We’ve written about frying turkey, spatchcocking it, roasting it, thawing it, even smoking a whole turkey. But what if you want turkey and don’t have half a platoon of eaters coming over for Thanksgiving? Easy. Smoke some turkey breast.
Smoking just the breasts of a turkey is a fantastic way to cook that lean and tender muscle. There’s no mucking about with dark meat/lighte meat temperature differences, there’s just cooking one thing very well. Whether you want an easier way to do turkey at Thanksgiving or you just want a delicious dinner that will result in tasty leftover sandwiches, smoked turkey breast is a great way to go.
Let’s take a look at the tools, temps, and method (adapted from MeatChurch.com) for fantastic smoke-roasted turkey breast.
Challenges for a perfect smoked turkey breast, and how to face them
Turkey breast is chronically overcooked. Why? Because it’s so low in fat and connective tissue. The meat goes from perfectly cooked to overcooked in a matter of a few degrees, and there’s no forcing the lost moisture back into the meat.
This drying-out problem is exacerbated by the breast’s geometry: that long, thin tail is likely to overcook before the thick center is done. So even if you get one part of it done perfectly, another part probably won’t be great.
Well, those are not insurmountable problems. In fact, a little thermal thinking and a little science can get us to a place with pretty much perfect breast meat.
Smoked turkey breast temperature
First, let’s get right to the thermal meat of the matter: if you want juicy turkey breast, you can’t overcook it. While it is common practice to cook poultry to 165°F (74°C) “for food safety,” you can achieve the same bacterial kill-off levels at lower temps held for longer times. In fact, skinless turkey breast reaches the same kill-off at only 157°F (69°C) in only 47.9 seconds. It will have the same safety at 155°F (68°C) in 1.2 minutes! Every degree you shave off of the final temp (as long as you stay within the food-safe range) saves you more and more moisture within the turkey breast, so don’t cook it all the way up to 165°F (74°C)! Use your Smoke X2™ to monitor the temps throughout the cook and pull out your trusty Thermapen® ONE to verify the temp once the alarm on the Smoke X2 sounds.
Final internal temps are important, of course. But they are only half the story. You need to consider your smoker temp, as well. If your smoker is at 425°F (218°C) when you reach 157°F (69°C) in the thermal center, the meat around that thermal center will be well overcooked. And the carryover cooking will ensure that the thermal center also gets overcooked! Cooking a tender piece of meat like this at a lower, gentle temperature is the way to go. We went with Matt Pittman’s advice and cooked ours at 275°F (135°C). At that temp, the thermal gradients between the surface and the center remain relatively small.
Brining turkey for temperature protection
Brining meat does more than make it salty. When proteins interact with salt, they denature in a way that prevents them from scrunching up and squeezing out their water when cooked. Bathing turkey breasts in a salt bath for 3–6 hours will work especially well on the outermost parts of the meat, which also happen to be the parts taht overcook and dry out the most. By using salt as a thermal defense solution, we can get turkey that is more perfectly done throughout, not just in the very center.
A basic brine of 1 cup of kosher salt per gallon of water (you can also add a half-cup of sugar if you like) is great for this purpose. We aren’t brining for deep flavor so much as we are brining for texture, but, if you want more flavor, add it!
Seasoning a smoked turkey breast
How you season your turkey is up to you (I like something with a little sweet and a little heat, but lots and lots of paprika for color), but no matter how you decide to season it, you need it to stick to the bird while you cook it. For that, we employ a binder: mayo.
Yep. Apply a thin coat of good-ol’ mayonnaise to you turkey breasts before seasoning, and you’ll get better adhesion and better “bark.” The proteins in the mayo act as a simple glue when they heat up, binding with the spices. But beware! Use too much mayo and it will melt and slough off the surface of the bird, taking your seasonings with it, before the proteins have the chance to firm up. You really just need a thin, scraped-on coating.
A note on buying turkey breasts
This recipe call for boneless, skinless breasts, an item that is not readily available at every grocery store. But you can often find a breast roast that is just a bone-in breast pair. We bought one of those and cut the breast meat off of the partial carcass, then pulled their skins off. If you want something particularly tasty, render that skin gently and cook it until it becomes crispy like bacon.
If you try this recipe, you’ll certainly want to make it again. Why not make it up this weekend? You can call it practice for Thanksgiving, and you’ll get some wicked good sandwich meat in the bargain. By keeping an eye on critical temps and giving thermal care to the cook, you can make juicy, amazing smoked turkey that you and your whole family will love. Let us know how it goes!Print
Boneless smoked turkey breasts, adapted from a recipe found on MeatChurch.com
Brine the meat
- Combine the cup of kosher salt (and the sugar if using) with one gallon of water. Stir to combine until all the salt is dissolved.
- Place the breasts in the brine and put the brine in the refrigerator for 3–6 hours.
Cook the turkey
- As the meat approaches the end of its brining time, preheat your smoker to 275°F (135°C). If using Billows™ BBQ Control Fan, set the fan-control channel on your Smoke X2 for that temp.
- Remove the meat from the brine and discard the brine.
- Pat the meat dry with paper towels.
- Smear the mayo onto the surface of the meat, scraping it with a gloved finger so that only a bare coat remains.
- Season the breasts on both sides with your favorite poultry rub.
- Place the turkey in the smoker and probe a breast with your Smoke X2. Set the high-temp alarm for 157°F (69°C).
- Smoke until the high-temp alarm sounds on your meat channel.
- Use your Thermapen ONE to verify that 157°F (69°C) is the lowest temp you can find in the meat.
- Remove the meat from the smoker and let it rest for a few minutes before carving in.
- Slice it up and serve it!
Note: only slice as much as you will eat. The leftovers are better if you let the breast cool as a chunk then slice the meat for sandwiches off of that chunk. Slicing it all when hot, then cooling it will yield drier sandwich meat.
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