access to a basic smoker, the other requirements for smoking doesn't cost much money except for time. Since it's something new and I have the time, I started doing my research into how to smoke a turkey for Thanksgiving.

One thing to note is that smoking any meat will be similar to BBQ with charcoals. It's a more unhealthy than gas grilling, but it will taste a whole lot better.

  1. How long does it take to smoke a turkey?
    The guideline is approximately 30 minutes per pound at 250°F to 300°F. So a smaller sized 12lb turkey will take 6 hours.
  2. What equipment is required for smoking a turkey?
    Ideally, for a first timer smoking turkey (or meat in general), charcoal, lighter fluid, wood chips, and a bowl of water. I had one of these smokers available, so the rest of it for me were minor purchases. Others options include omitting the charcoal and using wood the entire time, but that may be overkill for my home needs.
  3. What's an ideal smokers for beginners?
    What to look for is a built-in thermostat to monitor the temperature without opening the lid and vents on the side to control the temperature and burn of the charcoal.
  4. What types of wood chips should I buy?
    This is a personal preference, but I suggest starting with oak wood chips or mesquite wood chips. Other wood chips flavors include hickory, pecan, apple, cherry, alder, and many more.
  5. Why do I need a bowl of water?
    The bowl of water is important to introduce a bit of humidly to the smoking process. Don't add too much water though, as it may result in steam. Recommendation is 2-3 liters of water, beer, or apple juice. The liquid also acts as a heat sink to stabilize the temperature when you open the hatch to reduce re-heat time.
  6. Should I catch the turkey drippings?
    You can absolutely catch the drippings in a separate pan placed above the water and (obviously) below the turkey. Use it to make gravy.
  7. Do I need to add stuffing to a smoked turkey?
    No. The temperature (especially in the turkey cavity) will remain low (<140°F) for too long making it dangerous. It's better to prepare it on the side.
  8. How do I maintain a cooking temperature?
    Use a simple thermostat that measure the temperature inside the smoker, but allows you to monitor the temperature from the outside. This may require you to drill a small hole at the top. Most decent smokers will have a built-in thermostat. This can be different depending on the smoker, but you want to close to vents to allow less oxygen in to prevent the wood chips from flaring up. Ideally, you want smoldering wood chips that smoke.
  9. How long do the charcoal last?
    A mound of coals for will last about 1-2 hours, depending on how much fresh air is provided (can be affected by wind and vents) and temperature outside. Ideally, you want a slow burn at a low temperature, so the vents should be at least 1/2 closed.
  10. How long do the smoking chips last?
    As I've read, a handful of smoking chips will last around 1 hour, but it's best to periodically check for thin blue smoke.
  11. How long do I have to keep adding smoking chips?
    Depending on personal preference, you can add as long as you want. However, a common tip is to only use smoking chips for half of the total cook time, or when the meat reaches 140°F. You don't want to over-power the taste of the turkey with smoke.
  12. How much smoke should be escaping from the smoker?
    Ideally, not much, just a thin layer of white smoke is okay. But generally speaking, too much smoke escaping is a sign that heat is also escaping. Other than the vents, there's not much ways to adjust smoke loss. It's more of a reflection on the quality of your smoker.
  13. How do I keep heat and smoke going for 6 hours?
    You'll have to add coals approximately every hour. Be sure to gently place the charcoal and avoid tossing in charcoal that may unsettle the ashes. Also, do NOT use Easy Light Charcoal, which is pre-soaked with lighter fluid, as you don't want the off-gassing lighter fluid on your turkey. Instead, buy standard charcoal and use lighter fluid only on the initial lighting and give ample time for the lighter fluid to burn off.
  14. What to prepare before smoking meat?
    Though not required, the consensus is to soak wood chips for at least 30 minutes to an 1 hour. Also, pre-heat your charcoal so the coals are burned through and white. When you add chips to the smoker, they should be damp, but not dripping wet. Place them directly on the coals and let it smoke for about 10 minutes before adding food to the smoker. Adjust the temperature by playing with the vents. When the smoke is white and temperature is ideal, then add the turkey.
  15. What are the instructions to preparing a smoker?
    Basically, heat up the charcoal, wait to reach temperature, add chips, and add meat. But this process is much better demonstrated in a video.
  16. How long does it take to prepare a smoker?
    It depends on your conditions, but for me as a first time, it took about 30-40 minutes to pre-heat with plumes of white smoke. The smoke didn't become clear blue smoke until nearly one hour after i added the wood chips. The temperature has maintained for the remainder of the cook.
  17. How often should I check the smoker?
    You should keep an eye on the smoker, but avoid constantly opening the lid (bad for both temperature and smoke). Keep an eye out for black smoke (which is bad!), which means the wood chips aren't getting enough air and you should open the lid. However, white smoke is good!
  18. Do I need to flip the turkey during cooking?
    No, smoking is a slow cooking process that does not require any flipping or touching. In fact, it's better to keep the lid closed.
  19. When is the smoked turkey done cooking?
    When the temperature reaches 175°F in the thigh and 165°F in the breast. See diagram.
  20. Is it safe to leave a thermometer in the turkey while it's smoking?
    Yes, and you should measure in two spots. See previous question.
  21. Do I need to tent the turkey after it's done cooking?
    Yes, lightly cover in foil and tent the turkey to help the meat reabsorb some of the liquid.

Lastly, make sure you know your smoker. I got mine from from storage and didn't know the features until the day before I got it. Mine unfortunately did not have vents at the bottom near the charcoal or in the top for the lid. After this first process, I and many others online recommend Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker (abbreviated SMC) as price to benefit ratio.

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