turkey on farm at sunset

Turkey Barbecue

Turkey Barbecue or BBQ or Bar-B-Que or Barbeque is a type of hot smoking

The reason for this turkey barbecue technique is to infuse food with the wonderful flavor of smoke while slowly cooking the turkey.


To intensify the great smoky flavor, the food has to stay in the smoke for a long time. To accomplish this without overcooking, turkey barbeque takes place at a relatively low temperatures. But, if the cooking temperature is too low this can become unsafe.

Turkey barbecue can safely be done between 250 and 300 degrees Fahrenheit according to the USDA, and that is the standard temperature for turkey barbecue.


Smoked Turkey Legs


Turkey has a lot of mass. That can be a problem if the bird is cooked at too low a temperature, because it takes a long time for the bird to warm up.

The final temperature isn't the problem. We can be sure that all bacteria are killed when the internal temperature of the turkey is 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

The problem is what happens while the turkey is heating up to that final internal temperature.

The "danger zone" for bacterial growth is between 40 and 140 degrees F. From the time that you take the turkey out of the refrigerator it begins to warm. If cooked at too low a temperature it warms too slowly and stays in the danger zone too long.

While passing through the danger zone, dangerous bacteria can grow and produce toxins. Toxins may not be destroyed, even after the bird reaches the safe internal temperatures of 165 degrees F which will kill the bacteria.

So how do we prevent these problems?

First, for turkey barbecue, start with a turkey less than 16 lbs. - it will move through the danger zone more quickly than a larger bird.

Make sure that your barbecue is at least 250 degrees F at the start of cooking. (That is, don't begin heating your barbecue with the food in it.) Keep the temperature at or above 250 degrees F throughout the barbecue or hot smoking process.


Okay that is how we stay safe - now what equipment do we need?

For a turkey barbecue there are many types of cookers available and the price range is very wide. You can use anything from a covered gas or charcoal grill, a water smoker, a kamado ceramic charcoal cooker, a wood or charcoal smoker to a disk or pellet smoker. If you think of others please let us know.

Prepare the turkey for barbecue or hot smoking:

If you have enough advance time for preparing the turkey barbecue, consider wet brining it to introduce moisture and then let it sit uncovered in the refrigerator overnight to create a "pellicle," a hardened outer layer of skin. The pellicle will seal in juices as the turkey is barbequed or hot-smoked and it also gives the smoky flavor something to stick to.

Turkeys destined for hot smoking or barbecue should not be stuffed and they should weigh less than 16 lbs. Although there are some smokers that do cook at much higher temperatures (i.e. the Big Green Egg) and can handle larger turkeys, we still would not put stuffing in the bird.

Techniques for Smokers and Covered Grills:

Since turkey barbecue is done at a much lower temperature than oven roasting, there are some differences in technique.

Set up your smoker or covered grill for "indirect cooking," meaning that the heat source is not directly under the bird. Do not put the turkey in the cooker until it reaches cooking temperature. Do not add the wood chips or chunks until after the turkey is placed in the cooker.

For a charcoal grill, indirect cooking requires placing embers at each side of the grill with a drip pan between the piles. Some grills have side baskets for placing the embers. Just don't place your turkey over the hot coals. Place it over the drip pan.

It is best to use lump charcoal, and you shouldn't use Match Light briquettes or other briquettes containing lighter fluid. Even Kingsford, the makers of Match Light briquettes advises against using them while barbecuing because "applying Match Light will cause lighter fluid to permeate the meat" and "(a)dding to an existing fire may also cause a flare-up."

There is no need to use lighter fluid at all for your turkey barbecue. You can quickly and easily light charcoal in a tubular chimney starter. Use a sheet of newspaper with with a teaspoon of cooking oil poured on it. Crumple the oiled paper, place it in the bottom of the chimney starter with the charcoal on top and light the paper with a match. When the charcoal is lit, pour the embers onto the the grill on either side of the drip pan.

Adjust the grill vents so that the temperature is about 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Try to maintain that temperature throughout your turkey barbecue. Every hour you will need to add coals to each side, and more smoking chips.

Weber's Big Book of Grilling, makes the following recommendations for the number of briquettes needed for cooking turkey on their charcoal grills:

Diameter Of Grill In Inches
Briquettes For The First Hour
Briquettes To Add Each Additional Hour
14 1/2
15 per side
6 per side
18 1/2
20 per side
7 per side
22 1/2
25 per side
8 per side
37 1/2
75 per side
22 per side

For a turkey barbecue with a gas grill with two burners, light one burner and place the turkey over a drip pan which is located over the unlit side. For a three or four burner grill, light the outside burners and place the turkey over the center. Always place the turkey over a drip pan.

Some of the newer grills have a slide out smoker drawer with their own burner. If you don't have such luxury, just use your gas or charcoal fire to create smoke. Add the smoky flavor by using wood chips or chunks. (There is no need to soak them, really.) Wrap the chips or chunks in heavy aluminum foil and poke holes in it. Place this packet on your heat source and it will create the smoke.

Adjust the temperature to between 250 and 300 degrees F. Add a new wood chip packet about every hour throughout the cooking process.

For a water smoker place your charcoal embers, lit from a chimney starter, in your charcoal pan (the lower pan) while the body of the smoker is removed. Place the water pan and smoker body in place and pour hot water into the water pan. Place the lid on the water smoker and let it come up to temperature. Place the turkey on the grill and cover the smoker with its lid. Add wood chips through the smoker door. Add charcoal and wood chips as necessary, about every hour, to maintain the heat and smoke.

For a turkey barbecue with a kamado style ceramic charcoal cooker be sure to read and follow the directions that come with the unit.

Fill the fire box with charcoal half way up the fire ring. Mix chunk hardwood in the charcoal, then pour half a chimney starter full of embers over the charcoal in the firebox. Be sure there is more than enough charcoal to last for the entire cooking process. (Any extra charcoal will not be wasted in this type of cooker.)

Set up the turkey on a v-rack over a drip pan with liquid in it. You can also use other baffles such as the Big Green Egg plate to further ensure the indirect cooking required for a turkey barbecue. Add liquid to the drip pan as necessary to maintain moist heat and keep the drippings from burning. Adjust the temperature by opening or closing the vents.

The real advantage to this type of cooker is its insulation property. It seals out cold and wind which can make a thin walled smoker lose so much heat that the bird has to be finished in the oven. It also seals in the heat so that much less charcoal is needed than in other charcoal cooking methods.

A dry smoker (the ones with a firebox separate from the cooking chamber) are great for a turkey barbecue, but you should never use treated wood (toxins) and do not use soft wood like fir, pine, spruce, or cedar which contain sap.

Hardwood logs can have some unpleasant flavors. For that reason, the logs should burned to embers before using them for cooking. Before adding more wood to a smoker, burn it to embers in a separate fire pit and then add the embers to your cooking fire.

Don't place the turkey in the smoke chamber until the chamber has come up to temperature.

A turkey barbecue is easily done with a disk or pellet smoker. These units burn disks or pellets which smoke and transmit the flavor of the wood they were made from. These types of smokers often have the cooking temperature maintained automatically.

Turkey Barbecue Recipe - A Favorite:

Okay, your grill or smoker is set up for indirect medium heat 250 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Your turkey is thoroughly thawed and has been wet or dry brined.

Spicing with a Paste:

Now we will add flavor. We know the smoke will add great flavor, but barbeque become even better with the addition of the right spices. These can be added as an injection, a turkey rub, a marinade, a paste, or even a mop (wet basting mixture).

Because turkeys are low in fat, we like the following spicy paste:

1 stick butter
1 bulb (not a clove) of garlic peeled
6 Tablespoons of ground black pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon dry sage or 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh sage
1/2 teaspoon dry rosemary or 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon secret ingredient

Mix the butter and spices in a food processor or with a mortar and pestle. Loosen the turkey's skin at the neck. Carefully work your finger between the skin and the breast. Go slowly and work more fingers and then your hand between the skin and breast to make a pocket. Open this as far as possible without tearing the skin. Rub the paste under the skin, again being careful not to tear the skin. Finish by rubbing the remaining paste on the outside of the turkey.

Other barbecue finishing sauces can be found here.

Barbecue or Hot Smoking Process:

Barbecue or hot smoking is a careful, slow process. At a temperature of 250 degrees Fahrenheit in a smoker or covered grill, the turkey will take 30 minutes per pound to cook. We protect the bird from drying out by covering it with wet cheesecloth during the first part of the cooking. Take about 5 to 6 feet of cheesecloth, wet it with water, wrap the bird, and tie the ends.

Place the turkey in the smoker or covered grill breast side down. Wet the cheesecloth when it begins to dry. After about 5 hours, remove the cheesecloth by cutting it off with a scissors. Turn the turkey breast side up. Continue cooking until the internal temperature is 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

Remove the turkey and let it rest loosely covered with foil for 20 minutes. Carve and serve.

Unfortunately when smoking a turkey like this, it is very difficult to estimate when it will be done. The 30 minutes per pound is just a guideline. Air temperature, wind, and many other factors will effect the cooking time. The only way to know when it is done is by using a thermometer. Have snacks for guests. On a positive note this turkey is great cold, so if it is done early there is no problem.

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Copyright © 2009 - 2019 The Perfect Turkey
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