Smoked turkey breast is one of those dishes that is just as great for a weekend meal as it is for a fancy Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. Those who have smoked turkey breasts like to point out how easy it is to dry them out while smoking. That’s true. Maybe. My 15 years of smoking-just-about-anything-turkey-breasts-included experience says that if you follow a few basic rules, you won’t mess it up.
I developed this recipe based on bits and pieces of information gathered over the years from various sources, as well as based on my own experiments. It’s not something entirely new, but it includes a couple less common techniques that make a notable difference and this recipe never disappointed me or anyone who tried it.
My basic rules for smoking a perfect turkey breast
Skin-on, bone-in is the best – Nothing protects the delicate breast meat from drying out during smoking as much as skin and bone. That said, boneless and skinless turkey breasts will do just fine with this recipe as it provides an added layer of protection.
Brine your meat – Brining for turkey breasts is a must. It will help the meat retain more moisture during cooking. The flavored brine that I use in this recipe will also make the meat taste properly seasoned all the way through. I always use pink salt (also known as Insta Cure #1 or curing salt) when smoking turkey breasts – it protects from harmful bacteria during long hours of smoking and enhances the color and flavor of the meat.
Dry your meat – Always dry the surface of meat before putting it on the smoker. Smoke will not adhere to wet surfaces and won’t penetrate the meat. I dry the meat with paper towels and let it sit at room temperature for half an hour or so while I am starting my smoker. Cold meat will cause condensation in a hot smoker, remember that. There is no need to add dry rub as the meat will be plenty flavorful from the flavored brine and smoke, but I like sprinkling a little bit of paprika and cayenne for some extra color and heat.
Smoke low and slow – Meat starts to lose water very rapidly at 150F internal. At high heat the outer parts of the meat cook much faster than the center and will lose a lot of water before the center is cooked through. Low and slow cooking will allow the meat to retain most of its water. Shoot for 215F-235F temperature in the smoker.
Keep it moist – I used to smoke turkey breasts on a rack but now I put them in a tray filled with a ½ cup of chicken broth. I also put some butter on the sides of the tray, which will later melt and get mixed with the broth and the meat juices. I picked up this technique from one competition BBQ’er and it works wonders. It helps the meat stay hydrated. You can use the buttery juices as a dipping sauce later on – it’s mouth watering.
Baste – after the meat has absorbed enough smoke, baste it with the buttery juices. No matter skin-on or skinless, both will benefit. Basting will make the turkey breast skin become softer and less rubbery which is always a challenge with smoking low and slow. There you have it – a perfect solution.
Do not over-cook – We all know that the USDA recommended target temperature for poultry is 165F. If you pull the turkey breast from the smoker at 160F internal the temperature will continue rising to 165F. So, smoke the breast to 160F internal and let it rest for 5 minutes. Then slice and enjoy the tastiest and juiciest smoked turkey breast ever.
Cherry-Wood Smoked Turkey Breast
- 1 turkey breast
- 1/2 cup chicken broth
- 1 stick of butter cut into thin pats
- 1 tsp paprika
- 12 tsp cayenne optional
- For the turkey brine:
- 1/2 gallon about 2 liters of cold water
- 1/4 cup 73 g of salt
- 1 1/2 oz 43 g of Cure #1 – corresponds to 40 g of pure salt
- 1 1/2 oz 43 g sugar (brown or white)
- 2 large carrots peeled and cut into pieces
- 2 medium onions peeled and cut into pieces
- 5 garlic cloves peeled and cut in half
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 Tbsp black pepper corns
- Bring 2 cups of water to boil in a small pan. Add the salt, sugar and Instacure and stir to dissolve. Add the rest of the ingredients and remove from heat. Cover and let cool, then mix with the rest of the water. To chill the brine faster, substitute some water for ice.
- Place the turkey breast in brine and keep refrigerated for 4-8 hours.
- Remove the breast from brine and pat dry really well. Leave at room temperature for 30 minutes or so to dry further.
- Meanwhile, pre-heat your smoker to 225F (shoot for 215F - 235F range) and get that good thin and blue smoke going. If not sure if the smoke is good, smell it - if it smells good then it's a good smoke. I highly recommend cherry wood as it gives the meat a beautiful color and a sweet smoky flavor. I avoid apple wood as it gives barely any flavor or color.
- Add the broth to a large aluminum or foil baking dish, then arrange butter pats on the inside walls of the dish. Carefully place the breast into the dish. Sprinkle with some paprika and cayenne pepper.
- Place the dish on the smoker over indirect heat and smoke for about 3-4 hours, depending on the temperature and the size of the breast, until internal temperature hits 160F. Start basting the breast with buttery juices after about 2 ½ hours, every half an hour or so. Do not add any more wood chips/chunks after you start basting.
- When done, remove the breast from the smoker and let rest for 5 minutes before slicing and serving. Use the pan juices as a dipping sauce, it’s delicious.
Recipe NotesPrep time does not account for the 4-8 hour brining time.
Cure #1, also called pink salt #1 or Prague Powder is available from local sausage supply stores or online, for example here: Hoosier Hill Farm Prague Powder Curing Salt. Make sure it is Cure #1, not #2. Cure #2 is used for making dry cured meats and sausages, like salami, sopressata and similar.