Short on Oven Space? Smoke a Turkey for Thanksgiving

The secret ingredients to claiming this year’s turkey throwdown? A bed of charcoal, a fragrant wet rub, and a whiff of wood smoke.

October  5, 2021
Photo by James Ransom

There are a few common methods for how to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving. The most traditional way is making roasted turkey using a roasting pan in the oven. A lot of butter, a drizzle of olive oil, and a handful of fresh herbs can go a long way to making a turkey that has crispy skin and flavorful, succulent meat. There’s also the less-popular but quick-cooking method known as spatchcocking turkey, which is also a version of a roasted turkey. The outdoorsy types may be inclined towards deep-fried or even smoked turkey.

So why would you smoke a turkey for Thanksgiving? Smoking a turkey doesn’t necessarily save time, but it does save valuable oven space, making room for larger-than-life casseroles and stuffings. The real reason why you would choose this cooking method is because of those delicious smoky flavors. If you love barbecue, smoked turkey might be just the thing to transport you to the woods of Tennessee, a glass of bourbon in one hand, and a plate piled high with turkey in the other. While there are many methods for cooking a turkey that has golden-brown skin and juicy meat, there is really no way to build an authentic, smoked flavor in the bird without the use of an electric smoker or grill.

The swoonworthy results and surprising ease of cooking an entire turkey over a wood-infused fire should make you rethink cranking up the oven. Three steps make the method work:

  1. Butterflying the turkey creates a broad, flat surface that cooks more quickly and evenly.
  2. Slathering the bird with a fragrant paste made with brown sugar, vinegar, and red spices, along with a few fresh herb sprigs placed here and there, perfumes the meat (and bastes the skin) with warm, subtly sweet-and-spicy flavor.
  3. To address the perennial quandary of how to cook the dark meat through without drying out the breast, the coals are arranged in a crescent shape positioned under the legs and thighs, which allows both parts of the bird to reach the ideal temperatures at the same time.

Choosing the Right Wood Chips

If you are going to smoke a turkey using a stovetop smoker rather than on a grill, there’s a couple of important things to keep in mind. First: wood chips. The type of wood chips you use will impact the flavor of your bird. The most common “flavors” are hickory, pecan, apple, mesquite, and cherry. Each has their own merits, but I’d recommend a combination of apple and oak wood chips. Apple wood chips have a sweet, mild flavor that naturally pair well with poultry, but work especially well with a Thanksgiving turkey. Oak, on the other hand, is the most neutral wood chip, meaning that if you’re using a really high-quality heritage turkey or want to show off a giblet gravy, the wood chips won’t compete with those beautiful flavors. Furthermore, apple chips may be too strong on their own, so you can dial down the sweetness with neutral oak.

Smoked Turkey Tips

I strongly recommend asking your butcher to spatchcock the turkey for you—or you can earn bragging rights and wrangle it yourself with poultry shears and a sharp chef’s knife (be sure to reserve the backbone, neck, and giblets for making turkey stock or gravy). It’s important to maintain the grill at a medium heat of 325°F (165°C) to 350°F (175°C) so the skin doesn’t get too dark while the meat cooks through. If you’re using an electric smoker, set the smoker to 225°F to 250°F and cook the turkey for eight to twelve hours, or until a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the bird reaches 165°F.

Another trick that makes the process much easier? After slathering the turkey with the wet rub, place it skin-side up on a wire cooling rack that you can place directly over the hot grates, which helps prevent sticking and tearing the delicious, crispy skin you’re creating. To account for carryover cooking, I remove the turkey from the grill at the lower end of the doneness range. This turkey is delicious on its own, with a smoky gravy and alongside corn casserole and roasted sprouts, in tacos, and perhaps best of all, sliced for day-after sandwiches (pass the Duke’s mayo).

Paula Disbrowe

How to Smoke a Turkey on a Grill

Adapted from Thank You for Smoking by Paula Disbrowe


  • One 12- to 15-pound (5.4 to 6.8 kg) turkey
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup (50g) packed light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 2 tablespoons ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano
  • 2 teaspoons sweet paprika
  • 2 teaspoons pure ground chile powder (such as New Mexico or ancho)
  • 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 6 to 8 sprigs fresh oregano, sage, thyme, or rosemary (optional)


At least one hour before cooking, spatchcock the turkey (if your butcher hasn’t done so already). Rinse the carcass under cold water, pat it dry with paper towels, and place it on a wire cooling rack over a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle both sides of the bird with enough oil to lightly coat, and season generously with salt and pepper.

In a small bowl, stir together the brown sugar, spices, and vinegar into a thick, moist paste. Use your hands to slather the wet rub evenly over both sides of the turkey and set it aside to marinate while you prepare the fire. (Note: the turkey can be seasoned and refrigerated up to 12 hours in advance.

Prepare your grill for two-zone cooking and build a medium-high fire.

When the coals are glowing red and covered with a fine gray ash, use your tongs to arrange them into a crescent moon shape (it should be wide enough to stretch between the two drumsticks) and add a few hardwood chunks to the fire. Carefully wipe the preheated grill grates with a lightly oiled paper towel. Using a grill brush, scrape the grill grates clean, then carefully wipe with a lightly oiled towel again.

When the fire begins to produce a steady stream of (clearish or blue-tinted) smoke, place the wire rack supporting the turkey on the grill, skin-side up, with the turkey legs and thighs situated over the direct heat of the coals and the breast toward indirect heat. Tuck the herb sprigs under the legs and wing joints. Close the grill, vent the grill for smoking, and smoke for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads between 160°F (71°C) and 165°F (74°C). Add additional hot coals or wood chunks as needed to maintain a steady temperature between 325°F (165°C) and 350°F (175°C).

Remove the turkey and transfer it to a cutting board to rest for at least 15 minutes (or up to 40 minutes), then slice it into portions and serve immediately.

Do you smoke your Thanksgiving turkey? Let us know how in the comments below.
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  • Katie Hornstein
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    Jason Buda
  • Paula Disbrowe
    Paula Disbrowe
Paula Disbrowe writes frequently about Food and Travel. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her bread baker husband David Norman, two children, and menagerie of retired ranch animals.


Katie H. November 25, 2019
I'm curious why this recipe doesn't call for dry brining. It produces a much juicier bird once smoked. I combine the "Judy Bird" technique of a dry brine with smoking and the results have always been fab.
Rich H. November 8, 2019
First you have to "break it up", then you are going to need a really big rolling paper.
Dan H. November 7, 2019
You forgot one of the most important parts of smoking a turkey: brining.
Jason B. November 7, 2019
My first smoked turkey was very dry because I did not brine it...
Paula D. November 8, 2019
Hi Dan,

I didn't forget, I just prefer this method that I can assemble in less time (and without having to clear out the fridge to make room for a turkey in brine). In my experience, the spice rub and method of grill-roasting (higher heat than traditional smoking) a spatchcocked bird delivers exceptional flavor and a well-cooked bird. Juicy and tender without the brine. But love that you have your own style and put the time in to create more flavor.
Paula D. November 8, 2019
Sorry to hear that! In my experience, spatchcocking the bird and arranging coals as described in recipe delivers great results without brine.