All across the country, the traditional centerpiece of most holiday meals is a big, golden roasted turkey surrounded by all the trimmings. With the resurgence of interest in smoked foods and barbecue since the late 20th century, smoked turkeys have also become popular. Both have much to recommend them, and either one makes for a suitably festive meal.

Roasted Turkey

For most Americans, the familiar smells of turkey and its side dishes are as much a part of the season as the cooling weather and time with family. While everyone has their own favorite technique for roasting a turkey, the basic principles remain the same. The bulk of the roasting is done at a temperature of 325 or 350 degrees Fahrenheit, though some start or finish roasting at a higher temperature to ensure a crispy skin. The bird is done when it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

Smoked Turkey

Hot-smoking a turkey takes longer than roasting, because it usually takes place at temperatures of 185 to 225 degrees. Birds of up to 14 lbs. can usually be smoked whole in six to eight hours, but larger turkeys should be halved or quartered to cut down the cooking time. Smoked turkeys are first soaked in a seasoned brine, which flavors the meat and also protects it from drying out during the long, slow cooking process. Smoked turkeys can be served hot at the festive table, but are also good when cold.

The Differences

Smoking produces a more flavorful bird than roasting, because of the brine and the wood smoke. A well-smoked bird has a beautiful pink tinge just under the surface, caused by the smoke, though it will be blackened and unprepossessing on the outside. Smoked turkey doesn’t lend itself to gravy making, so gravy will need to be prepared separately. Roasted turkeys are more visually appealing, and have the crisp, savory skin that many diners love. They also have a milder flavor, which some diners will prefer.


There is a well-established canon of side dishes to serve with a roasted turkey, from mashed potatoes and gravy to candied yams and cranberry sauce. Most of these are equally good with a smoked turkey, though as previously noted the gravy should be made separately from broth or another bird’s drippings. A smoked turkey also works well with sweet or tart fruit flavors, beginning with the traditional cranberries. Roasted apples, pears or quinces are good choices, and so is applesauce or apple butter. A white wine or light red works with either style of turkey.