This apple cider brined smoked turkey is made with a simple cider brine recipe that combines all your favorite Fall flavors and spices. The flavor is subtly sweet and the smoked turkey is incredibly juicy and tender, and my wife says that I have to make all of my Thanksgiving turkeys this way from now on!
I’m no stranger to wet brining turkey.
In fact, over the years I’ve wet brined over a dozen Thanksgiving turkeys using a variety of brining liquids and flavors. We’ve tried everything from a traditional brine of saltwater, sugar, lemons, and herbs to a Cajun turkey brine made with a full jar of Cajun injectable marinade. But one of my absolute favorite ways to brine turkey is with this apple cider turkey brine.
Combine this cider brine with a spatchcocked turkey and a smoker or charcoal grill, and you’ve got one incredibly moist, tender, and flavorful Thanksgiving turkey that will wow your holiday guests. They may even skip the second helpings of dessert and casserole side dishes and opt for more turkey instead.
Here’s how to make my favorite apple cider brined smoked turkey:
Apple Cider Turkey Brine Recipe
This apple cider turkey brine recipe is incredibly simple to make (like most turkey brines), but it packs a punch of flavor. The sweetness from the apple juice concentrate and the spice from the cider mulling spices work together in perfect harmony to infuse the turkey with a subtle sweetness that adds just the right amount of flavor.
Here are the ingredients for the apple cider turkey brine:
- 1 gallon of apple cider – Look for the cider that has a cloudier appearance… Some store-bought apple ciders just look like straight apple juice and aren’t as concentrated.
- apple juice concentrate – The kind that comes in a frozen can.
- cider mulling spices – I used the Aspen Mulling Cider Spices Cinnamon Orange Blend here.
- whole garlic cloves
- black peppercorns
- fresh poultry herb blend – Usually during the holidays, you can buy fresh sprigs of rosemary, thyme, and sage packaged together.
In addition to the brining ingredients, you’ll need seasonings or spices to season the actual turkey skin before you put it on the smoker. I complimented the sweet fruity flavors of this cider brine with two of my favorite seasonings – Heath Riles Simple Citrus Rub and Heath Riles Garlic Butter.
How to Make Apple Cider Brined Smoked Turkey
Thanksgiving turkey is probably one of the most intimidating meals that you will ever make… Mostly because turkeys get a bad rap for being dry and bland. Not to mention, as the centerpiece of your holiday meal, there’s a lot of pressure to get the turkey just right.
But actually, cooking the perfect Thanksgiving turkey is really very easy, and in my experience, it comes down to these three things, my “holy trinity” for making the best turkey:
- Wet brining
And this delicious apple cider brined smoked turkey combines all three. Here’s how to make it:
Step 1: Spatchcock your turkey.
Okay, so spatchcocking your bird is optional, but I highly recommend it for a few reasons, especially if you’re going to cooler brine your turkey like I do:
- Spatchcocking the turkey makes it flatter overall, so it fits better in my cooler and it can be submerged in a more shallow amount of brine.
- The spatchcocked turkey cooks more evenly because the meat is more of a uniform thickness.
- Spatchcocking allows more of the skin to be exposed during smoking, giving you more of that delicious crispy skin.
- A spatchcocked turkey cooks faster.
Step 2: Make the apple cider turkey brine.
Like I said before, this cider turkey brine is very easy to make… If you can dump things in a pot and boil liquid on the stovetop, then you can make this brine.
In a large saucepan or pot, add 1/2 of the gallon of apple cider first. You’ll save the other 1/2 gallon to add to the cooler later. For this particular brine, you’re not adding any granulated sugar because the apple cider and apple juice concentrate already contain a good amount of sugar, so you have less ingredients that need to be dissolved in the brine. Hence, less apple cider needed when boiling the brine.
Also, with this wet brine recipe, you’re using apple cider to boil and dissolve the ingredients instead of water, which is typically used to create a saltwater brine. So since you’re replacing a flavorless ingredient (water) with super flavorful cider and apple juice concentrate, you’re building flavors with very little effort.
To the apple cider in the pot, add the apple juice concentrate, salt, whole black peppercorns, whole garlic cloves (skin and all), lemon slices, fresh herbs, and mulling cider spices. Then, bring the brining liquid up to a rolling boil and boil for about 60 seconds to open up the flavors and dissolve the salt.
Then, move the apple cider brine off the heat and allow it to cool down for about 15 minutes before moving on to the next step.
Step 3: Brine the spatchcocked turkey for 24 hours.
There are a variety of containers that you can use to wet brine your turkey overnight, but my absolute favorite way to brine a turkey is in a cooler.
Most people recommend a 5 gallon bucket or other large-sized container that allows the turkey to be completely submerged and kept in the refrigerator overnight, but during Thanksgiving my fridge is stuffed full of fantastic side dishes, appetizers, and beverages, so I definitely don’t have room for a 5 gallon bucket in there.
For my tried and true cooler brining method, I add the warm brine to a 10 pound bag of ice in a cooler. The super concentrated brining liquid partially melts the ice to create a larger volume of brine. And then the remaining ice in the cooler keeps the turkey plenty cold overnight. Plus, where I live the outside temperature in late November is usually pretty cold, so I keep my cooler outside while brining the turkey. You can also add more ice halfway through the brining time if needed, or use a thermometer to check the internal temp of your turkey if you’re worried about it.
Okay, so to apple cider brine the turkey, these are the steps I follow:
- Make sure your cooler is clean and dry… and definitely make sure that the drain plug is inserted!
- Add a 10 pound bag of ice to the bottom of the cooler.
- Add the remaining 1/2 gallon of cold apple cider to the ice.
- Dump the full pot of warm (but not too hot) brining liquid to the ice and stir it around.
- Place the turkey in the cooler upside down, and work it around a bit so that it’s fully submerged.
- Close the lid of the cooler, and allow the turkey to brine for 24 hours.
Then, the next day you’re ready to make your apple cider brined smoked turkey…. Which brings me to a very important point:
TURKEY TIP: Timing is Everything!
Making the perfect smoked brined turkey is largely about time management and planning:
- Start with a fully thawed turkey – So if you’re buying a frozen turkey, be sure that it has plenty of time to thaw in the fridge.
- Allow a full 24 hours for the brining process – So you probably want to start brining the morning before Thanksgiving day.
- Before you even start cooking the turkey, you’ll need about 3-5 days for thawing and brining time.
Step 4: Remove the turkey from the cider brine and season it.
After the 24 hour brining period, just remove the turkey from the cooler and place it on a sheet pan with a wire rack on top. I also add a piece of butcher paper to the sheet tray underneath the wire rack just to make clean up a little bit easier.
I’ve never patted the turkey dry after taking it out of the brine, I just take it out and let it drain a bit, but if it makes you feel better you can do that extra step before seasoning. Some people swear by patting it dry so that the skin has a better chance of crisping up, but I’ve always been able to get perfectly crispy skin anyway.
Then, starting with the bottom side of the turkey, season liberally with your seasoning. I seasoned the full bird with a good sprinkling of two of my favorite seasonings: Heath Riles Simple Citrus Rub and Heath Riles Garlic Butter. Be sure to get all of the nooks and crannies, and season the top side (presentation side) of your turkey last.
Here’s what my apple cider brined turkey looked like before going on the smoker:
Step 5: Smoke your apple cider brined turkey on your smoker or grill.
When your turkey is seasoned, go ahead and put it on your preheated smoker. I started my smoker before taking my turkey out of the brine, and I got it dialed in to 300 degrees F.
*NOTE – If you don’t have a smoker, you can also make this delicious apple cider brined smoked turkey on your charcoal grill. Check out this post for how to set up your charcoal grill as a smoker!
For my Pit Boss Navigator pellet smoker, the hottest part of the grill is right in the center, so I positioned the turkey so that the dark meat (legs and thighs) were closest to the middle of the grill. Not sure if it makes a difference, but in my mind, this helps to protect the turkey breast from overcooking.
Then, as long as you have a good wireless meat thermometer like my favorite one here, it’s pretty much “set it and forget it”. Here’s what my smoked turkey looked like about 2 hours into the cooking time:
The total cooking time on the smoker for this 14 pound turkey was about 5 hours, and I pulled it when the thickest part of the breasts reached an internal temperature of 162 degrees to allow for a bit of carryover cooking.
Then just let your smoked turkey rest for a good 30 minutes and Thanksgiving dinner is served!
And here’s my perfectly cooked, juicy and tender on the inside, crispy on the outside, smoked turkey:
FAQ’s about Smoking Turkey
I tried to give you a play-by-play of exactly how I made this fantastic apple brined smoked turkey (which is pretty much how I always smoke my Thanksgiving turkey, no matter what flavored brine I’m using). But here are some common questions that you may still have:
How long do I smoke my turkey on the grill?
How long to smoke a turkey is not a simple cut and dry answer… There are a number of factors that go in to determining how long your turkey should cook, including the size of your turkey, whether or not you spatchcock, how steady the temperature stays on your smoker, etc.
But just to give you an idea, this 14 pound turkey took about 5 hours to smoke at 300 degrees F. When I made a 12 pound turkey the week before, it took about 4 1/2 hours to smoke.
I ALWAYS recommend cooking meats to the proper internal temperatures rather than cooking to a specific time… Meaning, it doesn’t matter if it takes 4 hours or 5 hours, the important thing is that your meat reaches the appropriate internal temperature.
What internal temperature should I smoke turkey to?
Let’s start with a disclaimer… The USDA recommends cooking whole turkeys to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F. They also recommend checking the internal temperature of these three parts of the turkey to ensure that the full bird reaches the correct internal temp:
- the thickest part of the breast
- the innermost part of the wing
- the innermost part of the thigh
That being said, others like the Food Network will tell you that once your turkey reaches an internal temp of 160-165 degrees F, it’s done. That’s because the temperature of the turkey will continue to rise as it rests.
For this apple cider brined smoked turkey, I pulled the bird off the smoker once it reached an internal temp of 162 degrees to allow for carryover cooking of a few degrees. The result was a fantastic juicy and tender turkey! But if you don’t feel comfortable pulling it that early, then shoot for the 165 degrees F mark.
I don’t have a smoker… Can I still make this cider brined smoked turkey?
Absolutely! I’ve only had a pellet smoker for about 6 months, and for years before that I would smoke all of my meats on my Weber kettle charcoal grill. I’ve got a great step-by-step guide for how to use your charcoal grill as a smoker here!
And you can definitely cook your brined turkey in the oven also!
Apple Cider Brined Smoked Turkey Recipe
Want to print this apple cider turkey brine recipe so you can refer to it on the big day? Just use the recipe card down below:
Apple Cider Brined Smoked Turkey
- 14 pound turkey fully thawed and spatchcocked
- 1 gallon apple cider
- 12 oz can frozen apple juice concentrate thawed
- 1 lemon cut into slices
- 4 cloves garlic smashed and skins on
- 1/2 cup salt
- 4 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
- 5.65 oz cider mulling spices
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
- 4-5 sprigs fresh thyme
- 4 fresh sage leaves
- seasonings of your choice to season the skin before smoking
- Start brining the turkey 24 hours before you plan to start smoking it. Make sure that your cooler is clean and dry, and that your drain plug is inserted properly. Or clear space in your refrigerator if you plan on refrigerating the turkey overnight while brining. Spatchcock the thawed turkey.
- In a medium sized pot, add 1/2 gallon of apple cider, full can of apple juice concentrate, salt, peppercorns, lemon slices, garlic cloves, cider spices, and all fresh herbs. Bring to a rolling boil over medium heat and allow brining liquid to boil for 60 seconds. Remove the pot from the heat and allow to cool down for about 15 minutes.
- Add a 10 pound bag of ice to the bottom of your cooler. Pour in the remaining 1/2 gallon of cold apple cider. Add the warm (but not too hot) apple cider brine to the ice and mix together.
- Place the spatchcocked turkey upside down in the cooler, working it around so that it's completely submerged in the brine. Close the lid of the cooler and brine turkey for a full 24 hours. If the outside temperature is colder than your house, keep the cooler outside. You can also open the lid to make sure the ice has not melted all the way and the turkey is still cold (below 37 degrees F) periodically during the 24 hour brining process. Or brine in the refrigerator if you are nervous about the cooler brine.
- After 24 hours, remove the turkey from the brine and transfer to a wire cooling rack on top of a sheet tray. Set smoker or charcoal grill to 300 degrees F.
- Liberally season all sides of the turkey with your favorite all purpose or citrus seasoning. (I used Heath Riles Simple Citrus Rub and Heath Riles Garlic Butter seasonings).
- Insert wireless meat thermometer into the thickest part of the breast to monitor the internal temperature. Smoke turkey at 300 degrees until internal temp in the thickest part of the breast and the innermost area of the thigh and wing reaches 162-165 degrees F. (USDA recommends cooking to 165 degrees F. A 14 pound turkey takes roughly 4½ – 5½ hours to smoke at 300 degrees F, but be sure to check internal temperatures for doneness.)
- Remove turkey from the smoker and transfer to a serving platter or cutting board. Allow turkey to rest for 30 minutes before serving.
- Cooking times are approximate and will vary based on the size of your turkey, the temperature of your grill or smoker, the outside temperature, etc. Always check the internal temperature of the thickest part of the turkey breast and the innermost areas of the thigh and wing for doneness. The USDA recommends cooking to an internal temp of 165 degrees F.
And be sure to save this to your Smoker Recipes or Thanksgiving Recipes Pinterest board: