Smoked turkey breast is one of those dishes that is just as great for a weekend meal as it is for a fancy Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. Those who have smoked turkey breasts like to point out how easy it is to dry them out while smoking. That’s true, but if you follow a few basic rules your turkey breasts will be flavorful, tender and juicy.
Basic rules for smoking turkey breast
Skin-on, bone-in is the best
Nothing protects the delicate breast meat from drying out during smoking as much as skin and bone. That said, boneless and skinless turkey breasts will do just fine with this recipe as it provides an added layer of protection.
Brining is mandatory
Brining for turkey breasts is a must. It will help the meat retain more moisture during cooking. The flavored brine that I use in this recipe will also make the meat taste properly seasoned all the way through. I always use pink salt (also known as Insta Cure #1 or curing salt) when smoking turkey breasts – it protects the meat from harmful bacteria during long hours of smoking and enhances the color and flavor of the meat.
In general, brining does magic to poultry. I use brine to make roasted turkey breast and roasted chicken breast. I even brine chicken wings before smoking, and they taste fabulous, flavorful inside out and juicy.
Dry surface for best results
Always dry the surface of the meat before putting it on the smoker. Smoke will not adhere to wet surfaces and won’t penetrate the meat. I dry the meat with paper towels and let it sit at room temperature for half an hour or so while I am starting my smoker. Cold meat will cause condensation in a hot smoker, remember that. There is no need to add dry rub as the meat will be plenty flavorful from the flavored brine and smoke, but I like sprinkling a little bit of paprika and cayenne for some extra color and heat.
Smoke low and slow
Meat starts to lose water very rapidly at 150F internal. At high heat the outer parts of the meat cook much faster than the center and will lose a lot of water before the center is cooked through. Low and slow cooking will allow the meat to retain most of its water. Shoot for 215F-235F temperature in the smoker.
Keep it moist
I used to smoke turkey breasts on a rack, but now I put them in a tray filled with a ½ cup of chicken broth. I also put some butter on the sides of the tray, which will later melt and get mixed with the broth and the meat juices. This technique comes from one of the BBQ competitions I attended and it works wonders. It helps the meat stay hydrated. You can use the buttery juices as a dipping sauce later on - it's mouth watering.
After the meat has absorbed enough smoke, baste it with the buttery juices. No matter skin-on or skinless, both will benefit. Basting will make the turkey breast skin softer and less rubbery which is always a challenge with smoking low and slow. There you have it, a perfect solution.
Do not over-cook
We all know that the USDA recommended target temperature for poultry is 165F. If you pull the turkey breast from the smoker at 160F internal the temperature will continue rising to 165F. So, smoke the breast to 160F internal and let it rest for 5 minutes. Then slice and enjoy that juicy smoked turkey breast.
That said, you can do even better. As I mentioned in sous vide chicken breast post, poultry meat is perfectly safe to eat at lower temperatures if the meat is held at those temperatures for a specified minimum time. For example, turkey is perfectly safe to eat once it reaches 150F and stays at that temperature for a minimum of 4.2 minutes. All you need is a reliable BBQ thermometer and a timing device.
Here is USDA's time-temperature table for cooking ready-to-eat poultry products for your reference.
|140°F (60°C)||35 minutes|
|145°F (62.8°C)||13 minutes|
|148°F (64.4°C)||6.8 minutes|
|150°F (65.6°C)||4.2 minutes|
|152°F (66.7°C)||2.3 minutes|
|155°F (68.3°C)||54.4 seconds|
|157°F (69.4°C)||34 seconds|
|160°F (71.1°C)||16.9 seconds|
|162°F (72.3°C)||10.5 seconds|
|163°F (72.8°C)||1 second|
|165°F (73.9°C)||1 second|
Other tasty recipes to try
- Oven-roasted Turkey Breast (Brined)
- Herb-Butter Roasted Turkey Breast
- Cranberry Glazed Turkey Breast
- Smoked Chicken Breast
- 1 turkey breast
- 1/2 cup chicken broth
- 1 stick of butter cut into thin pats
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1/2 tsp cayenne optional
For the turkey brine:
- 1/2 gallon water cold
- 1/4 cup salt about 73 g
- 1 1/2 oz Cure #1 about 43 g, corresponds to 40 g of pure salt
- 1 1/2 oz sugar brown or white (about 43 g)
- 2 large carrots peeled and cut into pieces
- 2 medium onions peeled and cut into pieces
- 5 garlic cloves peeled and cut in half
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 Tbsp black pepper corns
- Bring 2 cups of water to boil in a small pan. Add the salt, sugar and Instacure and stir to dissolve. Add the rest of the ingredients and remove from heat. Cover and let cool, then mix with the rest of the water. To chill the brine faster, substitute some water for ice.
- Place the turkey breast in brine and keep refrigerated for 4-8 hours.
- Remove the breast from brine and pat dry really well. Leave at room temperature for 30 minutes or so to dry further.
- Meanwhile, pre-heat your smoker to 225F (shoot for 215F - 235F range) and get that good thin and blue smoke going. If not sure if the smoke is good, smell it - if it smells good then it's a good smoke. I highly recommend cherry wood as it gives the meat a beautiful color and a sweet smoky flavor. I avoid apple wood as it gives barely any flavor or color.
- Add the broth to a large aluminum or foil baking dish, then arrange butter pats on the inside walls of the dish. Carefully place the breast into the dish. Sprinkle with some paprika and cayenne pepper.
- Place the dish on the smoker over indirect heat and smoke for about 3-4 hours, depending on the temperature and the size of the breast, until internal temperature hits 160F. Start basting the breast with buttery juices after about 2 ½ hours, every half an hour or so. Do not add any more wood chips/chunks after you start basting.
- When done, remove the breast from the smoker and let rest for 5 minutes before slicing and serving. Use the pan juices as a dipping sauce, it’s delicious.