Recipe: Thanksgiving Smoked Turkey with Spice Rub

Recipe video by Vic Chin.

Living in California really does open up your options when it comes to how you decide to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving. Growing up in Texas, it was pretty much freezing by November, so the turkey took up the entire oven for most of the day while it roasted, packed with my family’s traditional sage-spiked bread stuffing. But now that I’ve lived in California for well over 25 years (!!!) I have had the opportunity to experiment with a multitude of methods for getting that bird on the table for our Thanksgiving feast.

For many years, I grilled the turkey on my trusty Weber charcoal kettle grill over indirect heat. I discovered wet brining, then dry brining, and have since deconstructed, braised, chile-rubbed and roasted, spatchcocked, and even deep fried a turkey once (I don’t recommend that, too messy, too dangerous, and, just…no). After many iterations, here is our Bay Area Bites guide to preparing turkey six different ways for Thanksgiving.

This year, just to shake things up, I’m smoking my turkey. This is slightly different than grill roasting it as it involves more smoke. And I’m doing it on my awesome new Weber charcoal smoker. You can certainly simulate this in an electric smoker or a classic kettle grill. Make sure you don’t buy a turkey that is bigger than your grill though or you’ll have to resort to wrapping the lid with aluminum foil to extend the height like I did one year (it still worked).

Weber charcoal smoker
Weber charcoal smoker. (Wendy Goodfriend)
Prepare a Thanksgiving turkey in a smoker.
Prepare a Thanksgiving turkey in a smoker. (Wendy Goodfriend)

For smoking poultry, I’d recommend a sweeter, mild wood like cherry, pecan, or apple wood. Avoid strongly smoky woods like mesquite, hickory, or oak. You can either use chips or chunks. Chips, being smaller will obviously burn faster than bigger chunks.

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However you do it, don’t stuff the bird—it’s not considered safe anymore. And besides, the stuffing or dressing (or whatever you want to call it based on where you grew up) is way better in its own baking dish where it crisps up beautifully.

Smoked Turkey with Spice Rub.
Smoked Turkey with Spice Rub. (Wendy Goodfriend)

Recipe: Smoked Turkey with Spice Rub

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Makes 10–14 servings

    Ingredients:
    Spice rub
  • 2 tbsp kosher salt
  • 2 tbsp dark brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp sweet paprika
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp onion powder
  • 1 tsp ground sage
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tbsp canola oil
Spice rub ingredients.
Spice rub ingredients. (Wendy Goodfriend)
  • 1 (12- to 16-lb) turkey, defrosted if frozen
  • A few cups of cherry, apple, or other fruitwood chips
    Instructions:
  • Stir together the spice rub ingredients. Pat the turkey dry inside and out with paper towels. Rub the turkey all over the outside and under the skin (as much as possible without tearing) with the spice rub, then spread the oil over the whole turkey, so the rub sticks and becomes pastelike. Tuck the wing tips under the turkey and tie the legs together with kitchen string. Set aside while you prepare the smoker.
  • Stir together the spice rub ingredients.
    Stir together the spice rub ingredients. (Wendy Goodfriend)
    Pat the turkey dry inside and out with paper towels.
    Pat the turkey dry inside and out with paper towels. (Wendy Goodfriend)
    Rub the turkey all over the outside and under the skin (as much as possible without tearing) with the spice rub.
    Rub the turkey all over the outside and under the skin (as much as possible without tearing) with the spice rub. (Wendy Goodfriend)
    Spread the oil over the whole turkey, so the rub sticks and becomes pastelike. Tuck the wing tips under the turkey
    Spread the oil over the whole turkey, so the rub sticks and becomes pastelike. Tuck the wing tips under the turkey. (Wendy Goodfriend)
  • Light a chimney that is about 2/3 full of charcoal briquettes. When the charcoal is lit and grey, pour it into a charcoal smoker or a charcoal grill, on one side of the charcoal grate (or in a coal box), arranging the coals in a mound. Put a small drip pan on the other side of the grate.
  • Light a chimney that is about 2/3 full of charcoal briquettes.
    Light a chimney that is about 2/3 full of charcoal briquettes. (Wendy Goodfriend)
    When the charcoal is lit and grey, pour it into a charcoal smoker or a charcoal grill, on one side of the charcoal grate (or in a coal box), arranging the coals in a mound.
    When the charcoal is lit and grey, pour it into a charcoal smoker or a charcoal grill, on one side of the charcoal grate (or in a coal box), arranging the coals in a mound. (Wendy Goodfriend)
    Put a small drip pan on the other side of the grate.
    Put a small drip pan on the other side of the grate. (Wendy Goodfriend)
  • Cover the grill and, when the temperature stabilizes around 300F, add a few large handfuls of wood chips over or next to the coals. Position the cooking grate in place, then place the turkey over the drip pan with the legs facing toward the coals. Cover the grill, making sure the vent in the lid is directly over the turkey. Open the bottom and top vents about halfway.
  • Cover the grill and, when the temperature stabilizes around 300F, add a few large handfuls of wood chips over or next to the coals.
    Cover the grill and, when the temperature stabilizes around 300F, add a few large handfuls of wood chips over or next to the coals. (Wendy Goodfriend)
    osition the cooking grate in place, then place the turkey over the drip pan with the legs facing toward the coals.
    osition the cooking grate in place, then place the turkey over the drip pan with the legs facing toward the coals. (Wendy Goodfriend)
    Cover the grill, making sure the vent in the lid is directly over the turkey.
    Cover the grill, making sure the vent in the lid is directly over the turkey. (Wendy Goodfriend)
  • Cook the turkey, adjusting the vents and adding briquettes as needed to maintain a temperature between 250 and 300°F. Add additional wood chips a few times, about every 45 minutes. Cook until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast registers 150°F and the leg register 165°F, about 2 1/2 hours. Remove the turkey from the grill and transfer to a large platter. Let rest for about 15 minutes, then carve and serve.
  • Cook until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast registers 150°F and the leg register 165°F, about 2 1/2 hours.
    Cook until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast registers 150°F and the leg register 165°F, about 2 1/2 hours. (Wendy Goodfriend)
    Remove the turkey from the grill and transfer to a large platter. Let rest for about 15 minutes.
    Remove the turkey from the grill and transfer to a large platter. Let rest for about 15 minutes. (Wendy Goodfriend)
    Carve and serve.
    Carve and serve.

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