If you recently got into smoking or are planning to invest in this amazing hobby, then this article is perfect for you!
Turkey is an incredibly easy meat to smoke and an easy place to start experimenting with flavors and techniques.
It has a very neutral flavor itself which will allow you to properly experience the outcome of the flavor pairings you choose to use.
So, what are the best woods to smoke turkey with? Personally, we love lightly flavored smoking woods like apple, maple, alder, and cherry wood. But, heavier woods such as oak, hickory, and pecan can also work fantastic if used correctly.
Today, we will be having a much more in-depth look at these woods, how to use them and how not to use them. We have also included some very handy tips that will elevate your smoking skills to a new level!
What Is Smoking?
Smoking is a fascinating cooking technique that is used mainly to help preserve food. However, today, smoking is also simply used to add delicious woody flavors, give the food a brown color, and ultimately, cook it through.
To briefly explain, the food that is being smoked is exposed to burning or smoldering dried materials like wood, leaves, or fruit.
The aromas are released from these ingredients and are infused into the item that is being smoked, for example, turkey.
There are also different smoking methods that can be used. T6he most common ones include cold smoking, warm smoking, liquid smoking, and smoke roasting.
Cold smoking doesn’t apply any heat to the food item. It only infuses the flavor. This is often done with smoked bacon or smoked hams – the meat itself remains raw even after the smoking process has taken place.
Cold smoking is generally done between 68-86°F—not nearly high enough to cook the food. These cold-smoked items can then be dried or sold as-is and cooked before being eaten.
Hot smoking cooks the food while the flavor is being infused. The food is usually smoked between 126-176°F.
These products can be consumed immediately without having to be cooked at all. But, if food is smoked at temperatures higher than 185°F, it causes the item to shrink, which also alters the flavor.
And finally, roast smoking, also known as barbecuing or pit-roasting. This method uses both roasting and smoking techniques.
You usually get specialized equipment for this method like a wood-fired oven, a smoke-roaster, or a barbeque pit. You can also create a make-shift smoke-roaster in an oven. But, we’ll get to that later!
What’s The Difference Between Chunks, Chips, And Pellets?
Now, naturally, there are many kinds of wood you can smoke turkey meat (or any other ingredient) with. The different types of wood have different flavors and even different intensities.
If you are looking to buy smoking wood in a store or online, you will see that there are a few different forms available. But, what do they mean?
Chunks of wood are the largest form you can buy them in. They are very bulky and can generally smolder or burn for a longer time.
These are perfect when you want to cook the food as you are smoking it. They will burn quickly and create a lot of heat.
When the chunks burn longer (because they burn slower), it also means they smoke the food for longer. This means you can pack a lot of smoky flavor into the piece of turkey meat without having to constantly create more smoke.
Wood chips are much smaller as compared to chunks. They are still 100% wood and aren’t processed in any way. The benefits of using wood chips are that they don’t burn as long or create high temperatures.
This makes them perfect for cold smoking and for smoking food briefly. Wood chips will have to be constantly replaced if you need to smoke something for a couple of hours.
They turn to ash relatively quickly depending on how big they are.
These pellets are usually made from compressed ground-up wood and other organic matter. These pellets produce intense heat very quickly and create a ton of smoke.
Pellet smokers specifically use smoking wood pellets and cannot use anything else. Just keep this in mind when choosing a specific form of wood for your smoker.
The 7 Best Woods To Smoke Turkey
Turkey is a great meat option to smoke as it has a relatively clean flavor profile. What we mean by this is that it isn’t already heavy like red game meat or pork, so you can use a ton of different woods with it!
You can even use a combination of different woods if you’d like. You can also use cold smoking, warm smoking, or smoke-roasting techniques.
1. Cherry Wood
This is arguably the most highly recommended option when it comes to choosing a smoking wood for turkey. It pairs well with any type of meat!
Cherry wood has an intense flavor that is slightly sweet. It complements the turkey meat beautifully, almost in a similar way cranberry sauce does!
What also makes this an excellent smoking wood is that it works well with virtually any flavor profile you choose.
This means that you don’t have to worry about it planning flavor pairings in advance. Cherry wood will most likely go well with any turkey brine you use.
Furthermore, this wood will give the turkey meat a beautiful deep shade of pink or red.
To increase the smokiness of this wood, you can pair it with some hickory or oak wood chips as well. If you pair it with some applewood, it will give the meat a deliciously fruity flavor.
You probably already know by now that poultry pairs really well with apple. So, using apple wood for smoking turkey doesn’t really surprise us.
Applewood is a naturally fruity wood that doesn’t have a very prominent flavor. But, this is exactly why it works so well with turkey. It allows you to get creative with your brine and only add hints of smokiness to the meat.
One downside to the wood is that it takes quite some time to infuse the bird with its smoke.
So, to prevent you from drying out the turkey meat, we would recommend using apple wood for cold smoking or extended periods of smoking at lower temperatures.
3. Pecan Wood
Pecan wood also adds sweeter flavors to your mildly flavored turkey meat. Even sweeter than cherry wood or applewood! And, of course, it also adds a slight nuttiness to the meat, similar to pecan nuts.
However, pecan wood has extremely powerful smoke flavors that can easily overwhelm any other flavor you want to bring forward.
Don’t smoke your meat for too long or at too high temperatures. And, if you are using it, don’t use a very flavor-filled brine.
We highly recommend first testing a small piece of turkey with pecan wood before smoking an entire bird. Pecan wood is a very acquired taste that not everybody likes.
And, never pair it with other strongly flavored woods like hickory or oak. The smoke flavors will not blend well at all!
4. Maple Wood
Maple wood is a sweet wood with honey-like flavors. It isn’t very smoky and can be paired with other ingredients to create a smooth blend of flavors.
You have to choose your spices and herbs carefully thought, because it isn’t as versatile as cherry wood.
Then, you also get sugar-maple wood, which is what we specifically recommend using with turkey. You can use it to either cold smoke, hot smoke, or roast-smoke your meat.
And, you aren’t likely to over-smoke turkey with this meat! It doesn’t become bitter very quickly, which is great for long smoking times.
5. Hickory Wood
Not many people recommend using hickory wood for smoking turkey. However, we have found that if it is done correctly, it can create excellently smoked meat.
Hickory is a very strong wood with a rich earthy and robust flavor. So, don’t smoke your meat for too long and preferably don’t cook the turkey with it, just cold smoking.
The high temperatures will produce intense flavors that will easily overpower the delicate flavor of the turkey.
We also love the versatility of hickory wood. It can be used in sweeter flavor profiles or more savory ones. We highly recommend giving it a try and playing around with smoking times and brine flavors.
6. Alder Wood
Alder wood has an even more delicate flavor as compared to apple wood and cherry wood.
It is perfect for long periods of smoking and smoking at high temperatures. It is very difficult to get alder wood to overpower your turkey meat. This is the perfect wood for beginners to use!
This wood will also enable you to play around with herbs and spices in your brine or even stuffing. It is also versatile and blends smoothly with most ingredients. And, it will add an earthy smoky aftertaste to your meat that is simply to die for!
Last, but certainly not least on our list today, is oak. Oak is a common smoking wood used for a lot of meats. The main reason it isn’t often paired with turkey is because of its strong flavor, just like with hickory wood.
But, again, if you choose the smoking technique and smoking times well, you can create deliciously oaky and earthy-flavored turkey meat.
Don’t worry too much about creating flavor-filled brines, because the oakiness will most likely overpower it.
We also recommend trying a small piece of turkey with oak wood before smoking the entire turkey. You don’t want to waste any food or your time.
Tips For Smoking Turkey
We have made a list of some useful tips and tricks you can use when smoking turkey meat.
Now, while you don’t have to follow every one of them, we do recommend giving them a try at least. They will take your turkey from average to mind-blowing!
- Turkey meat isn’t particularly high in fat. So, there isn’t much to help add moisture (and juiciness) to the turkey meat. For this reason, we don’t recommend using particularly high temperatures or smoking the meat for too long. Do not exceed 225°F if possible.
- Line the bottom of your smoker with heavy-duty foil or place the turkey inside of a tray, especially when basting it! There is nothing worse than scrubbing the smoker for days trying to remove the burnt turkey drippings.
- Once you start smoking, don’t constantly open the smoker. This releases built-up heat and smoke (aka flavor). Rather check the meat after at least half of the cooking time has passed.
- We cannot stress enough the importance of brining turkey meat that will be smoked. Brining it adds additional flavor and much-needed moisture. Combine 1 part water and 1 part salt. You can brine the meat for 1 hour per pound. You can also add a ton of herbs and spices to your brine and pair them with the wood you will be using.
- Always check the internal temperature before removing the turkey from the smoke roaster. The thighs should read 180°F while the breasts should be 170°F.
- Add moisture to the turkey while it is cooking. Because turkey doesn’t have a lot of fat and sometimes the smoking times are quite long, a basting sauce will do wonders! Place the turkey in a pan with a low-sugar basting sauce. Then, brush it over the meat every 30 minutes or so.
You don’t need a fancy piece of equipment to smoke your meat. You can actually just use your oven!
Now, there are a few things to keep in mind when using your oven.
First, it is best to use wood chips. You do not want any flames inside of the oven and the wood doesn’t need to create heat. The actual oven itself can make the heat.
Also, you will need a container that is oven-proof within which the chips can sit. You shouldn’t be attached to this container as it will likely discolor.
First, soak your wood chips in water for at least 1 hour. This will help prevent them from catching alight but still enable them to smoke. Remove them from the water when you want to use them.
Then, place the container with soaked chips at the bottom of the oven or on the bottom rack.
Next, place your turkey inside of a tray and above the chips. Now, as the turkey heats and gets cooked, the chips will gradually heat and start producing smoke.
This is by far the safest method to use that won’t cause a fire and still produce deliciously smoked turkey!