When we think of turkey, we usually think of thick slices of turkey breasts with a side of stuffing and huge smoked turkey legs. But there is so much more you can do with turkey.
The concept of pulled turkey is no different than pulled pork or shredded beef. It’s the process of smoking the bird and pulling off the succulent meat, giving you pounds upon pounds of protein for barbecue, tacos, sandwiches, nachos, salads, protein snack bags…the ideas are endless.
Think beyond Thanksgiving
A couple years ago, I started competing in the Turkey Smoke Series. It’s a contest where you’re given a turkey breast and asked to grill up a creative dish for the judges.
But turkey is such a blank canvas. It’s rich and meaty, especially when cooked properly, and because it’s so mild, it can be transformed to take on a variety of flavor profiles. I’ve included some recipes below, but I encourage you to experiment.
How to quickly thaw a turkey
One of the challenges with smoking turkey is that it’s hard to find anything but frozen whole turkeys during the summer.
Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered. I’ve created an entire thaw guide and cooking timeline that can get you from freezer to smoker to table in just a couple days.
So if you plan things right, you can buy your turkey Thursday night and have an awesome dinner on Sunday and meals for the rest of the week.
While I usually cook 12-14-pound birds for Thanksgiving, when I’m making smoked pulled turkey, I like to cook 18-20-pound birds, so I have a lot of extra meat for future meals.
Brining and Seasoning your turkey
Part of my quick thaw method includes brining the turkey. While this is optional, it results in the best, most juicy bird you can create. My brine recipe is super simple, too. It’s just water, kosher salt, sugar and turkey rub.
When it comes to seasoning your bird, think about what you’re going to do with the pulled turkey. Don’t gravitate to just Thanksgiving flavors. My turkey rub recipe is really neutral. If you use it as a base, you can add any kind of seasoning or sauce after the cook.
It includes kosher salt, lemon pepper, granulated garlic, smoked paprika and dried thyme.
Best Wood for Smoking Turkey
Now that your turkey is thawed, brined and seasoned, it’s time to smoke it.
Turkey is more delicate that beef and pork, so I like to use more mild woods like pecan or apple. And I almost always throw in one chunk of cherry wood, because I like it’s sweetness and how it helps create amber turkey skin.
How to Smoke a Turkey
You’ll see turkey recipes all over the internet with different cook temps. Some go as low as 225F degrees, while others cook at 325F and higher. When cooking turkey in the oven, 325F is pretty standard.
I personally find 275F to be a sweet spot for all sorts of different proteins, and turkey is no different. It’s low enough to impart plenty of smoke, while being high enough to reduce the cook time substantially.
You can place the turkey straight on the grill rack, but I prefer placing it in a disposable pan on a v-shaped rack. Then, I add two cups of water to the pan to generate even more moisture.
Do you see the theme here? Brining = moisture. Water bath = moisture. And I have two more moisture-locking steps coming up.
You can use any kind of grill to make smoked pulled turkey – a kettle, ceramic cooker, pellet grill, even a gas grill. Just make sure that the turkey is over the indirect heat. And if you’re using a grill where the heat is coming from one side – like a gas grill or smaller kettle, rotate the bird throughout the cook, so both sides cook evenly.
How long will it take the turkey to cook
When smoking a turkey at 275F degrees, it will take about 20 minutes per pound for the turkey breast to reach an internal temperature of 160F.
The USDA recommends cooking turkey to 165F degrees, but because of the next step, there will be carryover cooking that will take the turkey into the zone. That’s why I pull it off at 160F.
Throughout the cook, about every hour or so, baste the turkey with melted butter. Be gentle. You don’t want to brush off all of the turkey rub. Instead, let the butter drizzle onto the meat and then pat it with the basting brush.
Basting it will help create a delicious skin and … you guessed it … it will help keep the turkey moist.
The final step to locking in moisture
You’ve put in so much work to create a succulent smoked turkey. Now, there’s just one more step.
When you buy rotisserie chicken at the grocery, it’s usually sold in a plastic bag or plastic container. Guess what? This helps lock in that moisture, so we’re going to do the same thing.
After smoking the turkey, remove it to a brine bag and place it in a cooler without ice – just like you would for a brisket.
Wrap it in a towel, and let it rest for an hour. During this process, the juices are going to redistribute back into the meat. It’s the same reason you let a steak rest for 10-15 minutes.
Best Way to Pull Meat on a Turkey
Congratulations! You just smoked a turkey. Sure you could carve it up like you would for Thanksgiving, but you’re here, because you’re ready for a different adventure.
It’s time to pull the turkey.
Remove it from the cooler. Put on a pair of glove liners covered by a pair of latex gloves.
I like using gloves to pull turkey, instead of forks, so I can be sure all the small bones and pieces of cartilage are removed.
I start with the breasts. Pull them away from the backbone and place them in a pan. You can shred some into pieces and leave some in larger chunks, depending on your final dish. Next, pull off the legs. They need a little extra attention, because there are tendons that run alongside the bone. You want to make sure none of those end up in the pan with the pulled turkey.
Next, I go for the thighs, followed by the wings and any other pieces I can pull off. You can keep the dark and white meat separated, if you like, but I prefer to combine them, because the dark meat is richer and juicier. The combo provides a nice balance of flavor and texture. I also like to add in a little of the pan drippings and a bit more rub.
How much pulled turkey meat you’ll end up with
A 20-pound turkey, is generally enough for 20 servings, but that doesn’t mean you’ll end up with 20 pounds of pulled turkey.
When I smoked this 20-pound bird, I ended up with nearly 6 pounds of meat. You can get a little more if you’re really diligent when pulling it. However, I’m okay with leaving a little, so when I boil the bones, I get a little meat with my broth.
One pound of smoked pulled turkey equals about 3 1/2-4 cups of meat. I save each pound in quart-size zip-top bags, so they’re ready for future meals.
Can you freeze pulled turkey
Absolutely. You’re going to end up with 5-7 bags of smoked pulled turkey. Even though you can be really diverse with the dishes you make with it, you may not want to eat turkey back-to-back-to-back.
So place a few bags in the freezer. It will stay delicious for up to six months. When it’s time to use a bag, place it in the fridge the day before to thaw.
In addition to 1-pound bags of turkey, I also like to freeze snack-size bags for quick, on-the-go protein snacks. The dogs love those, too.
How long can you save pulled turkey?
If you’re not freezing your turkey, it can be saved in the fridge for 3-4 days.
Recipes you can make with pulled turkey
I’ve talked a lot about the versatility of smoked pulled turkey, so I wanted to share a few recipe examples to help inspire you. First, you can absolutely mix pulled turkey with your favorite bottle of BBQ sauce and serve it with some buns, onions and pickles. Or you can try the below recipes.
Brine: Remove the turkey from its packaging and remove the innards. Place the turkey in the turkey brine and refrigerate for 15 hours.
Heat Smoker: Heat the smoker to 275F degrees with an indirect zone. As an option, you can add 1 chunk pecan and cherry wood or use pecan and cherry pellets.
Season: Remove the turkey from the brine and pat it dry. Add a stick of butter in the cavity. Rub the turkey with mustard and sprinkle liberally with 2-3 tablespoons Turkey Rub. Place the turkey on a v-rack in an aluminum pan.
Smoke: Add the turkey to the smoker. Pour two cups water into the pan. Melt the remaining stick of butter and baste the turkey every hour. Continue cooking until the breast meat reaches 160F internal temp. It should take about 20 minutes per pound.
Rest: Remove the turkey from the grill and carefully place it in a brining bag. Set the bag on a towel in a cooler without ice for one hour. Save the drippings.
Pull: Remove the turkey from the cooler and bag. Pull the meat from the turkey, removing the bones and cartilage.
Season: Toss the pulled meat with the remaining tablespoon of Turkey Rub and any drippings you want to add.
Enjoy: Eat right away or save for later to use in many more recipes.