How to Smoke a Thanksgiving Turkey for the Ultimate Feast (+ Video)

How to Smoke a Thanksgiving Turkey for the Ultimate Feast (+ Video)

Thanksgiving is upon us once again. 

And as is tradition, it’s time to ponder the age-old decision of “How will I cook my turkey?”

To be sure, there are practically countless ways – doesn’t it seem like there’s an entire industry devoted to cooking the perfect Thanksgiving turkey with plenty of TV shows, radio shows and podcasts, and … ahem … blog articles? 

To us, there’s only one real answer to that question – using an ugly drum smoker to smoke the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving meal.

And, of course, here’s our take on how to smoke a Thanksgiving turkey 

How to Smoke a Thanksgiving Turkey

For some things, it’s better to show than just tell. To that end, Mike Fralick, one of our regional sales managers and Smokin’ Ugly users, created this video for his version of smoking a Thanksgiving turkey. 

We’ll share his recipe later on. 

The Case For Brining

When preparing for that perfect Thanksgiving feast, one trick for making succulent, flavor-packed smoked turkey stands out: brining.

While there are some who are steadfastly against brining, this additional step is another way to avoid serving a dry turkey on the big day. 

A method of marinating using a saltwater solution with herbs and spices, brining your turkey is a game-changer for several reasons:

  1. It ensures that every bite of your turkey is seasoned from the inside out, eliminating the risk of a bland centerpiece. The magic of osmosis allows the brine to penetrate deep into the meat, ensuring that the flavors are locked in, even after hours in the smoker.
  2. Brining works wonders for the turkey's texture. The process breaks down some of the meat's proteins, resulting in tender, melt-in-your-mouth bites that are hard to achieve through smoking alone. 
  3. For a lean meat like turkey, brining acts as an insurance policy of sorts against dryness. Adding extra fluid to the turkey, brining stops the meat from becoming dry while exposed to prolonged heat.
  4. For those aiming to impress with a picture-perfect smoked turkey, brining can be your best friend. It promotes even cooking, reducing the chances of some parts being overcooked while others remain underdone. The result? A uniformly cooked, golden-brown turkey that’s worthy of being immortalized in a painting.

To Spatchcock or Not 

If there’s one thing that’s hard to miss about any Thanksgiving turkey, it’s their size. Even a small(er) bird is still big. And with a bigger size comes a longer cooking time. 

Enter spatchcoking. 

Spatchcocking, or butterflying, involves removing the turkey's backbone and flattening the bird. This method allows for quicker cooking and more even heat distribution – a spatchcocked turkey can be fully cooked in around 2 hours. The exposed surface area means more skin gets direct heat, leading to a crispier exterior. It's a technique favored by those pressed for time or seeking that extra-crispy skin.

Still, there’s something about the classic presentation of a whole, evenly browned turkey that resonates with tradition. While it might require a bit more time (several hours, actually) and attention compared to spatchcocking, the whole turkey method can lead to meat that's juicy and flavorful. 

Additionally, the extended time in the smoker allows the meat to absorb the smoky essence more profoundly, resulting in a rich flavor profile.

Shop Smokin Ugly

Mike’s Smoked Thanksgiving Turkey Recipe


1 whole 12-14lb turkey

For the Bird

  • 3 oranges
  • 4 celery stalks
  • 3 jalapenos 
  • Your favorite poultry rub
  • Fresh thyme 
  • Ground thyme 
  • Ground sage
  • Half a stick of melted butter
  • A container of apple-cranberry juice

For the Brine:

  • A brine seasoning pack
  • 2 oranges
  • 1 cup of honey 
  • 3 gallons of water

The Day Before

  • In a clean, food-grade 5-gallon bucket, mix your brine ingredients thoroughly. 
  • Place the turkey in the brine, cover, and refrigerate for 24 hours, stirring occasionally.

The Day of

  • Preheat your ugly drum smoker to 275°F
  • Remove the turkey from the brine and allow it to drain. In addition, pat the exterior of the bird dry. 
  • Fill the turkey’s cavity with 3 oranges, 4 celery stalks, 3 jalapenos (all cut up), and fresh thyme.  Once filled, use butcher’s twine to close the bird’s legs. 
  • Apply cooking oil (butter-flavored spray works best) to the exterior of the turkey and pat your rub on the skin. 
  • Tie back the turkey’s wings
  • Pour your apple-cranberry juice into an aluminum turkey pan and dilute with a 1:1 ratio of water. Place the pan on your smoker’s heat deflector above the charcoal. This will help keep the turkey moist. 
  • Place turkey in drum smoker and add smoker wood to the charcoal. 
  • Smoke the turkey at 15-20 minutes per pound. 
  • After about 1 hour, inject the turkey with a solution of melted butter, ground thyme, and ground sage, being sure to make injections in the turkey breasts, thighs, and sides. 
  • Continue smoking the turkey according to the weight-to-time ratio we mentioned above or until you get internal temperature readings of 165°F in the breast and 175°F in the thigh.
  • Remove the turkey and let it rest for 20-30 minutes before carving and serving. 

Tips & Tricks for the Best Smoked Turkey for Thanksgiving

Whether you’re a seasoned pro or taking on smoking your Thanksgiving turkey for the first time, here are a few tips and tricks to keep in mind for your ugly drum smoker turkey: 

  • Practice Makes Perfect: There’s no worse time to find out if you can smoke a turkey than the day of the feast – if something goes horribly wrong, your Thanksgiving sides may end up filling in as main courses.  If it's your first time, consider a practice smoke some time before the holiday to learn and work out the kinks. 
  • Choose the Right Size: A turkey that's around 12-14 lbs is ideal for smokers. It's manageable and doesn't require an overly long smoking time as a much bigger bird would. And if your guest list is sizable enough that you’ll need a bigger turkey, say one that’s 20lbs, opt to cook two smaller turkeys instead – it will reduce the risk of  undercooking or overcooking.  
  • Thoroughly Thaw: If you're using a frozen turkey, make sure it's fully thawed. This can take several days in the refrigerator. A partially frozen turkey can cook unevenly.
  • Maintain a Steady Temperature: Aim to keep your smoker right around 275°F. Consistent temperature is key to ensuring your turkey cooks evenly – and that means opening your smoker as little as possible as the bird cooks. We recommend using lump charcoal as your fuel source. Remember, it’s easier to bring the temperature up than it is to lower it. 
  • Use a Meat Thermometer: Don't rely on guesswork. Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh without touching the bone. Your turkey is done when it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F in the breast and 175°F in the thigh.
  • Choose the Right Wood: Smoker woods like apple or cherry impart a milder, sweeter flavor, while woods like hickory or oak give a stronger, more robust flavor. 

A few pro tips on smoker wood selection: 

  • Blending Woods: Many smokers like to blend woods to achieve a unique flavor profile. For instance, mixing hickory with applewood can give you the best of both worlds: the strong, traditional smoke flavor from the hickory and the mild sweetness from the applewood.
  • Avoid Softwoods: It's essential to steer clear of softwoods like pine, spruce, or cedar. These woods contain high levels of sap and can produce a sooty, unpleasant smoke that can ruin the flavor of your turkey.

  • Stay Patient: Remember – just like cooking a turkey in an oven indoors, smoking is a slow-cooking method. 

  • Let it Rest: Once your turkey is smoked, let it rest for at least 20-30 minutes before carving. This allows the juices to redistribute, ensuring a moist and flavorful meat.

Beyond Thanksgiving: Smoking Unforgettable Meals 

Check out our other recipes for your ugly drum smoker: 

Download the Smokin' Ugly Cookbook Here
Back to blog