Smoking a Turkey on a Pellet Grill: The Ultimate Guide to a Juicy Bird

September 23, 2023
Written by John Smits

Smoking the perfect whole turkey on a pellet grill is easy if you follow my instructions: cook it at the right temperature (325°F), pick the right pellets (apple, pecan, and hickory are my favorites), and remove it when the breast reads 160°F internal temperature.

Smoked turkey is one of my favorite things to cook on my Grilla Silverback pellet grill. It makes a stunning presentation during the holiday season (I make at least one for every Thanksgiving), I've smoked countless turkeys, and I’m going to fill you in on my favorite tips and get you my go-to recipe.

I’ll cover all you need to know, including carving, when and how to brine, and how much you’ll need per person. And what’s turkey without gravy? Don’t worry, I’ve got my gravy recipe here, too. Let’s get to it!

smoking a turkey on a pellet grill

How to Smoke a Whole Turkey on Your Pellet Grill?

I like smoking my turkey on my pellet grill because it's easy - set the temp and forget it!

This allows me to focus on prepping sides for turkey day while that delicious smoke flavor from the wood pellets gets into the turkey meat. Pellet grills make the smoking process painless.

Note: this recipe is for pre-brined turkey, which may also be labeled as “enhanced,” “self-basted,” or “basted.” These turkeys have had a saline solution added to them (more on that later).

Onto the recipe for the perfect turkey.

What You'll Need?

  • One whole turkey, 12 to 14 pounds
  • 1/4 cup of your favorite poultry or turkey rub
  • 1/4 cup olive oil or 1 stick of butter
  • 1 tablespoon freshly minced parsley
  • 1 tablespoon freshly minced thyme
  • 1 tablespoon freshly minced sage
  • 1 tablespoon freshly minced rosemary
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced

Cook Time: Around 2 to 2 1/2 hours for perfectly smoked turkey.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Serves: 12-14

Method

  1. Fire up your pellet grill to 325°F. Use whatever pellets you like - I'm partial to fruit woods like apple, as well as maple and the classic - hickory. Smoking at 325°F gets ensures delightfully crispy skin.
  2. Remove the neck, giblets, and liver from the turkey cavity. Put them in a baggie to cook later, if desired.
  3. Pat dry the entire turkey with paper towels. Use paper towels to dry the cavity, as well - you want to dry the entire bird.
  4. Apply the olive oil or melted butter to the skin of the turkey with a basting brush. This will help to get crispy skin and make the turkey rub stick better.
  5. Combine the dry rub and minced herbs and rub them all over the bird. Work some under the skin, as well.
  6. Stick your turkey on your Traeger pellet grill or another pellet smoker. It can go directly on the grill grates. If you're saving the drippings for making gravy, place the turkey in a roasting pan or aluminum foil grill pan, then stick the pan on your grill grates.
  7. Cook the turkey. Close the lid and let time, temperature, and smoke work their magic.
  8. A 12 to 14-pound turkey cooking at 325°F will need about 2 hours to 2 1/2 hours of cook time. Cooking time may vary slightly due to outside temperature.
  9. Check your internal temperature. Slide a meat thermometer or digital temperature probe into the thickest part of a turkey breast. For a juicy turkey, shoot for 160°F. The internal temperature of the dark meat (leg or thigh) will read 170°F when it's fully cooked.
  10. Once it's done, remove the turkey from your pellet grill. It will have beautiful mahogany skin.
  11. Feast. I'll get into resting your turkey next. But you've just cooked the best Thanksgiving dinner of your life.

Side note about this recipe: no pellet grill? No problem! This recipe works for your charcoal grill, offset smokers, Big Green Eggs - you name it. Just cook your bird over indirect heat at 325°F and throw some wood chips or chunks on the coals.

Raw Turkey Meat with Lemon and Garlic on the Wooden Board

How Long to Rest Smoked Turkey?

Resting is optional - you can serve the turkey immediately (without resting), or you can rest the smoked turkey for 15 to 30 minutes. If you rest the smoked turkey, use the time to whip up some gravy from the drippings (stay tuned for a killer recipe).

If you're planning ahead and cooking the turkey before guests arrive, you can hold the turkey in your oven - set it to its lowest temperature.

I don't cover my smoked turkey with aluminum foil - it may trap the heat, but it makes that delicious, crispy skin turn rubbery.

Don't stick wrap your smoked turkey in foil and stick it in a cooler to hold the temperature, either. The skin will be borderline inedible.

How to Carve a Whole Turkey?

Once you smoked the turkey, you'll need to carve it. Here's how to do it.

If you've got heat-resistant gloves, put 'em on. The turkey's going to be hot.

1. Slice the Leg

Use a sharp chef's knife or boning knife. Slice through the skin between the leg and breast meat. Once you've got the skin cut, pull the turkey leg away from the body of the bird.

Cut through the socket joint where the thigh and hip meet. The leg should now be free.

2. Divide the Drumstick and Thigh

Locate the joint where the drumstick and thigh meet. Cut through the joint with your knife. (You may have to wiggle the knife a little). Remove the bones from the thigh meat, if desired.

3. Repeat the Process on the Other Leg

Remove the other leg and separate the thigh meat from the drumstick the same way you did for the first one.

4. Remove the Wings

Locate the wing joint and slice through it with a sharp knife. Repeat the process with the other wing.

5. Remove the Breast

Run a sharp knife down one side of the breast bone of the turkey. Steady the bird with your non-cutting hand. Continue to cut, following the contour of the bones, until you hit the sharp curve in the breast bone.

Pull the turkey breast away, really prying it away from the carcass. Use your knife to push the breast and make any additional cuts.

Repeat this process for the other turkey breast.

6. Plate the Turkey

Arrange the turkey breast, thighs, legs, and wings neatly on a platter, and serve. Slicing the breast into half-inch wide pieces makes for an elegant presentation.

Grilled Turkey Meat with Salad on a Ceramic Plate

Will I Be Able to Get Gravy From a Smoked Turkey?

Absolutely! Gravy made from the juicy drippings of a smoked bird is the best gravy on the planet - your gravy will have that extra flavor from the wood smoke. And no Thanksgiving dinner is complete without gravy.

Spoon some of this deliciousness over your smoked turkey, on stuffing, on mashed potatoes, or whatever - this gravy will make everything taste better! Well, okay, maybe not cranberry sauce.

If smoked turkey is your main course, then this gravy will be the best side dish on your table. Here's how to cook it:

Place a Gravy Pan Below the Bird in Your Pellet Grill

As your turkey smokes, the juices that drop off of it will fall into the pan.

You can put the pan under your grill grates - just make sure they are clean. You don't want greasy gravy.

Alternatively, you can cook your turkey in a roasting pan. The juices will accumulate in the pan.

Strain the Gravy

When the cooking process is over and your turkey's cooked, pull the gravy pan from the pellet grill.

Strain the gravy through a fine mesh strainer into a large pot. Discard any solids.

Give the gravy a taste - it should be rich and flavorful. If it's not, or the gravy is too thin, you'll need to boil it.

Boil Your Gravy to Desired Consistency

If your gravy is thin, boil it to concentrate the flavors. If necessary, thicken with cornstarch or flour.

Once boiled, use a large spoon to remove the fat from the surface of the gravy. Add kosher salt and cracked black pepper.

Serve the Gravy

Stick the gravy in a serving bowl with a spoon. Watch how quickly it disappears.

How to Brine Turkey? (Takes 12 to 24 Hours)

Most turkeys sold in the U.S. are already injected with salt and don’t need a brine. If your turkey packaging says "basted," "self-basted," or "enhanced," it's already been injected with salt. "Kosher" birds have also been pre-salted. Do not dry brine these birds - they'll taste like a salt lick.

But if you find a fresh turkey that hasn't been injected with saline, it's a good idea to brine it. Dry brining will make the turkey fantastically juicy.

The day before you are going to smoke the turkey, open the bag it came in and pour the juices down the drain, or reserve them for another use (like, say, gravy). Place the bird on your countertop in a roasting pan.

My turkey brine formula is super simple. Sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt per pound of turkey meat. Brine the turkey in the refrigerator overnight or for 24 hours, if possible.

What about a Brine Bag?

No need for a brine bag - this is a dry brine.

It's much simpler than a wet brine but just as effective. The dry brine will make your turkey salty and even juicier - you'll wind up with a smoked turkey that your friends will be clamoring for.

Roasted Turkey Placed on Top of the Grill

How Much Turkey You'll Need Per Person?

I plan on 1 pound of fresh turkey per person. After the giblets and bones are removed, you'll end up with about 1/2 pound of meat per person. This should provide plenty of meat for the meal as well as some leftovers.

According to the USDA, once cooked, your turkey should keep in the refrigerator for three to four days.

What is the Best Size Turkey for Smoking?

I like turkeys that are around 10-14 pounds. Don't worry, you'll have plenty of turkey breast meat!

If you're feeding a crowd and need a ton of turkey, I prefer to cook two smaller turkeys rather than one enormous turkey. They'll cook faster. They're also juicier and more tender. Make sure you can fit two turkeys on your pellet smoker beforehand!

How to Thaw a Frozen Turkey?

If it's frozen, stick your packaged turkey in the refrigerator. Give it 24 hours per 4 pounds to completely thaw. Most turkeys are sold frozen - you'll need to defrost it before smoking. This could take up to a week if you've got a big, frozen bird.

Do not defrost turkey in the microwave. Do not attempt to cook a frozen bird on your pellet smoker, either.

What are the Best Wood Pellets to Smoke a Turkey?

Apple is my favorite to use with turkey. It's a beautiful (and delicious) pairing, and I'd urge you to try them with my smoked turkey recipe. Feel free to play around with other wood pellets such as hickory, maple oak, pecan - whatever you've got on hand.

The only wood pellets I'd avoid are mesquite. Their robust flavor would overpower turkey.

How Long Does It Take to Smoke a Turkey in a Pellet Smoker?

To smoke a turkey on a pellet grill, plan on around 2 to 2 1/2 hours. This assumes a temperature of 325°F and a 12-14 lb bird.

The weather outside, your grill thermometer, and a dozen other things can affect your cooking time.

Cooking times are an estimate. Your turkey is done when a temperature probe or meat thermometer reads 160°F when slid into the breast meat. Aim for 170°F when temping dark meat.

How Long Does It Take to Smoke a Turkey at 225°F on a Pellet Grill?

If you opt to smoke a turkey at 225°F, you're looking at a longer cooking time - figure 30 minutes per pound as a rule of thumb, so 6-7 hours for a 12 to 14-pound bird.

The benefits of smoking at 225°F? You'll get a richer smoke flavor.

The drawbacks? You're looking at a longer cook, and the skin will be rubbery.

Crank up the heat when the turkey is almost done cooking. This will help crisp up the skin.

Person Slicing Sizzling Hot Grilled Turkey

How Long to Smoke 23 lb Turkey on a Pellet Grill?

If you find yourself with a big turkey, like a 23-pounder, you're in for a longer cook - figure around 4 hours if your smoker temperature is 325°F. Again, I like a smaller bird. I find smaller turkeys are way juicier.

You're looking at a long 12-hour cook if you smoke a 23-pound turkey at 225°F.

Final Thoughts

Smoking a turkey on a pellet grill may seem like a daunting task, but fear not! With my tips and tricks, your family and friends will eat the tastiest, juiciest turkey of their dreams.

Smoke your turkey at 325°F until the breast reads 160°F or internal temperature. Take your time carving the turkey, stick it on a platter, and it's time to eat!

By John Smits
John bought his first home in 2012 and bought his first grill shortly afterward: the ubiquitous Weber kettle grill. He’s been hooked since the first time he fired up some coals. Now, after over a decade spent making countless delicious meals, John is a passionate advocate for live-fire cooking.
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