How to Smoke Turkey Thighs
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Many people are familiar with smoking a turkey breast or a turkey leg, but what about how to smoke turkey thighs?
The higher fat content in turkey thighs along with their large size and thick skin makes them a nice option for smoking over an extended period of time.
Turkey thighs, considered the “dark meat” part of the turkey, have a lot of collagen and connective tissue that need to break down so that the meat becomes tender.
Similar to the internal temperature of a chicken thigh, a smoked turkey thigh is at its best at an internal temperature of between 180°F and 185°F.
The differences in meat texture between turkey thighs cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F and those cooked to 180°F are perfectly illustrated in the videos in my post on Oven-Roasted Turkey Thighs.
You can prepare smoked turkey thighs with a smoker, charcoal grill, or even a gas grill.
All you need is indirect heat and some smoke from wood chips (or wood pellets if you’re using a pellet grill).
Here is how to smoke turkey thighs.
What Temperature to Smoke Turkey Thighs?
You can smoke turkey thighs at an ambient temperature of between 275°F and 300°F with great results.
You don’t need to smoke turkey thighs at the standard low-and-slow temperature of 225°F.
Although there is more collagen and connective tissue in a turkey thigh than in a turkey breast, it isn’t the same as the collagen found in a beef brisket or a pork shoulder.
A smoking temperature of 225°F is necessary for the collagen in brisket and pork shoulder to break down slowly over time.
The collagen and connective tissue in these much larger animals (a steer can easily weigh over 1200lbs and a pig over 300lbs) support a lot of weight and are denser and harder to convert into gelatin.
Breaking down the collagen in a 4-month old turkey that weighs between 15 to 25lbs doesn’t require as much time as is required of those much larger animals.
Smoking a turkey thigh at 225°F (or lower) will not only add unnecessary cooking time but will also increase the amount of moisture loss in your thigh.
How Long Does It Take to Smoke a Turkey Thigh?
A 1.5 to 2lb turkey thigh will take between 2 to 3 hours to smoke to an internal temperature of 180 to 185°F on a smoker with a steady ambient temperature of between 275°F and 300°F.
I hate to use time as a guide for cooking or smoking anything.
There are too many variables from fuel source to type of smoker to the size of meat to make a definitive declaration of cooking time on any piece of meat.
The best indicator that you can use is the internal temperature of your turkey thigh in conjunction with your ambient pit or grill temperature.
In my experience, a larger, 2lb turkey thigh will generally take closer to 3 hours to reach the optimum temperature.
Rubs and Dry Brining Smoked Turkey Thighs
Turkey thighs already have a lot of moisture and are more forgiving than leaner types of smoked meat like turkey breasts.
This doesn’t mean that they can’t benefit from the enhanced flavor and moisture retention benefits that dry brining provides.
Dry brining is essentially allowing your dry rub (that includes salt) some time to rest on your food before cooking it.
The salt from your dry rub pulls out the moisture of the turkey thigh, creating a concentrated brine that is then naturally absorbed back into the thigh over time.
When this salt is reabsorbed back into the meat it dissolves muscle proteins, allowing for better moisture retention.
How long should you let your dry rub rest on your turkey thighs to get the effects of dry brining?
If you allow your dry rub to rest at least 4 hours and up to 12 hours you will see the benefits that dry brining has on your smoked turkey thighs.
What kind of ingredients should you put in your spice rub? Pretty much whatever you want.
Here are some classic ingredients that pair well with poultry:
- Salt (Kosher salt)
- Black Pepper
- Brown Sugar
- Onion Powder
- Cayenne Pepper (a tiny amount)
What about sauces and glazes? You can add your preferred barbecue sauce or glaze to the outside of your turkey thighs about 15 minutes before you pull them off the grill.
Smoked Turkey Thighs
- Smoker or Gas Grill with wood chips
- 2 Turkey Thighs 1.5 to 2 lbs
- 1 tablespoon Kosher Salt
- 1 tablespoon Brown Sugar
- 1/2 tablespoon Paprika
- 1 teaspoon Black Pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon Onion Powder
- 1/4 teaspoon Garlic Powder
- Season turkey thighs with dry rub for 4 hours and up to 12 hours before smoking. Make sure to put the dry rub underneath the skin on the meat and on the skin itself.
- Preheat your grill or smoker to a temperature of 300 degrees Fahrenheit. If using a gas grill, make an aluminum foil packet of wood chips with holes punched in it and set them on top of one of the burners to smoke. If using a charcoal grill, take a fist-size chunk of wood chips or chunks and place them on the lit charcoal.
- Place thighs on the grill or smoker and insert a meat temperature probe to track its internal temperature and place an ambient temperature probe to track your smoker's ambient chamber temperature.
- Smoke your turkey thighs at a smoking temperature of 300 degrees Fahrenheit until they reach an internal temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit. This should take between 2 to 3 hours depending on their size.