After you try smoking a turkey in a Weber Smoky Mountain cooker, you'll never want to smoke a turkey any other way.
The Weber Smoky Mountain, or WSM as it's often called, is a well built vertical charcoal water smoker that is efficient and durable.
When smoking whole turkeys, it's preferable to keep the smoker temperature higher than you would when smoking beef brisket or pork. Most meats popular for smoker cooking are fatty and have a lot of connective tissue. In order for them to become tender and juicy, low and slow cooking is the rule, and is generally done in the 225 to 250 degree range.
Turkey doesn't require the low and slow smoking method, and in fact it's better when smoked at a higher temperature. Anything over 250 up to 325 degrees is fine, even up to 350 Fahrenheit is ok.
Most vertical charcoal smokers, including the Weber Smoky Mountain, are designed for lower temperature cooking, and even though it may be difficult to reach 300 degrees, smoking in the 250 to 300 degree range is usually not a problem. Weather conditions and the quality of the charcoal used are a couple of factors that might limit the uppermost range of acceptable smoking temperatures for smoking turkeys.
To make the most of the heat produced by the charcoal it's best to cook with the water pan empty. If left in its standard position, it would catch the drippings and they would burn, affecting the flavor of the food, not to mention forming a tough, nasty crust on the inside of the water bowl. But it is necessary to have a pan in place to catch the dripping juices. Otherwise they would flare up, causing ash from the coals to coat the turkey, and temperature spikes.
You could simply leave the water pan empty, and then place a drip pan on the lower food rack to catch the drippings.
Or the pan can be wrapped with heavy duty aluminum foil in a way that forms a leak proof foil depression on top of the bowl. It's tricky to do it right, and most times I tried it, juices would end up leaking into the pan and burning.
There's another method that I use, and it is described below.
Smoking turkeys in a WSM or other vertical charcoal smoker follows the same basic steps. The first is adding charcoal to the smoker.
In a WSM, first fill the charcoal ring about halfway with unlit charcoal briquettes. Place several chunks of smoker wood on the charcoal, burying some deep in the briquettes, and laying some directly on top. Then, fill the ring the rest of the way with burning charcoal, directly out of your charcoal chimney starter. You'll need to add at least one full chimney of hot coals, maybe more depending on the chimney size. The wood will create the prefect amount of smoke for flavoring your turkey.
In other charcoal smokers that use a pan or bowl for the charcoal, fill the entire thing with burning coals. That's because the pan is usually not ventilated, so unlit coals would not easily ignite and burn. Wood chunks can be place directly on the bottom of the bowl, before adding the hot charcoal, or in between layers of hot coals.
Optionally, well soaked wood chunks can be added to the top of the charcoal, but I don't recommend doing this. The wood will eventually dry out and burst into flames, causing a temperature spike and creating a lot of soot that could coat the turkey. Wood that's buried underneath the coals won't create extreme flames, and the soot is burned away as it rises through the hot charcoal.
Next, place the water pan into the smoker. This is the method I use. The water pan is removed from its standard position directly below the lower food grate. A 10 or 12 inch diameter heatproof mixing bowl (stainless steel or Pyrex) is placed on the lower food grate. Then the dry water pan is set on the bowl. Since the bottom of the water pan is rounded, it fits perfectly.
Place the upper rack into place. Set the seasoned whole turkey on the upper rack, breast side up. Whole turkeys are best if brined, even if only for a few hours, but it's not totally necessary. Seasoning options include using an injectable marinade, marinating in a flavorful liquid, or just dusting with a good quality dry rub mixture. I've even used just salt and pepper on the whole turkeys right before smoking them, especially if they are they standard, frozen economy variety. Those have been pre-basted with an enhancement, which adds flavor and extends the shelf life.
With the turkey in place, centered on the top rack over the empty water pan, put the lid on the smoker. Usually the top vent can be left open the entire time, but might need to be opened or closed to fine tune the temperature.
The Weber Smoky Mountain is a tightly sealed smoker, with three adjustable vents on the bottom section. Generally you can start with all three opened halfway. But in windy conditions it's important to close the vent facing the oncoming wind to prevent the "blast furnace" effect. The incoming rush of wind can create very high temperatures, much higher than desired.
Cheaper smokers, like the Brinkmann charcoal water smoker (known as the ECB - El Cheapo Brinkmann) do not have a sealed bottom section, so there's no adjustment for incoming air. Modification can be made to the ECB, but that's beyond the scope of this page. For the most part, any temperature control is enabled by adjusting the amount of burning charcoal and the top vent adjustment.
Use a remote thermometer in the turkey, and insert the probe deep into the center of the breast meat, away from bone. If you use a regular instant read pocket thermometer to check the turkey temp, the lid is removed each time it's checked, All the heat escapes, requiring additional smoking time. Use a remote thermometer and you'll need only remove the lid once or twice to watch for burning.
Basting is optional, and not necessary. The skin contains fat, and helps protect the meat from drying out. Depending on the temperature maintained in the smoker, a whole turkey can take as little as 3 hours, for a 12 pound bird smoked at 325 degrees. At 240 to 250 degrees, the same whole turkey would take about twice as long.
Smoking a turkey in a Weber Smokey Mountain cooker, or any of the vertical charcoal smokers is easy once you get the knack of it.
One thing about the smokers using a charcoal bowl: It may be necessary to add additional charcoal once or twice to maintain temperature. In a WSM it's usually possible to smoke the turkey completely with the initial load of charcoal.