Why is My Smoked Turkey Black? 5 Ways To Avoid It

So you’ve smoked your first turkey and your wondering why it turned out black? Black meat is a sign that the meat was smoked. Turkey presentation is very important, so I was wondering I there was any way of having more control over the color of my smoked bird. I did some research into the science behind the darkening of meat, and it turns out we can have more control of the color with a few simple tricks.

Smoked turkey turns out black because of a series of chemical reactions called The Maillard Reaction. Smoke particles stick to the sticky surface of the meat and change its color. The longer we expose meat to smoke particles, the darker it becomes. You can minimize the darkening effect by tenting the turkey with foil, use seasonings low in sugar, and avoid certain woods.

5 Ways To Avoid A Black Turkey

  1. Tent your turkey with foil.
  2. Avoid sugary rubs.
  3. Avoid cherry wood.
  4. Charcoal smokers make meat darker.
  5. Bad smoke can turn meat dark.

Without smoke, the outer crust on the meat will have a reddish color. A brisket will develop a thick, black bark because it’s exposed to smoke particles for 10 plus hours. The chemical reactions of the Maillard reaction increase at higher temperatures. We smoke Turkey at 300°F plus, which put it within range for the chemical reactions to occur. So how can we prevent turkey turning black? There are some things you can do to slow the darkening process.

The Maillard Reaction causes the turkey to turn blackTent the turkey with foil, use seasonings low in sugar, and avoid certain woods
Smoke particles stick to the meat and change its colorTent the turkey with foil and use seasonings low in sugar
The longer the meat is exposed to smoke, the darker it becomesTent the turkey with foil
Unwanted smokeMake sure the top vents are open
“Bad smoke” that can make the meat taste bitter and change the colorAvoid “bad smoke”
“Black rain”Ensure proper moisture levels in the cook chamber
Fundamental issues with meat smokingUnderstand the fundamentals of meat smoking

Tent Turkey with Foil or Not?

One popular method some people use is to “tent” the turkey by placing aluminium foil over the bird to slow down the darkening process. The foil works as a barrier and slows to the process of the Maillard effect. When building a tent for the turkey, the foil isn’t touching the bird, its working as more of a shield. 

Tenting a turkey refers to the practice of covering the turkey with aluminum foil while it cooks in order to slow down the browning process. As you mentioned, this is done by placing the foil over the turkey in such a way that it forms a tent-like shape, with the edges of the foil propped up off the bird. This creates a physical barrier between the heat of the oven or smoker and the surface of the turkey, which can help to prevent the Maillard reaction from occurring too quickly.

By slowing down the browning process, tenting can help to prevent the turkey from drying out or getting overcooked. However, it’s important to keep in mind that tenting can also prevent the turkey from developing a crispy, golden brown skin, so it’s a trade-off. Some people choose to tent their turkey for the first part of the cooking time, and then remove the foil for the last 30-60 minutes of cooking in order to allow the skin to brown. Others may tent the turkey the entire time, depending on their preferences.

How to Make a Foil Tent for Turkey

The tenting method is different to foiling or wrapping the meat. Wrapping meat during the cooking process is a way of keeping the meat moist and preventing it from drying out. The purpose of the tenting method shields the bird and slows the darkening process. 

When building a tent for your turkey, make sure it’s not wrapping around the bird or you will risk losing the crispy skin. Crispy skin is one goal in cooking the perfect turkey. A moist environment will cause the turkey skin to become moist and rubbery. If you build your turkey tent correctly, you should be able to keep a crispy skin and slow down the darkening process. 

Smoke the turkey as normal for the first 2-hours. The turkey should have some nice coloring by this stage of the cook but shouldn’t be black. Give the bird a good dose of cooking spray before building the tent around the outside. The spray will add another layer of protection. 

Rubs For Smoked Turkey

Some rubs and marinades contain a lot of sugar and will turn black when exposed to high heat for a long period. Before you cover your turkey in a rub or marinade, read the label and check the sugar content. If the turkey isn’t cooked low-and-slow, the sugary rub or marinade will blacken the turkey. 

Some of the most delicious rubs on the market contain a lot of sugar. This is the reason some people prefer to make their own rubs and marinades. If you find a good homemade rub and marinade recipe, at least you can have some control over the sugar content. 

Another way of slowing down the darkening process is to apply oil and seasonings to the bird. The seasoning on the outer layer of the bird will provide an added layer of protection from the Maillard reaction taking place.  

Before smoking a turkey, give the turkey a decent covering with a cooking spray, then apply your favorite turkey rub. The oil will help the seasoning stick to the surface of the skin. 

Standard Barbecue Rub

Standard Barbecue Rub

I found this great rub recipe through How To BBQ Right. I use this recipe and alter it slightly depending on what I'm cooking. Made by the guys at Townsend Spice & Supply: https://townsendspice.com/

Prep Time 10 minutes
Total Time 10 minutes


  • - ½ Cup Paprika
  • - ½ Cup Salt
  • - ½ Cup Sugar
  • - ½ Cup Granulated Garlic
  • - ¼ Cup Granulated Onion
  • - ¼ Cup Chili
  • - ¼ Cup Cumin
  • - 2 Tablespoons Black Pepper
  • - 2 Tablespoons Dry Mustard
  • - 1 Tablespoon Cayenne Pepper


  1. Combine all the spices together in a large mixing bowl
  2. Store rub in rub shakers

Cherry Wood Darkens Turkey

The wood that you use when smoking a turkey can also influence the color of the bird. Cherry wood will give the turkey a dark, mahogany coloring which looks good for presentation. However, if the bird is over-exposure to high heat for a long period, it will darken and the cherry wood will add another layer to the dark tones. 

This shouldn’t stop you from using cherry wood. Cherry and apple are my favorite combination to use when smoking birds. Before using cherry wood, it’s helpful to just understand a few simple methods to prevent the turkey from getting too dark. If you tent the turkey, apply oil and rub, manage the sugar content in the seasonings, then you should be able to maintain a good color. 

Best Wood For Smoking Turkey

WoodFlavor Profile
AppleFruity and sweet
CherryMild and slightly sweet
MapleMild and slightly sweet
PecanNutty and slightly sweet
OakStrong and robust

Turkey has a thin layer of skin, so the wood you use is important. Strong flavored woods such as hickory or mesquite will overpower the bird and it will taste terrible. Turkey, as with all chicken and poultry, works best with the softer fruit woods rather than the hardwood varieties. You can still use a little hickory, just be careful not to overdo it, otherwise you will risk having the bird taste bitter. The best wood for smoking turkey are: 

  • Apple
  • Cherry
  • Pecan
  • Maple
  • Plum
  • Pear
  • Almond 

Apart from the mahogany color, cherry wood will add a soft, sweet flavor to the turkey. Apple wood adds mild, sweet flavors but isn’t overbearing. Pecan is stronger than the fruit woods and is sometimes called “hickory light”. Pecan will add a slight nutty flavor to the bird. Maple works well with turkey and has a sweet flavored smoke. 

Turkey on a Charcoal Smoker

Different smokers will also influence the color of your turkey. Charcoal and offset smokers will have a much darker color to the meat when compared to gas or electric smokers. This largely has to do with the cooking temperatures. Charcoal and wood smokers can reach high temperatures which influence the chemical reactions that cause meat darkening. 

Charcoal and offset smokers, which use wood or charcoal as a fuel source, tend to reach higher cooking temperatures than gas or electric smokers. This can cause the meat to develop a darker color due to the Maillard reaction, which is a chemical reaction between the amino acids and sugars in the meat that occurs when the meat is cooked at high temperatures.

Gas and electric smokers, on the other hand, typically cook at lower temperatures, which can result in a lighter colored meat. In addition to the type of smoker, the length of cooking time and the type of wood or charcoal used can also affect the final color of the meat.

Turkey On An Electric Smoker

One problem with cooking turkey and poultry on an electric smoker is the inability to get a crispy skin. Electric smokers have difficulty reaching the high temperatures that are required to produce a nice crispy outer layer on a bird. One way around this is to finish the turkey in the oven. Smoke the turkey as normal in your electric smoker. The turkey will absorb the smoke in the first part of the cook. After a few hours, meat doesn’t really take on much more smoke, so the last stages of the cook became more about readiness. 

If you are smoking your turkey in an electric, turn the dial as high as it will go. After 2-hours, transfer the bird to a conventional oven for 1-hour. You should dial the oven in at 350°F. Carefully monitor the bird. You don’t want to burn it or dry it out. 

One problem with electric smokers is they don’t produce enough smoke. If you want some extra smoke in your electric smoker, try experimenting with smoking tubes or pouches. These smoking accessories are a brilliant invention and can be used on when grilling to add a shot of smoke flavor. The pouches and tubes take either wood chips, wood pellets, or sawdust. The idea is to allow the wood to smolder, which produces a nice amount of smoke. 

There’s nothing wrong with dark-colored meat. A blackened bark on the outer layer is a sign that it is smoked meat. In Texas, a black bark is the hallmark of a good smoked piece of meat. Every pitmaster wants a black bark and a nice inner smoke ring. These are emblems that the meat was smoked low-and-slow and is full of smoke flavor. However, with turkey, presentation is important so we want to have some control over the coloring.  

Avoid Bad Smoke

A black turkey can also result from getting other factors wrong. When smoking anything, we want to make sure the meat is getting the right smoke. The thin, blue smoke is the goal but isn’t always achievable, but we can prevent “bad smoke” from ruining our turkey.

Always make sure the top vents are open to eliminate unwanted smoke. If the vents are closed off too much, this can have an adverse effect on your meat. Too much creosote will cause the meat to taste bitter and can influence the color.

Black rain is another potential problem if there is an excess of moisture within the cook chamber. We can prevent many of these factors with a basic understanding of the fundamentals of meat smoking. 

More Turkey Articles

Why is My Smoked Turkey Tough and Dry?

Why Is My Smoked Turkey Rubbery?

How Does Aaron Franklin Smoke Turkey?

How Long To Smoke Turkey?

Why is My Smoked Turkey Black? 5 Ways To Avoid It

How To Smoke Turkey in a Smoker

What’s the Best Wood For Smoking Turkey? 

My Favorite Meat Smoking Tools

Thanks for checking out this article. I hope you learned a few things. Here are some of my favorite tools I use when smoking brisket that may be useful to you. These are affiliate links, so if you decide to purchase any of these products, I’ll earn a commission. But in all honesty, these are the tools I recommend to my family and friends who are just starting out.

Meat Thermometer: There are dozens of fancy thermometers on the market, but I still use my trusty TP20. For around $50, I have a high-quality meat thermometer with two probes, and can track the temperature of my smoker with one probe, and my meat with the other probe. The ThermoPro TP20 is an Amazon Best Seller because it’s the easiest thermometer to operate, is durable, highly accurate, and comes with pre-programmed meat settings.

Instant Read Thermometer: Arguably, the second most important tool you need is a fast and accurate instant-read thermometer. These tools play an important role in the latter stages of the cook when the meat needs regular checking in multiple areas. I use the ThermoPro TP19 because it can do everything a ThermaPen can do, but for a fraction of the cost. You can check out the TP19 on Amazon here.

Wireless Thermometer: The latest thermometers on the market have no wires and can be controlled by wi-fi via your phone. Airprobe 3 is the best of this technology.

Butcher Paper: Wrapping brisket in butcher paper has become a huge trend in barbeque thanks to Aaron Franklin. Wrapping your brisket in paper will give you a nice brisket bark. However, you can’t just use any old paper, it has to be unwaxed, food grade paper. You can find it on Amazon here.

Advanced Thermometer and Automatic Temperature Controller: Once you’re ready to take things seriously, the FireBoard 2 Drive is a six-channel Bluetooth/Wi-Fi thermometer that can monitor up to 6 pieces of meat, control and graph your cook sessions on your smartphone, and attaches to an an automatic blower that will convert your charcoal smoker to a set-and-forget. This is one of the most advanced meat thermometers on the market. You can check it out on the FireBoard website here.


Author and founder at Meat Smoking HQ

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