Weekend Chef

Weekend Chef: Thanksgiving turkey cooking tips

Smoke & Roast Turkey from a past Thanksgiving. Check out the recipe plus my Thanksgiving turkey tips here.
Smoke & Roast Turkey from a past Thanksgiving. Check out the recipe plus my Thanksgiving turkey tips here. Steve Wilson

Here are my tips for fixing the perfect bird for Thanksgiving, along with my Smoke & Roast Turkey recipe. If you have not picked up your turkey yet, be sure to check out my How to choose a Turkey for Thanksgiving post.

1. If you have time, brine! This is actually true for all poultry. Brining makes the turkey extra juicy and moist, even if you accidentally over cook it a little. Brining is easy to do (recipe below), but it does take a little extra time. Do not brine if your turkey is a self basted, flavor enhanced or a kosher turkey since they already have salt added.

2. Turkey is done at 165ºF, not 180ºF. The USDA changed the recommend safe internal temperature form 180ºF to 165ºF back in 2006, but a lot of recipes still have the old 180ºF. That 15º is the difference between juicy and dry breast meat in most turkeys.

3. Use an oven-proof thermometer to see when the turkey is done. Forget wiggling the legs or trusting that pop-up thermometer that comes with the bird, or you will end up with an over cooked turkey. The best way to tell if your turkey is done is with an oven-proof thermometer stuck about 2 ½ inches in the thickest part of the turkey breast (make sure the thermometer is not touching bone or your temp will be off). I like pulling my bird at 160ºF, the internal temperature will carry over another 5º after being pulled getting you to the recommended USDA 165ºF.

4. For crispy skin, let your turkey air-dry before roasting. To do this you need to pat the turkey dry with paper towels and put in the refrigerator uncovered for at least 4 hours to air-dry the skin. Then rub a couple of tablespoons of canola oil over skin before roasting and you will have nice, crispy skin.

5. Use aluminum foil to protect skin from burning. I keep a close eye on my Turkey the last couple of hours roasting to make sure the skin does not burn. Once the wing tips and the ends of the legs look the right shade of brown I will cover them up with foil to keep them from burning. Sometimes I will also need to cover the whole breast or part of the breast with foil. Really, the best rule of thumb is once any area of the skin is the color you want, cover it with foil so it stays that color and does not burn.

Smoke & Roast Turkey

Here is a simple turkey recipe where you first smoke your bird for 1 to 2 hours before roasting to give your turkey a little smoky flavor. Don’t like smoke? Then just skip the smoking step and go straight to roasting.

  • 1 natural turkey (thawed if previously frozen)
  • 2 tablespoons of canola oil
  • Zest of one orange
  • Aluminum foil
  • Oven-proof thermometer
  • Grill/smoker


4 to 6 quarts of brine

For every 2 quarts of water mix:

  • ½ cup canning/table salt or 1 cup kosher
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon pickling spices (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
  • Juice from 1 orange (optional)
  • Plastic brining bag or a resealable plastic bag large enough for your turkey.


Place turkey into brining bag, be sure to remove the giblets and neck from body and neck cavity first.

Mix up 2 quarts of brine at a time by mixing brine ingredients with water.

Add brine to brining bag, 2 quarts at a time until the turkey is fully covered, and then seal bag.

Place bag in a roasting pan to catch any liquid (if the bag springs a leak), then place into the refrigerator for 24 hours.

Remove turkey from brine and rinse off in cold water. Pat dry with paper towel, and put back into refrigerator on roasting pan for 4 hours to air-dry the skin.


Pre-heat smoker to 225º, if you don’t have a smoker you can set your grill up for indirect heat and put some wood chips in a foil pouch to add some smoke.

Take turkey out of the refrigerator and rub 2 tablespoons of canola oil on the skin along with the zest of one orange (optional).

Place turkey breast side up in smoker directly on rack (no-pan) and insert thermometer probe into the thickest part of the breast. Smoke for 1 or 2 hours depending on how much smoke flavor you want. I would suggest trying 1 hour the first time smoking a turkey and adjust your smoke time accordingly for the next time you fix a smoked turkey.

After smoking, raise the temperature to the smoker/grill to 325ºF and roast until the temperature on the thermometer reaches 160ºF. If your smoker cannot get to 325ºF, use your oven.

Here is an approximate roasting time chart to use after the bird has been smoked. Times can vary wildly depending on all sorts of factors. So be sure to keep checking the temperature on the thermometer.

  Turkey Weight  Cooking Time
  8 to 12 pounds   1 ½ to 2 hours
  12 to 14 pounds  2 to 2 ½ hours
  14 to 18 pounds  2 ½ to 3 hours
  18 to 24 pounds  3 to 3 ½ hours

While turkey is roasting, use aluminum foil to protect skin once brown from burning (tip 5).

Pull Turkey from oven/grill when the thermometer reaches 160ºF, then let rest, uncovered for 20 minutes before carving.

If Turkey finishes early you can leave the temperature probe in breast and cover or place in (cool) oven to try to hold the temp of the bird. If the thermometer temp goes bellow 140ºF, wrap bird in foil and reheat in oven at its lowest temperature settings till the temp reads 145ºF - 150ºF, then turn oven off. The Turkey should be good for another hour.

Did I mention gravy?

I find the drippings from a brined turkey a little to salty to make gravy, so I just use the stuff in the jar. Besides, a brined turkey is pretty juicy and does not need that much gravy.