A turkey makes a great centerpiece for any meal, not just Thanksgiving. You can dress it up with roast vegetables or down for a barbecue, and the leftovers can feed you for days after.
Turkey is delicious and healthy, but many cooks struggle to cook it without it needing some serious sauce to bring the dry meat back to life. If you are not careful, this succulent meat can become dry and a little tasteless.
The good news is you don’t have to settle for dry turkey! Our top 10 tips here will ensure your smoked turkey is always moist and juicy.
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10 Secrets for a Moist & Juicy Smoked Turkey
1) Buy a fresh turkey, not a frozen one
As with all food, good ingredients are key. Ideally, the turkey you choose should be fresh, free-range, and all-natural. It will stay moist, have the best texture, and have the most flavor.
You can get good results with a frozen turkey, but it’s certainly less likely. For one thing, freezing will damage the cells of the turkey’s muscles and that means the fluids will leak out. That will lead to dryness.
Thawing a frozen turkey is also a time-consuming venture. Even a small turkey takes hours to fully thaw and a big bird can take longer. The guidelines suggest 24 hours for every five pounds of weight – so a 15-pound turkey needs three whole days before you can begin cooking. You could definitely have sourced a fresh turkey in that time!
2) Brine the turkey
Though some people don’t like brining a turkey, preferring to have more control over the seasoning, it is a good way to both season the interior and adds moisture. How long to brine a turkey? For a whole turkey, you want one cup of salt to a gallon of water and leave it in there for between 12 and 24 hours. Some people add sugar though this will not affect the juiciness.
You can get more sophisticated and add flavorings to the brine. Herbs like sage, rosemary, thyme, and bay leaves are good, along with peppercorns, whole cloves, leek tops, and fresh garlic. You can even replace the water with apple cider.
Kosher salt has larger crystals so you will need to double the amount to get the same concentration but you will find it dissolves more quickly than table salt. Any food-safe container is fine for this though you will need a large one.
3) Get your stuffing right
For years the US Department said no to stuffing a turkey but has now changed its mind. It is perfectly safe to stuff a turkey and not only is the stuffing a tasty added side dish it does a great job of keeping the bird moist and adding flavor.
A mixture of stale cubed bread, cooked onion, parsley, sage, thyme, and rosemary, along with a little chicken broth and a couple of eggs to act as a binder works well.
The Brits have stuffed their turkey for hundreds of years and often include sausage meat for extra flavor. You can find dozens of recipes online, so experiment!
4) Don’t forget your rub
A simple rub made from salt and granulated garlic with a little McCormick Poultry Seasoning mixed in can work wonders. Or you can make it yourself with this smoked turkey breast recipe. A rub, particularly when smoking, really adds flavor and helps retain the moisture. It’s best to apply the rub the night before, but don’t panic if that’s not possible.
5) Truss your turkey
Many turkeys come already trussed so you don’t need to do anything though you may want to use toothpicks to tidy up the neck flap or just tuck it in.
It isn’t necessary to truss a turkey but it does give it a better shape when you bring it to the table.
How to Truss a Turkey
These are the steps:
- First, tuck the wing tips under the body of the bird to provide a firm base.
- Take a long piece of twine, maybe as much as six feet, and find its center.
- Push the ends of the legs together and tie them together then bring the twine around the turkey and tie it off at the neck flap. This will hold the thighs closer to the bird.
Don’t tie the twine too tightly as the legs will take longer to cook and there is a chance the breast neat will dry out.
6) Baste the turkey
Wondering when to baste the turkey? Basting is optional and is not necessary if you have brined it. Usually, you only need to do one or the other, and if you’re smoking your turkey, you may not need to do either. If you want to baste it, you only need to do so in the last hour of cooking time.
To baste your turkey, use a turkey baster to cover the turkey in melted butter or olive oil, or simply the drippings in the roasting pan if you’re using one. Repeat after 30 minutes.
7) You don’t often need to cover the turkey
While some people suggest covering the breast area tightly with foil to slow the cooking while the legs cook, only removing it for the last hour to let the skin brown, generally cooking uncovered works well. This is particularly true when smoking a turkey. Covering can slow the cooking and you want the internal temperature to get above 140℉ in less than four hours to prevent harmful bacteria from multiplying.
8) Stop cooking when you get the right internal temperature
If you’re wondering what temperature your turkey should be when done, you’re looking for an internal temperature of 165℉. You should check the breast and the thigh to be on the safe side. It is tempting to go a few degrees above this but you should resist or there is every chance that despite all your efforts the turkey will end up a dry shadow of what it can be.
Meat probes take the guesswork out of cooking, so make sure you have one to hand.
9) Let it rest before carving
All cooked meat benefits from resting. It gives the juices a chance to evenly redistribute themselves providing the succulence we all desire. A turkey is a big bird and 45 minutes will be about right. You may want to cover it with foil to retain a little more heat but most turkeys can sit for a good hour and still be hot on the plate.
10) Add a sauce
A good turkey deserves some sauce. Whether you call this sauce, gravy, or au jus it completes the picture. This could simply be a little turkey stock poured over the served meat but it might be better to go the whole nine yards.
Here’s a quick and delicious sauce recipe:
- Take two onions and one large carrot and finely chop them.
- Bring two pints of stock to the simmer, add the vegetables and cook for 1 hour.
- Either strain out the veggies or blitz them with a stick blender and return the liquid to the pan.
- Blend 3 tbsp of flour with 5 tbsp of white wine (water would do).
- Slowly add the wine/flour mixture to the simmering stock and allow to thicken.
- Add the juices from the cooking (after skimming off the fat) and season to taste.
What should you serve with turkey?
We all know what side dishes to serve at Thanksgiving but turkey is too good to just have on the 24th of November. In the summer there are loads of things you can dish up to accompany turkey:
- Roasted veggies
- Green beans and goat cheese salad
- Sauteed Brussels sprouts
- Mashed potatoes
- Roasted honey-infused carrots
- Couscous salad
Turkey makes a wonderful dinner and if you follow these guidelines you should end up with a gloriously moist bird overflowing with flavor. If you want further guidance on how to smoke a turkey on a pellet grill follow this link to a superb smoked turkey breast recipe. We also have a recipe for cooking an entire turkey on a pellet grill – you’ve got to try it!