How To Smoke a Turkey

You can buy two kinds of smokers - charcoal or electric. A charcoal smoker is a pain in the ass - it keeps you too busy feeding it charcoal because you can't load it down or you will burn the turkey. I have an electric smoker and I just plug it into an electric outlet and have a beer - sometimes a few beers. I also use it often smoking Boston Butt roasts. I can smoke three Boston Butt roasts at one time. It require about three hours. 

By Cheri Sicard 

Smoked turkey is a delicacy that many people love, but they don't have it that often because, let's face it, buying a smoked turkey is expensive. If only these turkey deprived folks knew just how easy and economical it is to make your own smoked turkey at home.

We used a water smoker to make our turkey. These are available wherever barbecue grills are found, but here's an economical secret: start going to garage sales. For some reason, smokers seem to be a popular item, possibly because a lot of folks don't know how to use them. I purchased my smoker, almost new, for a measly seven dollars, and I see them often while on my regular Saturday garage sale runs.

Water smokers are available in electric, gas or charcoal model, and all work well. Charcoal smokers have two pans - one for charcoal and one for liquid which creates the moist, hot smoke needed for cooking.

If you don't own a water smoker, you could also smoke your turkey on the grill using the Indirect Smoking Method.

Important Points
Food safety is of primary concern when smoking turkey. Turkey breasts, drumsticks, wings and whole turkeys are all suited for smoking, although for safety's sake, stick with whole turkeys that weigh 12 pounds or less. A larger turkey remains in the "Danger Zone" - between 40° F and 140° F for too long.

Do not stuff a turkey destined for smoking. Because smoking is takes place at a low temperature, it can take too long for the temperature of the stuffing to reach the required temperature of 165° F, not to mention that smoked stuffing has an undesirable flavor.

Smoked turkey doesn't need a recipe as seasonings, ingredients and spices are not necessary. You can add a little salt, pepper or poultry seasoning, but the smoke provides the principle flavor. Don't be afraid, however, to get creative with that smoke by experimenting with different types of wood -- hickory or mesquite being the most popular. Any chunks or chips of water-soaked hardwood or fruitwood will work, but do not use softwoods like pine, fir, cedar or spruce as they will give the food a turpentine flavor and coat it with an ugly and inedible black pitch.

Also, instead of smoking with water, try wine or juices. For the turkey in the photo above, we used Hickory Chips that had been soaked in a mixture of red wine and apple juice. This same liquid was then poured in the water pan and used for the smoking process.

After setting your wood chips to soak, it's time to start building a fire. Once the fire is going nicely, set the water pan in place along with the smoker's cylindrical body. We strain the wood chips out of the soaking liquid, adding the liquid to the water pan, then filling the pan with additional liquids.

Place the lid on the smoker and wait for the internal temperature to reach 250° F to 300° F. Some smokers have built in temperature indicators, if not use an oven thermometer to determine temperature.

Once you have the right heat, quickly place the turkey on the top grill rack and replace the cover (photos 5 and 6). Add soaked wood chips to the charcoal through the side door of the smoker.

Add charcoal every hour, as necessary, to maintain 250° F to 300° F. Replenish the liquid and wood chips as necessary. Heat and liquid are critical to maintaining the hot smoke that cooks the turkey.

Helpful Hints
Smoking time depends on the size of the turkey, the distance from the heat, temperature of the coals, as well as the outside air temperature. You can roughly estimate about 20 to 30 minutes per pound of turkey, but it's important to use a meat thermometer to be sure your turkey is thoroughly cooked. The turkey is done when the food thermometer, placed in the inner thigh, reaches 180° F (be sure the thermometer is not touching the bone).

Unless you have a sheltered outdoor spot, avoid smoking on windy days as this can effect the temperature, or even put out the fire. Luckily, our Los Angeles apartment balcony is completely sheltered from the wind, so I rarely have this problem, but it is probably the biggest obstacle facing would-be smokers.

Also, avoid opening the cover or door as much as possible. Smoking takes place at low temperatures and opening the lid or door causes quick heat loss. If you must open the door to add charcoal, chips or liquid, do it as quickly as possible and close it and avoid the urge to peek at the turkey during cooking!


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