How to Brine a Turkey
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Put a stop to dry, flavorless birds. Learn how to brine a turkey using the traditional wet brine method.
Brining isn’t a topic that gets brought up most of the year. I rarely get texts or messages from friends and family members wondering how to brine a pork loin or a whole chicken. But, as Thanksgiving draws nearer, the inquiries start flying, and they all have one ask: How do I ensure I have a flavorful seasoned turkey that doesn’t turn out dry and boring this year? Brine it.
What Is Brining?
Brining can be done with any cut of meat, but it’s especially important with lean cuts like poultry. In short, brining uses salt to add flavor, tenderize and infuse meat with extra moisture. It can be done by submerging a cut of meat into a saltwater solution (a wet brine) or by sprinkling salt directly onto the meat (a dry brine). The salt denatures the meat’s proteins, causing the muscle fibers to unravel and swell. That allows the cells to retain more moisture than normal, trapping so much liquid inside that it can’t all evaporate during the cooking process.
Why You Should Brine Your Turkey
Do you have to brine your turkey? Absolutely not. Lots of chefs are skipping the brining process, turning to methods traditionally used for tough cuts of meat like brisket or pork shoulder. Cook the turkey low-and-slow on the smoker, over indirect heat on the grill or deconstruct it and braise the turkey it in a stockpot until it’s shreddable and tender.
That said, we still think brining a turkey is the most foolproof way to cook a turkey— especially if you’re trying the spatchcock method this year. Basically, it builds in overcooking protection. You see, as meat cooks, the muscle fibers contract and release water. Cooked long enough, the meat will have no more moisture to release, turning dry, flavorless and chewy.
Fatty cuts of meat (like ribeye steak or pork shoulder) have built-in dryness protection. The fat renders at high cooking temperatures, coating the meat to keep it juicy. Lean cuts of meat (like turkey) don’t come with the same protection, so they need an insurance plan: brine. The added liquid protects delicate breast meat from drying out, even if you slightly overcook it.
Wet Brine vs. Dry Brine
Using a wet brine is the traditional way to brine a turkey. To wet brine turkey, combine salt and water (and other optional flavoring ingredients, like honey or molasses, soy sauce, herbs, apple cider and more) and submerge your turkey in the solution. Over time, the salty water enters the meat, firming it up and infusing the cells with extra moisture.
As far as flavor goes, wet-brined turkey almost always turns out juicy and moist. Some say wet brines dilute the turkey’s flavor, though. It turns out juicy but not flavorful, and the skin tends to be more water-logged than an unbrined turkey.
When you dry brine turkey, it does the same thing as a wet brine but without using any water. It’s a fancy way of saying seasoning a turkey in advance with salt. The salt pulls out moisture from the meat and creates its own brine with the meat’s juices. Since you’re not adding any excess liquid, this method doesn’t dilute the turkey’s natural flavors. The process also allows the skin to dry out, creating a crispier exterior when it cooks.
Many find dry brining easier than wet brining because of space constraints. You don’t need to find a container large enough to hold all that liquid, just enough space in the refrigerator to store a turkey on a rack. On the flip side, it is possible to accidentally over-salt a dry-brined turkey (especially since we don’t normally rinse it). Make sure to pay attention to the ratios and use the right amount of salt for your turkey’s weight. A good guideline is one tablespoon kosher salt for every two pounds of turkey.
It’s important to learn how to brine a turkey using either method because the stakes are higher than just putting Thanksgiving dinner on the table. Creating a juicy turkey is the only way to ensure incredible turkey leftovers (which, let’s be real, are the only reason to cook a massive turkey).
Tools You Need for Wet Brine
- The most important tool for creating a wet brine is a large container with a capacity of 5 gallons (20 quarts) or more. That might be a small cooler, a food-safe bucket or a large stockpot made with non-reactive material.
- Taste of Home‘s prep kitchen manager, Catherine Ward, recommends using large oven bags to make things easier. You can place them in any container and the bag will keep the bird submerged in the brine.
- For a heavy-duty solution, Sarah Farmer, Taste of Home‘s culinary director, suggests picking up a 22-quart Cambro container. These commercial-grade containers are used in most restaurants, but you can find them at online restaurant supply stores. If they can hold up to restaurant use, you’ll know they hold up in your kitchen!
How to Brine a Turkey
Start by clearing out some space in the refrigerator or packing a cooler full of ice (frozen bottles of water work really well, too). Then, make sure your turkey isn’t already seasoned. If it’s labeled as kosher, enhanced or self-basting, it will become too salty if you brine it.
- Create the brine by dissolving 1-1/2 cups of kosher salt (or 1 cup of table salt) into 6 quarts of water. The salt should dissolve naturally when stirred with a whisk.
- If you’re adding additional ingredients to the brine, like sugar, herbs and other aromatics, mix the salt and additional ingredients with 2 quarts of water. Bring the mixture to a simmer to infuse the flavors into the brine. Remove the mixture from the heat and add the additional 4 quarts of cold water to bring the solution to room temperature.
- Remove the turkey from the packaging and set aside the neck and giblets for making gravy. Place the turkey in an oven bag or your brining container.
- Pour the cooled brine over the turkey, adding additional cold water as needed to ensure the turkey is completely submerged. Weigh the turkey down with a plate or bowl if it floats.
- Brine the turkey in the refrigerator or an ice-filled cooler for 12 to 24 hours. If you’re brining outside the refrigerator, use a probe thermometer to ensure the brine’s temperature doesn’t exceed 40°F.
- Remove the turkey from the brine. If you brined for 12 hours or fewer, you shouldn’t need to rinse the turkey. Brined turkeys that sit for more than 12 hours can be rinsed briefly in cool water to remove excess salt. Either way, pat the turkey dry with paper towels.
- For crispier skin, let the turkey sit in the refrigerator on a roasting rack for an additional 24 hours to dry out the skin.
- Roast, grill or smoke the turkey using your favorite recipe.
So the turkey is brined…but what’s next? Check out our complete guide for how to cook a turkey.
Turkey Brine Ideas
A traditional brine only uses salt and water, but you can absolutely add additional ingredients if you wish. Unlike salt—which can permeate into the meat—these ingredients only add skin-deep flavor, but they’re a great way to add depth to your turkey.
Try using flavorful liquids instead of using all water. Feel free to substitute some or all of the water for chicken broth, apple cider, juice or the liquid of your choosing. You can also add some hard alcohol to the brine, too. Alcohol can help carry the brine’s flavors, allowing them to penetrate deeper into the meat. As little as a tablespoon of strong neutral alcohols like vodka or as much as 1/4 cup of flavorful alcohol like rum or gin is all you need. If you’re using a weaker alcohol like wine or beer, feel free to add more.
Fresh herbs, spices, citrus peels, aromatic vegetables (like onions, celery or garlic) or flavorful ingredients like soy sauce or Worcestershire are never a bad idea in a brine, either.
Try adding sweet ingredients like sugar, brown sugar, molasses or honey to the mix. These ingredients add sweetness and also promote browning on the skin. Some brine recipes call for both salt and sugar—similar to the salt, sugar helps the osmosis process.
Turkey Brining Tips
Can you brine a frozen turkey?
It’s definitely possible to brine and thaw a frozen turkey at the same time. Simply remove the turkey from the bag and drop it into a container with the wet brine. The turkey will act like a block of ice, and the added salt in the brine keeps the water temperature low enough. When brining outside the refrigerator, it’s best to use a probe thermometer to ensure the temperatures never exceed 40°.
For dry brining, you’ll want to start with a turkey that’s at least partially thawed. The skin needs to be thawed enough to rub in the salt. Since there’s no water involved, this method absolutely requires the refrigerator to finish thawing the turkey safely.
Do you season turkey after brining?
Brine is very salt-rich, so there’s no reason to add salt to a brined turkey. You can add your favorite dry rub, herbs or spices to the turkey after it brines, or you can add flavor to the turkey later by serving it with a compound butter or a flavorful sauce.
Do you have to cook the turkey immediately after brining?
If you brined too far in advance, don’t fret: You don’t have to cook your turkey immediately after it brines. In fact, it’s sometimes best to let a wet-brined turkey sit in the refrigerator, uncovered, for an additional 24 hours to let the skin dry out. For storage periods longer than 24 hours, cover the turkey lightly in plastic wrap.
How long should I brine my turkey?
It’s best to brine turkey for 12 to 24 hours. Brining it for longer than 24 hours can result in mushy meat and an overly salty flavor. If you do accidentally over-brine it, you can soak the turkey in cold water to remove some of the excess salt, but it likely won’t have the best flavor or texture.
Should I rinse my turkey after brining?
You won’t need to rinse the turkey after brining if you dry brined using the proper salt ratio (that’s one tablespoon kosher salt for every two pounds of turkey). Most of the salt will have dissolved into the skin overnight, so just pat the skin dry with paper towels and roast as normal.
For wet brines, we generally don’t rinse when we brine overnight, either. If the turkey sat in the solution for longer than 24 hours, or if you used a brine that’s stronger than our general brine ratio (1/4 cup kosher salt per quart of water), it’s not a bad idea to give it a quick rinse.
That said, if you’re worried about the turkey turning out salty, go ahead and rinse it. It won’t hurt anything! Just be sure to sanitize the sink and surrounding area, as raw poultry comes with a risk for food-borne illness.