Make your own succulent, delicious smoked turkey legs right from the comfort of your backyard! After soaking in a wet brine and coated with a BBQ dry rub, these turkey drumsticks come out perfectly tender with just the right kiss of smoky flavor. Whether you’re hosting a holiday dinner or backyard cookout, these turkey legs are sure to be a crowd favorite.
Why You’ll Love This Recipe
Perfect for dark meat lovers: Why cook a whole turkey when you can load up on the good stuff — the dark meat? If you find everyone racing for the last drumstick at Thanksgiving, you’ll be everyone’s holiday hero when you present a platter of smoked turkey legs.
Makes for a fun, memorable dining experience: If you’ve ever chowed down on a big turkey leg at Disneyland or a Renaissance fair, you probably felt like a king and a little extra jolly while devouring that delicious meat. These turkey legs instantly bring an air of nostalgia to the dinner table.
Take care of hands-on work well before guests arrive: Once we brine and rub the turkey legs, the smoker takes care of the rest. That means you’re free to kick back with a holiday cocktail and enjoy good company.
No oven space, no problem: If you’re short on oven space, you’re in luck. We only need some refrigerator space and time on the smoker. Reserve your oven for all those family favorite side dishes and desserts.
Turkey legs: At your typical big-box grocery store, turkey legs are available from September through December. They can be a little harder to find outside of the holiday season. If you’d like to smoke turkey drumsticks during another time of year, check with your local butcher. You can also stock up on them when they’re widely available and freeze to cook later in the year.
Kosher salt: The brine recipe specifically calls for kosher salt, which is traditional in a wet brine. While you can substitute table salt, the quantities will be different because they aren’t equal in weight per unit volume. I included that different measurement in the notes section of the recipe card.
Brown sugar: We use this in conjunction with salt for our brine. The brown sugar enhances the flavor as well as encourages more browning.
BBQ dry rub: For this spice mix, we use a simple combination of brown sugar, smoked paprika, garlic powder, chili powder and onion powder. If you have a favorite BBQ rub you’d like to use instead, that also works just fine.
Olive oil: This helps us achieve that perfectly brown skin.
Step 1: To begin, we make the simple brine by bringing water to a boil with kosher salt, brown sugar and whole black peppercorns in a large pot (photo 1). As the brine ingredients heat up, we want to stir it every so often to help dissolve the salt and sugar.
Tip: I like to brine my turkey legs in a large stock pot, but some people prefer pouring the brine into a sealable bag. Whatever you use, just make sure the drumsticks are fully submerged.
Step 2: After boiling, we add cold water — not hot water — to the brine mixture to bring down the temperature and add the turkey legs (photo 2). Now we let the turkey soak in the refrigerator for at least eight hours and up to 24 hours.
Step 3: When the brining process is complete, we give the meat a quick rinse, pat off the drumsticks with paper towels and coat them with our dry rub (photo 3).
Step 4: And just like that, we’re ready to fire up the smoker to 250 degrees F. We place the turkey drumsticks right on the grill grates with a water pan and instant-read thermometer (photo 4) and close the lid.
Step 5: When the internal temperature reaches around 120-130 degrees F, we brush the turkey with olive oil (photo 5), close the lid again and let them finish cooking.
That’s it. In five easy steps, we have smoked turkey perfection. Lucky us.
Recipe testing note: I cooked these pictured turkey legs on a vertical electric smoker. You can use any type of smoker. A pellet grill, charcoal smoker, propane smoker — they all work.
What to Serve on the Side
Depending on whether you’re serving this smoked turkey leg recipe for the holidays or a summer barbecue, I have plenty of options for you to make a complete meal. And since you already have the smoker roaring, let’s make sure we also include some smoked side dishes.
Holiday serving ideas:
Summer barbecue ideas:
If you’ve made my smoked chicken, you know I’m a big fan of dry brining, but I highly recommend wet brining for turkey legs for best results. In fact, I’ve done a side-by-side taste test with dry-brined and wet-brined turkey legs in one batch. While the dry-brined turkey legs were good, the wet brine really made for more tender, flavorful meat.
My go-to wood is hickory, which adds a noticeable smoky flavor without overtaking the dark meat. For a more gentle smoke, you can use apple, maple, pecan or cherry wood.
The exact smoke time can vary, depending on the size of the turkey legs, heat consistency and even the outdoor weather. That said, the meat should take about two hours after smoking at 250 degrees. But don’t judge the doneness based on time. Follow the internal temperature instead.
While turkey is safe to eat at 165 degrees F, the drumsticks have a lot of connective tissue that need to break down. For the most tender meat, cook until the internal temperature of the turkey reaches 180 degrees F.
If you have any leftovers, store the meat in an airtight container in the refrigerator for three to four days. You can store the turkey legs whole or shred the meat off the bone.
Freezing leftover meat is always a great option. In that case, I like to shred the meat first and keep it in a freezer-safe container or zip bag for four to six months. After that, the meat is still safe to eat, but the quality starts to degrade. The leftover meat is perfect for tacos, enchiladas, mac and cheese, salads, sandwiches — you name it.
Allow the meat to rest: After smoking, let the meat rest for 10 minutes under tented aluminum foil before serving. This allows the juices to redistribute, so you have perfectly moist turkey meat. No one wants dry turkey.
Adjust saltiness if necessary: The brine recipe uses the classic salt and water ratio. Smoked turkey legs are known for being a little on the salty side. If you’re sensitive to salt, I recommend brining for no more than eight to 12 hours, rinsing the turkey and even reducing the kosher salt by half.
Test the brine temperature: The brine should come down to room temperature after adding the cold water. However, if it’s still warm, let it cool before adding the turkey. Warm water loves bacteria.
Don’t brine longer than 24 hours: After that, the meat will start to break down and become too salty.
Insert the thermometer correctly: When inserting the thermometer, place it in the thickest part of the meat without touching the bone. If the thermometer touches the bone, you won’t get an accurate reading. I recommend using a leave-in meat thermometer to ensure you can always monitor the temperature without opening the lid and losing heat.
Thaw the legs before brining: Frozen legs won’t absorb that wonderful brine. Always thaw first and then brine.
A Scotch ale is a favorite with smoked turkey, and you’ll especially love it with drumsticks. The richer dark meat perfectly complements the sweet malt, which also offers a contrast with those smoky notes. A doppelbock is another wonderful option.
For wine, you can’t go wrong pairing a pinot noir with smoked turkey. Thanks to its herbal, earthy notes, pinot noir is a classic turkey wine pairing, and it tends to match nicely to other holiday side dishes.
If you'd love a cocktail with your turkey, look no further than this maple whiskey sour. The rich maple syrup and bold whiskey were made for dark meat.
Upgrade your holiday menu this year and serve these smoked turkey legs and skip the whole bird. They’re a guaranteed family favorite.
Smoke More Meats
If you love this recipe, please leave a comment with a five-star rating — or simply hit the five-star button in the recipe card. Don't forget to sign up for my newsletter, and you can follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and TikTok.
Smoked Turkey Legs (Drumsticks)
- Smoker any kind
- Wood pellets, chunks or chips preferably hickory
- Large pot
- 16 cups water divided
- 1 cup coarse kosher salt (see notes)
- 1 cup packed brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
- 4 turkey legs
- 2 teaspoons packed brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
- Add 4 cups water, kosher salt, brown sugar and peppercorns to a large pot. Bring to a boil, stirring every so often to dissolve the salt and sugar. When the water boils and the salt and sugar are fully dissolved, turn off heat.
- Pour the remaining 12 cups water into the salted water. It should be room temperature, but if not, allow it to cool. When the water is at least room temperature and no warmer, add the turkey legs and refrigerate for eight to 24 hours. Make sure the legs are fully submerged.
- Remove the legs from the brine. Rinse and pat dry with paper towels. Stir together the brown sugar, smoked paprika, garlic powder, chili powder and onion powder. Rub the spice mixture all over the turkey legs. Lift the skin to rub the meat as well. Let the turkey legs sit in room temperature for 30 minutes.
- Place the turkey legs in a 250-degree F smoker with a water pan. Insert a leave-in meat thermometer in the thickest part of the meat, ensuring it doesn't touch the bone to produce an accurate reading. Close the lid and smoke.
- When the turkey legs reach an internal temperature of 120-130 degrees F, brush with olive oil. Close the lid again and continue to smoke until the turkey reaches 180 degrees F. The smoking process should take about two hours, but cooking time can vary based on a number of factors. Remove the turkey legs, tent with aluminum foil and let rest for 10 minutes before serving. Enjoy!
- Store leftover meat in an airtight container in the refrigerator for three to four days. Alternatively, you can freeze the meat for four to six months.
- Table salt calls for a different measurement than kosher salt. If using table salt, reduce to ½ cup.
- The brine recipe uses the classic salt and water ratio. Smoked turkey legs are known for being a little on the salty side. If you’re sensitive to salt, I recommend brining for no more than eight to 12 hours, rinsing the turkey and even reducing the kosher salt by half.
- Don’t brine longer than 24 hours. After that, the meat will start to break down and become too salty.
- Nutritional information is only an estimate. The accuracy of the nutritional information for any recipe on this site is not guaranteed.