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(Updated October 9, 2021)
Making a whole smoked turkey on the Traeger (or other wood pellet grill) is easier than you might think, and it turns out delicious! We have been commissioned on numerous Thanksgivings to make the turkey, and a smoked turkey on the Traeger is usually our method of choice. It is simple, has minimal mess, and keeps the oven free for other necessities like bread, pie, stuffing, etc. Or maybe some vegetables 😉
The same tips described here can also be used for a whole smoked chicken. The only difference will be in the times, which are noted. But otherwise, prep, flavors, etc, can all be the same.
If you are new to wood pellet grills, or if you want to learn more about the Traeger in particular, you can read all about it in this post.
This post is quite long with details around specific steps of the turkey smoking process, so I’ve included quick links here if you want to jump to a particular section:
- First Consideration: Whole or Spatchcocked
- Second Consideration: To Brine or Not To Brine
- Third Consideration: Flavors
- Fourth Consideration: Time and Temperature
- (Direct link to cooking time tables)
- The Gravy
- Making Stock
First Consideration: Whole or Spatchcocked?
Once you’ve decided to try your hand at a smoked turkey, the next thing to decide is if you want to keep the turkey whole, or if you want to spatchcock it.
Keeping the turkey whole would be the traditional route, and works really well on the Traeger. Timing for a whole smoked turkey can be a bit unpredictable, so you definitely need patience, and some flexibility, if you opt to smoke a bird whole.
The main benefit to spatchcocking, is that it reduces the cooking time. If you were roasting, then you would also increase the amount of skin exposed for maximum crisping 🙂 But this is less of a consideration when smoking a turkey as the skin usually turns out more tough.
Spatchcocking is pretty simple – just place the turkey on it’s breast, cut down either side of the backbone to remove the backbone, flip the turkey over, and press on the breast to flatten out. You can save the backbone and other trimmings you remove for making stock or gravy later.
Butterball has a great instructional video with Chef Tony Seta demonstrating how to spatchcock a turkey – check it out on YouTube!
Second Consideration: To Brine or Not To Brine
Brining the bird is a way to lock in additional moisture, and an extra security against dry meat. In my personal experience, smoking the turkey gives a moist result even without brining, since you are cooking slow and low and locking in the moisture that way. If I am going to roast (on the Traeger or in the oven), then I definitely do like to brine the bird first. But if I am smoking the bird, then I would consider brining optional. If I have the time and bandwidth, sure, brining definitely doesn’t hurt!
You will find others that staunchly support brining the turkey for best results, regardless of smoked turkey, roasted turkey, etc. My philosophy is that you should eventually try both and determine what your personal preference is. But don’t stress if you don’t brine before smoking your turkey – it will still turn out moist, delicious, and full of flavor! 🙂
Basic Brine Recipe
If you DO decide to brine the turkey, the most basic brine is simply a salt & sugar solution:
- 1/2 cup salt (kosher salt) + 1/2 cup sugar + 1 gallon water, scaled as necessary.
- Heat to dissolve the salt and sugar, then cool before submerging the turkey.
- Brining bags in a bucket or other large bowl/pot work well as a “holding tank” for brining the bird.
- Brine ~ 1 hour per pound (keep below 40F, so fridge temp).
- Rinse and pat dry after brining, and you are ready for the third consideration – cooking flavors!
Traeger has a great basic instructional on brining a turkey, complete with optional liquids, aromatics, and other recommendations.
Third Consideration: Flavors
There are so many great ways to flavor a turkey before you cook it! This holds true for the smoking method we are discussing here, as well as traditional oven roasting. Even if you are not planning a whole smoked turkey, you can still use these as ideas to flavor your bird! I like to keep it simple, especially for a traditional meal like Thanksgiving where you are likely to have a lot of flavorful side dishes, gravy, etc, to go along with your delicious smoked turkey.
Stuff the Cavity
If doing a whole smoked turkey, I first generously season the cavity with salt and pepper. After seasoning, I like to stuff the cavity with some aromatics, such as:
- Onion, cut into quarters
- Garlic cloves, smashed
- Lemon, cut in half (you will probably only have room for one half lemon)
- Fresh Herbs – Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, Oregano, Lavender (choose up to three of these)
Coat with an Herb Butter
Then, whether cooking a whole or spatchcocked turkey, I generously salt and pepper the surface. Next, load up under the skin with an herb butter (recipe follows).
You will see that the skin separates pretty easily from the meat, so you can transfer generous dollops of herb butter under the skin everywhere you can reach, and then use your hands to push the butter around, evenly distributing it under the skin. Make sure that the butter covers as much surface area as possible, and the meat is smothered! You do have to be careful not to handle the butter too much because it will start to melt.
One last fun addition is to bacon-wrap the turkey. Because, I mean, how can you go wrong adding bacon to just about anything?? To do this, you’ll need about a pound of bacon (leftovers are easy to use up!). Weave the bacon strips in a lattice across the breast if making a whole smoked turkey, or across the entire top surface (breasts, thighs, drumsticks), if making a spatchcocked turkey.
Fourth Consideration: Time and Temperature
Since the Traeger allows you to easily control the cooking temperature, there are more options than just smoking your turkey. The combination option I reference at the end of this section is a common method, and is also our go-to nearly every time. It gives a good compromise between flavor, but with a reasonable cooking time. However, I always say it’s good to know your options! So I’ve given a few different methods below.
Having a meat thermometer for the cooking process is also essential. We have a bluetooth thermometer that can take up to 4 temperature probes. This allows us to monitor the turkey while it is cooking without needing to physically go out and check on it all the time. The specific thermometer we have is this one from Williams-Sonoma, but there are lots of similar options readily available on Amazon as well – here’s a link to bluetooth meat thermometers to get you started!
For a Whole Turkey or Chicken
Set the temperature on the Traeger to 225F. This method will take the longest, for sure, and it is difficult to give an exact time. I would give yourself ~12 hours for a 15 pound bird. This would be a method where you might want to start around midnight, and let it smoke overnight. Then you can more closely monitor the temperature during the day as it gets closer to done. This is similar to our smoked pork shoulder method, which is one we also often start late the night before we plan to serve.
Set the temperature on the Traeger to 325/350F. This is similar to a traditional oven-roasted turkey. But doing it on the Traeger will give you the complex flavors of cooking with wood that are oh-so-amazing. Plus less mess for your oven, while keeping it free to cook other things. For a 15 pound bird, give yourself ~4-5 hours to cook at this temperature.
Start out low, at 180F or 225F, for a few hours. I would recommend at least 2, but you can really do this for as long as you like. Once you are satisfied with your “pre-smoke”, turn the temperature up to 325F/350F and let the bird finish cooking. This will probably take another ~3-4 hours (depending on how long you smoked first), for a 15 pound bird. The combination method can also come in handy if you realize you mis-timed things, and you need to finish the cooking a bit faster to make your meal-time deadline! 🙂
Even with the best-laid plans cooking a large piece of meat like a turkey takes patience. So plan well, have fun, and enjoy the process! And don’t stress out if the timing isn’t quite what you planned for – you have to be willing to roll with it just a bit.
In each case, the bird is done when a meat thermometer registers 165F in multiple locations. (Be sure to check breast and thigh!)
If a whole smoked turkey is not for you, check out my alternative post on a smoked turkey breast instead!
For a Spatchcocked Turkey
If you have chosen to go the spatchcock route, chances are you are wanting a quicker cooking method. While you can smoke a spatchcocked turkey to completion at 225F, the more traditional cooking method would be to roast the bird.
For this, you will first roast at 375F/400F for 30 minutes. Then, turn the grill down to 300F and cook for another 3-4 hours until the internal temperature registers 165F. Remove from the grill and let the bird rest.
Summary of Cooking Times
Let the Bird Rest!!
Arguably the MOST important step in all of this process is to let the bird rest after you pull it off the grill. This allows the juices to absorb into the meat, and not come spilling out if you cut it while it is piping hot. We like to cover the bird with foil, and even a towel or two if we are going to let it rest for a while before cutting. This will help to keep it warm while it is resting.
Let the bird rest for a minimum of 30 minutes, but at least an hour, or up to two, is better. Then slice, serve, and enjoy!
What about the Gravy?
Making gravy is all about turning the drippings and the roasted flavorful bits into a delicious and luxurious sauce. When you smoke a turkey low and slow, there are usually less drippings, and you also don’t get any roasted bits to cook off the pan and incorporate into your gravy. We have a couple tricks we’ve used to get around these problems.
Collect the Flavors
- Put a pan under the bird so you can collect any drippings. This will add a wonderful smokey element to the gravy as well. We will usually set the bird in a roasting pan (either real stainless or disposable foil).
- Remember those trimmings we talked about? The backbone (if spatchcocked), as well as the gizzards, neck, etc? You can roast those separately in the oven for an hour or so, until nicely browned.
- Sometimes we will even buy an extra couple turkey legs or neck and include those in the “gravy roastings”. Choose a pan that is stove-top friendly, and you can make the gravy right in the same pan you used for roasting!
Make the Gravy
The basic gravy formula is X tablespoons of fat/drippings + X tablespoons of flour, + X cups of stock or broth. Where X is the same number throughout.
The first step to making gravy from your turkey drippings is to collect the drippings. This could be from the pan in the Traeger, or a second roasting pan where you roasted trimmings in the oven, etc. If you do have a pan where you roasted some trimmings, and it is stove-top safe, use that pan to make the gravy in! This way you can incorporate any browned bits on the pan to make your grave that much more flavorful.
Basic Gravy Instructions
- Measure the drippings, and if you want to add some extra butter, you can do that as well.
- Heat the drippings on medium in a heavy bottomed pan.
- Once the drippings are smoking, add an equal amount of flour. This will make your roux, the base of the gravy. For example, if you had 3 tablespoons of drippings/fat, you would add 3 tablespoons of flour.
- Whisk constantly while the roux browns. (I like to use a flat whisk such as one of these for making gravy.)
- Once you have a toasted brown color, and the smell of pastry, gradually add your stock or broth, whisking constantly while adding. In this example, you would add 3 cups of broth to the 3 tablespoons of drippings/flour.
- Once the stock is incorporated, bring to a simmer, lower your heat, and continue to whisk for several minutes until the gravy thickens to your desired consistency. If it does not get thick enough, that means you likely didn’t add enough flour to your roux. You can thicken further by making a cornstarch slurry (equal parts corn starch and water), gradually whisking into the gravy, and cooking a bit longer.
- Finally, taste and adjust for seasoning. This includes salt and pepper, and any additional fresh herbs you want to add to brighten the flavor. Rosemary, sage, and thyme are good options here.
- Once you remove the gravy from the heat, add an extra tablespoon or so of cold butter, and mix it in to give a velvety sheen.
- Strain the gravy if desired, and you are ready to serve!
Don’t forget to save the carcass for stock!
The LAST thing I always do with my turkey is to save the carcass for stock. Put it in the fridge, or freeze it if you don’t have time right away to make stock. But it’s totally worth it to save it for a day when you have time to make a hearty and delicious bone stock. To read about my method to make bone stock, see below.
So, how will you prepare your turkey this year?
- Roasting pan
- Turkey (~15 pounds, adjust for different sized birds)
- 1 cup unsalted butter (softened to room temperature)
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 lemon (½ juiced, ½ intact)
- 1 onion (quartered)
- 4-5 garlic cloves (smashed)
- Assorted fresh herbs (choose up to three from rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, or lavender)
Prep the Turkey
- **I like to prep my turkey on a big cookie sheet covered with foil, to catch any juices and keep the mess relatively contained.
- Clean out the cavity (save gizzards, neck, etc for gravy).
- Pat the turkey dry inside and out.
- If brining, prep the brine and soak the bird ~1 hour/pound in the fridge. Once finished, rinse and pat dry, then proceed. (For me, brining is optional if smoking the bird as smoking retains a lot of moisture on its own. See details for prepping a brine in the post above.)
- If spatchcocking, cut out the backbone and spread out the bird.
- Generously season the cavity and skin side with salt and pepper.
- Prep herb butter if using, and spread under the skin in as many places as you can reach. (I highly recommend including this prep step :))
- If cooking a whole bird, stuff the cavity with aromatics (onion, garlic, lemon, herbs), and tie the drumsticks together to keep the stuffing from falling out.
- If doing bacon wrapped, lace the bacon strips over the breast (if cooking whole), or the entire surface (if spatchcocking).
Cook the Turkey (Combination Method)
- Heat the Traeger (or other smoker) to 225°F.
- Place the turkey directly on the grate, or in a roasting pan on the grate if you want to save drippings for making gravy.
- If using a probe thermometer, insert now so you can track the temperature as it cooks. I recommend placing 2 probes at different locations (e.g. breast and thigh).
- Smoke at 225°F for at least 2 hours, or longer if desired.
- Increase the temperature to 325°F.
- Cook the turkey for another 3-4 hours, until a meat thermometer reads 165°F.
- **See details in the post above for alternative cooking methods like roasting or smoking for the full time.
Rest the Turkey
- Let the bird rest for at LEAST 30 minutes, but 1-2 hours is best.
- Wrap in foil and cover with a towel if resting for longer than 1 hour.
- Slice, serve, and eat!
- See additional details in post above for making gravy and bone stock.
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