My, that’s a big bird! If you want to give it a smoke worthy of a Thanksgiving feast, then you’re going to need wood that’s up to the task.
And we’re not just talking any type of wood to smoke turkey. We’re talking gourmet-quality wood that checks off five key quadrants:
- Produces smoky-sweet flavor
- Won’t overpower your turkey
- Contains very little moisture
- Is the right size for your smoker or grill
- Works well with proper turkey smoking techniques
In this post, we’ll explain how to find the best wood for smoking turkey. Then, you’ll be able to order wood that checks off all five of these boxes for exceptional flavor.
1. Stick with Subtly Sweet Hardwood for Classic Flavor
Let’s start with the type of wood. The two main categories of firewood are hardwood and softwood. Hardwood logs come from trees that lose their leaves in the fall whereas softwood comes from evergreen trees.
When choosing wood for cooking meat like turkey, you want to stick with hardwood for two main reasons:
- Hardwood is typically denser than softwood, so it produces hotter burns for better cooking.
- Hardwood also produces cleaner and better-tasting smoke than softwood.
So, at the bare minimum, you’ll want to make sure the wood you choose to cook your turkey is from the hardwood family. This includes woods like oak, cherry, hickory and sugar maple.
Of course, we’re guessing you want to use more than merely passable wood. Instead, you want hardwood that will imbue your turkey with the best possible flavor.
Hardwood best enhances turkey when it produces a mild smoke and just the right hint of sweetness. Mild smoke is key because too much smoky flavor will drown out the natural taste of the bird. And the added sweetness will take your turkey to the next level of deliciousness.
So, which hardwood species fit this bill? We recommend two subtly sweet species: cherry and sugar maple.
Cherry Wood Adds a Hint of Fruity Flavor
Cherry is a particularly good wood for smoking turkey for a few reasons. First, cherry produces a mild smoke, which won’t overpower the bird’s natural flavor. Instead, it will enhance it while also adding a little bit of fruitiness.
Cherry will also make the turkey look more delicious. The wood itself has a reddish hue to it and it adds a slightly reddish-brown color to whatever it cooks. So, your turkey will have that classic color you see in the movies when you set it down to carve it at your feast!
Sugar Maple Wood Adds Mouthwatering Sweetness
You’ve probably heard people recommend maple wood for smoking turkey. Maple is a decent hardwood option because its mild smoke pairs well with turkey’s flavor. However, regular maple lacks an ingredient to take your turkey to the next level: We’re talking about sugar!
Sugar maple wood is exactly what it sounds like: maple wood with a higher sugar content than normal. Because of this extra sugar, the wood imbues turkey with a slight maple syrup flavor. It’s just the perfect amount to tickle the tastebuds as you chow down on the succulent smoky meat!
Both Cherry and Sugar Maple Work Great for Mixing
You can’t go wrong with cherry or sugar maple for your turkey. You also can’t go wrong with cherry and sugar maple. The woods blend great together to produce a bird that is slightly smoky, fruity and sweet at the same time!
Cherry and sugar maple also blend well with other species of hardwood, such as oak or hickory. Oak and hickory burn hotter than cherry and sugar maple and produce stronger smoky flavor. So, adding a little oak or hickory with your cherry or sugar maple can enhance your bird.
But as we will see, you don’t want to go overboard with adding either of these woods. A little goes a long way.
2. Be Cautious of Woods That Will Overpower Your Bird
Hardwood species are better than softwood for smoking meat. However, not all types of hardwood are best for smoking turkey.
You’ll want to be wary of using woods that produce strong smoky flavors, such as oak, hickory and mesquite.
Oak Wood is Too Smoky for Prolonged Turkey Cooking
We rarely recommend against using oak wood for cooking, but this is one of those rare instances. Oak generally works well with any meat because it burns hot and produces a neutrally flavored smoke. But when it comes to turkey, oak’s smokiness works against it.
The problem with using oak to smoke turkey is large birds take a long time to cook. A 20-pound turkey can require 12 hours in the smoker. During that time, the smokiness of oak can easily overpower the turkey and leave it far too smoky. The milder, gentler smoke of cherry or sugar maple won’t do this.
For this reason, oak shouldn’t be the only wood you use with your turkey. You can mix a couple of pieces in with milder wood to add some smokiness to the mix, but be careful not to overdo it.
Hickory Wood will Leave Your Bird Too Bitter
Hickory is also well known as a great cooking wood, but the key is using it for the right meat and in moderation. Its smoke produces a strong, bitter flavor, which makes for great barbeque in small doses. But the taste doesn’t always pair well with turkey.
This isn’t to say you can’t pair hickory with turkey. We’ve known many grill masters who have used hickory in their turkey smoking to perfection. But you have to be very careful not to overuse it in your wood mix. Too much will leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth!
Mesquite Wood is Too Powerful for Your Turkey
Mesquite is another popular barbeque wood that we’d caution you away from using for turkey smoking. Its smoke has a very pronounced taste that rarely mixes well with turkey, even in moderation. So, leave the mesquite for your summer barbeque and stick to the milder woods for your Thanksgiving turkey.
3. Make Sure You Use Kiln-Dried Wood
Nothing ruins smoking a turkey quite like wood with too much moisture in it. It doesn’t matter if you use cherry, sugar maple or some other type of wood. If the wood has more than 20% moisture in it, then it won’t burn as hotly or cleanly as it could, leading to a subpar bird.
So, how do you make sure your wood is dry enough for the best turkey smoking experience? It all comes down to paying attention to how the wood has been dried.
There are two main wood drying methods for cooking wood: seasoning and kiln drying.
Seasoning means leaving the wood out to air dry. The problem with this method is it can’t guarantee the wood will get below the 20% moisture threshold. There are just too many variables involved. If the wood dries in an area of high humidity or prone to rain, the moisture from the environment could sabotage the drying process.
For this reason, seasoning usually puts the moisture content of the wood somewhere in the 20-30% moisture range.
On the other hand, kiln drying takes these variables out of the wood drying process because it involves placing wood inside super-hot kilns. Not only do these kilns speed up the drying process substantially, but they also create controlled environments where the wood can get down below 20% moisture.
Kiln drying also removes any insects, mold or fungus that may have been present inside the wood. Seasoning can’t do this either.
For all these reasons, kiln-dried wood is the only wood worthy of your turkey. It will produce just the right amount of clean smoke for delicious results.
4. Choose the Optimal Size for Your Smoker or Grill
The quality of the wood doesn’t matter if you can’t fit it in your grill or smoker. So, be sure to factor in the size of the wood you purchase for your turkey.
You could go out and purchase some 16-inch firewood. But unless you have a large smoker like the pros have, this wood will probably be too big. So, you’ll wind up doing more work as you trim the wood down to fit inside your smaller smoker or grill.
Instead of struggling to resize and cram your wood, why not buy cooking wood that has been pre-split to the perfect size?
The best wood sizes for smoking turkey are 4-inch chunks and 8-inch logs.
4-inch chunks are fist-sized cubes of wood that are right at home in charcoal grills, smokers and kamado grills. You can put a couple of these pieces on a bed of charcoal, and they will burn long enough to smoke a turkey for multiple hours.
We also recommend 8-inch logs, which are the ideal size for a wide variety of smokers. The size is especially perfect for horizontal and offset smokers because it limits the airflow and produces just the right amount of smoke.
Both sizes are superior to pellets or chips because they produce more heat and longer smokes while also being small enough to fit inside most grills and smokers.
5. Practice Professional Turkey Smoking Techniques
Of course, getting the best wood for smoking turkey is only half the battle. Now it’s time to smoke the thing!
To help you get the most out of your wood, we’ve compiled some best practices to follow for expert-level turkey smoking:
Properly Position Your Bird
You’ll want to strategically position your turkey above the wood for even cooking. There are a few ways to do this.
First, we recommend spatchcocking your turkey. Spatchcocking means removing the spine from the bird so that it can lay flat over the flames. As a result, the turkey will cook more quickly and more evenly for a crisper and juicier flavor.
You should also tuck the wings under the turkey’s back to keep the flames from burning them.
Finally, make sure the fatter end of your bird is positioned closer to the wood since this part needs more heat to cook.
Enhance Your Turkey’s Flavor
Smoking turkey with kiln-dried cherry or sugar maple wood will set you on the path to a delicious smoky-sweet flavor. However, there are also some techniques you can use to ensure you get the most out of that flavor.
The most basic best practice is to keep your smoker shut as much as possible. As tempting as it is to open the door and check on the meat, only do so when necessary. The more you can keep the smoker shut, the more that sweet smoke will work its magic!
Also, make sure you’re using a drip pan to catch the fat as it drips off the bird. The wood will heat that fat and produce even more flavorful smoke.
What about stuffing or seasoning your bird? We say no to stuffing but yes to seasoning.
Putting stuffing inside your turkey will likely dry the bird out as it smokes. So, instead, prepare the seasoning separately and enjoy a juicier smoked turkey.
As for seasoning, it never hurts to add a little dry rub or wet brine to your turkey before smoking. We leave the ingredients up to you, but we will mention that turkeys smoked with cherry wood pair particularly well with rubs and marinades.
Keep an Eye on the Temperature
Monitoring the temperature of your turkey is also crucial for a successful smoke. So, make sure you have a digital thermometer with you to perform periodic temperature checks.
Here are some temperatures to watch out for:
- Wait until your smoker or grill has reached 300°F before adding the turkey
- Smoke the bird until the fattest portions have reached an internal temperature of 165°F
- Let the turkey rest after smoking until the fattest parts are below 135°F
Once this process is complete, the turkey should be ready for you to slice and enjoy!
Enjoy the Best Wood for Smoking Turkey
Thanks for checking out our guide to finding the best wood for turkey smoking. We hope it’s given you some helpful guidance for making the most of your bird with some 8-inch kiln-dried cherry or sugar maple wood.
Looking for a particular size and species of wood for your turkey? We can help you with that! Check out our selection of kiln-dried cooking wood available in 4, 6, 8 and 16-inch sizes and a wide variety of species, including cherry, sugar maple, oak and hickory.
You can get them all delivered with free two-day shipping throughout the United States!