“Let us remember that, as much has been given us, much will be expected from us, and that true homage comes from the heart as well as from the lips, and shows itself in deeds.” – Theodore Roosevelt, U.S. President, 1858-1919
I have to say, while I enjoy turkey in just about any form, smoked turkey is still my favorite. Bringing in that bird off the grill, with the browned skin, bathed in smoke for hours, is such a treat for the family and friends, and really shows off your skills as a man-o-the-flame. Here is a quick “how-to” guide for smoking your turkey. I adapted this from the simple version on the Weber site, adding to it a few things I learned by following their method.
How to Smoke a Turkey on a Charcoal Grill
There are a few things I want to cover at the outset that I think are key: the quality of the turkey and the quality of the coals. These two ingredients will make the biggest difference in flavor. Choose a local, fresh turkey if possible, or an organic, free-range bird; you want the ones that can gather food for themselves and not just eat grain all their life. For the charcoal, use plain hardwood coals, nothing that has lighter fluid in the coals as it will change the flavor of the final product. Briquettes are easier to handle and provide a more even cooking area, but lump charcoal will work as well.
Stuff You’ll Need
- A Defrosted Turkey (as fresh as possible)
- Onions, Celery, Carrots, Parsley
- Salt & Pepper
- A bag of charcoal (lump or briquettes)
- 3 thick aluminum foil pans large enough to hold the turkey
- Weber charcoal grill
- A hinged cooking grate (trust me)
Optional but recommended
- Hardwood chips
- Chicken broth
- Butcher’s string
- Charcoal chimney starter
- Paraffin starter cubes (or newspaper)
- Grill thermometer
- Meat thermometer
Total time: A few hours, depending on turkey size. Mine took about 2.5 hours. Take a look at this chart here for an approximation.
Cooking temperature: 300-350º F
Internal turkey temperature: 165-180º F
Step 1: Start the Charcoal
Start the charcoal before going inside and working on the turkey. This is also a good time to place your hardwood chips in a bowl of water and let them soak.
Step 2: Prepare the bird
While the charcoal is getting hot, get the turkey ready.
The turkey should be defrosted and ideally at room temperature before putting on the grill. Make sure the insides are out of the turkey and the cavity is rinsed out well.
Pat the turkey dry with a paper towel and fill the inside of the bird with the following:
- Lots of salt
- About 2 onions
- About 3 Carrots
- About 3 Stalks of Celery
- Optionally add an apple in place of an onion to give it some sweetness
Optional – Using a surgeon’s knot, tie butchers string around the turkey’s breast (keeping the wings close to the body) and the legs (keeping the stuffing and aroma inside the cavity).
Chop the remaining onions, carrots, and celery. Take two of the foil pans and put one inside the other — doubling the thickness. Add the veggies and either 1 cup of chicken broth or water. Place the turkey on top of the veggies, breast side down.
Melt a stick of butter in the oven or microwave and add the following:
- Some Salt (not too much if using salted butter)
- Some Pepper
- Chopped Parsley
Coat the outside of the turkey with the butter mixture.
Step 3: Arrange the coals
Once all of the charcoal has turned a gray-ash color, it’s ready for cooking. Take one of the foil pans and fill halfway deep with water and place it on the bottom grate of the grill. The water will help keep the turkey moist while it is being smoked.
Surround 3/4 of the pan with coals and top with a handful of soaked wood chips. You may want to add a few new charcoal briquettes to the pile since they will take a while to heat up.
Note: The water will likely evaporate so keep an eye on it. Also, the woodchips may flare up causing direct heat rather than a steady smoke. If the wood chips won’t smoke but rather burn, just do away with them. They don’t add enough to the taste to make it worth the heat and smoke that is lost trying to put them out.
Step 4: Place the turkey on the grill
A hinged grill grate is key here because you will be adding coals ever so often to keep the temperature steady. Align the hinged grate so that the hinged sides open up to the side of the pan, allowing you to drop new charcoal and\or woodchips onto the existing pile with a pair of long-handled tongs.
Place the turkey on top of the hinged grate and cover.
Step 5: Adjusting the dampers and controlling temperature
Understanding the dampers on a Weber grill is probably another article in itself — Evernote…and saved. But here is a quick lesson, one that you will hopefully have read before getting to this step, lest your fire go out.
There are two dampers on a traditional Weber grill, the bottom and the top. The bottom damper feeds the coals with fresh oxygen, and, as we all know, the more oxygen the hotter the fire.
The top damper releases CO2 and other non-oxygen gases, creating a vacuum and allowing room for more oxygen. However, the top damper also releases heat which is not always a good thing.
For a slow smoke we want the temperature to be between 300º F and 350º F. You can smoke it a lot cooler than this, say 225º F but it will take longer to cook. The goal is to get the turkey up to an internal temperature of 165º F or slightly higher. To maintain a slow and low temperature you’ll need a grill thermometer. I typically set my bottom damper to about 1/2 open and the top to about 1/4 open, just enough to fit the grill thermometer in. I’m not an expert at this, but it seems to keep the temperature right. Smoke tends to leak out the sides of the grill as well so I try to keep that in mind.
Note: Keeping the fire going and steady is the real challenge when cooking on low temperatures. You will need to add a few pieces of charcoal every hour or so. If the temperature gets too low, it will be hard to get new coals started.
Step 6: Flip the turkey
After about an hour to an hour and a half on the grill, you will need to flip the turkey over. You will need a pair of tongs for this, maybe even two if you have a large bird.
Cover the wing tips and legs with foil to prevent burning if you care about presentation, otherwise leave them as they are, cover and wait.
Step 7: Check the turkeys temperature
Once the turkey really begins to brown it’s time to insert a meat thermometer into the breast and thigh to see if it is done. We are shooting for an internal temperature of 165º F. The temperature of the turkey will continue to rise after it is taken off the grill, but it is best to make sure we have a solid 165º F since that is the temperature that bacteria is killed.
Note: Some people feel safer at 180º F for the thigh and around 170º F for the breast. Science and opinion on this change. The good news is that a slight temperature difference isn’t going to make the turkey dry. Make sure to remove the turkey as soon as the it get’s to the right temperature to avoid over cooking.
Step 8: Remove turkey and let sit for 10 minutes
Just because the turkey is done it doesn’t mean it’s ready! For me this is the best part. People are standing around waiting to dig in and this glorious bird is center stage. Waiting is a crucial step in not having a dry turkey. As the turkey sits the juices begin to settle back into the meat and the flavors of the smoke, onions, celery and other stuffing travel into the rest of the bird. When you can poke the thigh with a fork and not see juices trying to escape you know they have settled and it’s time to eat.
Smoking a turkey really isn’t that hard, it just takes time. As long as you keep the temperature low, the turkey will eventually cook and you’ll have another notch in your belt of manly feats. Oh yeah, and it’ll be delicious. Just be careful who you invite over when you smoke a turkey, because they’ll want to come back next year as well.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and those you hold dear!