How to Smoke Turkey Legs

2009 Columbus Ohio Ren Faire
Flickr user tribbles1971

It's that time of year for ye olde Ren Faire in Irwindale. I'm as much a fan of smoked turkey legs as the next period-garb-wearing faire-goer, but it's not worth wearing 60 pounds of ethnically-correct samurai-warrior armor so I can gnaw on a turkey drumstick.

This week: a few tips and tricks for making smoked turkey legs at home with backyard equipment you may already own: a kettle-style charcoal grill.

Where can you buy turkey legs? You're more likely to find them at an independent butcher shop rather than a supermarket and more often frozen than fresh. Scroll to the bottom of the page for some local butcher shops that have them!

Make a brine with 1/2 cup kosher salt in 1 gallon of cool tap water, and stir until the salt is dissolved. Brine the turkey legs for 3 to 4 hours in the refrigerator so that the salt and moisture penetrate the meat. When you're done brining, rinse the brine off, and dry your turkey with paper towels. Lightly rub them with vegetable oil, and season to taste with salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Alternately, you can use whatever dry rub or seasoning you like.

Chimney starter, loaded half-full
Chimney starter, loaded half-full

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Fill a chimney starter halfway with charcoal briquettes. It doesn't look like enough, but it is. Add one chunk of hardwood about the size of your fist to the charcoal. Using less smoke wood is better than using too much (more on this in a future story). The Woodshed in Orange is a great place to buy your cooking hardwood. Open all the vents on your grill fully, and start your charcoal.  Also: when cooking in a lidded grill, don't use lighter fluid, and no Match Light type charcoal. The chemical fumes that disperse in an open grill stick to your food in a smoker.

When the charcoal has just started to ash over, pile them all on one side of the grill. Why? Because you'll be setting up half the grill so there is no heat directly underneath your food. It's an indirect heat zone where meat roasts without burning.

Charcoal is ready
Charcoal is ready

I use a fire brick to dam up the charcoal off to one side. It's not mandatory when you're only using a half-chimney's worth of fuel, but is in those cases when you start with a much larger pile of charcoal. If you don't have one, don't worry about it until I get to the lesson when you'll need one.

Start the turkey legs over indirect heat
Start the turkey legs over indirect heat

Lay the turkey legs on the grate where there is no charcoal. Cover the grill. You're creating an enclosed convection oven. The top and bottom vents regulate the airflow, which in turn controls the "oven" temperature as well as the fuel's burn rate. That half-chimney's worth of charcoal should last you 90 to 120 minutes, depending on how wide your vents are opened.

About 30 minutes in, flip the turkey legs over. You'll notice the top of the leg has cooked faster than the side touching the grate. That's because the heat is not coming from below, but swirling around and roasting the top.

Halfway done
Halfway done

Check on your legs at 60 minutes in to see how they're coming along. The turkey legs will take between 60 and 90 minutes total cooking time, but avoid removing the lid to peek: if you're looking, you're not cooking.

This is not a fast, high-heat cooking process; you're smoke-roasting at moderate heat. Turkey legs are large, dense hunks of meat and it takes time for the heat to penetrate fully. Be patient.

Check the internal tempearature of the meat with an instant-read thermometer. Once it hits 160F internal temperature, the meat is done. If you lack a meat thermometer, use a knife to slice down to the bone. Juice should run clear. If there is any blood or pink juice, cook it longer. No juice? It's overcooked.

Don't confuse a pink smoke ring on the outermost part of the meat with pink-tinged juice at the bone. A smoke ring is a barbecuer's badge of honor that proves the meat was roasted over a real wood fire.

If you like a crisper skin, move the legs over direct heat, and allow the coals to lightly char the skin for about 2 minutes per side.

Nearly done - just needs a little crisping to finish
Nearly done - just needs a little crisping to finish

Local sources of turkey drumstick

Whole Foods Market's meat department cuts up whole turkeys and most locations stock turkey drumsticks. Prices vary for "natural" vs. "organic," but range from $1.59 - 1.99 a pound. Several locations in Long Beach and Orange County.

The Meat House will special order any meat they don't already stock. Market price fluctuates seasonally.103 E. 17th St. Costa Mesa. 949-548-6328.

Celestino's Meats sells the Diestel brand of natural turkeys, and keeps a small stock of frozen drumsticks on hand. Call ahead to order large quantities. $2.99 / pound. 270 E. 17th St. Costa Mesa. 949-515-2583.

The Beef Palace keeps frozen turkey drumsticks on hand. $1.69 / pound. Cash or check only. 5895 Warner Ave. Huntington Beach. 714-846-0044.

Follow Stick a Fork in it on Twitter @ocweeklyfood or on Facebook!

The author is an award-winning BBQ Pitmaster and teaches Smoking 101 classes. Details on

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