Learn how to smoke and cook a spatchcocked turkey using a pellet grill, and why it is one of the tastiest ways to smoke a whole turkey!
Whether you've got a Traeger, Pit Boss, Camp Chef, Yoder, or any other type of pellet grill, we've got you covered!
We've already shown how to make a spatchcock chicken and why its one of the easiest and most fool proof ways to prepare a whole chicken, so we figured, why not do the same with turkey?
We spent some time recently comparing propane and electric smokers, but unfortunately, neither of these options work too great for whole turkey or chicken.
And while electric smokers do offer "set it and forget it" convenience, they can be a little limited on space and getting up to a high enough temperature range to crisp up your turkey skin.
Many typical Masterbuilt electric smokers only go up to about 275°F.
While this temperature range is great for low and slow BBQ, its not as good for crisping up the skin on a whole turkey like you can with a pellet grill, especially if you spatchcock your turkey first.
Spatchcocking is basically a fancy term for cutting the whole turkey right down the back bone and then butterflying it out to lay flat while it cooks.
We'll get into why this is such a great method below, but first, let's jump in and find out why using a pellet grill is one of the best ways to cook and smoke a spatchcocked turkey!
Why Would You Spatchcock a Turkey?
Wait a minute, don't you have to stuff a turkey full of unnecessary ingredients, tie the legs together and then cook it for 10 hours until the center juices are barely food safe while the meat temperature has gone nuclear?
You know we jest.
There are a number of great reasons why spatchcocking a turkey works great before cooking it on a pellet grill:
- It will finish cooking faster.
- It will cook more evenly.
- It is easier to apply direct heat.
- The skin will get crispier.
- You can apply seasoning to more surface area of the chicken.
- It will be easier to carve.
There ARE other methods to cooking a whole turkey on a pellet grill, everything from just throwing the whole bird directly on the rack to standing it up on a roaster.
But we think once you've tried spatchcocking your pellet grilled turkey, you will find it difficult to go back to any other method!
Clean and Trim the Whole Turkey
Take some time to clean, rinse and dry your whole turkey with paper towels after removing it from the packaging.
Remove the neck, giblet bags, and any other items stuffed into the cavity. Then, using some good kitchen shears or a meat knife, cut any excess fat or skin hanging off near the corners and edges of the cavity.
There should not be too much trimming to do but it doesn't hurt to clean up the turkey a bit before you start spatchcocking and seasoning.
Spatchcocking the Whole Turkey
Next you are going to actually start to spatchcock the turkey by cutting down along next to either side of the backbone from one end to the other to remove it.
The easiest way to do this is with a good pair of sharp kitchen shears.
The biggest mistake people make is cutting through the BREAST bone rather than the BACK bone.
So take an extra minute to orient yourself on the turkey and find the breast meat. Then make sure you are cutting down the OPPOSITE side.
Pro Tip: The easiest way to do this is to place the whole turkey on a cutting board with the legs DOWN and the wing tips also pointing DOWN.
You are now looking at the backbone of your whole turkey and you can begin cutting.
Once you have removed the backbone, the turkey will still not lay flat until you snap the breastbone as well.
Keep the turkey in the same position and you will need to make a cut down the center of the BREASTBONE.
This will make the breastbone more fragile and easier to snap in the next step.
Place both hands over the breastbone and apply some gentle pressure and you will hear a snap as you crack the breast bone.
Now you can turn the turkey back over and it should butterfly out and should lay flat on your cutting board.
Make sure to rinse again and remove any small, loose bone fragments that might still be present.
Now that you have cleaned, dried, and spatchcocked your turkey you can start getting it ready for the pellet grill!
A turkey prep method you'll read about a lot is brining. When most people refer to brining a turkey they are referring more specifically to wet brining.
At its most basic, this is just soaking the turkey overnight in a solution that includes salt, water and some aromatics.
But, what does it do?
Well, the salt naturally penetrates overnight and helps to not only flavor the meat but also retain moisture throughout the cooking process.
Do you need to brine your spatchcocked turkey before you smoke it on the pellet grill?
The answer is, it depends.
Now, if you have a standard supermarket turkey that's already been injected with a brine solution, don't bother wet brining at home. It won't do anything.
If that store bought turkey is already is injected with salt solution, and you drop it in a bucket of salt water, no more salt will penetrate the meat because it is already at equilibrium.
If, on the other hand, you have a natural whole turkey without additives, you could take the time to wet brine it.
Now, just because the packaging says "All Natural" sure as heck doesn't mean its organic, or hasn't been brined or injected with salt, hormones, or anything like that.
In fact, the term "All Natural" literally means NOTHING in most of the food and beauty industry.
We know, crazy.
So make sure to check the fine print if it actually has been pre-brined or injected with a sodium solution.
If you got your turkey direct from an organic farmer's market or someone you know that raises them personally, you are probably good to go.
You can use one of the many brining recipes online (Alton Brown's is a classic) or save a bit of effort with a premade turkey brining solution.
Brining for a good 24 hours before you smoke it will yield a more flavorful, juicier bird, so the time in the brine can be worth it.
However, a much easier way to achieve similar results is by dry brining your spatchcocked turkey before throwing it on the pellet grill instead.
Simply coat the inside and outside (now TOP and BOTTOM) with kosher salt and fresh ground pepper (or your favorite BBQ rub) and store it on a drying rack set on top of a baking sheet in the refrigerator overnight.
Pro Tip: DO NOT use cooking oil to help your rub adhere to the turkey skin. The more oil you apply, the less the skin will crisp up when it cooks.
Note: If your turkey is labeled "Pre-Brined" or "Contains up to X% Saline and Water", or anything along those lines, either skip this step or go VERY easy with the amount of salt you use. It may already have more than enough salt injected into it and dry brining will make it overly salty.
Otherwise, continue to follow our steps for how to do it below.
And even if you don't use additional salt, you can still put it on a wire rack in the fridge overnight to dry out the skin and get it crispier in the smoker the next day.
The exterior will get a little wet as you apply salt and water is drawn out of the turkey up to the salt. This paste is all the moisture you need for the salt or rub to stick to the bird.
The next day the skin should look kind of powdery and very dry.
This is good.
It means the salt has penetrated into the meat where you want it to be and taken all the moisture with it.
The skin will now crisp up nicely on the pellet grill while the inside meat stays moist.
The next day, wipe off the excess salt left on the outside with a wet paper towel before you cook, and then season with all your non-salt herbs and seasonings.
Don't worry, the spatchcock turkey is plenty well salted at this point from the salt penetrating overnight.
With dry brining, you get all the benefits of salt penetration and moisture retention without having to deal with a giant bucket of salty raw turkey water when you're done!
One other benefit, the salt really dries out the turkey skin overnight, causing it to brown and crisp up much better while cooking on the pellet grill than it otherwise would have!
The day of the cook you can add some crushed herbs or a low salt BBQ rub if you wish, but go easy on adding any additional salty rubs at this point.
Choosing the Best Wood Pellets
You have a lot of freedom when it comes to choosing the right wood pellets to cook a spatchcocked turkey on a pellet grill.
Mesquite and hickory will give a very aggressive smoke flavor.
Alternatively, you can also go for a milder smoke flavor by choosing oak or fruitwood pellets. Pecan, apple, beech, alder, and cherry all give great results on turkey.
For fun, you can choose your woods seasonally, using beech and cherry in spring and summer and pecan and apple into the fall and winter.
Also, no reason you can't mix a few different kinds together on a pellet grill.
Make sure you purchase quality hardwood pellets that will burn cleanly, and are sized correctly to work in the hopper of your particular pellet grill.
How a Pellet Grill Works
In order to cook ANYTHING well on a pellet grill, you need to first have a basic understanding of how it works.
***Completely New to Using a Pellet Grill? No Worries!****
Hop over and check out this Complete Guide to Understanding How a Pellet Grill Works first if you are interested in learning more. We'll be here when you get back!***
First, you add hardwood pellets into a side hopper. The pellet grill automatically feeds these small wood pellets via an auger mechanism to a fire pot where they are burned up, providing both heat and smokey flavor.
The pellet grill automatically controls the flow of pellets depending on your temperature setting so that you maintain an even temperature throughout the entire cook.
A MUST for making great BBQ.
We are big fans of Bear Mountain Hardwood Pellets because they are compatible with most pellet grills and provide a nice clean, even burn and smoke flavor.
Instead of being in and out of the house constantly trying to figure out when or whether to add more wood or to adjust the air flow, you just program the unit and give it time to do its thing.
It's really just a matter of choosing and preparing the right ingredients, picking the right temperature, and smoking your spatchcocked turkey for the right amount of time.
How to Cook a Spatchcocked Turkey on a Pellet Grill
Now that the chicken is cleaned, butterflied, brined, and seasoned, all that's left to do now is cook it.
With a pellet grill, this is the easy part!
Just add your chosen pellets to the hopper, plug in and start the pellet grill.
Let the pellet grill go through its start up process and once it has come up to temperature and stopped producing the thick white "start- up" smoke, put the spatchcocked chicken directly on the grill grates. with the breast side facing up.
What Temperature do you Cook a Spatchcocked Chicken on a Pellet Grill?
Set the temperature to 325°F, and let the grill come up to temperature.
While you technically CAN cook your spatchcock turkey "low and slow" at 225-250°F on a pellet grill like traditional pulled pork and ribs, you will never get crispy skin because the fat underneath it will not render at those low temperatures before the meat is finished cooking.
Also avoid using BBQ rubs with lots and lots of sugar if you are going to cook any higher than 300-325°F because the sugar can burn and carbonize.
If you want to be extra cautious while using a sugary BBQ rub, drop the cooking temperature on the pellet grill to 300°F.
How Long do you Cook a Spatchcocked Turkey on a Pellet Grill?
Put your spatchcocked turkey in the cooking chamber of the pellet grill with the breast side up and pointed to the left, which is usually the cooler side, and let the pellet grill do its thing!
Place a temperature probe, if you have them, in both one of the thighs and one the breasts of the turkey.
Otherwise, you can spot check later with an instant read thermometer.
Always use good insulated grill gloves when rotating or moving the turkey around.
There really is no need to flip the spatchcock turkey over as the pellet grill provides indirect heat like an oven and will still crisp up the skin at 300°F.
If you flip, you are more than likely to just end up tearing the crispy turkey skin and losing a lot of your rub, so don't bother.
You are welcome to experiment and try cooking it "upside down" from the beginning if you want though, some folks swear the meat stays juicier this way.
But we wouldn't recommend doing this the first time you try it.
A average sized spatchcocked turkey will take around 2 hours to cook on a pellet grill at 300-325°F.
It may take longer if you have a really large turkey, or it is cold outside and you open the lid a lot during the cook.
Pro Tip: If you want the crispiest skin possible, avoid basting or spraying the spatchcocked turkey with anything while it is cooking on the pellet grill.
Keep the lid closed as much as possible, and use the temperature probes to tell you when the turkey is done.
Target Internal Temperature
You'll want to monitor the internal temperature of both the turkey breast AND thigh for doneness.
Your spatchcocked turkey is ready to eat when the breast meat hits an internal temperature of 165°F and the thigh meat hits 175°F on your instant read thermometer.
Thankfully, these usually occur at about the same time.
Since the thigh and leg meat can withstand a little higher temperatures without drying out, that's why we recommend pointing the legs to the right side of the pellet grill, which is usually the hotter side.
If you don't yet own an instant read thermometer, it's going to be hard to really know exactly when that turkey is done cooking on the pellet grill.
One of our go-to and very affordable favorites is this one from ThermoPro.
If you prefer a leave-in thermometer you can just monitor from your phone while visiting with guests or doing other stuff, then check out our newest favorite, the MEATER leave in thermometer.
It is extremely accurate and has an incredible 165 foot Bluetooth range and works right with your smartphone so you don't need to carry a separate controller around with you like many other remote thermometers require.
It's got a great free app that is constantly being updated and even has an algorithm to predict how much longer your type of meat will take to cook based on cooking temperature, target temperature, and current internal temperature.
It's like a GPS for your meat!
When the turkey is done, carefully remove it and transfer to a large cutting board.
Let the turkey rest for about 15-30 minutes before carving and serving so that the juice stays in the meat where you want it.
Carving and Serving Spatchcocked Turkey
You'll probably find a spatchcocked turkey MUCH easier to carve than a whole turkey because everything is laid out right before you and nothing is connected to the backbone any longer!
First pull the leg and thigh away from the rest of the bird and cut at the thigh joint. Repeat on the other side.
Now slice each of the breasts off the bone, remove the wings, and you are ready to eat!
Spatchcocked Turkey on a Pellet Grill
- Pellet Grill
- Sharp Pair of Kitchen Shears
- Wood Pellets - Hickory, Oak, or Fruitwood
- Internal Meat Thermometers
- Carving Knife
- 1 Whole Turkey
- Your Favorite BBQ Rub -OR-
- Kosher Salt and Pepper
Clean and Spatchcock the Turkey
- Clean, rinse, and pat dry the whole turkey well with paper towels. Remove the neck and giblet bag from the cavity.
- Trim any excess pieces of skin or fat off of the turkey.
- Place the turkey on a cutting board with the breast side DOWN. The legs and wings will also be pointing down.
- Using kitchen shears, cut along one side of the backbone from one end to the other, cutting all the way through.
- Repeat on the other side of the backbone and then remove the entire backbone.
- Open the turkey up as much as you can and make a small slice from one end to the other of the inside of breastbone to make it easier to snap and flatten out.
- Apply gentle pressure with both hands until you hear a snap of the breast bone and the turkey lays flat on the cutting board. Now flip the turkey over with the breast side UP to season.
Smoking the Spatchcock Turkey on the Pellet Grill
- Sprinkle about ¼ to ½ cup KOSHER salt and a few tsps of black pepper, OR your favorite BBQ rub to both sides of the spatchcocked turkey.
- Fill the hopper with pellets, start up the pellet grill, and preheat to 300-350°F. If your BBQ rub has a lot of sugar in it, choose 300°F. If you only used salt and pepper, go ahead and use 325-350°F.
- Place the spatchcocked turkey on the pellet grill, directly on the grill grates with the breast side facing up and to the left.
- Place an internal temperature probe if you have one into the center of one of the breasts, and another one, if you have one, into the middle of one of the thighs.
- Close the lid, cook the spatchcocked turkey for about 2.5 to 3 hours, monitoring the temperature as it may cook faster or take longer.
- When the internal temperature of the breast has reached 165°F, and the internal temperature of the thigh hits 175°F, remove the turkey from the pellet grill.
Rest and Carve
- Let the turkey rest for 25 minutes before carving to allow the juices to distribute.
- Carve, plate, and serve immediately.