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Growing up, I hated eating turkey, so every Thanksgiving I would load up on sides and skip the turkey all together. It was not that my mom was a bad cook, she was actually quite good, it was just that turkey is too dry for me.
It was not until a couple years ago that we decided to order smoked meat for our Thanksgiving dinner from our local BBQ joint. Out of curiosity, I decided to give the smoked turkey a shot and to my amazement, I actually enjoyed it!
It was so juicy, and the smoke flavor was incredible. All these years I thought I did not like turkey when in reality I just didn’t like dry turkey. But now I wondered… how do you smoke a turkey and keep it moist?
How To Smoke A Turkey and Keep It Moist!
1. Brine your turkey overnight.
This is really the key to getting a moist turkey. Brining a turkey is the process of letting it soak in a saltwater mixture overnight. Often times people will also add sugar, fruits, and other spices to help flavor the turkey.
As the turkey sits in the brine, it is slowly absorbing the moisture and flavors into the turkey cells. This not only helps keep the turkey from drying out during the smoking process, but it also helps to add flavor to the turkey. Trager grills has a very in-depth article on how to prepare and brine a turkey.
Another option for brining a turkey is using a dry brine. Unlike the method above, dry brining involves directly rubbing your salt and spices on the turkey skin and letting it rest for a period of time. Using a dry brine can also help crisp up your turkey’s skin.
2. Use a water pan in the smoker to increase the humidity.
If you have ever lived or visited a place with low humidity, like my hometown of Las Vegas, you will notice your skin and lips getting drier. This is because the moisture in your skin cells evaporates much faster. Just as our skin dries out in low humidity, smoking a turkey in low humidity will cause the moisture in the meat to evaporate easier leaving a dry turkey.
We counteract this process by using a water pan to increase the humidity in your smoker. Have you ever noticed what happens to a pot of boiling water over a period of time? you lose water! Once water reaches its boiling point of 212°, the water starts to evaporate into water vapor. The more water vapor in the air the more humidity you can expect. Creating a humid environment in your smoking chamber is another easy way to help keep your smoked turkey moist.
3. Inject your turkey.
Another easy way to create juiciness in a smoked turkey while adding flavor is by injecting the meat. Injecting your turkey is a lot like adding marinade under the skin into the tissue. Using meat injector or syringe, you are able to directly inject a liquid into the skin. This not only helps to add moisture to the turkey, but can also add unique flavors.
I prefer to use a simple butter injection in my turkeys, but feel free to use your favorite injection recipes. For this, simply melt butter in a cup or bowl. Then take an injector and suck up the melted butter. At different angles, insert the tip of the injector at different locations around the bird and inject the butter.
4. Smoke hot and fast.
Normally smokers are used to cook low and slow because it helps to break down the fat and collagen in tough pieces of meat making them juicy and edible; however, turkey and chicken are lean pieces of meat and do not have that same fat. Because the juiciness of cooking low and slow comes from the rendered fat and not the low temperatures, cooking your turkey at lower temperatures will not create the juiciness we are after. In fact smoking a turkey at lower temperatures only does more harm than good.
The longer you leave your turkey on the smoker, the more time you are giving it to dry out. Also, when you smoke poultry at a lower temperature, it causes the skin to come out rubbery and unappetizing. Instead, you should aim to smoke turkey and chicken around 325°-400°. This will cook it fast reducing the amount of time it will have to dry out all while leaving your skin a golden crispy brown; however, when smoking at this high of a temperature, you need to be careful you do not overcook your turkey.
5. Do not overcook your turkey.
The juiciest turkey is going to come right on the edge of doneness. When cooking a turkey, you are aiming for an internal temperature just over 165° in the breast. Overshooting or cooking your turkey above this temperature will start to cook off the moisture we are looking for. Depending on the size of your turkey, you should pull it off the smoker once the internal temperature reaches 155°-160°.
When you take a piece of meat off of a heat source, the meat continues to cook for a short time after. This is known as carryover cooking. So if you take a turkey off at 165°, because its going to continue to cook, the internal temperature is going to continue to rise thus overshooting our target temperature. Accounting for carryover cooking, taking your bird off the smoker before 165° will help keep you from overshooting your target temperature.
How long carryover cooking lasts depends on the size of the meat you are smoking. Larger pieces of meat have more carryover cooking and should be taken off the smoker earlier while smaller pieces of meat have less carryover cooking and can be left on the smoker longer. Just be sure that the meat reaches a minimum of 165° to be considered safe to eat. It is better to go over 165° then under.
6. Cook two smaller turkeys.
Large turkeys take much longer to cook thus increasing your chances of drying out the meat. Because the thinner parts of a turkey are going to cook faster, the longer the turkey is on the smoker the more likely those thin areas will dry out. Cooking two smaller turkeys will reduce the total cook time helping to keep you from leaving your turkey on the smoker too long.
7. Beer can method.
Commonly used when cooking a chicken, the beer can method is another awesome way to add moisture and flavor to your smoked turkey! To use this method, place a turkey upright, with the legs facing down, on top of a beer can that is 2/3 full (this works better when using smaller turkeys). You can use a stand of some sort to help stabilize the turkey on top of the beer can if needed. Then you smoke your turkey as normal letting the beer do it’s work!
8. Using butter underneath the skin.
Gently using you fingers, you are able to carefully pull the outer layer of skin away from the turkey meat creating a pocket. You can then add your favorite butter mixture in this pocket. As the bird smokes, the skin will help keep the butter inside the turkey further adding moisture. This video is a great representation of how to do this.
Why Is My Smoked Turkey Rubbery?
Rubbery skin is common when smoking turkey and chicken. This is almost always the result of cooking at low temperatures. When smoking a turkey or chicken, you smoker should be set at least 325° Fahrenheit. Cooking at these higher temperatures, will not only cook the turkey faster, but will help evaporate the moisture on the skin leaving it nice and crispy.
How do you keep turkey skin crispy when smoking?
When smoking a turkey, we are looking for a nice and juicy interior and a golden crispy exterior. There are many things that you can do to make sure your skin comes out nice and crispy.
- Smoke your turkey from 325-400°. I know I have said this a lot, but it is by far the most important factor. Smoking poultry low and slow doesn’t make it juicer, it only leaves your skin tough and rubbery. Each smoker and cooking conditions vary, so test different temperatures to see which yields the best results, just make sure its hot!
- Dry brine your turkey using baking powder. Using one part baking powder and 3 parts kosher salt, rub the mixture onto your turkey and let is sit uncovered in the refrigerator for 12-24 hours. I personally have not used this method before, but using baking powder is highly acclaimed when it comes to creating perfectly crispy skin.
- Make sure your turkey skin is dry! When smoking a turkey, we want the outside surface of the skin to be dry. Before seasoning your turkey, pat the skin down to remove all the existing moisture. You can also leave your turkey on a rack uncovered in the fridge. Either way we want a dry surface when we go to smoke our turkey.
- Finish in the broiler. If you aren’t satisfied with how your turkey skin turned out, you can always throw it in the broiler for a few minutes. This concentration of high heat will crisp up you skin quickly. Just be sure to closely watch it as you don’t want to over do it.
- Don’t over do the injections. If you are injecting your turkey, take it easy on how much liquid you put in. We do not want bubbles of liquid underneath sections of our skin.