How to Cook Turkey & How Long Does It Take to Smoke a Turkey?
Not just for Christmas and Thanksgiving, turkey is a tasty and versatile meat that can be cooked and prepared in many different ways - fried, smoked, grilled or roasted. Whatever the cooking process, it is always delicious to have turkey as a meal. In many parts of the world, it is also consumed as an alternative to chicken.
Whether cooking a whole turkey or one of the many different cuts available such as wings, breasts and legs it can be challenging and tricky to cook a turkey especially if you’ve never done it before.
Don’t be scared, we’re here to help guide you through the process. So, whether it’s your first attempt at cooking a whole turkey for Thanksgiving dinner or you’re just trying to incorporate a bit more turkey into your meal plans, our guide to cooking turkey will help you on your way.
How to Cook A Turkey
We’re going to assume it’s a whole turkey you’re cooking. Everyone seems to want to know how to cook that spectacular star of the Thanksgiving feast or Christmas dinner - the impressive looking whole roast turkey.
There are a few ways to do this and we’ll go through each of the ways so you can pick the cooking method that will suit you best. But, before you even begin the cooking process, there’s an important decision to be made: to brine or not to brine?
Some people consider brining a turkey an essential step in the cooking process, others think it’s an unnecessary waste of time. You’ll need to decide for yourself whether you’re going to take this step with your turkey or not. If not, skip ahead and choose your cooking method.
Brining essentially involves soaking your turkey in a salty solution for a period of time. This process is said to add flavor and help to tenderize and give you the juiciest turkey meat ever.
To brine your turkey first make sure you have enough time - this is a lengthy process and is usually done overnight so you’ll need to allow for this time in your meal planning.
Begin by making a saltwater solution to soak your turkey in. You can use any type of salt for this at a ratio of about 5% salt to liquid.
Some people also like to flavor their brine although this is optional in the brining process. If you want flavored brine take half of your salt solution and bring it to the boil with your added flavorings in it. Brine flavorings could include: bay leaves, star anise, peppercorns, chile, rosemary and garlic, or any combinations of these.
Some people also like to add sugar or other sweeteners to their brine. If you do this use about ¼ the amount of sweetener as the salt. Just be aware though that a brine containing sugar (or any type of sweetener) may cause your turkey to brown more quickly when cooking. No big deal, you just might need to cover it in foil mid way through the cooking process.
Let the boiled, flavored brine portion return to room temperature before adding it back to the rest of the brine and using on the turkey - never use warm brine on your turkey.
Get a large, turkey-sized brining bag and place it in a large, deep oven pan. Open the bag up at the top as wide as you can and place your turkey inside. Pour in your brine. Remove any excess air, ensure the turkey is covered in liquid and close the bag.
Then place the whole thing in the fridge and let the brine work its magic for the next 8-18 hours.
For best results, remove your turkey from the brine solution 8-12 hours before you intend to cook it. Rinse it and then dry it thoroughly with paper towels. Return it to the fridge (uncovered) until you’re ready to start cooking.
Roasting Turkey in the Oven
Roasting a turkey in the oven is the most obvious and traditional way to cook your turkey.
It’s not as daunting as it might seem. You’ll need a large oven pan (large enough to comfortably fit your turkey) and a meat thermometer to make sure your turkey is cooked right through.
Here’s a simple recipe to help you through the steps of roasting a perfect turkey in the oven:
Oven Roasted Turkey
- 1 Onion, chopped
- 1 stalk of Celery, chopped
- 1 Carrot, chopped
- 1 Turkey (12 pound)
- 2 Tablespoons Salt
- 1 Tablespoon Ground Pepper
- 1 Teaspoon Cayenne Pepper
- 3 Tablespoons Butter
- 4 Sprigs of Rosemary
- ½ Cup Chopped Fresh Sage
- Preheat Oven to 325℉ / 165℃
- Put onion, celery and carrot in the base of your oven pan.
- Place your turkey (breast side up) on top of the vegetables.
- Pat the turkey dry with paper towels.
- Combine the salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper in a small bowl.
- Take about ⅓ of this salt and pepper mixture and season the inside of the turkey with it.
- Fold the wing tips under the turkey.
- Melt the butter in a small saucepan, add the rosemary and sage and cook for about 1 minute.
- Keep the melted butter in the saucepan but remove the herbs and place them inside the turkey.
- Tie the legs together with twine.
- Brush the outside of the turkey with the melted butter and then sprinkle the rest of the salt and pepper mixture all over the turkey.
- Bake, uncovered, in the pre-heated oven for about 3 hours or until the juices run clear.
- Use a meat thermometer to make sure your turkey is thoroughly cooked. Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh. A properly cooked turkey should register a temperature of 180℉ / 82℃.
- Allow turkey to rest in a warm place for 10-15 minutes before carving.
Like any meat you are cooking, the roasting time will depend on the size so, while this recipe was based around a 12 pound turkey, if your turkey is much larger, you will no doubt need to cook it for longer. Here is a handy guide for how long to cook your turkey.
Cooking Turkey in the Crockpot
Cooking your turkey in the slow cooker or Crockpot is a great option if you want tender, moist turkey. It also frees up your oven space for cooking vegetables and side dishes, or the all important desserts!
To cook your turkey in your crockpot you first need to make sure that your turkey is going to fit in the crockpot. If you’ve got a large capacity slow cooker you should be OK but you’ll probably always have to err on the side of smaller sized turkeys for this method. Here is a simple recipe for a slow cooked whole turkey:
Slow Cooker/Crockpot Whole Turkey
- 4 teaspoons salt
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 2 teaspoons dried thyme
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 carrot, chopped
- 1 stalk of celery, chopped
- 1 lemon, cut in quarters
- 1 8-9 pound turkey, (that fits in your slow cooker) innards and yucky bits removed
- Combine the salt, paprika, onion powder, thyme, garlic powder and pepper in a small bowl.
- Place vegetables in the base of your slow cooker.
- Wash and dry your turkey.
- Insert lemon quarters inside the turkey cavity.
- Fold back the wings and tie the legs with kitchen twine.
- Rub the salt and pepper mixture all over the turkey.
- Place turkey into slow cooker on top of the vegetables.
- Cover and cook on low for 6-8 hours. (No, you don’t need to add any liquid - the turkey and vegetables will create their own broth as they cook).
- Once cooked, transfer turkey to an oven safe dish and cook under your oven broiler for about 5 minutes - this will give your turkey some color so it looks nice when you serve it.
- Allow turkey to rest for 15-20 minutes before carving and serving.
Deep Frying A Whole Turkey
If you’re feeling a little more adventurous and want to try cooking your turkey in a more non-traditional way, consider deep frying your turkey!
Yes, you can deep fry a whole turkey and it turns out brown and crispy and delicious just like your favorite fried chicken.
Obviously deep frying a whole turkey is going to require some special equipment. You’ll need a very large pot - large enough to fit a whole turkey and a whole lot of oil - peanut oil seems to be the oil of choice for deep frying a turkey.
Brining, with salt and brown sugar, is highly recommended for this method (probably as there are no other flavors involved in the cooking). Once the turkey has been brined and is prepped and ready it is slowly lowered into the pot of hot oil. It takes a bit of monitoring and temperature checking but might be a fun and exciting way to cook your next turkey. More detailed instructions on how to deep fry a turkey can be found here.
Grilling A Whole Turkey
Another way to save space in your kitchen is to cook your turkey outside on the BBQ or grill. There are two types of BBQ particularly well suited to cooking a turkey. One is the traditional kettle style BBQ.
These take a bit of practice to master with the lighting of the briquettes and all but, once you’re a kettle BBQ master, your Thanksgiving turkey will never be cooked another way again! To cook your whole turkey in a kettle BBQ follow these tips here.
Your other alternative for perfectly grilled turkey on a BBQ is to use a more traditional style barbecue - but it must have a lid or cover.
For an easy grilled whole turkey recipe, check out the instructions here.
Smoking A Turkey
If you’re up for a bit of a challenge and want to take your turkey to the next level, you could try smoking your turkey. Fans of smoked turkey swear, once you’ve tried your turkey this way, you’ll want smoked turkey everytime!
If you’re a seasoned meat smoker you’ll already know what to do but, if you’ve never smoked any meat before and would like to try smoking your turkey, here’s what you need to know.
Best Smoked Turkey Recipe
- 115-pound fresh turkey (or thawed turkey if frozen) with all innards taken out – 1 piece
- 2Sugar- 1 cup
- 3Traeger BBQ rub- 1 cup
- 4Water- 3 gallons
- 5Minced garlic- 1 tablespoon
- 6Canola oil- 2 tablespoons
- 7Worcestershire sauce- 1/2 cup
Method of Turkey Smoking
You need to plan well ahead since this method requires overnight brining.
You need to ensure that the turkey meat is completely defrosted and that all the giblets have been removed.
- 1Take a non-metallic bucket, which can store 5 gallons of water and pour 3 gallons of water into it.
- 2Add sufficient amount of BBQ rub and then blend it in until it gets totally dissolved. After that, add some sugar, garlic, and Worcestershire sauce.
- 3Take a bucket, put the turkey (breast side down) in it with the salt water. You need to ensure that the turkey is entirely submerged. Afterward, cover the bucket well and store it in your fridge and leave it there for the whole night.
- 4Take the turkey out of the fridge and pat it dry with a clean dry cloth or paper towel.
- 5The next step is to rub the oil over the turkey before placing it in a roasting pan while the breast side is facing up.
- 6Now, it’s time to power on the grill on the smoke and take away the lid until the fire reaches its full-fledged position.
- 7Keep the turkey on the grill with the smoky condition for around two and a half hours.
- 8When internal temperatures are about 170 °F, you may consider that your bird is well-cooked and ready.
- 9Take out the properly cooked turkey from your grill. Let it rest for around 20 minutes before carving and serving.
How Long Does It Take to Smoke a Turkey?
A smoked turkey is always a delicious alternative to chicken no matter what the season is.
No matter how you choose to cook it, smoke it, roast it, grill it, once the internal temperature of turkey is at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit, your turkey is cooked well.
To be sure that your turkey has got the right temperature, it’s best to use the built-in digital probe of your device or a digital meat thermometer.
So, how long does it take to smoke a turkey? It’s going to depend on the size of the turkey. Generally speaking you’ll need to smoke your turkey for around 30 minutes for every pound of turkey. It is recommended that you take out the turkey from the grill of the smoker when the internal temperature of your turkey is about 160 °F.
This is because the turkey will continue to cook when it rests. Once the internal temperature is reached to its safe limit, meaning that 165 degrees Fahrenheit or 74 degrees Celsius, it is the time to dig in to your cooked turkey.
The Cooking Time
The cooking time may vary based on what you are cooking and what type of cooking instrument you are using. Let me give you some educative calculations regarding cooking time on the basis of different cuts and cookers.
In the Smoker
Using a cooking instrument is quite straightforward. You just need to know the cooking recipe, cooking method and the given time for each cooking method.
If you are using a smoker to cook your turkey, then the calculations below are for you.
- 1Whole Turkey: Set the temperature of your smoker to 240 °F. You need to cook 30-40 minutes each pound. Say, you have a smaller or 8 pounds’ turkey, it will take about 4 hours to cook it properly. To make this calculation clear, a larger (12 pounds) turkey will take about 6 hours to cook.
- 2Turkey Breast: Same as before, set the temperature of your smoker to 240 °F. You need to cook 30-40 minutes each pound. On an average, the breast of a turkey is about 6 pounds, and so, you need to cook it for 4 hours.
- 3Turkey Leg: For this case, set your smoker to 225 °F. You need to cook the legs of turkey for about 4 hours.
- 4Turkey Wings: For turkey wings, same as before, set your smoker to 225 °F and then cook so for around 1.5 to 2 hours.
On the Grill
On the other side, the temperature settings and the cooking procedure are a bit different. If you aim to use a grill to cook your turkey, then it is worth to read the write-ups mentioned below.
- 1Whole Turkey: Make sure that you preheat the grill to about 325 °F, which is known as a medium-high heat. Be mindful that you need to set up your grill so that you can cook with indirect heat. And then cook the whole turkey for about 3 hours. Here, the calculation for cooking time is 15 minutes per pound.
- 2Turkey Breast: You need to preheat your grill to the high heat and set up so for indirect cooking. And then cook your turkey breast for 1 to 1.5 hours.
- 3Turkey Legs: Make sure that you preheat the grill to medium-high heat, which is about 325 °F and set up so for indirect grilling. Let the turkey legs to scorch over direct heat for around 3-4 minutes/ per side. Finally, invest about 45-60 minutes to make the legs roast over indirect heat.
- 4Turkey Wings: In making smoked turkey wings, preheat your grill to about 325 °F (medium-high heat) and then cook them for around 30-40 minutes.
As the old saying goes, there’s more than one way to boil an egg and, just like that, there’s more than one way to cook a turkey! Whether you’re just starting out in the field of turkey cooking or, even if you’re a seasoned pro who has cooked many a turkey dinner in their time, hopefully you’ve found an interesting new way to cook your next turkey!