Smokin’ Turkey – The art of cooking turkey over charcoal

I cooked two turkeys each year for two Thanksgivings in a row, one on the grill each year, and one on the smoker. This web page documents what I did and what I learned so I can do it again next time.

Preparation

Purchase a fresh, non-frozen turkey that’s around 12 to 13 pounds. Larger turkeys won’t fit on the grill, though you can go larger on the smoker. These smaller birds also cook more evenly over charcoal without drying out than larger birds. (If you buy a frozen turkey, let it defrost for a couple of days in the refrigerator.)

The night before cooking, rinse the turkey thoroughly. Remove the neck and bag of organs. Prepared a brine by mixing 1 gallon cold water, 1 cup pickling salt, and half a cup of brown sugar. Put the turkey in a trash bag inside a bucket, added the brine mixture, and add just enough water so that the bird is completely covered. The trash bag makes it easier to keep the turkey submerged with less additional water. Place the bucket in the refrigerator over night.

Brining the Turkey

Brining the Turkey

Soaking Wood Cunks

Soaking Wood Chunks

I use Hickory wood chunks. I prefer the flavor of hickory over mesquite, which can be a bit heavier. I prefer chunks over chips because they burn more slowly, providing a more subtle smoke over a longer period of time. Soak the wood chunks for an hour before starting the charcoal. So aiming for a 3:00 Thanksgiving dinner, I started soaking my wood chunks at 9:00 for the smoker and 11:30 for the grill.
Once I lit the charcoal for the grill or smoker and was waiting for it to be ready, I rinsed the turkey inside and out and dried it off. I melted half a stick of butter and brushed the melted butter over the entire surface of the turkey, top and bottom. I put some onion chunks (about a quarter of an onion) and a couple of cloves of garlic into the bird’s cavity. You don’t stuff a turkey you’re cooking over charcoal, but a few veggies in the cavity add a nice flavor.

Prepared for Cooking

Prepared for Cooking

I used a traditional Weber kettle for one turkey and a Weber bullet smoker for the other. Click the grill or smoker below to see the cooking details.

 

Grill Turkey on the Table

Grill Turkey on the Table

Smoker Turkey on the Table

Smoker Turkey on the Table

So, I hear you ask, which was better? That’s a tough question.

The first year I cooked both turkeys was the first time I’d ever cooked a turkey on the smoker. 4 people preferred the grilled to the smoked that year. 1 person preferred the smoked. The other 12 people abstained, saying both were delicious.

The second year, I made changes in the smoker procedure based on what I learned the first year. One person expressed a mild preference for the smoked turkey, out of 12, and nobody else was willing to express a preference. I didn’t have a preference this year either.

The third year, we have fewer guests, so I only prepared one turkey. I used the smoker. There were several reasons. First, there really was not a difference in the flavor or texture of the turkeys based on which cooking method I used, so the most important decision-making factor was a wash. Second, I could cook a larger bird in the smoker, 15+ pounds, and that just wouldn’t fit on the grill. Third, it was a bit easier not having to flip the turkey. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the turkey on the smoker looks better than the turkey from the grill.