Choosing The Right Wood To Smoke Turkey Makes All The Difference

As with any smoked meat (up to and including meatloaf), it's important to know which woods to use to smoke turkey — and which ones you need to avoid. The common thread here is mellow vs. strong flavors. Woods that are great for turkey tend to be on the lighter side, while the ones that don't work are heavier and tend to erase the bird's natural flavor.

Turkey gets a bad rap from a culinary perspective. Sure, we eat it on Thanksgiving, but a lot of people complain about it — it's dry, it's too hard to work with, it makes you sleepy, etc. But while it's certainly a trickier cook than something like chicken, turkey can be incredibly rewarding. You just have to take your time with it — and one of the best ways you can do that is to smoke it. That slow cook preserves the bird's juiciness while imbuing it with a great pop of smoke flavor.

The right kinds of wood have mellower, lighter flavors

The key here is mildness. You want woods that impart delicate flavors that let the turkey itself shine. Happily, you've got several options here. Cherry wood imparts a slightly sweet flavor that meshes well with turkey (similar to how cranberry sauce makes a great side at Thanksgiving). Pecan does the same thing, except it also has a nutty quality to it. 

Maple has similar sweetness, but it's also milder than the other two, making it a great option if you're not a fan of pecan or cherry. Apple wood can work well, too. But in this case, you have to be careful. Apple is so mild that it takes longer to impart its flavors, and turkey is especially susceptible to drying out.

There are a few woods you want to avoid at all costs when it comes to smoking turkey, though. Hickory and mesquite are great smoking woods for beef, but the flavors they impart are so heavy that they tend to overwhelm turkey. Oak is also a problem, but it's lighter than the other two, so there's a caveat here in that you can use it in a blend with something like cherry.

Don't use too much wood

As with all smoking, it's not just important to use the right kind of wood when cooking turkey. It's also important not to use too much wood when smoking the meat. You might think that more smoke has to be better because then more flavor infuses the meat, but that's not how it works. 

When you use too much wood in smoking (and grilling, although it's a bigger problem in a smoker), the smoke will smell more acrid. And that's the same flavor it's going to put in your bird. You want your turkey to have a smoky flavor — but an acrid, bitter mess is no one's idea of a good time.

As long as you use both the right amount of wood and the right kinds of it, however, the end result will be a smoked turkey of which you can be proud. Follow the rules, and you'll be fine.