Best Wood Chips for Smoking Turkey

Beginner smokers can forget that the choice of wood is just as important as the choice of bird. Too strong a flavor will turn the delicate poultry bitter, and some flavors just don’t work. 

Turkeys are a big bird, so no one wants to waste a day smoking only to find the taste is off. Choosing the right wood chips for a turkey is about understanding the balance of flavor. The smoke should be complementary without overpowering, with enough punch to add interest.

We’ve rounded up the best choices of wood chips for smoking turkey. These options range for the mild to the strong, but they all produce a smoke to take your bird to the next level.

Alder

Alder is the classic beginner’s wood due to its mild flavor and easy temperature control. If you’ve never smoked anything before, starting with Alder is always a good choice. 

Alder is most traditionally used for smoking seafood. As seafood has such a delicate taste, it’s easily overwhelmed by punchy smoke. The same is true for poultry. 

Smoking a turkey with Alder wood may not be the most common choice. However, it does give you a chance to get a feel for the process without ruining a turkey. Alder can be burnt slowly and at a low temperature, giving a novice smoker extra control.

If you’re worrying about the process, a low and slow Alder burn won’t risk your turkey burning up. And, the mild flavors means your turkey can cook for longer without becoming bitter.

Alder is a perfect choice to add only a slight smokiness and let other flavors shine. The subtle flavor of a turkey is often complemented with a rub or marinade, and Alder brings another layer to the taste.

Otherwise, you can use Alder as a base to mix in some bolder flavored wood chips. As well as working with different seasonings, Alder can form a background for woods with a bigger bite. It’s a great one to build on, as you start to learn more about your smoker.

Pros

  • Mild flavor – A beginners choice with only a subtle smoke flavor.
  • Controlled burn – Smoke the turkey low and slow, without an overpowering smoke.
  • Good for mixing – A base for woods with a bit more punch.

Cons

  • Too mild for some tastes – Smoking a turkey is a long process, and too mild wood chips may have you wondering why you bothered.

Applewood

A step-up in strength from Adler, Applewood has a subtle smoky taste merged with a delicate sweetness. Many like apple because the fruitiness is mellow compared to stronger woods, while still providing that extra layer of interest.

Applewood is relatively easy to use, if perhaps a little more difficult than Alder. To fully infuse the flavors, Applewood needs to be smoked for a long time. That means the turkey can potentially dry out. Counteract this by heating everything low and slow, and regularly basting the turkey.

Another advantage of Applewood is that it works well with almost any meat, and it can be used with seafood. You can even use Applewood for smoking cheese. This means you can get used to how it burns before tackling a big turkey. If you buy a bag of Applewood, you have a versatile smoke for experimenting.

Applewood is actually ideal for mixing, because the sweetness counteracts the more pungent aromas of stronger woods. Once you feel confident, try mixing in some oak or hickory. You can even mix apple with the heavier fruit woods, such as cherry. This adds some bite to the apple with no extra bitterness.

Applewood is a crowd pleaser. A turkey smoked with Applewood and basted regularly is sure to make everyone happy. It’s a perfect starting point for future experimentation.

Pros

  • Mild sweetness – This adds an extra layer of taste, without being too strong.
  • Subtle smoke – The smoke isn’t bold, so the turkey won’t become bitter.
  • Versatility – Applewood can be mixed with other woods, and used across a range of meats.

Cons

  • Infusing time – It can take a while for the taste of Applewood to come through, so you risk drying the turkey out.

Cherry

Perhaps the most traditional wood for smoking a turkey. Cherry provides flavor, appearance, and a good burn time. 

Cherry wood has the sweetness of apple, but it’s complemented by a deep richness. There’s a balance of smokiness and fruitiness, with an earthy undertone to give extra depth. For a fairly bland bird, this is perfect for strength that isn’t overpowering.

Another fantastic benefit to cherry wood is the appearance it gives. A turkey smoked over cherry will take on a gorgeous red shine. This unique color will be sure to impress any visitors, and makes your turkey a real centerpiece bird. A bonus that takes cherry wood a step above the rest.

Cherry works well with any brine, and this adds a simplicity to the process. Brining a turkey and smoking it with cherry gives enough flavor so you don’t need to worry about seasonings. Even a beginner can get to grips with cherry fast, as there’s limited preparation.

Once you’ve tried cherry once, you may find yourself hooked for life. However, if you prefer an even bolder flavor, there’s something fun to try. Mixing hickory in takes the smoke to a whole other level. But be careful. Hickory has a strong flavor, so only a touch is needed.

If you’re smoking a turkey for a big occasion, choose cherry wood for crowd pleasing taste and impressive visual finish.

Pros

  • Rich flavor – The combination of sweet and smoky is layered for a delicious addition to poultry.
  • Red finish – A turkey smoked over cherry will look as impressive as it tastes.
  • Easy preparation – Any brining will work with cherry, so there’s no need to worry about rubs and additional seasonings.

Cons

  • Slightly bolder than Alder and Apple, so trickier to get the balance right.

Pecan

While the previous options were good for beginners, pecan is where things start to get complicated. This wood has the same sweetness as Applewood and cherry, but with an added sharpness. If you’ve found cherry doesn’t quite hit the spot, then pecan could be right for you.

Pecan has a complex flavor, and it’s rich. There’s still that sweet fruity layer that’s found in cherry, but with bite. This can be perfect for turkey, which is mild in flavor to begin with.

Alongside the fruit sits a deeper earthy tone, similar to that of the stronger woods. The flavoring finishes on a nuttiness, for an intriguing profile. This isn’t a shy wood, the flavors are bold and immediate.

Because of this, pecan doesn’t work for everyone. It can be quite sweet, which some find off-putting. If you do intend to use pecan, you may want to try it on a smaller cut of a turkey first. This allows you to get a feel for the flavor, without wasting an entire bird.

Pecan also isn’t the best for mixing. Adding hickory or oak would likely be too much, creating a dish that’s overpowering. However, pecan does go with many other types of meat, so it has versatility.

If you want a rich and layered turkey, then pecan may be the perfect choice. A first time smoker may want to steer clear, because this isn’t for everyone.

Pros

  • Complex flavor –  There are layers to this flavor profile, from the initial sharpness to the nutty finish.
  • Sharpness – The sweetness doesn’t shy away in pecan.
  • Rich – If you want a smoked turkey with bite, pecan is a fantastic choice.

Cons

  • Can be overpowering – Not everyone will enjoy the taste, and the richness can overwhelm the natural poultry flavors.

Maple

Milder than cherry but earthier than applewood, maple is the choice for anyone who wants to enhance the natural taste of a turkey. Maple may be on the sweet end of the scale, but it’s honey-like finish adds a subtle aroma.

The sweetness of maple is slightly different to the other woods on this list. Maple has a floral undertone, with a rounded honey finish over the sharp edge of a fruit wood. This complements the turkey by playing with the natural poultry taste.

Beneath the sweetness is a slight earthy depth. Maple isn’t the most complex of wood flavorings, but it still has a soft richness. The smoke is aromatic, and sure to make everyone’s mouth water.

Due to the subtle flavor, maple is best when paired with herbs for seasoning. Aim for anything fragrant, and turn to pork for ideas.

Although maple may not be the first choice, it should definitely be considered for visual appeal alone. A turkey smoked over maple wood will take on a fantastic golden hue, one that makes the bird the star of the table. This coloring combined with the exceptional aroma turns the average turkey into a luxury centerpiece.

If this is your first time smoking a turkey, then definitely consider maple. Especially if you enjoy experimenting with seasonings and spices. 

Pros

  • Mild sweetness – Maple has a honey finish, which is a softer sweetness than sharp fruit woods.
  • Aromatic – Smoking over maple both smells and tastes fantastic, while playing with an earthy depth.
  • Finish – The golden finish makes a maple smoked turkey a treat for every sense.

Cons

  • Subtle – Maple lacks punch.

Best Wood Chips for Smoking Turkey Buyer’s Guide

Smoking turkey can be difficult. They’re large, lean, and mild in flavor, all of which combines to make a meat where lots can go wrong. But don’t let that put you off.

Once you’ve got the hang of it, the mild flavor of a turkey allows for ample experimentation. Now you know the best woods, here are some factors to consider before making your decision.

Woods to Avoid

A turkey can’t take a heavy smoke. These woods will overpower the meat, turning it bitter. Mesquite should be avoided, even if you love a strong smoke flavor.

Only try mesquite with turkey if you know what you’re doing, you know how it burns, and you don’t mind ruining a turkey. It is possible to mix mesquite in with the lighter woods, but a delicate touch is paramount. Mesquite also burns quickly, which can cause your turkey to go up in flames before the smokes touches it.

Oak and hickory are other harder, stronger woods that aren’t ideal for turkey. However, there’s more room to play around here.

A beginner may not want to throw hickory in straight away, but once you know your flavorings it isn’t hard to find a balance. Mix hickory in with Alder or Applewood, to add a punch of smoke to the poultry.

Oak isn’t commonly used for poultry, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work. Oak has a traditional smoky flavor, without the strength of hickory. We’d recommend experimenting with oak first, before moving to a stronger wood.

If you like smoked food, then you probably have some idea of oak flavor. To get this into your turkey, mix a small amount of oak in with Applewood or cherry. The slightly milder taste gives you room to experiment more, without overwhelming the bird.

These options are avoided for reasons relating to flavor, but there are some woods that must be avoided altogether. Resin woods such as pine should never be used for smoking, as the smoke they give off can be toxic.

Chunks or pellets?

As you start to buy your wood, you’ll notice it tends to come in different sizes. Mostly, the choice will be made based on what type of smoker you’re using. A pellet smoker needs to take pellets, but most other smokers can use either pellets or chips.

An electric smoker should generally be able to take both. An offset smoker tends to need larger chunks. 

The size of wood does slightly affect how it burns, but as a turkey needs a long smoke you have to keep a close eye on it anyway. Before deciding what size to buy, double check what your equipment can take.

The important thing is to look for high-quality wood. There shouldn’t be dust, and every chunk should be cut evenly. 

5 ounces of wood should be enough to start with, and they’ll need to be replenished as you cook. If they seem to be burning too quickly, then build up the amount. You want to maintain a steady temperature.

Temperature and Cooking Time

Once you’ve prepared your smoker, it should reach a temperature of roughly 225 degrees Fahrenheit. Then you can add your turkey. 225F will be a slow and low cook, but for a faster smoke raise the temperature to 275F.

Try and maintain the temperature throughout the cooking process, using a thermometer to get accurate readings. 

There’s no definitive answer to how long to smoke a turkey, but a rough estimate is 30 minutes for every pound. Don’t go by time, go by temperature. You know a turkey is cooked because the internal temperature is 165F, even at the thickest points. Use a probe thermometer to be sure.

Soaking Your Wood

There’s some fierce debate amongst smokers as to the benefits of soaking your wood. Some argue that it’s a necessity, while others argue that it’s a waste of time.

The thinking behind it is that damp wood will burn slower, allowing you to maintain a steady temperature and good smoke. Some also feel that soaked wood produces more smoke.

However, damp wood also produces steam. There’s some evidence that shows by soaking wood we actually release steam rather than smoke, disrupting the flavor. Also, it takes a long time for water to penetrate wood. A quick soak may not be having much of an effect on your wood at all.

We recommend not soaking your wood. It’s a long process and one that doesn’t seem to have much in the way of benefits. A better option for cooling wood is using an ice pan.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I prepare a turkey for smoking?

Preparing a turkey for smoking doesn’t have to be a long process. Start with a fresh turkey, and remove the insides. How you prepare it is based on personal preference, but spatchcocking is a popular method. This is when the backbone and breastbone of the turkey are removed. This creates a wider surface, for an even cook and a better distribution of flavor. 

Add your seasonings, or brine the turkey overnight. Preparing a turkey for smoking is similar to other methods of cooking turkey. You’ll soon learn what you prefer.

How do I smoke a turkey?

Prepare your turkey, and bring the smoker temperature up to 225F. Place your turkey on the smoker, with a pan underneath to catch any drips. Either bring the temperature up to 275F, or cook the turkey slowly on a lower heat.

Check the temperature regularly, replenishing the wood chips as necessary. Once the temperature of the turkey is 165F at the thickest part, the turkey is cooked. Leave it to rest for 20 minutes before serving, so the meat can absorb the juices.

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