John Somerall's Sweet Tea-Brined Smoked Turkey


Get outside and smoke your turkey this Thanksgiving.

John’s Sweet Tea-Brined Smoked Turkey
Photo: Victor Protasio; Food Styling: Margaret Monroe Dickey; Prop Styling: Audrey Davis
Active Time:
20 mins
Smoke Time:
3 hrs
Total Time:
1 day 5 hrs 50 mins

"I took over cooking the family Thanksgiving about 10 years ago," says Test Kitchen Professional John Somerall. "We typically do two turkeys every year, one smoked and the other roasted. I like to smoke one for two reasons: I just love the flavor, and it gives me an excuse to be outside and escape the family for a little bit while everything is baking in the ovens. We have a huge whiskey-and-bourbon tasting after lunch. Everybody brings a bottle, and we all share them and talk about what we're thankful for."

This Thanksgiving, Southern Living's editors and contributors are sharing the recipes that grace our tables year after year—like John's Sweet Tea-Brined Smoked Turkey. The aromatic wet brine (made with black tea, citrus, herbs, and sorghum) infuses the entire bird with flavor. The turkey rub packs a hint of sweetness from the brown sugar and a touch of heat from the chili powder, cayenne, and paprika. The mopping sauce—made from ketchup, sorghum, and apple cider vinegar—doubles as a barbeque sauce for serving. The sweetness from the sorghum is balanced by the heat of the cayenne and the bitterness of the tea.

You can ask your butcher to spatchcock your fresh turkey to save a step (if you're buying frozen, keep in mind that this can't be done until the bird is defrosted). Look for hickory chunks at any home improvement or tractor supply store.



  • 3 cups kosher salt

  • 3 cups sorghum syrup

  • 4 large lemons, thinly sliced (about 5 cups sliced)

  • 1 large orange, thinly sliced (about 2 cups sliced)

  • ½ cup whole black peppercorns, toasted 

  • 1 ounce thyme sprigs

  • 1 ounce sage sprigs

  • 1 ounce rosemary sprigs

  • 32 regular-size black tea bags or 8 (1-oz.) gallon-size black tea bags

  • 10 pounds ice 

  • 1 (10- to 12-lb.) fresh or thawed, frozen whole turkey  


  • ¼ cup kosher salt

  • 3 tablespoons ground black tea leaves (from 1 [1-oz.] black tea bag) 

  • 2 tablespoons light brown sugar

  • 2 tablespoons ground black pepper

  • 2 tablespoons chili powder

  • 1 tablespoon paprika

  • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Mopping Sauce

  • 1 ½ cups ketchup

  • 1 ¼ cups sorghum syrup

  • ½ cup apple cider vinegar

  • 2 tablespoons chili powder

  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt

  • 1 ½ teaspoons ground black pepper

  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Additional Ingredients

  • Hickory wood chunks, for smoking


  1. Prepare the Brine: Combine salt, sorghum syrup, lemon and orange slices, black peppercorns, thyme sprigs, sage sprigs, rosemary sprigs, and black tea bags in a very large container, such as a food-safe 5-gallon bucket. Bring 2 gallons water to a boil in a large stockpot over high. Pour boiling water into large container with aromatics, and stir to dissolve salt and sorghum, about 2 minutes. Let steep at room temperature 30 minutes; remove and discard tea bags. Add ice to warm mixture; stir gently until all ice is melted and Brine is cool, about 5 minutes.

  2. Place turkey on a large cutting board, breast side down, with legs facing you. Using kitchen shears, cut parallel lines along each side of backbone; remove and discard backbone (or save for stock). Press both sides of turkey down toward cutting board simultaneously, using your body weight, until you hear a pop or crack. Flip turkey over to ensure it lies flat, applying additional pressure to breastbone, if needed, to help it lie flat. (A butcher can also do this step for you.) Add turkey to Brine, making sure it is completely submerged. Cover container with a lid or plastic wrap; transfer to a refrigerator to chill for 24 hours.

  3. Prepare the Rub: Stir together all ingredients in a medium bowl until well combined; set aside. Store, covered, at room temperature for up to 1 week.

  4. Prepare the Mopping Sauce: Whisk together all ingredients in a medium saucepan until well combined. Bring sauce to a gentle boil over medium, whisking often. Remove from heat, and cover to keep warm.

  5. Remove turkey from Brine, and transfer to a large sheet pan lined with paper towels; discard Brine. Pat turkey with paper towels until completely dry, and then sprinkle both sides evenly with Rub (do not massage Rub into turkey). Tuck wing tips behind breasts, and place turkey (skin side up) on sheet pan. Let stand at room temperature 1 hour.

  6. Meanwhile, prepare a grill at least 22 inches in diameter for smoking. Open bottom vent of grill completely. Light charcoal chimney starter filled with briquettes. When briquettes are covered with gray ash, pour them evenly onto bottom grate of grill. (Never use charcoal lighter fluid to start a charcoal fire; it will give grilled or smoked foods a chemical taste.) Place a few hickory wood chunks on top of hot coals, and place top grate on grill. Maintain internal temperature at 225°F for 15 to 20 minutes. Place turkey, skin side up, on unoiled grate. Smoke, covered, until a thermometer inserted in thickest portion registers 145°F, 2 hours to 2 hours, 30 minutes.

  7. Remove 1 cup Mopping Sauce; set aside for serving. Mop remaining 1½ cups Mopping Sauce on skin side of turkey. Cover grill; continue cooking until a thermometer inserted in thickest portion of the breast registers 160°F, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

  8. Transfer turkey to a large cutting board. Cover loosely with aluminum foil; let rest 30 minutes before carving. Serve with reserved 1 cup Mopping Sauce, if desired.

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