These Holidays, Turn Your Oven Into a Smoker

These Holidays, Turn Your Oven Into a Smoker
Photo: Brent Hofacker, Shutterstock

Smoked turkey is one of the most delicious forms a turkey can take, but not everyone has a smoker (or even a grill). Thankfully, you don’t need one. You can make your very own smoked turkey right in your regular ol’ oven.

Most of us fail to fully harness the power or the utility of our ovens. I use mine at least once a week, but I have a friend in Manhattan who uses hers to store summer clothes, unopened mail, and old college textbooks — but I digress. Whether gas or electric, convection or conventional, ovens are practical, versatile appliances. They can bake, broil, and roast, and with a simple hack, they can also smoke.

When I say “smoke,” I don’t mean like the time you set your oven on fire because you passed out and forgot about your frozen pizza. I am also not implying that your oven has suddenly become self-aware and, to cope with its existence, has begun to wake and bake. What I mean is, without much fuss, you can make delicious smoked meat in the same oven that you use to store pots, pans, lidless plastic containers, and maybe mail.

My first attempt at turning my oven into a smoker didn’t go too well. My apartment filled with smoke so thick it looked like Cool Whip, all of my clothes had to be dry cleaned or repeatedly washed to get rid of the smell, and even three bottles of Febreze could not help my mattress, drapes, rugs, or sofa. I made the terrible error of lining the bottom of my conventional electric oven with foil and placing way too many dry wood chips on top. They were so close to the heating element that I pretty much started a wildfire. Neighbours and the doorman came by to check. The shame was overwhelming; good thing I was scheduled to move a couple of months later.

I next moved into a basement apartment with ventilation so poor that I couldn’t fry plantains, but I was adamant about perfecting this oven-cum-smoker hack, so I revisited a couple of my chef school textbooks. And there it was! In the module containing “heat methods,” I found a diagram featuring a disposable catering pan filled halfway with pre-soaked wood chips. Within it, a rack, atop of which lay a piece of meat. I tried it, and it worked exceptionally. But I was still not satisfied. (Who hurt me?) I began experimenting with other ways of imparting delicious smoky flavour and succulent juiciness to my meats, especially turkey (my favourite, after pork).

Before we get to the hacks, a note about wood chips.

Depending on the taste that you’re going for (and the kind of protein you’re smoking), there are several kinds of wood chips to consider. There’s barbecue’s best friend, mesquite, with its unmistakable pungent and sweet flavour. There’s hickory, which has bacon-y undertones and is ideal for longer smoking times. And we also have maple, oak, apple, cherry, pecan, and guava wood, all of which are mellow, with semi-sweet aromas, and not as bold as mesquite or hickory.

For smoked turkey, I suggest using maple, apple, or pecan wood chips. These will allow your bird to develop an Instagram-worthy deep-brown colour and impart subtle sweetness and delicate smokiness. In my experience, if you use hickory or mesquite, you won’t know if you’re eating turkey or ham. You’ve been cautioned. [Editor’s note: I personally love a ham-flavored turkey. — Claire]

What follows are two ways of turning your dependable oven into a smoker, thus making you a Thanksgiving superstar. Plus, outside of holidays, you’ll be able to spare yourself the disappointment when your favourite BBQ joint sells out before 2 pm.

The foolproof method

For this method, you’ll need a baking tray, a disposable catering tray narrower than the baking tray but large enough to hold the turkey, and a wire rack.

Soak the wood chips for at least 30 minutes before using them. (For best results, soak for two to three hours.) Don’t pile on the wood chips! Ensure they are in a single layer at the bottom of the pan; otherwise, they will produce too much smoke, and Mrs. Singh in 8B will give you side-eyes in the elevator for weeks.

After scattering the pre-soaked wood chips on the baking tray, add approximately a 1/4 cup of the water they soaked in. Place the wire rack over the wood, followed by the disposable catering tray that you’ve poked ten or 12 holes in using a knife. Add the turkey to the hole-poked tray. Working from the sides of the baking tray upwards, seal the entire thing in foil, ensuring you’ve created a puffy but tightly-sealed envelope. Ensure the foil doesn’t cling to the bird — you want the smoke to circulate. You may end up using an entire 7.62 m roll of foil, which is fine.

Place in an oven heated to 120ºC oven and smoke for 30-40 minutes per pound, or until the internal temperature reads 160℉ when a digital meat thermometer is inserted into the thickest part of the breast.

The dry wood method

Full disclosure: Skip this method if you have ever fallen asleep while cooking, tend to ignite kitchen towels easily, or are at all prone to creating little kitchen fires everywhere. (Or at least ensure that there’s a responsible, sober adult around.) I find this method works slightly better with a convection oven.

You’ll need a cast iron skillet or baking skeet, a bit of foil, a kitchen lighter, and dry wood chips.

Remove all the racks from the oven, then grab two of them. Insert the first rack as such that the turkey will be positioned in the middle of the oven. Place the second rack under that one, and preheat the oven to 120ºC.

Line the bottom of the cast iron skillet or baking sheet with a couple of layers of foil. Follow this with a single layer of dry wood chips, which you’ll light on fire with the kitchen lighter. Try and get each one lit. Once the flames die down a bit, place the skillet/pan under the turkey and close the oven door. Keep it closed until you’re ready to test the internal temperature, which should read 70ºC when a digital meat thermometer is inserted into a breast. It should take you 30-40 minutes per pound to achieve perfectly juicy doneness — all without stepping a single foot outside.

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