How To Smoke A 20 Pound Turkey (How a Complete Newbie Smoked The Best Turkey...EVER)

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smokernewbie101

Newbie
Original poster
Feb 27, 2017
2
10
Hi All,

I am a complete newbie when it comes to smoking meat however I wanted to share my experience on smoking my first 20 pound turkey.  This was BY FAR the BEST TASTING TURKEY WE EVER HAD!!!!

So anyhoo, I just wanted to record my observations/ share tips so as to pay back the (cyber) community who had helped me so much in this process (I lurked and read lots of posts).

My wife bought me a Masterbuilt Pro Smoker for my birthday and I had a fair amount of success smoking meat thus far and wanted to try to smoke a 20-pound turkey for Christmas dinner.  

Here are some of the tips that I discovered:

PRELIMINARY THOUGHTS:

READ POSTS ON THIS FORUM: I found them to be very interesting and everybody has a different way of doing it however I discovered that it doesn't really matter how you do it…it will end up excellent!  Reading the other posts give you good ideas and a great opportunity to drink beer.

WEIGHT OF THE TURKEY: a 20-pound turkey is not exactly 20 pounds because once you remove the neck and giblets the weight of the turkey will be much less. So this means the amount of time required to smoke the turkey will be less than what you think. My turkey showed 19.71 pounds however it was more like 18 pounds after all the stuff was removed.  This bad boy turkey barely fit into the smoker.

MEASURING TEMPERATURE: I bought a remote transmitter that transmits two temperatures to a handheld digital indicator that I can carry with me. The mechanical thermometer that came with Masterbuilt is completely useless and was at least twenty degrees off in either direction. The digital thermometer has two read outs…one temperature is the temperature of the meat and the other temperature is the temperature of the oven.  These contraptions have user set alarms that will beep when the temperature is hotter than pre selected.  I set the over alarm to beep at 280 F and the turkey meat probe to beet at 190F.  Buy one of these bad boys and you will mitigate your chances of culinary failure…and plus…it is much more cool to watch a technical gadget while you are drinking beer.

MODIFYING YOUR SMOKER:  The Masterbuilt is very large and it is made of sheet metal.  It is very hard to regulate temperature because there is not a lot of thermal mass.  I ditched the cheapo hubcap looking smoke chip tray and instead used a cast iron frying pan.  I cut off the handle so it would fit into the smoker and installed three long bolts along the outer circumference of the pan.  The pan now sits on the three bolts and the bolts are tall enough to allow for a 1/2 inch gap above the LP gas burner flue.  Using three bolts makes the pan sit still and not wobble (if you use four bolts one will be taller than the other and the pan will rock back and forth).  I had to use red RTV silicon to seal the bolts so water does not drip out of the modified pan.  The pan is now used to fill up with water and wood chips.  The first couple of hours is simply the water boiling out of the pan and steaming the bird.  When the water boils out, the wood chips begin to smoke and this add smoke flavor to the bird.

DRIPPING PAN: Cleaning a smoker sucks.  I bought a square cookie sheet that was practically the exact dimensions of the smoker foot print and covered it with aluminum foil and placed it at the bottom rack of the smoker and there is a very small gap all around that allows the smoke to rise up past the cookie sheet.  Now the drippings fall on the aluminum and makes cleanup super easy.

BUY A GOOD HEAVY DUTY INJECTOR:  The cheapo syringe things suck.  The needle pops off and you get butter shooting all over the pace.  Buy a good HEAVY DUTY injector device or you will just end up with a messy kitchen and a bunch of bad words being mouthed in front of your family/guests.

TIME PLANNING BUT REMEMBER SMOKING IS LIKE A CROCK POT:  I planned on about 7 hours for my turkey smoke however it was ready (internal temperature wise) in about 6 hours,  This is because I let the water boil out and my oven temperature skyrocketed a couple of times.  It is REALLY hard to screw up smoking meats so relax and drink lots of beer.  I modified my smoker and got rid of the factory cheapo hubcap looking wood chip tray and replaced it with a heavy cast iron skillet that is supported with three bolts so that there is a 1/2 inch gap above the burner. When I started my turkey smoke I fill up the cast iron pan with water and chips and I also fill up the other metal pan that came with the unit with water. This makes the first hour or so all heat and steam and then when the water burns out of the cast iron pan then the wood chips start to smoke. Since there is a lot of steam the meat stays moist so it is really hard to screw up…IF…YOU MONITOR THE TEMPERATURE.  In a 350F oven or on a BBQ grill with the flames licking at your bird, the window of perfection is really small because too little time and it is undone and too much time you get burned and dry meat.  A smoker is a 190F to 225 F SLOW COOK and if the time for dinner is fast approaching and you still do not get the inner temperature you need, just tent up the bird in aluminum foil, slather her up in oil/spices and crank up the heat and/or bake it the oven the old fashioned way (you will need to do this anyway…see later discussion on skin)

TWO TO THREE DAYS BEFORE DINNER TIME:

PLAN AHEAD FOR THAWING: the USDA recommends to thaw the turkey 2 Days in the refrigerator.  After two days in the refrigerator the turkey was still icy and it was so hard I could not get the neck and gizzards out.  Since my turkey was not “pre-brined” (brining discussed next), I had to brine the bird so the overnight soak in the brine thawed it the rest of the way.   If I was not going to brine I would go with a 3 day refrigerator thaw.

TO BRINE OR NOT TO BRINE EFFECTS YOUR THAW TIME: To “brine” a turkey means to soak it in a solution of spices to tenderize the meat and marinade it. Some turkey's come with the brine process already done so read the label on your turkey. My turkey was not already brined so I bought a package of brining solution from the grocery store and the package recommend a one hour soak per pound of turkey (in my case 18 hours). You can brine with your own ingredients however the package I bought had a large plastic zip lock bag. 

MAKE SURE YOUR SMOKER IS READY AND YOU HAVE INGREDIENTS:  Make sure you have the LP gas or wood.  If you are running with LP gas or electricity then make sure you have your wood chips and a spare LP gas can.

THE NIGHT BEFORE DINNER TIME:

IF YOU ARE GOING TO BRINE THE BIRD:  You need to boil the brine ingredients to dissolve them and then let the mixture cool to room temperature before submersing the bird. THIS TAKES THREE HOURS.  The way it all works is that you first boil the water, add the brine powered spices, stir it often to dissolve the powder, let it cool.  Whilst the mixture is cooling you can use this time to drink beer and remove the bird from the plastic and clean out the neck and gizzard.  My bird still had not thawed completely and I could not get the neck and gizzard removed so I said to heck with it and used the brine as the method to finish the thaw.  Remember, the brine water needs to be cool so you do not start cooking the turkey so let the water cool a couple of hours before you start to brine.  When the water is cool, place the thawed (or almost thawed) bird into the big bag, place the bag and bird into a cooler (close the drain spout of the cooler in case the bag leaks and drains all over the kitchen), pour in the previously boiled (but now cool) mixture over the turkey, add another 7 quarts of cool water to the mixture (this will cover up the bird) zip up the bag, shake the bag a bit and let soak for 18 hours.. When I placed the turkey/bag/ and brine mixture in the cooler the bird was not completely submerged so I put some towels around the sides of the bird to prop up the plastic bag to keep the turkey submerged in the solution. The evening/night outside temperature was cool so I left the bird in the cooler in the garage at around 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

THE MORNING OF DINNER TIME:

DRY THE BIRD AND REMOVE STUFF:  Remove the bird from the brine and rinse it clean with cool fresh water.  Dry it completely and remove the neck and gizzard.

INJECTING THE MEAT:   I've read that you do not want to make any holes in the skin of the meat because that allows the moisture to escape. I melted 1 stick of butter and mixed in some spices that were finely ground. I then injected the breast from the front area where the neck was cut off and also the back area under the skin.  Using these areas that were already cut up by the turkey factory I did not have to make any additional holes in the skin. I also injected the drum sticks from the side and avoided making any holes in the drumstick skin. The next time I will invest in a real good injector device because the cheapo syringe thing I bought was horrible.  Also remember to only mix in finely ground up spices.  I used Adobo and it tasted great!!!

DRY RUB AND LUBE UP TURKEY: I dry rub the turkey with my favorite barbecue recipes spices and then slathered the skin with a mixture of barbecue spices and canola oil with a small basting brush.

STUFFING: they recommend not to stuff the turkey because that adds thermal mass and it makes the inside of the bird harder to heat up.  I did not use traditional stuffing but I did cut up some onions garlic and peppers and shoveled them into the bottom of the turkey leaving plenty of space on the top and the sides of the cavity and this allowed the heat to permeate into the breast and thigh from the inside.  These smoked veggies came out ABSOLUTELY EXCELLENT!!!  I tied up the legs with some metal wire to draw them in close and it looked like a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving Dinner painting.

PLACE THE TEMPERATURE PROBE:  The best place to put the meat thermometer probe on a full turkey is on the inner thigh because if you're smoking a whole turkey most people draw the drum sticks close together and tie them up so it looks nice when it is placed on the dinner table.  If you do this then the thickest part of the meat is actually the inner thigh (between the turkey legs and the lower portion of the turkey) and NOT the breast. I put my probe in the breast and discovered that the bottom area could have been cooked a little longer even though the rest was perfect temperature.

CAPTURE DRIPPINGS FOR DELICIOUS GRAVY:  I placed the bird on one of those fold up metal grates and then placed the grate inside a disposable aluminum tray and then placed the tray on top of a cookie sheet that fits into the smoker.  The idea being that the bottom of the turkey does not look good if it has been soaking in juices so you want the turkey elevated.  Capture the juices in an aluminum tray.  A 18 pound bird on metal rack on top of  an aluminum tray is too heavy and the rack will puncture holes into the aluminum tray so a cookie tray underneath is the right amount of support to carry with oven mitts. 

SET AND MONITOR TEMPERATURE:  I set my Masterbuilt LP gas control knob so that it pointed straight down and closed all the vents. This gave me approximately 225 degrees Fahrenheit for most of the smoke.  It is VERY hard to maintain an exact 225 degrees Fahrenheit because initially there's a lot of water in the pan and heating up the pan and water takes a lot of BTUs.  Plus the cold bird in the smoker absorbs a lot of heat.  Be careful because when the water boiled out the smoker temperature will skyrocket.  If you don't go with a remote sensing thermometer then you're really at a disadvantage and you will end up at the local Chinese food restaurant come dinner time.  Cook the turkey to internal temperatures of 175° F to 180° F in the thigh (remember this is the thickest part if the drum sticks are pulled in tight) and 165° F in the breast.

OIL HER UP EVERY COUPLE OF HOURS:  Two hours and then at four hours into the smoke I slathered the turkey skin again with the canola spice mixture to make sure that it was covered with oil throughout the whole smoke.  At about four hours I tented the bird with aluminum foil to prevent the skin from getting too dark.

PLAN ON A 350 DEGREE BAKE:  If you like rubber skin skip this step.  Turkey skin supposed to be crunchy so if you run the smoke temperature at 190 to 225 degrees like you do a piece of beef then the skin will come out rubbery and soft even though it looks excellent. The ONLY way to get crispy skin is to fry the skin.  I smoked my turkey for 6 hours at about 225F making sure that I slathered the skin with canola oil and spices every two hours.  The skin looked great after 4 hours so I tented up the bird with aluminum foil.  Then dinner time minus 45 minutes, I slathered it up again and tented it and cranked up the heat to 340F and the skin came out crunchy and yummy!!!

CATCH THE DRIPPINGS:  I used a disposable aluminum tray and placed the bird on a fold up metal rack.  The drippings made for some very tasty gravy…straight with no extra broth or flour…THE BEST TURKEY GRAVEL I EVER HAD!!!  Make sure to mix up the drippings right before pouring it onto your buttered biscuit or potatoes to ensure the oil is well mixed with the drippings.

SMOKED SWEET POTATOES: About 4 hours before the end of the smoke I cut up some sweet potatoes and slather them with butter oil and spices and placed them in on open cast iron pot and left them in the smoker. They came out absolutely delicious!  Potatoes take a long time to bake at low temperature so four hours is minimum.

SMOKED MUSHROOMS AND VEGGIES:  About dinner time minus one hour butter and garlic up some large mushrooms and let them smoke.  These come out SUPER YUMMY!!!  I partially stuffed the bird with veggies however veggies in a cast iron pan would work out well.

Anyhoo…that is what I learned from my first turkey smoke and I just wanted to give back to the community of cyber meat smokers!!!

Cheers,

Bill
 
Last edited by a moderator:
Jul 21, 2015
15
15
Oregon
Great alternative to oiling a bird is a good slather of mayonnaise, inside and out. Been doing that for near 40 years. I,too, am a firm believer in an overnight brining, loosen the bird and skin up as much as you can. I use a SS Turkey Fryer pot lined with a kitchen garbage bag as the container to ensure no leaks.
 

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