Choosing Rubs and Sauces for Turkey on the Grill or Smoker


Ray Lampe, Dr. BBQ

Seasoning turkey is really pretty easy because it’s so versatile. It tastes great with just about any flavor spin you put on it. However, we all have our favorites and there are certainly traditions to be considered. Here’s my take on the best rubs and sauces for grilled and smoked turkey.

Since we never really sear turkey, I’m going to discuss a general way of seasoning turkey for the grill or smoker. It’s generally cooked at a moderate temperature, no matter if we’re adding smoke or not. My preference is to cook whole turkeys and all the parts. No matter what route you choose to take, your turkey can all be flavored the same way.

Keeping it Sweet

A sweet barbecue rub is a great way to start your turkey cooking on the grill. The traditional barbecue flavors work very well. Sometimes I like to add a bit of something extra to the equation like citrus peel or even lemon pepper. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, you can even add celery seed to your rub. These interesting and tasty flavors make for a great way to mix it up a little with turkey on the grill. If you’re using a pre-made rub, I recommend sweet hot flavors and options that incorporate a nut flavor like pecan.

Something Nice with a Little Spice

Looking for something that brings a little more heat? I’m a big fan of spicy Creole rubs on turkey. This is the typical way we’d season a turkey before deep frying, but it also works well with a smoked turkey or grilled turkey parts. I like to cook a creole spiced turkey breast, then cool it down and slice it thin for tasty lunch sandwiches all week. It’s a tried-and-true approach that is sure to please a crowd!

Herb-alicious Options

Herb rubs are something we seem to save for specific things on the grill, and turkey sure fits the bill. Traditional oven turkeys always include herbs, and the same flavors go well with a little grill flavor added. I like to mix an herb rub with a bit of softened butter or olive oil and smear it all over the turkey before cooking. I’ve included a tasty herb rub recipe from one of my books below so you can give it a try.

What about BBQ sauce?

What about barbecue sauce? This is an easy article to write because once again, versatile turkey tastes great with just about any flavors you can dream up. My signature sauce from my restaurant days includes the afore mentioned celery seed and a bit of lemon, and I love it with turkey. If you’re looking for something comparable on the store shelf, check out Gate’s from Kansas City.

I’ve also used a Carolina style vinegar sauce on pulled smoked turkey at the recommendation of BBQ Hall of Famer Ed Mitchell, and it was surprisingly good! Serve your next batch of pulled smoked turkey on some sweet Hawaiian rolls with a spoonful of slaw for a tasty turkey slider.

Competition Style

I can’t finish this discussion without talking about the flavors that have become popular for the Turkey Smoke competition entries around the country. We’ve seen amazing entries like Egg Rolls, Pizzas and Muffalettas all made with smoked turkey, but there does seem to be a well-known barbecue flavor that has stepped up. The sauce combination of Raspberry and Chipotle seems to trigger the judges into giving high scores, so as you can imagine it’s become a popular choice among the cooks! There are plenty of choices for Raspberry-Chipotle sauce available and, as always, I’d encourage you to try making your own. I’ve included a recipe for that from one of my books below as well.

Time to fire up the grill or smoker and give your turkey a splash of flavor with the perfect rub or sauce of your choosing! Like I mentioned, you really can’t go wrong when it comes to turkey. Have fun with it, and I hope you find some of these tips helpful for your next barbecue adventure.

Herby Rub
By Ray Lampe, Dr. BBQ

1/4 cup Kosher salt

¼ cup Sugar In The raw

1 teaspoon granulated garlic

1 teaspoon granulated onion

1 teaspoon dry mustard powder

1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves

1 teaspoon dried tarragon leaves

1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

1 teaspoon dried basil leaves

1 teaspoon lemon pepper

1 teaspoon black pepper

Combine all the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor with a metal blade and process for two seconds. May be stored in an airtight container in a cool place for up to six months.

Makes about ¾ cup

Dr. BBQ’s Raspberry – Chipotle Barbecue Sauce
By Ray Lampe, Dr. BBQ

Makes about 2 cups

3 canned chipotles in adobo sauce

1 cup seedless raspberry Jam

½ cup ketchup

1 tablespoon of the adobo sauce

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

Pinch of salt Make the sauce by adding the chipotles to a blender. Top with the jam, ketchup, adobo, lemon juice, and salt. Puree for 1 minute.