And if you missed Thanksgiving, spring gobbler season is not that far away!

by Heath Wood

It is that time of year again. Thanksgiving is when people stop to reflect on all they are thankful for. Time is typically spent with family and friends enjoying one of the outdoorsman’s favorite meats…turkey!

President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a National holiday in 1863. Since then, the turkey has become a staple to the traditional meal that families gather on this special day to enjoy. Many rely on their favorite grocery store to get their bird; others want to share their harvest by preparing a wild turkey. Either way, the turkey is the king of the roost on Thanksgiving Day.

Most folks will prepare their Thanksgiving bird in the oven, while others deep fry whole turkeys. Another way (and one of my favorites) is to smoke a bird on my Traeger Grills wood-fired smoker.

Below are the steps to prepare and cook your Thanksgiving turkey in a smoker. Whether you prefer wild or store-bought, the results will be a tender, juicy, great-tasting meal that your family and friends will rave over this Thanksgiving.

Brining Your Turkey

One of the most critical steps to having a juicy, excellent-tasting turkey is to brine your bird for 24 hours before cooking.

Brining consists of taking the meat after it is completely thawed and brining it in a water/salt solution to help soak up moisture, salt, and other flavors to produce a better-tasting bird as well as to enhance the juiciness. For whole turkeys, use a food-grade 5-gallon bucket or a clean cooler to brine. I have used a 5-gallon bucket with:

  • 16 cups of water
  • ½ cup kosher salt
  • ½ dark brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon dried red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon dried sage
  • 2 cloves of fresh garlic sliced

The above list will brine a 14- to 18-lb. turkey. You can add other ingredients for flavor, such as sliced oranges, lemons, and a mixture of spices.

For those who love an incredible mixture of flavors yet want it a more straightforward way, I suggest using the Trager Orange Brine and Turkey Rub Kit. The mixture is a pre-measured brine that includes citrus, garlic, kosher salt, and other spices. All you do is add water.

After mixing the brine, let the turkey sit in it in the refrigerator or an iced cooler for 24 hours before cooking.

Preparing the Turkey

The next step to achieve a tender and juicy turkey is adequately preparing the bird. When using a wild turkey, I prefer removing the breast and cooking it separately. When cooking the breast only, I cut the brine mixture in half, still letting it soak 24 hours.

Next, use butcher’s twine and wrap the breast to keep the meat together while cooking. (Cooking instructions below.)

When preparing a whole turkey, no matter if store-bought or wild, I prefer to use a method called spatchcocking. To do this, you must remove the turkey’s backbone with a sharp knife or scissors. Once the backbone is removed, turn the turkey over flat with the breast facing up and then push on the breast like giving CPR to a patient. Push hard on the breast, and you will hear a snap of the chest bone. After the chest bone is snapped, the turkey should lay flat. That is spatchcocking a turkey. This method allows a quicker cook that produces a crispy skin and juicy inside.

When preparing my Thanksgiving turkey, I prefer spatchcocking before brining. I then use my Yeti Tundra 45 Hard Cooler to brine. After mixing Traeger Orange Brine with a quart of boiling water, I cool it by adding a gallon of water. After the water is cooled, I place the flattened turkey into the cooler’s bottom filled with the orange brine. Last, I submerge the turkey entirely with water and a little bit of ice to keep cool while brining for 24 hours.

Cooking the Turkey

Once the turkey has been prepared and brined for 24 hours, it is time to cook. When cooking my Thanksgiving turkey, I use the Traeger Grills Pro 780 pellet smoker.

First, preheat the smoker to 225 degrees using Traeger Turkey Blend pellets— a blend of oak, hickory, maple, and natural rosemary. Part of the Traeger kit includes pellets, orange brine, and turkey rub.

After the smoker is heated, place the turkey directly onto the grates.

Place a meat probe directly into the breast. Cook until the internal temperature is 140 degrees.

Proceed to wrap the turkey in foil with a fair amount of butter. Place the wrapped turkey into a foil pan, then put back into the smoker.

Continue cooking until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees.

Pull off the grill and let rest in foil for at least 30 minutes before serving.

It is wrapping the turkey in foil for the cook’s remainder that seals in all the moisture. Letting the turkey rest in the foil inside the pan allows for all the juice from the pan to penetrate back into the bird while resting for 30 minutes or longer.

Smoked turkey on the Traeger Grill produces an excellent tasting centerpiece to the Thanksgiving dinner table. And if you’re reading this after Thanksgiving, there’s always spring gobbler season!

Heath Wood has been published in many major hunting magazines, websites, and blogs for over the last 15 years. His favorite topics include deer, turkey, and predator hunting. Wood has also appeared on Bass Pro Shop's Outdoor World TV, Hunters Specialties' The Stuff of Legends and the popular DVD series Cuttin' and Struttin', as well as the NWTF's Turkey Call TV. Heath enjoys helping introduce newcomers to hunting.

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