Learn how to prepare and smoke a turkey using a pellet grill, and why it is hands down one of the best (and fool proof) ways to smoke a turkey at home!
If you’ve ever done a smoked turkey, you know that it’s an amazing way to prepare what can otherwise be a pretty lackluster meat.
You may have tried cooking turkey outdoors on a gas or charcoal grill, but you probably don’t make smoked turkey very often.
We spent some time recently comparing propane and electric smokers, but unfortunately, neither of these options work too great for turkey.
That’s because with propane, you have to babysit your bird for hours on end, making sure the temperatures never get too high or your wood chips get too low.
And while electric smokers do offer “set it and forget it” convenience, they rarely come in sizes large enough to practically accommodate big pieces of meat like a full packer brisket or a full size turkeys.
However, one option we are fans of is the the fast-and-scorching-hot-under-a-trash-can-method….yes really. But it’s tough to add smoke flavor with this method, which is what we are trying to accomplish here.
That all changes when you add a pellet grill to your outdoor cooking equipment mix. With many very affordable and simple to operate pellet grill options on the market, like these ones from Zgrills, you get the best of all worlds.
By utilizing automatically adjusting cooking temperatures like an indoor oven, while also getting the smoking and meat flavoring benefits of combustion from an outdoor wood smoker, you really can have it all.
This is the missing hardware that makes smoking delicate meats like turkey 100% easier and can easily turn smoked turkey into a regular indulgence!
How a Pellet Grill Works
In order to cook ANY kind of food 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 How a Pellet Grills Work 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, no matter the temperature.
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 hot and fast brisket for the right amount of time!
Looking for a Reasonably Priced Pellet Grill?
Choosing Your Turkey for Pellet Grill Smoking
First choice is the bird that you are going to smoke for your meal.
When it comes to turkey, bigger isn’t always better. For food safety reasons, go with a bird that is 15 pounds or less.
Save the massive 22-pounder for spatchcocking on your monster grill midwinter. For now, you want something that will cook evenly in its whole form, without taking the entire day.
A breast can often be finished in 2-3 hours, while a whole bird may take 4-5 or more. It all depends on the size of the bird and your preferred cooking temperature.
To Brine or Not to Brine
One turkey prep method you’ll read about a lot is brining.
At its most basic, this is just soaking your bird overnight in a solution that includes salt, water and some aromatics.
But, what does it do? Well, the salt naturally penetrates the bird overnight and helps to not only flavor the meat but help it retain moisture throughout the cooking process.
Do you need to brine your turkey before you smoke it?
The answer is, it depends.
If you have a supermarket turkey that’s been injected with a brine solution, don’t bother brining at home. It won’t do anything.
You can tell if your turkey is already brined because the label will say something like “moisture enhanced with up to X% solution of turkey broth, salt, sugar” what have you.
If, on the other hand, you have a natural bird without additives, you could take the time to brine it.
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.
This Brine Kit from San Francisco Salt Co. is an easy-all in-one solution. It also pairs well with apple wood smoke.
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 turkey instead.
Simply coat the inside and outside of the rinsed and dried bird with kosher salt and pepper and store on a drying rack set on top of a baking sheet in the refrigerator overnight.
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. The bird 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!
Injecting your Turkey
A final, more surgical option for adding salt and moisture retaining qualities to your turkey breast is to inject it with a slaty, flavorful solution.
Just PLEASE be careful not to do this to a bird that’s already been injected as described above or your turkey breast will become overly salty.
You can use a mixture of turkey stock, melted butter, cajun spices or your favorite BBQ rub; and any other herbs and spices you want to flavor your turkey breast with.
We are big fans of the Ofargo Stainless Steel Meat Injector.
You get a variety of tip and injector sizes so you can inject larger things like herbs and minced garlic right into the turkey breast!
If you choose to inject your bird, you don’t need to dry brine it overnight. A simple BBQ or light salt and pepper seasoning on the exterior and some injecting on the interior will help season your turkey breast and hep it retain its flavor.
Keep in mind that injecting the turkey breast adds WEIGHT to it, so it WILL take longer to cook on the pellet grill all else being equal.
But if you are OK with that, then inject away. Make sure to put the turkey breast in an aluminum pan to catch the runoff and inject every 2-3 inches across and around the surface of the meat at varying depth levels.
You can let the injection diffuse throughout the turkey breast in the refrigerator for about 1-2 hours before putting it on the pellet grill.
Seasoning the Exterior
If you already dry brined, go easy on adding any additional the salt on the exterior but you can add some herbs or a law salt BBQ rub if you wish.
If you only injected then you can use a saltier rub on the skin at this point, or even a cajun or spicy seasoning if you want some bolder flavors for your turkey breast.
You can add a little bit of cooking oil if you wish to help the rub stick better, but don;t use too much or the skin will have a harder time crisping up.
For the crispiest skin possible, dry brine the turkey overnight and then don’t add ANY oil to the skin before putting it on the pellet grill.
Best Wood for Smoking a Turkey
You have a lot of freedom when it comes to choosing the right wood to smoke your turkey.
Mesquite and hickory will give a much more aggressive smoke flavor. This is perfect for turkey you plan to use on sandwiches or eat in smaller portions with a lot of sides.
You can also go for a milder smoke flavor by choosing oak or fruitwood pellets. Pecan, apple, beech and cherry all give great results.
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.
Make sure you purchase pellets that are sized correctly to work in the hopper of your particular pellet grill, like these ones from Zgrills.
How to Smoke Your Turkey on a Pellet Grill
With a pellet grill, this is the easy part!
Just plug in the grill, choose your bird, decide whether to brine or not, then add your wood pellets.
Set the temperature to about 325 degrees, and let the grill come up to temperature.
While you technically CAN cook your turkey “low and slow” at 225-250 degrees like traditional pork and brisket barbecue, you will never get crispy skin because the fat will not render at these low temperatures.
A good pellet grill like the ones from Traeger or Camp Chef will automatically maintain their temperatures by adding more wood pellets when they need to.
So set your turkey in the cooking chamber and let the pellet grill do its thing!
Rotate hourly for even cooking.
No need to baste, this will prevent crispy skin and slow the cooking process. If you brined, your turkey will stay moist, don’t worry.
You’ll want to check periodically for doneness.
Your bird is ready to eat when you hit an internal temperature of 165 to 170 on your instant read thermometer.
If you don’t yet own an instant read thermometer, it’s going to be hard to really know when that turkey is done on the pellet grill.
One of our go-to and very affordable favorites is this waterproof model made by Kuluner.
Let the bird rest for about 15-30 minutes before carving and serving so that the juice stays in the meat where you want it.
How Do You Know When a Smoked Turkey is Done?
A good digital wireless thermometer is also a must when cooking large peices of meat like a turkey.
Pulling your smoked meat at just the right temperature is key to a high quality meal.
While instant read thermometers are great for a quick spot check of different parts of the turkey, dual Probe Wireless models let you track your turkey’s overall progress without ever leaving your lawn chair!
While we have used and recommended ThermoPro for years, lately we have also become big fans of 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!
Anyways, back to our smoked pellet grill turkey...
Pull the smoked turkey off the pellet grill when the breast reads about 160°F and the thigh reads about 170°F.
The meat will continue to rise another 5°F while its resting and will be perfect when you carve.
Cleaning Your Pellet Grill
Pellet grills remain carefree during use as long as they are well maintained in between cooks.
After you use your grill, take the time to scrub down the grill grates. Remove any residue from inside the lid. Scrape down all the other parts, too, to remove debris.
Don’t forget the grease chute and your thermometer.
Finally, vacuum out any ashy residue that might clog the grill. Then, rinse down and reassemble.
Pellet Smoking Your Thanksgiving Turkey
If you’re like me, you think all year long about the majestic beast you’ll put on the table for Thanksgiving dinner.
Plan well ahead and do a test run or two in the summer and early fall so that everything goes great on the big day.
For fall, consider brining with seasonal flavorings like sage and thyme. Then smoke on a fruitwood like pecan or apple.
Trash Can Turkey – The hottest, fastest, most fun way to cook a turkey
Looking for another FUN way to make Turkey?
More Fun Pellet Grill Recipes!
Looking for some more inspiration for things to cook on your pellet grill?
Check out some of our favorite recipes below that can easily be modified to be done on a pellet grill.
More Smoked Pork, Turkey, and Chicken
- Smoked Fresh Ham with Dark Rum Citrus Glaze
- Pellet Grilled Pork Chops
- Spatchcocked Chicken on a Pellet Grill
- Smoked Turkey Breast with Cajun Butter Injection
- Spiral Sliced Smoked Hot Dogs
- Pellet Grilled Bratwurst
- Honey Smoked Salmon
- Smoked Oysters in a Garlic White Wine Sauce
- Smoked Scallops with Lemon Butter Sauce
- Smoked Lobster Tails
- Honey Smoked Tilapia
- Smoked Halibut with Garlic BBQ Rub
- Smoked Prime Rib on a Pellet Grill
- Smoked Ribeye Roast
- Hot and Fast Smoked Beef Brisket
- Smoked Corned Beef
- Smoked and Reverse Seared Ribeye Steaks
- Pellet Grilled Steak
- Perfect Grilled Hamburgers
- Smoked Leg of Lamb with Guinness Marinade
- Smoked Lamb Chops with a Balsamic Butter Sauce
- Smoked Rack of Lamb with Garlic and Rosemary or Smoker
- Smoked and Pulled Lamb Shoulder with a Turkish Spice Rub
- Smoked Lamb Shanks
Other Odds and Ends
Trash Can Turkey – OK, technically not made on a pellet grill or smoker but one of the most fun ways there is to cook a Turkey…at over 700 degrees in only 2 hours!
You’ve got to check it out!
Pellet Grill Smoked Turkey
- Pellet Grill
- Wood Pellets
- Aluminum Foil Lined Baking Sheet
- Wire Rack
- 1 Whole Turkey Thawed and NOT pre-brined
- 1 Cup Kosher Salt
- Herbs and Seasonings to taste
- Wash and pat dry your turkey, removing any giblets from inside the cavity.
- Place the turkey on a wire rack on top of a foil lined baking sheet
- Dry Brine your turkey overnight by covering the inside and outside with a thin coating of Kosher salt and then placing in the refrigerator.
- The next day, gently rinse and wipe off any excess salt remaining on the outside of the turkey. Add any additional non-salt seasonings and herbs to the outside.
- Load your pellet grill hopper with your prefered wood pellets and turn on your Pellet Grill.
- After running the pellet grill through the startup process, set the temperature to 325-350°F and set it up for indirect heat if applicable.
- Place the turkey on the pellet grill, and flip and rotate every every hour. For crispy skin do not baste the turkey while it is cooking.
- Cook 3-4 hours, depending on the size of your turkey, until the breast reaches an internal temperature of 165°F, and the thighs reach an internal temperature of 175°F on an instant read thermometer.
- Remove the smoked turkey from the pellet grill and let it rest 30 minutes before carving and serving.